How should I deal with this relationship "break"?
June 2, 2022 5:42 AM   Subscribe

For those who've followed my previous posts, this week I moved out of my boyfriends flat for a break, by mutual agreement. I've moved into a houseshare with 3 strangers, in their late 20s. We are still seeing each other, we both aren't sure what this break means. Towards the end of my stay, my boyfriend has been saying he'd like to take things forward and commit longterm and that I should move back in a few months. I've just moved out and feel incredibly alone and like I'm regressing. I'll explain further below but I'd appreciate some ideas and encouragement for how I should treat this time.

My room is a tip as I havent fully unpacked and it's reminding me of how I was before I met him, I was a mess. Didn't take care of myself, eat well, maintain personal hygiene etc. I'm terrified of regressing and sliding back.

Last night I ate cereal for dinner, because I didn't have the energy to make proper food and don't feel comfortable enough around my housemates. I also keep feeling incredibly sad that this feels like having a uni experience at 33 instead of 18. Feelings of loss are persistently there.

I'm so scared of sinking back into full on depression. I also feel like I'm experiencing the grief of a breakup, even though we haven't technically broken up and despite all my posts, I still want to be with him.

On top of this, I watched a live Linkedin webinar with his ex on a panel of doctors two days ago and finally saw with my own eyes all his praise of her was true. I know, I know, this is the last time. I've blocked her on everything now I've got my answer.

She was extremely calm,intelligent, authoritative, confident and articulate and performed the best on the panel, in my opinion. I can't speak publicly, neither am I as intelligent or articulate. It was simultaneously disheartening and weirdly empowering.

Its shifted everything for me about how he's spoken about her so highly and why he's persistently referred to us both as failures and why he described her as being extremely present and high functioning. I can see how he would have felt inadequate in comparison and how the loss of her would reverberate down the decades.

So now I know he wasn't lying, I can stop this internal sense of wanting to compete. Despite the initial despair and tears, I feel strangely calm now and much much more empathetic to my boyfriend; more inclined continue with him and work through things, more inclined to accept myself for where I'm at. Now she is not just a phantom, she's a real person who I've seen in action.

Anyway, back to the break. I don't have many friends and my sisters are all working through traumas of their own. I feel like there is no ground beneath my feet, he was my anchor. I feel like I'm right about to fall into another abyss, so much so that I took antidepressants again yesterday for the first time in ages.

I need a plan for how to deal with this time, where should I start, what should I do?
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (51 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like the first thing you should do is unpack your room. If that's too big then the first thing you should do is unpack one box, or even just take one thing out of one box. Prioritize taking care of yourself right now, and this sounds like a relatively straightforward and simple place to start. Make your space somewhere you like being or at least somewhere you know where all your stuff is.

Try not to beat yourself up about something like eating cereal for dinner. It's fine! Cereal is fine for any meal of the day! It wouldn't be ideal to live on cereal 24/7 because you'll want different nutrients and more variety than that, but there's nothing whatsoever wrong with saying "Ugh, I'm tired and don't feel like cooking today, I'm going to do something easy" and having a bowl of cereal. Heck, you could even plan ahead a bit more knowing you may have some more days like this coming up, and find one or two small ways to improve your No Energy Meal that will make you feel less bad about it. Can you keep some fruit around and slice a banana into your cereal or eat an apple with it? Throw some protein smoothies in the fridge to supplement your cereal with? Be nice to future you by giving her some low-effort options to have around.

If you have meds that you've been prescribed but haven't been taking, by all means, start taking your meds again! (If it's an old prescription and no one's currently prescribing for you then talking to your doctor to see if that's still the right med for you and getting an updated prescription would also be good self care.)

Take some baby steps toward developing some kind of life that's not just counting down the days for your break to be over. Getting to know your roommates a little seems like the low hanging fruit here but if that's not comfortable for you, cool - can you develop a daily walk routine or a weekly sit in the park or become a regular at a local coffee shop or the library? Literally anything that gets you out of your room and your head a little bit, maybe mixed in with a bit of social interaction even if it's just you being near other people is probably a good idea for you.

So that's the fairly obvious self-care stuff.

Beyond that the bigger questions: what is this break supposed to be for? Who initiated it? What are your ground rules for interaction during it? You don't need to tell us but the answers should inform what you do. And if you don't know the answers because no actual decisions were made about why you're doing this, then that's the first thing to address. I hope for your sake that this is a break for you to experience life without him around - but for that to happen you have to both take those baby steps out of your room and actually take a break from him. Stop talking with him, or if you can't do that, come up with some structured limits around it - maybe you'll check in with a call every other day, or once a week, or something, but in between you don't call or text because you're actually focusing on you. Even if you two do get back together it's not good for him to be your anchor; spend this time thinking about and trying out ways to anchor yourself and take care of yourself without him.

