The opposite of a romantic comedy
August 1, 2018 11:07 AM   Subscribe

I still obsess over my ex from nearly 20 years ago; how do I stop?

I need help. This is interfering with my life. I don't think the details probably even matter but basically we were together in our late teens/early 20's and had to break up when the relationship went long distance with only a vague idea of being in the same place at some point years in the future and we couldn't handle it. I can't do the whole "remember why you broke up and be glad" because neither of us wanted to break up, it left us both a mess. I accepted that we couldn't be together, tried to move on, had several meaningful, long-term relationships including a marriage. Through all that I never stopped thinking about him. This is seriously bad. I thought about him when I got married, I thought about him when I got divorced, through every relationship, I compare everyone to him and they never measure up, I can't get him out of my head.

We've kept in sporadic contact throughout the years which always picks up intensely like no time has passed and I get a rush from talking to him or just seeing his name on an email, but that contact always fizzles out. When we were younger and not in a position to be together it was too painful for us to stay in contact. Since I've been in a position to actually make something work with him I've sensed that he is not. He seems stuck at the same place in life as he was at 20, in a way. He is also very likely completely over me or something would have happened already and I get that. When I think about what I would want, practically, to happen with him, I suppose the answer is nothing. But that doesn't stop me from obsessing over him and fantasizing about him and wanting to talk to him. It's been 19 years now and I just need to move on. It's been two years since I last emailed him and I have to talk myself out of contacting him regularly, because I don't think it's a good idea. But I still keep thinking about him.

So how to I stop? I have gotten over every single other relationship I've been in--through time, acknowledging incompatibilities, or just coming to dislike the person, whatever--and it's just not working with this one. I have a fulfilling life full of meaning and distractions and accomplishments. I can't find whatever void it is that this must be trying to fill. Advice, anecdotes and book recommendations are all helpful. Recommendations for therapy are not--I am already aware of therapy, I have been in therapy and am posting this question because I am desperately looking for other suggestions that might help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but I wonder if it would help if you make another attempt at friendship with this person and commit to trying to sustain it beyond any initial butterflies. Since you say he seems stuck at 20, more proximity might help you realize that current you really doesn’t want to be with current him. If you continue to dwell on the relationship at that point, the issue might be more a pining for the you you’ve lost to time than that relationship.
posted by ElizaMain at 11:21 AM on August 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

What's to stop you from telling him directly everything you just told us? What would be the harm in that? You're not open to therapy, there's no other current romance in your life it would mess up, it doesn't sound like he's in a relationship that it would wrench up either. You're already thinking about him and holding yourself back from talking to him all the time. Why not get a dose of reality directly from him?

Communicating to him directly would probably allow the whole illusion loop of the past to be starkly interrupted by whatever his response will be (which will likely not be very romantic at all). It will give you SOME definition one way or the other which it sounds like you ultimately do want.

Just tell him already.
posted by seemoorglass at 11:22 AM on August 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

It sounds to me like you need closure -- is there a reason you haven't more actively pursued something with him? Would just the confrontation and the (possible) rejection be enough to do this, however painful? I ruminate a lot too, and I ruminate a lot more when there is possibility, or a decision that has to be made, or the possibility of a perfect resolution to a disastrous problem. Once that option is closed, I usually can move on, however grudgingly. If he says no, then at least you'll know, and might be able to shift focus.
posted by heavenknows at 11:22 AM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a fair amount of seems/sensed up there. I wonder if it would help to clarify things and know for sure. Ambiguity may be letting you wallow.
posted by Smearcase at 11:33 AM on August 1, 2018

I had this for a long time - a teen relationship that broke up when I moved so never got closure on. For me what helped was meeting up with them years later and also visibility through Facebook that we had grown up into very different, incompatible people. Good luck though, I think it's entirely understandable to feel there's "unfinished business". Have you seen the before midnight trilogy? Sort of deals with that theme and the final film shows life being far messier than an imagined dream
posted by JonB at 11:42 AM on August 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is he married?
posted by crw at 11:47 AM on August 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

I have an ex who became an ex under similar circumstances, and I've thought of him often over the years, similar to the way you mention.

I've come to the conclusion that the reason why I still think of him is because we didn't really "break-up" due to incompatibilities;it was more circumstance. There was no point where I stopped liking him. We were young and innocent when we were together; most importantly, I liked who I was during that relationship. It was before I ever became angry/unreasonable/jealous/crazy, whatever any other ex ended up labeling me.

I've come to realize that when I'm daydreaming about him and our innocent past that it's not really about him at all, but that there's some other difficult thing going on in my personal relationships that I need to work on.
posted by vignettist at 12:07 PM on August 1, 2018 [34 favorites]

Could you go and hang out with him for a week or so?

