How do I move on from a bad relationship?
June 18, 2015 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I split up with my horrible ex two years ago and on paper my life is pretty good now, but he still lives nearby and I'm in a constant state of panic about bumping into him and still a complete emotional wreck. How do I move on with my life and stop caring?

My ex left me two years ago, after four years of relationship and ten years of friendship. During the relationship part, I discovered he had told me numerous massive lies, concerning other women, illegal activities and money, literally from day one. (I mean he started doing it at day one, but I didn’t discover anything until two years later, and then it was one thing after another). To give one example, he conned me out of thousands of pounds by pretending he had no money to pay our bills, so I paid for everything. I saw his bank statement one day and it said he had something in the region of £500,000 in there. Towards the end of our relationship, I became increasingly unstable, paranoid and doubting of reality. I even did dreadful things like checking his phone a couple of times – at the time I was so outraged about what I found on it I didn’t even feel guilty but I feel horrified thinking about it now. In the end he left me because he said I was overreacting and he didn’t see that he needed to change his behaviour. I don’t doubt (now, with hindsight) that the relationship needed to end, but the way in which he ended it – making me feel it was all my fault and that I was not worth the effort of becoming a better person tipped me over the edge and I went through a very black time.

My ex, meanwhile, stayed in my life and we spent a lot of time together, he was buying me presents, making promises to change, telling me how much he cared, even paying back my money. He moved into a flat round the corner from mine, instead of moving back to the place where he lived before, despite having no ties to this area other than me. I held out a foolish hope that one day we’d get back together and that he just needed to sort himself and go to a therapist or whatever. But at the same time, he continued to lie to me and treat me badly and because my mental state had recovered a bit from being away from him I suddenly had a lightbulb moment that it was never going to be okay. I realised however much being away from him would hurt, being around him was hurting more. I uncovered another lie on the day that should have been our 5th anniversary, I sent him a rather hysterical email telling him to go away and leave me alone forever and he wrote back with words to the effect of “I don’t care and by the way I have a new girlfriend anyway”. Just as I asked, he never contacted me again. I think this was the first and only time he ever did something in my best interest because I asked him to and this in itself speaks volumes. He couldn’t give up cheating or lying but he could give up me.

Since then – it has been nearly a year now - I have been a total cliché and have done life expanding things like losing 30 kilos, training for my first marathon, dog walking, applying for a university course that will lead me to my dream job, taking fantastic holidays, hanging out with my amazing friends and having great sex with someone I have fancied from afar for decades. I don’t do crazy things any more and I don’t want him back.

So why do I feel so empty? Probably because I always hoped that by my age (nearing 40) I would be happily married with a (canine) family and now I worry that will never happen. I feel as if I have given a piece of myself to my ex and that he won’t give it back and how can I possibly start a new relationship when I am “that girl” who is still boringly hung up on her loser ex? As much as I appear to be over it I know I am not. I have nightmares about him and wake up in a panic. I have flashbacks of the good times and it’s like I am looking down on them, seeing them from another angle and realising what is really going on and wanting to shout at me-in-the-past to get out. I think that I miss him then I realise I miss the person he pretended to be, who doesn’t even exist. I think about his new girlfriend and feel guilty that I haven’t warned her about him, even though I know the umpteen reasons why this is a bad idea. I am haunted by a sense of unfairness that he got away with it and a great big WHY?

He still lives near me, and the possibility of encountering him is constantly on my mind. In fact my routine is specifically tailored to minimise that possibility, but I can never be certain. I check the train carriage before I get on to make sure he is not there. I won’t go to the local pubs or shops. It is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been in this situation but it’s not the fear that he will do something to me if I see him, it is the fear of what he has already done to me. I did see him once – from a distance – and I felt totally overwhelmed, faint and sick. I really don’t want to leave this area because I have lived here nearly 20 years and have so many ties, but I have been considering it.

I have talked to friends and a therapist about this, but what they all say boils down to the same thing: I need to move on. I know I need to move on. I want nothing more than to be able to move on. But I don’t know how. Does anyone have any advice or first-hand experience of being in a similar position they would like to share?
posted by intensitymultiply to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This is a "fake it till you make it" situation.