Also, you know this, but keep the ex blocked and stop checking up on her. She is not the problem, she has never been the problem, watching someone on a webinar tells you fuck-all about what they're like as a person, and you need to find a way to back off this fixation on her.
posted by Stacey at 6:11 AM on June 2, 2022 [41 favorites]

Also, you know this, but keep the ex blocked and stop checking up on her. She is not the problem, she has never been the problem, watching someone on a webinar tells you fuck-all about what they're like as a person, and you need to find a way to back off this fixation on her.

Repeating for emphasis, and also a general observation that if you want to improve your relationship with your boyfriend (and please think long and hard during this break about whether that is truly what is best for you long term), coming at it from the perspective of "Well no wonder he feels bad losing her, we both suck compared to her" is not a healthy mode to be in with a significant other and will only lead you to more stress and heartache. You can't move forward positively from a position of assuming you and your significant other are inferior human beings compared to someone you saw on a webinar. That helps neither of you, and is still engaging with her in a competitive spirit, with the added bonus of reinforcing your low self esteem issues. Just don't, please.
posted by nayantara at 6:46 AM on June 2, 2022 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Stacey, I appreciate it.

However, the webinar told me a lot. It featured a panel of 3 doctors talking about their experience of transitioning into health tech so it was quite personal.

Her ability to be so preternaturally calm and articulate speaking in public indicates high levels of self esteem. She was extremely present, just like my boyfriend said and had highly intelligent, articulate answers. Her career trajectory (she leads a team) shows ambition, drive and evidence of her being extremely high functioning, just like my boyfriend said.

My point is, I know now that he wasn't lying and that's why he's been so adamant and consistent over the years in his description of her.

Anyway, I've blocked her on all channels and I intend to keep it that way. I agree, it was never really about her but at the same time it was extremely useful to "see" her in person and it has released me back to focusing on my own life and where I am. Seeing her as so so different and successful has made me "give up the ghost" in a good way. She's no longer a phantom who I will endlessly dwell on.

I was using her as a proxy for my own pervasive sense of inadequacy and self loathing and its those things I need to work on.
posted by Sunflower88 at 6:50 AM on June 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I feel like there is no ground beneath my feet, he was my anchor. I feel like I'm right about to fall into another abyss, so much so that I took antidepressants again yesterday for the first time in ages."

I think you should work on becoming your own anchor. Taking antidepressants may be an important and healthy part of that journey.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:51 AM on June 2, 2022 [21 favorites]

we both aren't sure what this break means

It means you don't want to spend time with somebody who idolizes his ex and describes himself, and you, as failures. That's ok; this is an excellent reason not to spend time with somebody. It's an outstanding reason.

You will feel lonely and sad and tired for a while - that's how breakups feel sometimes, especially when you're breaking it off with the sort of emotional vampire you're describing - but that's OK too. Don't put yourself through the process of trying to "work it out" with somebody who treats you like ths, who makes you feel like this.

You're not describing an anchor, you're describing a ball and chain.
posted by mhoye at 6:55 AM on June 2, 2022 [50 favorites]

To start, congratulations on moving out! That must have been very hard to do, but you did it. Having a messy space after moving and eating a low effort meal when you're overwhelmed are pretty normal and human. It sounds like you are feeling like you took a step back in life, but from here, it looks like quite the opposite. It may not feel like it, but getting distance from this dude is, in my opinion, emphatically a step forward.

Now that you have some physical distance from this relationship, can you try to take some mental distance? More specifically, can you seriously devote some time to you and your own goals and desires? Leaving the guy and his ex completely out of it: think about what you want for yourself, and what you want from a partnership. Stacey's advice is great.

Ok, here comes the tough love. Kindly, and from experience: the guy used his ex to make you feel inferior, and now you're using her to make yourself feel inferior. It doesn't matter if his ex is literally Beyonce infused with the reincarnated souls of RBG and Marie Curie. It is SHITTY behavior to compare your partner unfavorably to your ex. It is even SHITTIER to make them feel like they will never measure up. How great she is is beside the point. Good partners don't make it feel like a contest, let alone one he makes you feel you lost. Good partners don't hack away at your self-esteem. Good partners boost you up, and show appreciation for what is special about you.

The prize in this gross contest is the esteem of a guy who treats you poorly. And the silver medal is that he doesn't esteem you, but he settles for you.
posted by prewar lemonade at 6:57 AM on June 2, 2022 [67 favorites]

How great she is is beside the point.

This, a million times. I cringe a little bit every time someone responds to one of your posts saying that your boyfriend's ex is probably not really that great or whatever because it just absolutely *does not matter* how great this woman is. The only reason she is anything to do with you is because your boyfriend was hung up on her to what sounds like an unhealthy extent, and now you are too.

