How to get a painful failed relationship off my mind?
September 23, 2020 11:50 PM   Subscribe

I had a tumultuous relationship for several years with someone who was emotionally and verbally abusive, and in which I was dishonest and cheated. It’s over and I’m glad, but I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Some background information:

Initially, we dated and then were friends for a year and a half. Since almost the beginning I was afraid of her anger, verbal abuse, and manipulation. After much dishonesty on my part regarding what I was doing with another person, we eventually had a huge falling out and didn’t speak for a year. In the two years since the falling out, we hung out for a summer until I lied again and she ghosted me, and met once more after that, at my request, for an ambiguous maybe closure/maybe carrying-on talk.

It has now been 7 months since our last contact. As of our last meeting, she continued to lash out and behave in manipulative ways, which she saw as acceptable and justified because she’s still hurt by my past actions. We talked about continuing to hang out as friends and she said effectively that I would have to accept whatever anger and verbal abuse she had towards me until she got it out of her system because I deserve it. This time I was able to say no. I’m starting to accept that she isn’t willing to change her abusive behavior, and that I’m still afraid of her and act in shady ways as a result.

Since then, there have been brief periods of time when I haven’t thought about her, but she’s still very often on my mind, usually every day. I’ve made some serious progress letting this relationship go, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head. I’m still hurting deeply. I’m not sure if it’s the unresolvable nature of it or the fact that I can’t fix my mistakes or just can’t make this thing work even though we would both prefer it. It’s also difficult that I have learned a lot from the mistakes I made with her and have been a much better friend and partner to others since, but can’t redeem myself in this relationship.

This whole situation has been a big downer, but social media has contributed a lot. For a while I blocked her profiles so that I wouldn’t look at them, but I got curious and reversed it, even though I know I feel worse every time I see something of hers. It feels like a kind of addiction, both checking on her and sometimes missing the rollercoaster abusive highs and lows. Recently I started a counter of how many days I’ve avoided looking at anything of hers online, which is going well but is incredibly hard and doesn’t feel that satisfying.

Looking for advice and any kind words you have to offer. How do I get past this and move on?
posted by switcheroo to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It feels like a kind of addiction, both checking on her and sometimes missing the rollercoaster abusive highs and lows.

I think it can be a kind of addiction, this clinging to the drama of a relationship way past its prime. In my case, at least, the best solution was to go no contact forever after a couple of false starts. Also, to remind myself when I started thinking about the relationship that my brain had better things to do. And, finally, to find other, non-harmful forms of drama to scratch that odd itch. Consider reading the Ask MetaFilter relationship archive, exploring Captain Awkward, or binging 90-Day Fiancée or something similar.

Because I grew up in a household of crisis and drama, It took most of my adulthood to recognize that I gravitated toward unhealthy relationships because they felt like home (however unconsciously). Somehow I weaned myself off of regular drama in my own life. That mostly happened thanks to regular Al-Anon meetings, which are for the friends and family of alcoholics. But I won’t lie: allowing myself to be drama-adjacent, in a safe way, via advice columns and horrifying reality TV also helped.

I know this is standard advice on the green but you might consider therapy at some point to explore why you chose to lie to a scary person instead of leaving the relationship early on. Either way, block this person on social media and every other single place you can. Delete this person’s contact information and just move the hell on. Lean into the discomfort; the only way out is through.

It doesn’t matter how much we like someone or how much we love someone or how much we X someone. If being their friends or their lovers or their housemates or their employees makes our life worse or makes us act like assholes, then it’s better to say goodbye no matter what bullshit our brains may spew. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:32 AM on September 24, 2020 [13 favorites]

I’m not sure if it’s the unresolvable nature of it or the fact that I can’t fix my mistakes or just can’t make this thing work even though we would both prefer it. It’s also difficult that I have learned a lot from the mistakes I made with her and have been a much better friend and partner to others since, but can’t redeem myself in this relationship.

You are talking here as if you are still with her, as if this is a current relationship. You're still trying to figure out how to make it work. I think that's why you are still dwelling, because you are still hoping and longing for reconciliation. Therapy might be helpful. What do you need to accept that it is truly over?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:06 AM on September 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm here to say therapy as well. Here's why:

I’m still hurting deeply.
That's a wound that clearly isn't healing on it's own. A professional should be able to help you with this. You deserve to feel better than this.