I was in a relationship once that was actually pretty good, and was dumped. It was hard for me to get over, until I met someone else and realized one day that something had clicked in my head and I was over it. Just like that.

If you've never seen the movie Swingers, check it out.
posted by adamrice at 2:36 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

It might be worth trying another therapist.

If you tried one, and all you got was advice to "move on" but no ideas for how to do so, it sounds like they weren't much good. Another therapist might do a better job.
posted by mister pointy at 2:39 PM on June 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

It seems like you have a lot of shame around your relationship with this guy, and if I (an internet stranger who is NOT a therapist) am reading this situation correctly, that is specifically what you need to let go of in order to move on.

You made a mistake staying with him as long as you did. You trusted a guy who was not deserving of your trust. Maybe you stuck with him because you were afraid of being alone, or because you felt like he was your only chance to be happily married by a "normal" age.

Forgive yourself for all that (everyone else is making those kinds of mistakes all the time), and whatever else it is that you're hung up on. If you can forgive him too, great.

And also, start going to the pub ALL THE TIME until you run into him and it's not that bad.
posted by mskyle at 2:40 PM on June 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

Just wait it out.

TBH, I would be feeling the same in your position. Living in close proximity to someone like that would really scare me. At least he probably can't/won't do much. He'll have moved on to other marks ages ago.

You're doing everything you can, so it's okay if you think about him a lot. Having your mind messed with in this way will do that to you. Who cares if your head is full of the "wrong" thoughts? It's nobody else's business what thoughts you think inside your head and thinking these thoughts doesn't make you a loser.

Just keep building on your successes and your brain will get bored in a few months or years, I promise.
posted by tel3path at 3:03 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

He was a classic psychopath (the manipulation, constant lies, thieving, blithely dropping you after 5 years). You would to well to read up on psychopaths and the special kind of havoc they cause. I had my own psychopath experience, memail me if interested in details. Bottom line, they make you crazy and damage your ability to move on like no other kind of person. This isn't just a normal jerky ex.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 3:04 PM on June 18, 2015 [14 favorites]

You're saying it's been two years but it's only been one. I realise your relationship was complex and intense, but even leaving that aside, I don't think it's a reasonable expectation that you would be over a long-term live-in relationship in a year. I think you're being too hard on yourself expecting anything else.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:08 PM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

If I am interpreting this correctly, you have already broken up with this person for a year, have made significant changes, met someone new, and this still bothers you/limits and dictates your life. I'm going to guess this is severe if you still have nightmares, and a year later, still avoid these places.

So my guess is that you need some intermediate steps to break you out of this rut.

Nthing the suggestion for a new therapist/psychologist, etc. There should have been ideas/strategies from this person a long time ago.

But some ideas:

- Decide what feeling or emotion you want when working on dealing with this fear (this will be necessary for the next step, which will be going with a particular person or animal into the town/cafe, etc.). So let's say you want to feel sexy and powerful, then go with your current partner. Or you want to feel warmth/connection, go with a friend. Or protective of something/warm and fuzzy, walk a dog. For the people, you can tell them your goal and what you want to do and have a person to work on this with you. But make a point of walking these areas with one of the people and/or animal, whatever you pick. Make a point of talking to a bartender/cafe person, etc., to start to establish friendly faces and positive memories with those places. The goal is to eventually go without the person/people, have a good time, and say hi to the friendly faces that you know. But at least you won't have fear and/or memories of him when you walk to those places.

-I knew someone who did some combination of this next step after she had a very bad encounter with a stranger in a park, and was afraid to walk in the park alone after that...(she eventually conquered this fear on her own). Think about the feelings you have in terms of limitations and how it relates to this person. Make a speech/write it down. The speech will partially be hyperbole, but you want to get at what you feel and why. For example, "I can't believe I won't walk to these places because of el jerko. I have every right to be here, if it wasn't for el jerko, I would go to the cafe. I have every right to enjoy coffee in the cafe" (you get the idea/does not need to be this verbiage but the idea that you have the right and should be in those areas). Also focus on things that you might not have liked about the person. Now walk the streets. If you see him, keep on walking, and recite the speech in your head. You could also focus on the new powerful you: You mentioned you lost 30 kg, have new hobbies, recognize that the past with this person was not good. So focus on powerful you. Powerful you is walking the streets. Powerful you has every right to be there. I would only use this as a starting point to get you out of the rut, because the goal is to eventually have positive and/or neutral thoughts as you walk down the street.