It seems like now would be a really good time for you to pursue different/better treatment for your mental health issues. Not because you need to be "fixed" in order to be worthy or successful or whatever, but because your mental health issues are making you miserable.
posted by mskyle at 7:16 AM on June 2, 2022 [29 favorites]

I can't speak to much of this.

But, when it comes to competing, do remember that there's a reason they're an ex and you're not. I've dated brilliant, beautiful people who are more talented and successful than me in fields very close to my own. We're distant friends, and I admire them, but I would never want to date them again. (I expect the same is true for them.) I did/do want to date the people I have dated since. This may sound trite, but take the fact that your boyfriend was interested in someone objectively awesome and is now even more interested in you as a vote of confidence in your worth. Not that your worth depends on his vote, but it never hurts.

Taking a break and finding your footing isn't a bad idea. If the relationship is worth having, it'll survive a break for some contemplation and professional help. Sympathy and best wishes.

p.s. It's okay to eat cereal for dinner. Even when it's not motivated by exhaustion and emotional distress.
posted by eotvos at 7:28 AM on June 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

I remember your past questions though I didn't respond before as you'd received lots of good feedback. I just reviewed the ones about this boyfriend.

Please consider whether your relationship with this avoidant, bitter and cruelly 'honest' man is another symptom of your long-term struggle with self-esteem issues. I've done this myself, where I idealised someone who treated me poorly, because I felt uncomfortable with anyone who treated me well.

Long story short, getting away from that person was the first step in my life turning around.
posted by doornoise at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2022 [35 favorites]

Not that your worth depends on his vote, but it never hurts.

I think in this case it clearly is hurting a great deal.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:46 AM on June 2, 2022 [12 favorites]

You don't deserve to be punished for being you. You may want to be punished. That is an issue for therapy. But no, you do not deserve to be punished by this man simply for being alive and not his ex. Grieve, yes, but do not go back.
posted by kingdead at 8:06 AM on June 2, 2022 [20 favorites]

Take your meds, unpack your things. Make a valid attempt to take advantage of this break for your own health and safety.

Everybody goes a bit Goblin Mode when they are out of a situation where they're living right up against someone else, highly observed. I often cannot feed myself an adult-looking meal on my husband's gaming nights, not because I'm incapable of functioning without him but because my habits are all tied to feeding two people. If I make a moment's effort to plan my Wednesday night meals it's fine. You're just going to have to make a little bit of extra effort right now to take care of yourself. Falling apart a bit after a change in situation is normal, not an indicator that you have no choice but to return to him. Falling apart after semi-leaving an abusive relationship is also normal.

You cannot have a successful relationship with him if you can't have one with yourself, so if what it takes for now is convincing you to work really hard at your own stability and well-being so you can eventually get back together with him, okay. But I also think you should decide to take advantage of this book to read a book like Narcissistic Abuse and Codependency or The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist and companion book Worthy of Love.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:18 AM on June 2, 2022 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Your boyfriend sucks and is awful. I have been single for 18 years and I am beyond sick of it, and I still wouldn't want your boyfriend. He treats you like crap. I don't care about his ex. I don't care if she has a halo over her head and shits gold like a Lannister. I don't care if she's legit perfect perfect perfect or not. He's just holding her up as perfect to make you feel like shit and below him. He's negging you (look it up) so he feels on top and better than you and superior to you. If the ex is so perfect, go date her again, asshole. Every single thread you post is on this same topic of "she's so hiiiiiiiiiiigh above me" and your boyfriend being an asshole to you. I would bet money he treated his ex the same way he treats you, though. Whatever ex before that one was probably more perfect than she was, and whoever he dates after you will be told that Sunflower was so perfect. It sounds like his "thing" he pulls on women.

Please go to therapy. Get medical attention if you have to. Call a doctor or something.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:20 AM on June 2, 2022 [46 favorites]

Apologies, Sunflower88. In my comment above, I missed the "why he's persistently referred to us both as failures." That changes things from my original impression. Thanks to others for correcting me. Ignore my advice.
posted by eotvos at 8:21 AM on June 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Nothing in your post indicates anything about him. You are only considering going back because how truly scary this moment is. It's completely understandable! You are anchorless now, and I know from personal experience just how scary and awful that feels. I know from your previous posts that your family of origin didn't help you form the tools to get through this moment.

You are going to be ok. You are going to get through this and build the self confidence you need. You do not need to be in a relationship with someone who makes it harder, who wants you to stay in the difficult mental space you are in now.

