If only I could perform an ex-orcism...
September 25, 2017 2:59 AM   Subscribe

[I'M BROKEN FIX MEEE filter] I'm always worrying that my SOs are holding a torch for an ex - and that I'm a figurative waiting room - what's the best response?

I've read stories of people falling in love, then taking years and years apart, then reuniting for the long haul (e.g. in Love in the time of Cholera, or anecdotal stories) - and this very narrative has led me to so much anxiety! I always worry that I'm one of those interim girlfriends that just sits on their timeline as a figurative waiting room.

I've noticed that this is a pattern - this fear has nagged me for the past few years, and I still haven't found a way to come to terms with it. I've tried talking about it in therapy, but nothing seems to resonate.

Whenever I date someone that I actually like, I seem to get fixated on their exes. I imagine that they're soulmates/the great loves of each others' lives, that the guy I'm dating will wait/pine forever (because I remember having that impulse, to pine forever, myself), and that one day they'll reunite, making me the 'awkward interloper'/'waiting room girl'.

I also, on some level, doubt that I am fit for a relationship - I'm just COLD, CRITICAL and DIFFICULT... I feel unworthy of the people I like, even if they were the ones that pursued me in the first place, and I often compare myself unfavourably to those exes. I think this belief is harmful too.

So a few more specific questions that I would love answers to:
(i) what's the best response here - do I embrace the uncertainty that's inherent in any romantic endeavour, do I try to communicate with the SO to get confirmation / reassurance, do I try to tweak my taste so that I find people who don't inflame my insecurities? Do I just distract myself? What's the cure??

(ii) has anyone been in a situation where they felt this way? Were they right about this? Is this a genuine red flag? So far none of my exes have gotten back together with the exes I was fearful about, but they might one day, still early days right?

(iii) has anyone displaced a 'I-thought-she-was-the-love-of-my-life' ex? If so, how? How do I perform this ex-orcism and subtly crowd them out of the picture?

(iv) how do I stay present in the midst of all this relationship uncertainty and fear?

(v) has anyone ever felt fundamentally unfit/unworthy of long term romantic love? What changed?

I've tried therapy btw - it hasn't totally worked in this area, but I really look forward to hearing your comments. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
..hm. you hardly sound critical and cold to me, quite the opposite, really.

..aand. thats a lot of questions you got there. all i can say is, i personally know two peeps who have gone back to an ex, and its been awful and shitty and mega regret-making. But they're also the types to sort of relish in miserable situations/drama. but otherwise its just vague references, like yeah, love in the time of cholera or some romantic comedy. but thats sort of it, really. I suppose theres some sense of mystery and romance (?) to the idea of pining away for someone, but to me it just seems like a huge waste of time and brain resources – you're really cheating yourself out of the opportunity to experience the sheer-fucking-terror-vulnerability and crushing awesomeness of really being there for one person.

It isn't to say, that i don't sometimes look at my husband and think, "Jesus, he could just walk out the door and never come back if he felt like it. " and i get a little scared. and on the other hand, so could I, but i won't because i want to be with him, because i love him.

and maybe, thats the sort of thought (not obsessively tho) that won't let you take a single day for granted with that person. and makes you wanna keep being the best version of yourself. even on the days that are a little quiet or the ones that just sucked, you know? and just taking that radical step to choose to trust someone fully *is* scary and so so so galvanizing. man, you might get hit by a truck tomorrow – its pretty much the same thing. Everything is fleeting, and you gotta just come to terms with the idea that even if you found yourself a perfect guy that has never been in love/a relationship/gotten laid/felt any person is as gorgeous as you – they might still go one day. and thats okay, thats what makes the entire thing beautiful.

as for an ex-orcism - thoughts and feelings can be shaped by action. don't stalk them on social media, don't keep mementos, etc. MAKE NEW MEMORIES! DO THE THINGS! and - if a thought of them pops up - don't spiral into a brood about 'em, just go "yup, hello ex-related-thought, totes noted. now i'm gonna make my grocery list." - when you don't react strongly to a thought, your brain will eventually file it away to stuff that isn't relevant and little by little it will learn to just recall stuff that actually matters in your daily life.
posted by speakeasy at 4:16 AM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also, on some level, doubt that I am fit for a relationship