But these things might start you toward reoccupying those places in town.

I think that it is very impressive that you know what you need to change and deal with.

I am haunted by a sense of unfairness that he got away with it and a great big WHY

You will win when you no longer spend more than a second thinking about this person. You can and will do it. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 3:09 PM on June 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Enjoy your now. You're okay now. If you run into him you will still be okay. Try not to get stuck in the past or fret about the future. You might run into him, you might not. There is no way to know and what he did in the past has no meaning in your present life. What he did is what he did. Try not to frame it as what he did to you, the ego, but as something that happened and has nothing to do with you, the person. There is no unfairness because it could have been any woman that he was causing harm to. And really he was causing harm to himself. You are still whole and were never broken.
posted by Fairchild at 3:22 PM on June 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Holy shit, did my ex move to your country? This sounds oh so familiar (other than the fact that my ex said he had money when he really didn't).

Man oh man, I so hear everything you're saying.

This: I am haunted by a sense of unfairness that he got away with it and a great big WHY? literally took me several years to get over and, honestly, the real, visceral sense that sometimes there really is no "why" - sometimes things are just the way they are -- made the whole horrible nonsense worth it. Well, almost worth it. But I think it has to be really painful to get that lesson and wouldn't it be awesome if we didn't need it, but life is often random and "why" sometimes just causes way more pain than any answer could assuage.

I was 46 when it ended. And you know, you and I both know we'll never have that experience of finding the one partner who has known you your whole adult life and who has always been and will always be there to support you. So one step is to grieve the loss of that dream/hope/fantasy. But know that there is life after that hope is gone. I found a fantastic guy when I was 48. I took ~16 months to move out of the headspace my crazy ex left me in, and then I started being open to dating again and sure enough, at 48, I met a really lovely man. No lying! No crazy-making! Fun! Reliability (more or less -- I mean, he forgets stuff and is often late, but at least he's not leaving me waiting while he finishes whatever plans he has with his OTHER girlfriend like my ex)!

And my ex lived literally around the corner from me for several years during our break up/get back together/break up again period. It was awful. Horrible. One day I saw him when I was on my way to work, walking down the street with his girlfriend and my physical response is almost indescribable. I was nauseous, I was hurt, I was angry, I was scared for some reason, but every single negative emotion in existence poured over me and I stupidly still went to work instead of going home and somehow washing it out of my system.

Had he not moved to a different area, I would have had to move. Period. If you feel me on my description, as hard as it is to move, I really recommend it unless you think he's going to leave the area any time soon. You have to make yourself safe, and any contact with him or sighting of him is unsafe for your mental health.

Within a few months of truly breaking off contact and feeling secure and stable in the knowledge that I wouldn't randomly be seeing him again, I quit therapy because I found out that, although yes I am prone to depression, the vast majority of what was going on for me at that time was driven by my ex and myself making me crazy, him with his lies and me with twisting my brain around to try to fit his lies into a world in which they would be true. It was like this huge burden lifted and I was happy again. Happy, and normal and safe.

But the mourning for the relationship, as hard and as painful as it is, it's just something that takes time and effort. It's that old cliche -- the only way out is through. When you ask yourself "why", remind yourself "it's because that's how he is, that's what he wants." Why does he have a new girlfriend who appears to be happy with him? Because that's how he is, a good liar, a leech -- and leeches have to be charming in order to keep their lifestyle going. Why would he lie to you when telling the truth would be easier and would have given him such a good life? Because that's what he wants -- drama and the scrambling to hide the lie and to make up a good excuse when you inadvertently catch him in one. Why doesn't fate smack him around and punish him for his lies? Because cause and effect don't work that way. Because his life just is the way it is, for no real reason, just because.