You can do this! The advice here is great. You need to be compassionate to yourself in this moment and keep reaching out for help. You deserve real support. It's there for you. Keep reaching and asking for it from people who can provide it (not your ex) and it will be there.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:23 AM on June 2, 2022 [5 favorites]

She was extremely calm,intelligent, authoritative, confident and articulate and performed the best on the panel, in my opinion.

I cannot agree more with people who have pointed out that it DOESN'T MATTER if this woman is good or bad. And you clearly went into watching the webinar already convinced of her spectacular awesomeness.

I feel the need to say this because you seem to be extremely convinced of your inferiority to this person: Your opinion is biased. You can say that this person is just the best ever but that is not a fact. It is your very biased opinion. You are not an inherently inferior person to any one other person. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. You are playing a dangerous game and you are playing it only with yourself. This person you have been stalking is not even on the playing field. You can give her the gold medal in your mind and all but all that happens in reality is you are making up a story about how you are a loser who lost the game.

I need a plan for how to deal with this time, where should I start, what should I do?

Please start by actually trying to STOP treating your feelings as facts. All you are doing is abusing yourself. You need to stop playing this game for your own good.

If I were you, what I would do is cut off contact with the abusive ex. Break up for real.

I don't mean for any of this to sound harsh. I have read all of your questions and it really sucks to see you hurting yourself this way. Please try to take good and gentle care of yourself whatever you choose to do.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 8:28 AM on June 2, 2022 [7 favorites]

Hugs, this sounds tough. Agreeing with the above advice to focus on yourself and find small ways to improve your mood - unpack something here and there, even if it's just a little at a time.

Not sure where your music taste runs, but give this Dar Williams song a listen while you unpack a box. Oh, I'm not that petty, as cool as I am, I thought you'd know this already, I will not be afraid of women.
posted by the primroses were over at 9:17 AM on June 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Her ability to be so preternaturally calm and articulate speaking in public indicates high levels of self esteem.

Or maybe she's just a good a speaker. People can be good speakers, and even know that they are good speakers, and come across quite confident as a result, and still doubt themselves with regard to all sorts of other aspects of their person and life.

And honestly, I don't think a bit of self-doubt on occasion is always so bad. I don't want to get too philosphical here, but let's just say some people believe that doubt has its uses. But you obviously have too much of it, and suffer badly. And I suspect that's what you're getting out of idolizing this woman so much - this notion that it's possible to be perfect and have no reason to ever doubt yourself.

I really don't think it's possible though. No matter how functional, how accomplished, how present, people find reason to doubt themeselves. Sure, they may tell themselves, I tend to accomplish my goals, but are those the right ones? Or am I just in it for all the wrong reasons, hunting for pointless trophies? Didn't I pay too high a price? Fine, they may say, I am functional, but to what end? Isn't it almost betrayal, to be functional in such a dysfunctional system? Have I just turned myself into the best little cog in the machine? Shouldn't I rather be sand in the gears? And yes, they may conclude, I'm am present - because if I look back, I'm lost. Because I can't bear to look ahead. Because it will all come down crashing down any minute now.

No matter how hard you work, at the back of your mind, these questions can always show up. No matter what goals you have, you can't reach them, if you can't decide what you're willing to give up for them. And you can always question whether you were willing to give up too little or too much. Sometimes, you will feel that it was all worth it, and sometimes you'll feel it wasn't. And you can never know with 100% certainty which of those feelings is truer than the other. That's a hard truth to face, and this fantasy your boyfriend has sold you about this perfect woman, helps you both not to face it.

You two seem paralyzed by indecision. He can't fully commit to you, and you can't bring yourself to leave him for good. By not making a choice, you save yourself from the possibility of making the wrong one.

Some say that we tend to regret the things we didn't more than the things we did. I don't know about that, but I've often found that making a choice is better than forever waffling till time makes the choice for me. Even if my choice turns out be wrong - now at least I have new information. Ideally I have learned something. A bit of regret isn't the worst thing in the world; it's what will make the lesson stick. Regrets may be inevitable, but fear of regret can feel a lot worse than the actual regret. Regret is something that comes and passes, something you might even get over for good. Fear of regret keeps you in a constant hell of your own making.
posted by sohalt at 10:09 AM on June 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

Well, I can’t comment on your relationship or the ex issue, but I am in a similar situation. I recently posted a question about my breakup but we’ve actually decided to live apart for a bit and work things out. And it definitely just feels bad, and embarrassing, and shitty.

But I’m trying to take it as an opportunity. Living alone again is a chance to figure out your shit. You don’t have to be a person who can’t take care of yourself. You can be whoever you want now. And you can figure out what you want, and look at what was and wasn’t working about living together before you move forward with the relationship.