Everything you've said and asked about boils down to the fact that you're never going to be secure in a relationship until you feel you are self-confident of your own worth.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:22 AM on September 25, 2017 [26 favorites]

This is very human. One thing to remember is that by obsessing over getting "crowded out" you're saying you're worried, in a way, that you're not at the center of your own relationship story -- that you're going to find out in a rug pulled out way that you were just a minor character. The only way to change this script, really, is to realize that by focusing so much on your SO's ex, you're not writing your own relationship story, the relationship you're actually in, with the SO, building it together. All that energy spent on the what if actually does take you out of your own relationship with the SO. You might ask if there is something actually more comfortable about worrying over the ex than about plunging in and being there and building it? Yes, that entails the inherent uncertainty of trusting and being with another person, but might feel less pressing once you're really focusing on yourself.
posted by flourpot at 4:24 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

This brings to mind relationship OCD, where you worry about a relationship's viability to a point that it negatively affects your ability to be in the relationship. In the case of rOCD I believe "accept the uncertainty" and "act as if" are common ways forward. Mindfully notice your anxious thoughts and let them fade away.

Getting reassurances repeatedly and trying to find the "right" person, with whom you feel no insecurity, are unlikely to help in the case of rOCD; they just feed the obsessive thinking.

There are therapists who can diagnose and work with you in this line of inquiry. Google and the OCD channels on Reddit have resources to learn more.

Doing relationships with rOCD isn't about self-confidence or trying hard enough, but rather brain chemistry and training your mind.
posted by ramenopres at 4:26 AM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've tried therapy btw - it hasn't totally worked in this area, but I really look forward to hearing your comments. Thank you!

I think you need to keep at therapy. Are you willing/able to look for a different therapist? I'd suggest one who is experienced in anxiety and relationship issues.

Have you tried any medications? SSRIs can do wonderful things for anxiety.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:41 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

I used to be like this. I spent so much time Googling my boyfriends' exes I often was the one to let them know when their ex got married or had kids. I got some very odd responses which helped me realize that was not normal behavior.

Therapy helped.

At the root of it was general insecurity and low self-esteem, with a side helping of a damaging childhood setting unrealistic expectations for relationships and also a passive approach that left me feeling like none of it was in my control.

Seriously, therapy helped all of that. It wasn't pleasant and it was hard work, and it took time to find the right therapist, but to be free of that burden (among other things) is wonderful.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:48 AM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Leaving aside all the good relationship advice above, I would like to add that too much narrative is a problem - like, you're comparing your life to a novel (or a novel-like "and they were SOULMATES!!! narrative) , and when you do that, you're assuming that the way life works is that there are main characters who are important and minor characters who are not, and main characters who are good and minor characters who exist only as terrible examples, and that the universe really cares about wrapping up the plotlines. And that once a plot starts, that's the way things always go - no one is ever like "I am dating this person while pining for my ex...wait, actually now I really like this person and wouldn't get back together with my ex if you offered me a pony", which is the scenario I have actually observed in life.

If that were true, for one thing, maybe you'd be the main character - maybe one of your exes is your true love! Maybe your partners are mostly Horrible Examples.

But - and I might not say this if you hadn't brought up the Marquez - I think that if we draw a lot of our ideas from novels, it's easy to start seeing novelistic narratives in life when actually those generally don't happen, and they usually fall apart the minute you press on them. (Like, the only person I know who married an ex...divorced him after, like, less than a year. No one else I know has ever seriously gotten back together with an ex. It's not common.)

You're looking at life like, "It's made up of worthy Main Characters and Waiting Room Girls. Obviously I'm not that great a person, so I must be a Waiting Room Girl". Not liking yourself is a topic for therapy and other interventions, but try reminding yourself that lives don't generally have a plot. (I tend to think that there are plots, and constantly have to remind myself that there aren't.)
posted by Frowner at 4:50 AM on September 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

Carolyn Hax has addressed this sort of thing.