A day came for me that it stopped being frustrating that he would never get his comeuppance and that I stopped even thinking about it. I acknowledge that I still have awareness of my old hopes for that relationship, even though I no longer have the hopes themselves, and that sometimes makes me sad. But it's a wistful sadness, not a debilitating one, which it was when I was still in the midst of mourning the relationship.

This experience will always be with you. You learned something from it, even though I'll bet you think as I did that life would be so much better if you could erase the whole thing from your memory. You may not know for several years what you learned. And it's not something he taught you -- it's something you learned on your own by being in a relationship with him (or by getting over the relationship with him), which is a different thing, so own it. You're stronger. Right now you might be fearful of trusting or of opening your heart to another person fully, but a day will come when you realize that it's just about impossible to hurt you more than he did, and yet you lived and became a stronger, wiser woman for it, so what the hell, go ahead and trust, go ahead and love, because life is not worth living without trust and love and it's way better to love and be hurt by it than to be hurt by shutting down.
posted by janey47 at 3:41 PM on June 18, 2015 [23 favorites]

It's years out, and I still sometimes judge myself harshly for having stayed longer than I should. Even though I understand why I did (kind of). Totally get the feeling of wishing you could shake your past self.

I agree with mskyle about shame and humiliation being a big part of it. It's pretty infrequent these days, but I still have moments when I let myself think about how low I let myself sink when I was with him. I occasionally (again, less and less as time goes on) get flashbacks of particular moments. These moments tend to come when I'm feeling low about stuff going on now. I try to shake those memories off physically - I move to another room, or pick up some distraction, and try to refocus on improving whatever I can around me today.

I think those memories, and that long shadow of shame, will be a total non-issue once I'm more settled in my here-and-now life. (I think for me, the humiliation is carried forward by the length of time it's taking me to get my financial feet on the ground. The choices I made when I was with him led to serious opportunity costs in terms of career, and since then I've made other decisions that I hope are more constructive, but have a longish timeline in terms of financial payoff. I try to forgive myself for the past, like others have said, and to focus on the immediate future.)

I'd like a family, and time's ticking on, that does bother me. Greater cost to women who want kids, horrible unfairness. Ok. What to do about it? Prioritize. Put time into it, keep dating.

I'm really lucky that my ex lives in another country, so I don't have to face him at all. I think everything would have been harder if I did. But from the little I've heard about him from mutual friends (I don't ask, but things occasionally come up), he's doing much better than I am, by objective measures (marriage, work, creative success). Not only do I sometimes judge myself by societal standards of where I "should" be by now, but - and I hate to admit this - there's still a little part of me that wonders what he'd think of me. I guess it makes sense that my anxiety about it should be shaped like him, considering how much power I gave him (and he took for himself) for so long. Is this happening with you, too?

The only thing for it, I think, is to shake it off, keep moving forward, building your own, acting in your interests. Make your own goals crystal clear, and work towards them.

A possible shortcut for your immediate problem of fearing running into the physical him is to just move to another neighbourhood, if it's feasible. Would that be a cheat? Maybe. I don't think so. I don't think there's anything courageous about suffering for longer than you absolutely have to. Lots of people move after that kind of change, and it often helps.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:48 PM on June 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Time and distance will help.

I had an awful experience with someone, and for a long time I had a hard time walking around town. I was afraid of seeing him, or his car. Paradoxically, my fear of running into him only increased my awareness of him and things associated with him.

What helped was to minimize any form of contact, even though like you and cotton dress sock mention, it can feel like a cheat. I felt weak for doing it, because I felt like I was giving up territory that I had a right to be in. But as jaguar wrote in a comment about trigger warnings, exposing yourself to something that evokes that kind of emotional response should be a controlled exposure. It is completely reasonable--it's the smart, healthy thing to do--to avoid something until you feel ready to confront it. For me, this meant avoiding some parties, and even looking down at the sidewalk while walking, to be sure I wasn't scanning cars and other pedestrians's faces.

I thought of it in terms of Pavlovian conditioning. I'd been conditioned to fear this person, and learned to fear their car because the car always predicted seeing the person. Then, I came to fear walking, because walking predicted seeing the car, which predicted seeing the person. I had to do a lot of walking that didn't lead to seeing the car to weaken that association. I had to stay away from parties that person might go to, so that I could weaken the association between parties and seeing that person. Eventually, I could do these things without feeling afraid.