I think separation is a great compromise for a situation you feel ambivalent about. You can return to the relationship if you choose, but if you want to breakup, it’s now going to be easier. It’s going to be OK. Just focus now on finding some stability on your own, and then on figuring out what you want. You might end up being happier alone than you’d think!
posted by vanitas at 10:18 AM on June 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

You will feel better if you focus on moving forward without your boyfriend instead of being in this weird in-between status for any longer. You're scared of being alone, but trust me, it is better than what you've been going through with this dude who makes you feel inferior to his ex, who pressures you to cut yourself off from your family, and who doesn't even seem to be providing you with incredible sex to make up for it.

You have been focusing your entire life on how to be with him while I suspect he doesn't think much about you at all, and has certainly demonstrated unwillingness to change things in ways that would make you feel good. You will grieve the end of the relationship but it will be a huge relief, decrease your stress, and give you the space to build the sort of healthy life that you want.
posted by metasarah at 10:42 AM on June 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

despite all my posts, I still want to be with him

but why tho

I mean the thing about "despite all your posts" is that...there are A Lot of those posts. And in none of them do you ever even once say anything good about this guy!

The only good trait he seems to have is that he beats you up enough, emotionally, to make your self-loathing feel justified. I dunno about you but I've never seen "reproduces my parental abuse perfectly via a super-unhealthy fixation on his ex" on a Tinder profile under "What I'm Looking For."

Look this dude really did a heckin' number on your brain; he found (maybe by accident) a really satisfying weak spot in your personal schema and it created a really satisfying but super harmful loop for him, and also for you. I'm sure he's not actually like, a human monster--just a garden variety jackass. But he's unhealthy for you and probably you're unhealthy for him, too! Both of you keep each other from moving forward and establishing healthy self-worth. Neither of you really respects the other, or you wouldn't just call each other failures all the time! Neither of you really loves the other, or it would actually hurt you both to see the other one suffering like this.

You're just bad habits to each other. Time to kick it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2022 [37 favorites]

Start anywhere. Some suggestions of varying degrees of activity are unpacking your things, saying hello to your roommates, going for a walk around your new block, finding and attending a low stakes meetup group (eg drop-in board games, wine/beer tasting), hanging out a local coffee shop, buying groceries, going to the park, taking a shower and washing your hair, texting, messaging or phoning a friend, get a massage, get your nails done.

Start anchoring your life in the things that you do. Even if it's only tiny little anchors rather than ocean-going ship sized ones it will help.
posted by plonkee at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

On the question of what to do to get started in your new home, and to help you get centred on yourself and your needs (rather than your boyfriend and his ex): You might find You feel like shit helpful. It leads you through a series of steps, starting with very basic stuff like drinking a glass of water, and gradually steps you up to tidying your space a little, moving your body, etc.

It’s like putting your car into first gear to get it started and gradually stepping it up to get moving. It can help you rediscover your intrinsic, inner motivation to take care of yourself, rather than only being able to do it in the presence of other people. Maybe you can do it every day for a while.

Maybe you can look at taking your anti-depressants again as a positive step towards taking care of your mental health rather than a sign of failure. And if you’re not already, you sounds like you would really benefit enormously from therapy, however you make that happen.
posted by penguin pie at 11:21 AM on June 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As I recall, you're in therapy already, right Sunflower?

What does your therapist have to say about your relationship? About your boyfriend? About the ex? About your father?

You don't need to tell us if you don't want to, but I would be mighty surprised if your therapist doesn't agree somewhat or entirely with what we tell you here.

There is nothing embarrassing about needing to take medication. I take a lot of medication. (My boyfriend jokes that if you shook me I'd rattle.) That medication helps me be functional and take care of myself. Before medication I was a mess.

I feel like you have been using your boyfriend's "help" (meaning his constant belittling of you and making you his project) as a substitute for real self care. I feel like you think you deserve this because your family conditioned you to identify this kind of emotional abuse as normal.

The ex could be super awesome. You could have watched that webinar pre-biased (sounds like you did). She could just be really good at presenting herself publicly.

When I was at my worst, mental health-wise, I was depressed, crying in the bathroom at work, and suicidal. I was referred to an intensive outpatient program and had to take time off work. When I went to HR to tell them I needed to go on leave to attend to some health issues, they were shocked. My boss was shocked. My work performance, my contributions, my presence in meetings, gave them no indication that I was so unwell. They had no idea anything was wrong. I'm good at presenting myself, apparently, or masking, or whatever you want to call it. I'm not saying she's suicidal, but speaking well in a webinar is not at all indicative of some sort of inherent superiority.

But also, like others have said, it doesn't matter. She doesn't matter.

Make a life where you are your own anchor.