But my favorite remark of hers on this topic:

"If they did have that rapport, if he knows it, if they broke up only because she foolishly failed to recognize how well they fit together, and if she wakes up one day soon to an epiphany about her mistake — that’s four “ifs,” for those keeping score at home — then she does indeed pose a threat to you. A threat that has roughly zero correlation to her hotness and/or world domination, and everything to do with their just being right for each other.
Maybe advisory pep talks aren’t your thing, so try this, too: Your relationship with him will probably end anyway, simply because the vast majority of romantic relationships end for one reason or another. A breakup’s underlying cause is always, ultimately, between the couple themselves; someone like this ex is only destructive when there’s a weakness to exploit.
Embracing this belief that all breakups occur from the inside is, counterintuitively, a way you can help feeling insecure — because it frees you from having to worry about threats from the outside. Your job is to be fully present in and open to your life with him. The rest takes care of itself."

posted by jenfullmoon at 5:12 AM on September 25, 2017 [12 favorites]

So I'm kind of in the opposite situation - I /am/ the ex for some of those world burning relationships, and the thing that's key to remember is when you have a worldburning/"soulmate" type connection, it takes even more to breakup. You don't know why it happened, but it's probably something big. For me, for all of them, the things that broke us up are simply too big to look past. So there's no chance of me ever getting together with them again even if we were all single.
posted by corb at 6:11 AM on September 25, 2017

I don't know if this is relevant to you, but in the book Attached, the author talks about how people with avoidant attachment styles will often fixate on someone unattainable, specifically an idealized ex, as a way of distancing themselves from their current relationships. The current partner is continually compared with the idealized ex and found wanting, which makes it impossible for the relationship to progress. It's a defensive mechanism to ward off too much closeness, and has nothing to do with how suitable the different partners actually are for each other.

I had a lot of problems with that book - specifically in its premise that people fall into one of three bins (avoidant, anxious, secure) and mostly stay in them. I think we're all a mix of styles depending on the circumstances and that we all borrow strategies from the different 'types.' So, it occurs to me that either you may have had a relationship with a partner who used this strategy in a particularly hurtful way, and you're still recovering from that - or that this is a strategy you're using to avoid closeness. Intimacy is scary, and obsessive thinking can turn into a kind of weird self-soothing strategy, where instead of looking at your relationship directly, you outsource all the power to this mysterious ex, and then you engage in all of these superstitious rituals (ex-orcism) of obsessive Instagram stalking and Googling and whatever, instead of grappling with what's in front of you.

I've engaged in this behavior before, and sometimes still do, and I conceptualize it now as a kind of light self-harm like picking or hair-pulling - a sharp, distracting, painful feeling that feels both gross and good, and that I do when I'm feeling worried about something I'm not quite ready to address. I'd read the Attached book and try some therapy, but also not beat yourself up about it, because like other people have said, it is strangely common - nearly everyone I've known has done it at one point or another.

Also, in answer to one other question: in high school, my boyfriend had a longterm crush on a girl (not an ex) that drove me up the wall when we were dating. I was totally obsessed with her in the way you describe. We broke up when we went to college, and ten years later, they got together and now have a very cute baby. At the time, if you'd asked me how I would have felt if that had happened, I would have been like, OH MY GOD I WOULD DIE. But I genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, feel fine about it and happy for them. Time goes by, people change, and the thing about anxiety is that what you're the most afraid of often doesn't end up being that big of a deal.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:59 AM on September 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

I dated a woman for a bit who harbored some of the same insecurities you do. She was absolutely convinced that any communication I had with my ex-boyfriend was a threat to her and would not believe me when I said that that relationship was over (it was) and that we're just friends now (we are) and that he wasn't a threat to anything (he wasn't).

Because she couldn't let go of this and accept that I have a past, and because she became very controlling and mean about it, I had to cut all contact with her.

I'm still friends with the ex-boyfriend, who I am definitely not getting back together with.