I can’t fix my mistakes... can’t redeem myself in this relationship
Life isn't neat and tidy like that, which I think you probably know, really. You'll meet and interact with people all through your life who will disappear without you knowing, could that have been more? Should that have been less? Did I hurt them? Did they forgive me? You cannot rely on another person to give you closure, you can't really seek it from elsewhere. You can only give it to yourself, and right now you're finding that hard/impossible. This is something you can get help with.

Social media has contributed a lot... It feels like a kind of addiction

It is an addiction - addictive behaviour isn't just about drinking and smoking. Talking to a therapist should help you to find ways to combat this.

[the work] is incredibly hard and doesn’t feel that satisfying

I'm afraid it is hard, and it won't feel satisfying for a while. Your heart has been bruised (I won't say she bruised it, as it looks like you both did things to contribute to your relationship breakdown, but you've suffered a lot) and right now you are doing the gruelling work of healing.

I suspect it is harder still, because you are probably healing a lot more than just from this relationship. Staying in contact with this person despite the abuse and anger for so long indicates that your boundaries are not where they should be. You are doing work not just to heal, but to rebuild, to rethink who you are, what you want, how you want to be, and how you want to be in your next relationship.

The good news is, that it will be worth it, this work. It won't feel satisfying a lot of the time, but one day in the future, you will be out with friends, laughing, eating or drinking together, perhaps flirting with someone, and she will pop into your mind briefly. You will think "huh" and carry on. And then later, you will feel deeply satisfied that you did do the work, you are healing yourself, and you have a broader, more open horizon because of it.
posted by greenish at 2:31 AM on September 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

No contact is very hard and I'm proud of you for working on it and doing a good job so far. Personally, I think of looking at social media profiles as a type of contact, even though it's not two-way. I think you are really onto something when you said that you want to curb that impulse as well. I have found trauma therapy to be useful for working through my own abusive relationships. Take care and best of luck.
posted by k8lin at 6:22 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

You are still afraid of her. That's why you check where she is, the same way that horses or deer that are stalked by wolves or humans will follow the predators when they appear to be withdrawing - it's an instinct to check where they are going and make sure you are really safe and that the predator is not regrouping for another attack.

I recommend playing out worst case scenarios in your head: What if she hires a hit man? What if she takes to msging your current friends and telling them all the bad things you really did do? What if she... Then figure out how you will deal with it in the unlikely event that she does those things and it will lose some of its power and your will be less afraid. Some of them will also clearly be fantasy only, and this will enable you to assess how much risk she still is to you.

People whose behaviour is so controlling that they lead us to be deceitful are called crazy-makers. It sounds like your ex was and is a prize crazy-maker - you are still doing irrational self harming things, as you did when you cheated because you could not escape from her cleanly. You are still afraid of her enough that you are doing things that make no sense. They only make sense if you have no power against her, but you DO have that power now. You broke up with her.

You can handle this, and you can handle the shame - the shame you feel is the sign that lets you know that you didn't set out to misuse her, but were desperately trying to have autonomy when she didn't allow it. Certainly you should have been truthful but before you told your lies you were groomed to placate her and avoid saying things that would upset her. Drowning people should also hold their breath instead of inhaling water after they go under but they don't. That's a comparative should to the one I just used when I said you should have been truthful. Would have been nice if it had been easy to tell the truth, wouldn't it.

Keep in mind for a future guideline that whenever you are in a situation where telling lies is looking really attractive something is really wrong with the situation. You are not tempted to tell lies to random family members and friends and strangers for a reason. You feel safe with them because you can trust them not to rip into you with demands to comply with their wishes and demands to protect their ego at the expense of your own.