Of course, if you stay in that town you will see him again. I have, and I'm still angry. I'm on fire. And I've uncovered fresh pain, and learned that the deception was even worse than I knew. But while I was giving myself as much distance as possible, life went on. I made new friends, started a new relationship. By the time the inevitable happened and I saw him again, I was much more resilient.
posted by MrBobinski at 6:30 PM on June 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Have you read much about Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Because it sounds to me like you may have been in a relationship with a narcissist.

Regardless of whether your ex qualifies for a genuine mental illness diagnosis, he was definitely mistreating you, and you dodged a bullet by getting out of this relationship while you still had some sanity left. Since then it sounds like you've done a great job realizing that you needed to cut off contact, distancing yourself, and reinventing your life. There is nothing wrong with you. There is something wrong with your ex! I doubt you are the only nice person he has used and deceived. Don't think any less of yourself because you wanted to see the best in another person. You are worthy of real love, which he was not able to give you. I hope you will find it soon.
posted by BlueJae at 6:46 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

When thoughts about that time come to me, whether it's getting dressed in the morning or whichever random time, I remind myself that it happened but it's not happening now. I remind myself gently that it's over and it's in the past and not relevant to my life right now right this second. I remind myself that this thought I am currently having is causing me pain, but I am not always in pain. That even though it hurts right now, I can think about it later just not "right now". I find other things to do as soon as an unpleasant memory or thought gets triggered to lead me down a path I no longer wish to be on. It was a terrible time back then, I was there, I do not need to relive it. Sometimes, if it's a particularly negative moment, I ask myself, "Why am I torturing myself right now? Why would I do that?"

That helps me when I'm struck by a negative moment. I also try to focus on the moments when I "am" thinking positively. Such as a little while ago, I thought to myself, "I am happy". I acknowledge that thought, I want that thought and emotion to grow and to use it as a shield or blanket for when negative thoughts creep up on me. Remind yourself of the small joys in your life and as they say, Time Heals. It doesn't magically erase, get better, fade or reimagine how it could have been. Just heals and sometimes that's all you need. Sounds like you know you can take care of the rest and have been moving forward. So keep moving.
posted by lunastellasol at 7:37 PM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I still have nightmares about running into someone I had a harmful (non-romantic) relationship with ten years ago. I feel confident in saying that it does not go away. It stays a part of you, but the good news is that it becomes a smaller and smaller part relative to all the other parts, as the things you do to change your life and make it better rush in to fill the gaps.
posted by capricorn at 7:49 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks very much for your replies. A few things:

- I don't have "a new partner", it is/was very much just a fling, though I suppose getting to the stage where I can enjoy a fling is an achievement in itself.
- I saw "two years" because it is two years since we broke up, stopped living together, stopped sexual relations etc, although it is only one year since I have been No Contact (and therefore stopped being subjected to fresh bullshit) so I suppose you can say it is only one!
- I think my ex is a sociopath. Not a narcissist because he doesn't seem to treat himself any better than he treats other people, and not a psychopath because he is too introverted and lazy. But I deliberately refrained from talking about that in my initial post because I didn't want it to be all about sociopaths and how evil they are. I joined a forum for "sociopath victims" which really helped at first (omg I am not alone, he is a classic case, etc) but then made things worse because it is full of people who are quite happy not to move on and to just rant about sociopaths indefinitely.

Thank you all for the tips which I am going to try. I feel like my only options are to actually start going out locally again and build up exposure to him (like I'm doing CBT and he is a massive spider that I have a phobia of) or just suck it up and move. I hadn't really considered moving to a new neighbourhood, more a new town altogether, but I guess there are options to work through. At the moment the thought of losing my lovely cheap flat and all the things that tie me to the area really put me off moving and I am hoping he will eventually just leave but I can't keep putting my life on hold waiting for that to happen.
posted by intensitymultiply at 1:05 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Soooo... While some people may use the terms psychopath and sociopath to denote different things, those are both terms used by laypeople, and no one agrees on the definition and difference beyween the two if any. Psychological diagnosis wise, were talking antisocial personality disorder, period. The DSM does not use either the word psychopath or sociopath.