Please go back to therapy and work on this. You've got to get to a place where you can see the relationships you're in for what they are and not constantly imagine the worst-case scenario. I am sure you are a fantastic person with a lot of great qualities, but until you can get past this - well, it would be an enormous red flag for me.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:26 AM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've only seen two people successfully get back together with the long lost love of their life. In both of these cases, they a) initially separated because they were not ready to be together (had too many issues getting in the way); b) the latest relationship they were in had already played out and was over for reasons that had nothing to do with each other by the time they reunited; c) they had both grown and changed enough to overcome the issues that separated them; AND d) life had somehow miraculously brought them back in contact with each other again (they didn't stay in contact after they initially separated, nor were they deliberately looking for each other).

It's very, very rare that all of these circumstances would come together. Even if they were to happen for your SO, they couldn't unless your relationship with them was already over for it's own reasons that would have happened regardless of the return of the long lost soulmate ex. So either way, this isn't something you really need to worry about.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:12 AM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is not a thing you can work on in the relationship context, because it's not someone else's responsibility to fix the fact that you have irrational insecurities. Not that they can't want to, they just literally can't fix it for you. If those insecurities are irrational--and especially if you've never even had someone leave you over this, you've got no reason to be this hung up on it--then there's basically nothing they can do that will make it feel better in your head. That's what therapists are for. Your self-esteem has to be a thing that you take the reins on, where you drive the change, or else what you have won't be better self-esteem, it will just be a temporary reassurance.
posted by Sequence at 8:13 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

do I try to communicate with the SO to get confirmation / reassurance

This is not their problem to fix, unless they are engaging with their ex/the memory of their ex in a way that is intrusive, and in that case you could just break up.

I think, aside from staying out of relationships for a year or two so you can take care of some of the underlying issues, you need to study the concept of agency. People drive their lives, not fate and not a screenwriter and not magical realism. Each human being makes choices, grows and changes as a result of experiences and education/information coming into their lives, everyone lives a linear timeline. This is true of any future partner you may have, and also friend and coworker and mayor and grocery store cashier and also yourself. They/you are making decisions, they are growing and changing over time, they are figuring out more all the time about what they want and what kind of relationship they want to be in, and going backwards doesn't make much sense.

How many people do you know in your own life who have even managed to fully repair an old friendship, or successfully returned to an old job, or decided to go through 3rd grade again? Yes, of course, sometimes people do fail at something and eventually succeed at it, usually after maturing or getting treatment for a mitigating problem, but consider how high the stakes often are in those cases: finishing a degree, passing a certification exam, resuming parenting responsibilities. Every once in a while a relationship resumes, but it's so rare that's why it's so popular a media trope.

Do you really still pine for that person you thought you'd pine for forever? If so, you absolutely do need to shut down any other relationship-seeking until you get that dealt with, but chances are you don't. Because it wears off. Heartbreak is a temporary condition, and its intensity cannot self-maintain very long, and just because you had a feeling once doesn't mean you're obligated to have it forever. You have to give other people credit for being fully-functional human beings who know how to move on.

This is not how grownup adults deal with each others' pasts. If you can't be with someone and understand that they are a real functioning human being who is the sum of every experience they've had in the past, and that those exes for good or bad helped form them into this person you love and want to be with, you can't be with someone in a healthy way. Take a couple years off, maybe focus your therapy on yourself first and your beliefs about how human emotions work and your own agency and your own ability to have an experience in the past and leave it there, and then work on the general experience you're having of intrusive or obsessive thoughts of insecurity, and then way down the line when you have tools in your toolbox you may find that this specific question, of people's exes, is resolved as part of a bigger picture.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:38 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

I missed the obvious point, as well: another feature of agency and human relationships is that you have a choice about whether to be a bit of background scenery in someone else's life.

If you are in a relationship that is interactive and collaborative and communicative, you will be plugged into the health and status of the relationship. If you are scenery, you spend all your time guessing until the other person bores of it. You get to decide which way you do it, and if the other person isn't engaging at a level you feel is appropriate and healthy, you get to decide to break up with them.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:16 AM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also: there's no such thing as soulmates. There are feelings, and choices to act on those feelings. If a partner of yours goes back to an ex, it isn't any different than a partner leaving you for any other woman. The partner is an unreliable douche and the specifics of the woman are irrelevant.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:06 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

It is not about being someone's first love but being their last. Focus on the relationship and the future. The past is guidance and history not destiny.
posted by jadepearl at 3:33 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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