Please don't go back to this guy.
posted by nayantara at 12:28 PM on June 2, 2022 [12 favorites]

When our bodies get cut, they form a scab as we heal. Scabs ITCH like wild, which can make it really hard to heal what's underneath, because ALL we want to do is scratch that itch until we're satisfied. Emotional wounds can feel like this, too - just as they're beginning to heal, the only thing we can think of is how to soothe that itch, how much we want to do the exact thing that will rip that wound right back open.

This relationship has wounded you, deeply. You've made some great strides toward healing - moving out, taking your meds, blocking this ex, setting an intention to see her as human and not compare yourself to her anymore. What I hear in this post is that all-consuming itch, the desire to relieve the discomfort of healing. For what it's worth, I think what you should do is break up with this person, block them everywhere, and follow other good advice above on prioritizing your mental health and keeping busy. Your boyfriend wounded you emotionally, and could not or would not even fight in his own mind to stop wounding you, much less to help you heal - and you have no control over that. What you do have control over is your own actions: you can fight for *yourself* in this difficult moment, for your own healing.

For what it's worth, I think your boyfriend is dealing with his own emotional wound in continually bringing up his ex. If you feel empathy for his own suffering, remember that he's never going to get past it by using his partner as a tool to scratch that itch. If you want him to stop hurting, stop letting him hurt you, and send him off to figure his shit out on his own.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:35 PM on June 2, 2022 [7 favorites]

When I was young and the internet was still very new it was very easy to find someone’s email address because pretty much only people at universities had them and there were just public directories of them. At this time, I had a partner who was Very Hung Up on an ex. Like. Really in a very bad way about her. And because I was young I looked her up and wrote an email saying “hey, Partner is in a very bad way about you and talks about you constantly and I am really very concerned that Partner will never be happy without you.”

And you know what she wrote back? That when she was in my shoes, the *exact same dynamic was playing out.* She left because she was constantly being compared to the ex before her!! I was absolutely astounded because from the conversations, it had sounded to me like she was obviously the epitome of Everyone Ever and that she was literally the most perfect person to have ever been in anyone’s life. And she was pretty great! We corresponded briefly and I came away with a high opinion of her. But I also came away knowing that it wasn’t about her or me or literally anyone else except for our now mutual Ex. Because for him it was always going to be about the one that got away, and it was never going to be the person in front of him. It would always be about the qualities they possessed that we didn’t, but that those qualities would change with each iteration of relationship.

Your (soon to be, I hope) ex will be telling the next person how great and wonderful YOU were and how could she ever measure up to the wonderful Sunflower. I feel pretty confident about this because it’s now a red flag for me and I’ve broken up with a number of people because of it. I talk to other exes if we’re in the same social circle and it’s always the same story - the person before them was perfect. It’s ok when someone has a high opinion of their exes, and I think that’s great! But the instant they’re the one that got away, I Am Out. Because hey, at least now I get to be the one that got away…
posted by Bottlecap at 1:24 PM on June 2, 2022 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your comments. I'll try to look after myself during this break and see how it goes. I need to learn to love myself more, in all honesty I haven't been a great partner for him thus far too, as someone insightfully commented.

I constantly drone on about his ex when he mentioned her like 3 times, 3 years ago. But I can't let it go and it's unhealthy for both of us. He wants me to let it go, but somehow I can't. We have tapped into some kind of vicious wounding cycle of each other.

I am still in love with him, I obviously don't post good things here as I use this space as a sounding board for when things aren't going right. Just today we cooked dinner together and were dancing like loons to some great music, then we watched a funny film together. He brings a lot of lightness and joy to my life that I find totally lacking in my family of origin.

He brings me joy in many ways and I've had so many adventures with him. I've done so many things I otherwise wouldn't have done. I've grown in confidence in many ways since being with him, despite this ex issue.

We are paralysed by indecision. I think he now wants to be with me but my family presents an issue for him. I feel like I do want to be with him but I have thus far felt unable to get over the ex issue and feelings of inferiority.

Yes, I think he is still deeply wounded by this ex. He was depressed for years after the breakup and a year before I met him, he wrote a "life story" of which she featured in about was really just the story of their uni relationship and how it killed him when it ended, he got major injuries from a seizure caused by the stress of the breakup.

So when I get upset about his comments about his ex, he gets incredibly defensive and doubles down. I genuinely think and have suggested that he needs to go to therapy to process this time in his life.

Sorry this comment is so long. So much more I could say. He isn't a monster. Maybe we will work out. I just need to focus on myself during this break and see where it takes me.
posted by Sunflower88 at 1:44 PM on June 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

No, you don’t. You know how she is in public speaking. Which is very different from day to day life. I know I shouldn’t get in a back forth here, but really. I agree she may be absolutely phenomenal in this one aspect! But that isn’t her worth as a human being or how she is in all regards or anything of the sort. You have the tiniest sliver of a view into a single day where she was prepped and prepared for one specific thing. You got to see her at her shining best and now you think that’s all there is to know.