I'm not sure why participating in one particular forum would be your limit of exploration of this topic. You're still messed up from the relationship, and you are messed up in ways very particular to having been in a relationship with a psychopath. If you ignore that you're less likely to heal. Find a therapist who genuinely understands psychopathy. Read some books that focus on healing from this very particular kind of trauma.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 3:05 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think looking for another therapist is a good idea, not every therapist is right for you and for me, personally, therapy helped me out tremendously with my depression and I can't recommend it enough to people thinking about doing it. Another thing I want you to remember is you are not alone.
posted by JefferyDPerry at 5:31 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see what you're saying with the sociopath/psychopath stuff. To me the label is more of a descriptor than a diagnosis, and the distinction between psychopath and sociopath is between extroverted/introverted, active/passive behaviour. For instance psychopaths will stalk you and sociopaths will ignore you, psychopaths delight in sadistic violence and sociopaths delight in insidious mind games. It's probably not that simple to pigeonhole people though. Anyway, what I was trying to say was that I have already spent too long trying to get inside his head and being furiously angry about his behaviour and I think that the more I dwell on that side of it the less I move on. I did a lot of reading about sociopathy (etc) at one point and it made me feel better at first but then made me dwell on it more. I don't want to become an expert on horrible people!

Re: therapist, perhaps I should give her/another one a go. It is a lot of money and I've got to watch my finances what with the new course (and possibly moving...) I did feel she helped me at first but a lot of the time I found myself thinking "she's right, I know this, I could tell myself this". It was a relief to see that she didn't think I had anger issues or that what happened had been all my fault, and the fact that she looked aghast when I told her about his lies really quashed the worry that I had been overreacting all along, but I didn't really know what she could do for me after that. It was a long time ago though, right after the break up, perhaps I was just at the stage then when no one anything said or did could make me feel any better.
posted by intensitymultiply at 5:54 AM on June 19, 2015

I think the root of this has much more to do with your relationship with yourself than the one with him. This:

I think this was the first and only time he ever did something in my best interest because I asked him to and this in itself speaks volumes. He couldn’t give up cheating or lying but he could give up me.

is really a massive pity party you are throwing yourself and is doing you no help in moving on. To be clear, it doesn't seem like you are stuck on him, but rather stuck feeling like a hurt, victimized person. The first part of your question listed in detail his slimy behavior and character traits and then the second was all about victim-hood.

because I always hoped that by my age... now I worry that will never happen. I feel as if I have given a piece of myself to my ex and that he won’t give it back... when I am “that girl”

Where is the anger and the indignation over this guy and how he choose to treat you? Getting over him will look more like:

"This guy did this, this, and that to me, and I hope I don't bump into him around the corner so I am not reminded what a piece of shit he is."

I think about his new girlfriend and feel guilty that I haven’t warned her about him, even though I know the umpteen reasons why this is a bad idea. I am haunted by a sense of unfairness that he got away with it and a great big WHY?

This is not your responsibility; Why are you more concerned with a third party and what he gets away with than what is going on with you? Look out for yourself first always.

Start challenging your own feelings of hurt and betrayal until they lose their power instead of letting them dictate your thinking and life going forward.

I feel like my only options are to actually start going out locally again and build up exposure to him

Why build him up into this big bad demon when in reality he is just a small, juvenile asshole? You are in the driver's seat and have the power to change your thinking and feelings about this part of your past. Grab the wheel and start steering. You can and will get over this.
posted by incolorinred at 6:43 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

This in your initial query jumped out at me: "I even did dreadful things like checking his phone a couple of times – at the time I was so outraged about what I found on it I didn’t even feel guilty but I feel horrified thinking about it now." Dreadful? Why? Horrified? Why? Are you afraid that reasonable actions you took to protect yourself from this contemptible swine have somehow destroyed your morality so that you'll be an incurable snoop forevermore? Wasn't this snooping necessary, legitimate, sensible self preservation? He lied and stole and was a complete tool. You behaved reasonably. Drop feeling horrified about things you did immediately and stomp on that feeling until it is flat. Leave it in the road to dry up and blow away. Treat regret the same way. You did what you did and you learned from it and you are already starting to get better and you're going to complete that process and be fine.