Don't sweat the lies too much. Studies have shown that everyone lies. You start by lying as a toddler because it is instinctive and learn to control that behaviour to create trust. But the rare person who does not tell lies is someone hyper-vigilant about not doing so. Bluffing is so much part of our social tool kit and positioning our alternative realities is also instinctive. Lies come out of all of us, little white lies of course, little statements of omission that make us look better. It looks like you hurt yourself more than her by lying - especially given that she was hurting to begin and flailing around hurting you. When someone is like that there's no avoiding hurting them. Tell them they hurt your feelings and hearing your words hurts them and they lash out. Tell them you don't want to do what they want you to do and your words hurt their feelings and they lash out...

It's really good you got away from her. But now you probably have some level of PTSD. It's time to do things so you feel secure - and that includes secure enough to trust yourself so you won't compromise your own sense of right and wrong in an effort to escape an abuser. If you work on whatever lowers your anxiety about loss of control to her and people like her you'll start to feel safe and be able to re-entrench.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:08 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Memailed you.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:44 AM on September 24, 2020

I’m not sure if it’s the unresolvable nature of it or the fact that I can’t fix my mistakes or just can’t make this thing work even though we would both prefer it.

You are not over this person, and you are holding out hope that you will get back together. On top of that, you are projecting your hopes onto the other party and telling yourself they want the same thing. Whatever they may have said to indicate this is just words. In action, they are not treating you with love and respect. Worse, they are verbally abusive, and you are abusive through deception in return. This is a toxic, mutually abusive relationship that will not improve.

You need to start working on accepting what you said at the very start - this is over, and that's for the best. Block this person everywhere and grieve it like this person is dead and gone forever. Every time you engage with the thought that there is a possibility of a future, you are extending your suffering.

This will be very hard, but I promise you it will be worth the pain once you get to the other side.
posted by amycup at 7:52 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

So, when I've let a behavior go on past the stage where it was clearly negative, it's helped me to do a really deep assessment of the pluses and minuses of that behavior. Even if all the signs are that you need to let it go, when you end it, you are giving up some aspects of it that you valued. Do an inventory of those. Yes, it is painful to think you're giving something up, something that mattered to you. But in a way, it's more painful to think you have been involved in something completely negative and pointless all along. Doing a cost-benefit analysis and deciding that despite anything you were getting out of it, it's time to give it up, will help you when your brain tries to trick you into thinking the relationship can be salvaged.
posted by BibiRose at 7:53 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hey, you are doing really well and I encourage you to re-block her.

You are not very far from the hurts this relationship did you, and her, and it will take much longer. But eventually, this relationship will be something you think about as one of many things that formed you as a person, something you can treat with care and distance. I think you need a harder boundary between you and her for now.

I still think about the things I did wrong in my early 20s (I am in my 40s) in relationships. I still occasionally lie awake at night chewing over the wrongs I did other people. I still think about how fucked up we were (we being me and any one of several exes, whole social scenes, whole regimes of thought and emotion). Thinking about them now, I can be kind to myself and them - we were young, we were dumb, and it took me a long time to learn very simple lessons about how to treat people and how I want to be treated. The important thing is, the lessons won't help me have continuing relationships with those people - they can only help me care for the people in my life now. Nothing to be gained by returning to old wounds.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:58 AM on September 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

The start of this story - the part that contains the entire relationship - is extremely vague. She was angry, you were dishonest, no further details. But then the part after the end of the relationship is many paragraphs long.

This makes me think that, despite you acknowledging that you were afraid of her, you actually haven’t really grappled with WHY this relationship failed and why it felt bad to be in it. You just keep trying to cram yourself back into a world where this relationship is amazing, but that world never actually existed.

Also, stop obsessively tracking how long since you’ve looked at her profile. Every day you do this is a day you’re reinforcing your obsession, because even if you’re not LOOKING, you are making a full-blown ritual out of NOT looking, which means she is still taking up huge amounts of brain space.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

You asked for kind words, so I will say that this sort of thing is really hard. Super hard human condition sort of stuff. It's great that you recognize verbal abuse is not ok and cannot be justified by the hurtful actions of others. All that does is create an infinite loop of hurt people hurting each other.

Part of moving on is owning your own actions and it stands out that you are trying to blame the person you cheated on/were shady/dishonest to for your actions that hurt them. It is, in a sense, the same thing she is doing to you--blaming you for her unkind actions towards you.