I don’t think this belief is serving you. It’s pretty objectively making you miserable. And if it’s true? SO WHAT. What would it change? Is she your cult leader now? Because otherwise she’s actually just a total stranger you have attached an immense amount of your own personal worth to.
posted by Bottlecap at 2:22 PM on June 2, 2022 [9 favorites]

You are fixating on this so you can continue to abuse yourself. Please stop.

If you want to become better at public speaking, focus on trying to improve your skills. If you have tried and feel hopeless, work on living with the fact that you aren't a natural at public speaking.

But this isn't about public speaking skills. This is about you being deeply unkind to yourself.

I want to say this gently: many many people have tried very hard to answer your question(s) honestly. Please take some time to go back through your history and read all of the advice you have been given rather than knee-jerk responding to people by stating that you are correct that this woman is better than you.

One more time: how would it feel to stop acting like your feelings are the holy objective truth?? How about if you are wrong about yourself and how terrible you think you are?? Self-flagellation for it's own sake is an unhealthy habit even if it feels comfortable and familiar.

Are you open to the idea that your feelings are not facts?
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: People who speak on panels in a professional capacity are normally self selected. They participate because they are used to and comfortable (enough) with public speaking, they are comfortable with a topic and they are used to engage in discussion on that topic…I do not specialise in public speaking but I have to do it occasionally and do it well enough when I do. That’s because know my stuff and can be relaxed and make it sound ok and discuss a range of different angles of my subject matter. All that means is that I have experience in my field and in presenting and I am not plagued by debilitating anxiety. If I couldn’t face presenting I’d refuse to get roped into doing it. The fact that I can do it does not make me a better or more deserving person than you.

You have started to seek help with your anxiety and had some success. That’s wonderful. But if your anxiety is still debilitating please go back to your doctor and get them to continue to tweak your meds and other treatment.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:52 PM on June 2, 2022 [8 favorites]

There are billions of people in the world, and chances are there is absolutely nothing about you that is not bested by somebody else.

Most of us can be a big fish in a little pond at *something* - never everything. And the bigger the pond gets, the worse we will be relative to the truly big fish. The star high school athlete is still nothing next to the olympian. Most olympians' names are not known 40 years later, let alone 100 years later.

Even if you are right and this ex is better than you at everything (though I'm not sure how any mere human could possibly measure that with any meaningful degree of... meaningfulness), who cares? Out of the billions of people in the world, she's just one of many who is better than you (by whatever messed-up measurement of 'better' you are using), and there many who then are better relatively than she is.

So the f*ck what?

All any of us can do is make the best with who we are what we have. It doesn't matter whether the person sitting next to me is Albert Einstein or the dimmest bulb ever, I'm still me. Being next to Einstein doesn't make me dumber, being next to someone stupid doesn't make me smarter. My brain is still my brain and it's up to me to decide how to live with it the best I can.

You have social anxiety (like many other people). This other random person who is connected to you only via your boyfriend's love life apparently does not (like many other people). If she woke up tomorrow terrified to speak in front of crowds, would that make your life any better? Would that make you a better person?

Measuring yourself against other people is senseless, whether they're your boyfriend's ex-girlfriends or not.

And if you think this ex is a threat because your boyfriend is somehow running his love life according to some mythical magical yardstick of measuring human beings (that he of all humans can access,) well, then she would have been in trouble anyway because guaranteed there is someone out there who is better at her things than she is.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:59 PM on June 2, 2022 [13 favorites]

Sunflower88, my heart is aching in real-time for you. Please, please read back your previous questions - you don't even need to read people's answers. What advice would you give to a friend who shared what you've been going through?

You are with someone who is uninterested in commitment but has let a "casual" relationship stretch on for three years, who aggravates your social anxiety and doesn't seem to show any interest in your emotional well-being, who has told you in no uncertain terms that he rejects your family and will reject you if you don't reject them as well, who has called you a failure, low functioning, not focused, inefficient and generally unreliable and unmotivated, whose response to your hurt over these statements is to say "it's true, you just need to accept it", who gets defensive over his own emotional baggage, who won't go to therapy himself.

He doesn't have to be a monster to be worth leaving, and YOU don't need to be HER to leave.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 3:03 PM on June 2, 2022 [14 favorites]

You: "I feel strangely calm now and ... more inclined to accept myself for where I'm at."


You: "how to deal with this time ... what should I do?"

In your update, you wrote that you enjoyed cooking dinner, dancing like a loon to music, and watching a funny film. So do that! Cook some more. Loon-dance more. Bring on the funny films.