If you got into a string of similar relationships with lying cheats, it would make sense to say to yourself, "what do I keep doing wrong that gets me into this swamp?" and then to embark on a course of emotional work to fix yourself. But this was one isolated shithead. I don't see where "two-to-tango" theology can help you in this instance. It'll just make you wallow in self-analysis feeling horrible about yourself, and you've done more than enough feeling horrible in the stupid bullshit relationship itself. No way! That's over. It's frolic time! He was officially entirely at fault for everything that happened and you were officially wholly innocent and a saint; this will never happen again; you spent the entire fourteen years learning and growing and becoming stronger and better; he is still at a larval stage and will probably remain there forever and that is sad and so is the eventual extinction of the species and it does not profit us to ponder it for one more instant. To hell with him, on with life.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:19 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

incolorinred... harsh but fair! I don't think I need to be more angry (there has been plenty of that already) but I probably do need less self pity and feeling like a victim. Something to work on.

Why am I horrified at the snooping behaviour? Look at any post on here where someone does that and you'll see what other people think of snoops. And that is what *I* think of snoops. I'm sure you could probably find somewhere in the past where I have cheerfully proclaimed "Oh I would NEVER do that, it's a disgusting violation of privacy, if I didn't trust my partner I would just leave". And yes I am a bit worried that I would do it again to someone else, someone who actually hadn't done anything wrong, so maybe I am overcompensating by telling myself off harshly for it.

He was officially entirely at fault for everything that happened and you were officially wholly innocent and a saint ha ha, I wish! But thanks, it made me laugh!
posted by intensitymultiply at 8:34 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's true I was being hyperbolic for comic effect, but I do think that until you're over this enough to encounter him and not be seriously perturbed, you should get a free pass on guilt and regret. It can be--and let's face it, because you're not yourself a socio/psychopath it will be--a temporary pass. It's like when you have a cold: when you're over it, it'll be fine to go back to the gym, but right now it's time for snuggling under lots of quilts with lots of hot cocoa and letting yourself off the hook from usual healthy stuff until you're feeling up to it. Anyway, even if you never again think about the fact that you looked at this dumb slob's dumb slobby phone, it's clear you absolutely will not snoop on another partner ever again. Even I, an internet stranger, can see that.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2015

And yes I am a bit worried that I would do it again to someone else, someone who actually hadn't done anything wrong, so maybe I am overcompensating by telling myself off harshly for it.

I know, for a fact, that I have never felt as absolutely shaken in my self-confidence and basic sense of psychological security around any person other than my ex. The behaviours I'm ashamed of - in my case just taking insult after insult, sticking around for more, curling up under it - I really feel were particular to that dynamic, with that individual, at that time, under those circumstances. (I'm not even sure he'd be the same with someone else.) I simply wasn't myself, under those circumstances. My family and friends saw that, and they saw me return to myself after I left.

Have you ever behaved in the ways you're concerned about with anyone else? I'm doubting it.

I feel I learned enough through the experience to prevent falling into that trap again, and can recognize red flags. You know a thing or two, you can't tell me you don't. Trust your knowledge. If you're not sure you could recognize a healthy potential partner, continue working on that. (I think the book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay is one great starting point.)

Of course it does happen that people who've gotten out of abusive relationships can perpetuate behaviour learned while in them, or even mimic their ex partner's behaviour. If you see that happening, or if someone calls you on it, definitely address this; I agree that therapy would be a good way to do it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:12 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's the weirdest thing, when we get all hung up on someone who treats/treated us badly. When you're in self-protection mode, you get tunnel vision. You can't see how much better off you are without them and that it had nothing to do with your worth. He has no actual power except what you give him in your head. If you're still hung up on him, many wonderful, available men will walk on by, sensing that you're not ready.

He didn't give birth to you or make you who you are. You are far from being empty. Remember who you are without him. This experience has changed you (made you wiser), but you are still you.