Forgive yourself for your hurtful actions and if you don't want to repeat this pattern, work on understanding why you made those choices before entering into future relationships.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:25 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

One of the thing that's almost universally true in unhealthy relationships is that both parties act in ways that they're not proud of.

This can be part of what makes it really hard to let go. Even if you know the other person has transgressed against you--as this angry and abusive woman has, and probably still would--you also feel the deep shame of the ways you transgressed against them. Wanting to fix the shame keeps people re-engaging. You write about wanting to be redeemed; that's where this is coming from.

Fixing this has nothing to do with interacting with your ex. It's about coming to terms with yourself. Forgiving yourself for making yourself vulnerable to such poor treatment; forgiving yourself for responding to her poor treatment by acting in ways that make you ashamed.

I often recommend Steven Stosny's writings when people are stuck in unhealthy relationship dynamics. Even though you're long since broken up, I think his approach, rooted in compassion and building up one's sense of self-value, would help you too. Living and Loving After Betrayal is for people who are out of a bad relationship. Betrayal doesn't have to mean cheating--there are lots of ways trust can be broken in relationship, as it surely was with her.

You're brave for asking the question and looking for good, healthy ways to grow past it. I hope this helps. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 12:03 PM on September 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

What I've been finding since my divorce last year is that some of the brainspace hijacking is a function of not having more recent (ideally pleasanter, but COVID's made that a bit of a challenge) thoughts and memories to work with.

Can you find a way to give yourself those?
posted by humbug at 12:21 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's like I'm hearing my ex talking. He also cheated, couldn't commit and blamed my anger towards his egregious behavior for our relationship not working out. You and others in this thread say her anger is not warranted no matter what. Let's ask for a moment if the same standards were applied to you could we say that you shouldn't have cheated no matter what? If the rationale is that she drove you to cheat could it be that your behavior and your blaming of her anger drove her to what you received as abusive behavior. Have you considered that you might have emotionally abused her too? I am not offering this perspective as unkind words but to say that until you undefensively accept your role, not in reaction to her behavior, but just as your actions you will not cope with your feelings.

Nthing the therapy suggestion because it will help you trace where your behavior and fear stem from. If you're a regular person like the rest of us it will likely take you back to your upbringing and experiences and patterns from earlier in your life. Your ex likely has her early life issues that made her be in a relationship that harmed her as well.

And finally these are not unkind words, although it's telling that you ask for them explicitly, it sounds like you want to be guilt free, you're reaching out in the hope that this time she wont be upset with you, so you can stop feeling bad, because that's what her not being angry would mean, - that you've not done anything too bad. Well, you did do something bad. If you want to atone for it leave her alone and work on yourself. At some point in the future when you can unconditionally acknowledge your actions without blaming her reach out and say so.

Defensiveness only keeps both of you locked in the same pattern. Yes she's also to blame, let her do her work, yours is not contingent on hers. If she was just unilaterally irresponsible towards you, look at why you put up with that.

My ex and I went no contact, I blocked all social media, it was the only way we could move forward.
Wish you luck, hope you find a good therapist.
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 10:46 PM on September 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

You seem to be really keen to make this all about her anger and gloss right over the fact that it seems like you cheated on her. In fact, you won’t even come out and say it...’dishonesty with another person...!’ Yeah, I bet she’s angry. And if you can’t even acknowledge your mistake under anonymity to us, I bet you haven’t done it to her either.

So, you know, you probably WON’T be redeeming this relationship anytime soon. You’re a cheater, she’s two are done. Go no contact from this point on. The best thing you can do is figure out how to learn from your mistakes and stop revisiting the past. Or if you do revisit it, at least take responsibility for your part to play in it and stop making it all about her angry emotions, in an effort to avoid thinking about what you did to actually cause that in her. I’m told therapy can help with this.
posted by Jubey at 11:41 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Google "How to heal from trauma bonding". What you described sounds very much like it. Don't ask me how i know this so well. Here's wishing you, and us, recovery. It's not going to be easy, but like what many have said here, lots of self-compassion and gentleness with yourself is needed. You can be the person for yourself whom she couldn't be.
posted by eustaciavye87 at 6:08 AM on September 28, 2020

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