For everyone we know, there is the person as they really are, and the person we as imagine them. Ideally, the two are more or less in sync. After 19 years of sporadic contact, they could be pretty badly out of sync. It sounds like he has changed into someone who's really not into a LTR with you anymore, and you are pining not for this guy who exists in the present day, but for the guy you knew 19 years ago, who exists only in your memory.

Spending time with him intensively might help you realize at a visceral level that the guy you want no longer exists. That'll be hard! It'll bring up some difficult emotions. It'll be like ripping a scab off. But it sounds like it might be better for you in the long run.
posted by adamrice at 12:36 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Think of your brain at that age: heightened emotions, a frontal lobe still under warranty, so many formative first experiences, intense chemical lust, a traumatic-sudden-unwanted dive off the cliffs of no contact. The neural grooves you carved were deep. No wonder they still have purchase.

You need a reality check. I mean that in an bodily way. You need closure. You need to "feel" him as imperfect and not right for you, so you can stop choosing him. Maybe that means telling him these secret wishes, so he can shoot you down; maybe it means hanging out with him, so you can see your image isn't real; maybe you don't tell him but you do a private moonlit ritual where you spiritually sever your connection.

I was majorly obsessed with my first love. We dated for two years and I pined for her for four more, despite knowing I didn't want her and doing everything I could to move on. I grieved for her. She was in my dreams, my music, my art. I'd see her in faces on the street. I could feel her sleeping next to me. I went no contact but it didn't help. I dated a string of nice people, some of them quite seriously, but nobody had her verve and intensity.

Finally we got in touch and I went to visit her in her new city. All my feelings flooded back. Our chemistry was still there, I could feel it rippling between us. But — something had changed? I could finally see her anew. Our paths had diverged, and for the first time I really understood that my picture of her was a mirage. I didn't want this new person. I cried for hours and when all the tears stopped I felt clean. Our tie was cut.
posted by fritillary at 12:58 PM on August 1, 2018 [20 favorites]

I compare everyone to him and they never measure up

I sort of felt this way about a past relationship, and it only stopped when I actually met someone who I truly liked more. Then, and only then, I forgot about him.
posted by pinochiette at 1:08 PM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

The short answer is he made an intense neural imprint on you.


- Pursue a relationship, get it out of your system.

- Engage in therapy like CBT.

- Engage in some other practice (binaural beats, hypnosis, other types of meditation, etc.) to "re-wire" your brain. I recommend this for 3 min a day for a few weeks, because it worked for me to kick an addictive thought pattern, but I meditate regularly anyway so that may have improved the speed of my results? Most research says 20 to 40 days to form a new habit.

You can do this!
posted by jbenben at 1:18 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

What can you expect to happen? Reconnect and fall in love? It never happens.

I had a long lost love and completely wrecked 2 years of my life when we reconnected, began dating, he moved in with me and my kids, and I WAS IMMEDIATELY REMINDED WHY WE BROKE UP TWENTY YEARS AGO.

It's so easy to have this giant wonderful fantasy in our brains--this one who got away, this one who was our first and most important love. Weren't things so perfect with them? Wouldn't it be terrific if we could just get back together with them?

You broke up twenty years ago for valid reasons. You have sporadic contact and when you do, it sorts of ends. Nobody is really trying to make an effort to communicate. None of that will change if you start dating again.

You can't get over him because you've created a fantasy that will never become reality. Frame it that way if it helps. Just like waking up and becoming a mermaid with their own unicorn, things will never work out with this guy, ever.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:44 PM on August 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is limerance. The way to fix it is to find out, for good, whether he’s still into you & you’re still into him. It’s a mental hiccup that is really persistent.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:46 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have this same thing! Here is my strategy that is really helping me.

1) Identify the physical symptoms of this "obsessed" feeling
You seem very practical. You are mad that you can't make your feelings get in line with what you know. So to help you feel in control, try to get specific understanding how the idea of this ex affects you. What happens to you when you think about him, or hear from him? For me it is things like: i blush (why??!), thoughts start racing, pit of stomach anxiety/excitement, etc. Know those things for yourself. And then start keeping track of how long the feelings last.

2) Practice self compassion
There is nothing wrong with having an old flame on your mind. If you know what the feelings feel like, when the obsessive thought comes back to you, you need to:
-acknolwedge it, remember how it feels, remember you know how to deal with it (from #1 above)
-accept this is something you care about, and forgive yourself, every time
-choose how you will deal with it, can you savor it? redirect the energy to something productive?

I'm not wired to go through life feeling CONTENT. I don't like this about myself, but I've tried to acknowledge it and keep perspective. If I'm feeling angsty about an ex, that is normal. If what you said about your life is true, that you have had relationships and passions and meaning in spite of this "obsession" then I think you should try to feel like this is a good and OK thing. The narrative of your life doesn't have to be "and then she never got over him, how sad", it can be "and while she did think of him from time to time, she lived her life and enjoyed it as much as she could". Try to come up with a new narrative for yourself, invest in it, and maybe eventually it will feel true.