Your ex is like many others, merely another character in the "Book of Assholes". The sooner you can detach emotionally from him, the better off you'll be. Detach, Detach, Detach. Try to start to think of him like dog shit on the sidewalk. Gum on your shoe. Ewww, so much wrong with him. You're not emotionally invested in dog shit or gum on the sidewalk. You just think it's disgusting. You avoid it in a general sense, but you don't let it stop from walking down the sidewalk.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:38 AM on June 19, 2015

For what it's worth, I was going to write specifically suggesting CBT and making the phobia comparison. I think that would be a really good idea. Also, about the phone snooping - I think that when something terrible happens to us, and we make awful mistakes, we are obligated to keep thinking about it and returning to it until we've learned everything we can from it, and once those necessary lessons have been learned, only then do we free ourselves to move on.

This seems like a really important lesson you are maybe still processing from this experience.

Look at any post on here where someone does that and you'll see what other people think of snoops. And that is what *I* think of snoops. I'm sure you could probably find somewhere in the past where I have cheerfully proclaimed "Oh I would NEVER do that, it's a disgusting violation of privacy, if I didn't trust my partner I would just leave".

Yes, lots of people on MeFi think that snooping is something that only bad, weak, lazy people do, and that they are not bad, weak, lazy people, so they would never snoop. This isn't true. It is way, way too simple. People who think that are ignorant. Maybe a better word is innocent. They haven't been in relationships like the one that you were in. They haven't had the experience you've had, and so they are not as wise as you are - or at least, as you have the capacity to be.

The experience of watching yourself fail to live up to your own ideals - to have a sense of who you are ("I would never snoop! I'm not like that! People who snoop are so pathetic!") and see it eroded by circumstance is, I think, a huge part of what it means to become fully adult and fully human. There is a great line in Jenny Offil's Dept of Speculation where a character in her forties gets angry at a young man in his twenties and thinks something like, "Stop it! You're not allowed to do that! You can't compare your imagined future accomplishments with our actual ones!"

When you were young, you probably had an idea of who you were and how relationships worked, and you confidently declared, "I know who I am! I'm a strong and independent person! If I didn't trust my partner, I would just leave!" Maybe you also thought things like, "It would be so sad to be alone at forty!" and "I will never be that girl who is hung up on her loser ex!" And now you hear that voice of yours in your head and you feel ashamed of it, and ashamed of yourself, and you feel miserable in part because of the vast gap of cognitive dissonance between all those things you confidently declared to the world and the reality of your lived experience.

But it's that experience that makes you an adult, and your past self a child; it's that experience that will allow you to read a question from someone who snooped on her partner's phone and respond with compassion rather than judgment, because you know that relationships are never simple; and it's that experience that has taught you to recognize that in the end, no one gets through life without being abased and humiliated by it, that everyone fails to live up to their idea of themselves eventually, and all adults share the common experience of discovering that they've acted in ways they never thought they would have before they were tested.

You've gone through the fire, but there's one last step. You need to forgive both of your past selves - not only the one who snooped, but the one (so confident! so innocent! so infuriating!) who was so brashly sure that she would never snoop, that she knew who she was, and what her future would look like, and what she would and would not do. That won't be easy, because the truth is that your past self would look at your current state with horror and pity and condescension. She had all these plans! But you have to forgive her, because she is very young. Her imagined future accomplishments are all very pretty in her head. But you are an adult, and what you have is experience, and empathy, and wisdom.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:51 AM on June 19, 2015 [11 favorites]

If I could favorite what pretentiousilliterate said a thousand times, I would. one gets through life without being abased and humiliated by it, that everyone fails to live up to their idea of themselves eventually, and all adults share the common experience of discovering that they've acted in ways they never thought they would have before they were tested.

So beautiful, and so true. Don't blame yourself, at all.

Reading about psychopaths and how they work will help a lot. It sounds like you have PTSD-like symptoms from your encounter with a very dangerous person who lied to you and stole from you. The feelings you have are completely normal. You are not a "cliche" or a "loser hung up on her ex". You are a woman who has been badly hurt and has managed to achieve some amazing things in spite of it.

Most importantly, MOVE AWAY from this person. He's extremely dangerous for you and in general, and I think moving, at whatever cost and inconvenience, would be worth it in terms of your mental and physical health, and perhaps even your finances.
posted by 3491again at 2:32 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

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