I wish you the very best luck!
posted by skrozidile at 2:19 PM on August 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

ok I'm a loser who watches the Bachelorette and reads a lot of re-caps about it. Anyway, this seems to pertain to your situation so take from it what you will.

Jason was the third runner up this season, and on the Men Tell All this week he said:

“I don’t know if I got the closure that I was asking for, but she got the closure she needed to move on to find her happiness, and moreover, that gives me the conclusion that I need.”

And I totally agree, that sometimes you don't get "closure" but maybe that shouldn't matter, you need to move on anyway.
posted by JenThePro at 2:21 PM on August 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Since I've been in a position to actually make something work with him I've sensed that he is not."

"Sensed"? This is personal drama and you're stoking it for everything you've got.

By all means talk it out with him, but to me it sounds like he's a placeholder you're propping up so you don't have to deal with more personal issues.

Five will get you ten if you do get together with him you'll start seeing all the same shortcomings in him that you do with other men.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Some good advice here. I'd suggest having an honest conversation with him. Whether he rejects you, you try being friends or you try romance again, encountering him as a real person again will probably be a good thing in the long term. You'll see who he truly is, instead of this idealized memory you've been carrying around for decades.

I speak from experience. I was BADLY obsessed with a girl I dated in high school. It was a passionate, volatile relationship and I thought she was a super genius and sexy as hell. A fews years later we tried being friends and... Well, let's just saw I'm not obsessed with her anymore. Reconnecting was messy but I have no regrets about doing it. (I also have no regrets about DISCONNECTING.)

Maybe you'll both fall in love again. If so, great! But if it ends badly, that could be a good thing too. Either way, you won't spend your life wondering, what if?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

What helped for me in a similar situation was re-establishing contact. No visits in person as he is halfway around the planet and will remain there for the foreseeable future, and I am certainly not going over there. In those emails, I was reminded why it was the relationship was killed dead in its tracks, as it were, when I was, as others have noted, of an intensely impressionable neural age. The answer was that he made the decision not to be with me and he decided there was no way to make it work. Full stop. I wanted to fight for it, he did not, and that was that. Many years passed, no contact, I had cut the last of it off. I thought about him often, though, wondered. What if...? Re-establishing contact made me understand that he was an eccentric then, a lone wolf, and he remains one today. I overlooked that then, not exactly being uneccentric myself, but today... I am not so sure I'd be as attracted to him today. Perhaps not at all. I've had relationships since, a notable one being with another beat-of-his-own-drum type, which ended, um, not prettily. The conclusion I came too about the long-lost love is... well, I don't think our relationship would have come to a great end, had it been allowed its natural conclusion.

I think the way you work through this is getting to know him as he is now. And think about who you are now, how you've changed, what you will and will not tolerate in a partner. I don't agree that you are mourning who you were; who, in hindsight, really loves who they were at 20? I do think you are in mourning for the might-have-been. So try and look at the might-have-been from a framework of realism as opposed to fantasy. Chances are your conclusions will be prosaic.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 5:28 PM on August 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

(If it wasn't clear, by starting with "Some good advice here" I was saying other posters above had offered good advice. I was NOT saying, "OK, I'm about to hit you with some good advice!"
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:04 PM on August 1, 2018


I've been single since Perfect Man left me in 2000. My situation is a little different from yours, in that we ended on bad terms and have had zero contact since, by his choice. At the time, I had not-yet-diagnosed bipolar disorder, went psycho on him one too many times, and he was done. I did get my brain adjusted, and I sent him a couple short letters to his parents' house over the years when I graduated, when my mom died, etc. but he never responded. OK. Just I have never met anyone I liked as much, maybe never will, and... OK.

I really think skrozidile has it completely. That's exactly what works for me.

Also Google-stalking. I see online that Perfect Man has been living out his dreams, and while I cannot tell if he is partnered or has kids or not -- I'm happy to think at least one of us is (apparently) happy with the ways things turned out. I try to focus my energy into wishing him well, and as skrozidile says, forgiving myself. And once I've done that, I'm back on to the good things my life has to offer me.

Obviously I might be biased here, but I'm thinking you don't just lay your cards on the table with this guy because you already know the answer, and don't want to force awkwardness or make him feel bad. Well, handling your feelings (including a desire for "closure") is not really something anyone can help you with, however much you might want them to. Again, I say skrozidile. That's the way.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:36 PM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I nth everyone else in saying that if you have contact with your ex again, this will most likely cure your fantasy issues. It works.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:02 PM on August 2, 2018

Finding Frances, the guy was obsessed for FIFTY years. Then he found her and she wasn’t the same person anymore.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 3:25 PM on August 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's been years since I read it, but I still remember the life-lessons from Getting Over Homer. Bonus: it's a quick, funny read.
posted by she's not there at 9:33 PM on August 2, 2018

« Older Help me understand my RURAL homeowner's...   |   How do I not let an upcoming, much feared plane... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.