You said your boyfriend introduced you to many adventures, things you would never have tried before. Keep doing those things, without him.
posted by vienna at 3:48 PM on June 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you are worthy of love. I think everything about you is worthy of love. Everything you say to convince me of how bad you are doesn’t sway my opinion that you are deeply worthy of love. If I knew you better, I would have even more reasons to find you worthy of love.

I don’t think you have a stream of failure behind you! I see that you have continued to persevere in some really hard situations that would make many people just curl up. And instead you kept going! You moved out to get some space when you needed it! Moving is so so hard! Look at how many questions on askme are about moving, about living with people, about finding somewhere. You have managed to do something phenomenal and have a great success RIGHT NOW. You are doing beautifully!

Having these kinds of punishing and ruminating thoughts is extraordinarily difficult, and I applaud that you have sought medication. Often people need to try several medications before they find one that helps them let go of obsessing over their own faults. I know I did.

You will not always feel this way. You need not worry. Just keep going forward and working at it. This mountain you are carrying will be something you set down. And you will see how deeply worthy of love you are.
posted by Bottlecap at 3:52 PM on June 2, 2022 [10 favorites]

I have a slightly different view of this issue about the ex. Yes your fixation is unhealthy, but I think the webinar moment could have a silver lining.

This sounds similar to how sometimes women post a picture on their fridge of a woman with the "ideal body", to motivate themselves. Every time they see the photo, it makes them feel goaded and insecure. They think it is good motivation to get that "bikini body" or "wedding figure".

One day, they realize that they will actually never get the body they see as ideal. Maybe they find out the woman in the photo exercises 3 hours per day or only eats 1300 calories and it is not achievable.

It is initially horrible, but then it is liberating. If the women can accept that they won't have that figure, now they can decide what to eat, how to exercise.

I actually think it is good that you accepted that your social anxiety may cause you to never be able to do public speaking, like the ex. That could be true! So now you can decide what you want to do (e.g. cooking, goofy dancing, etc).
posted by vienna at 4:06 PM on June 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think everyone has the fixation aspect covered, so I'm gonna offer you some suggestions in a different vein:
Can you volunteer at an animal shelter? I think that might help you practice giving and receiving a different kind of love and acceptance, and watching an animal develop a sense of peace after living in an abusive environment might help you do the same. I also think you have a lot to give, and being able to really revel in that side of yourself might help you see your life in a different light.

Can you take a community dance or martial arts or zumba or tai chi class? Sometimes connecting to one's body can really change our emotions, our relationships to ourselves, see ourselves as these gorgeous autonomous creatures rather than the outside casing for all our bad feelings. There are often free classes in local parks if cost is a factor, and many studios offer a free first class so the barrier to entry might be lower than you think.

You are very, very caught up on a specific cycle of thoughts, and you can't use the tools that cause the problem to solve the problem, too. You can't melt ice in a freezer. As a bonus, both these things might connect you to new people and communities, but even if they don't, they can help connect you to yourself.
posted by Charity Garfein at 5:28 PM on June 2, 2022 [7 favorites]

I really like the animal shelter volunteering idea.
posted by nayantara at 8:11 PM on June 2, 2022

Cereal for dinner? Pfft. In my household a pint of ice cream is an acceptable dinner. AKA be kind to yourself, cut yourself all the slack in the world.
posted by bendy at 10:14 PM on June 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

This merry go round you’re on is breaking my heart. I just want to add my voice to the chorus:

His ex is awesome; it’s irrelevant. She’s awesome despite having dated this guy who keeps his current girlfriend wrapped around his finger but makes her feel like she’s a failure and they, two failures, belong together. You don’t have to be a “success” to be successful. But you’re not setting yourself up for happiness or success by sticking with this guy.

Go forth and be whatever awesome is for you. A good start would be not hating yourself so damn much. Could you bring your post history to your therapist and see if they can turn it into a map out of this labyrinth?
posted by hollyholly at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

I haven’t read through your other posts on this topic in detail, so I apologize if this sounds flippant or has already been covered, but have you regularly been on antidepressants before and have you tried more than one kind? You really sound like me before I was regularly (like, for 7 years) on antidepressants. I could not get the foothold on reality I needed to pull myself out of the toxic cesspool that was my own rumination and so the only option I realistically had was to stay down there, completely submerged in it like I was on a 19th century day trip to Bath or something.

So, this ex is a doctor. Quite a lot of people are doctors, actually. They do lots of good and necessary work but it’s truly not that uncommon to be a doctor. Doctors, particularly specialists at big name universities, speak on panels as a pretty regular function of the research aspect of their jobs. It’s not super special in and of itself to be a doctor speaking on a panel.

At the end of the day, she’s just a person. She poops. She probably wishes she made more money. She’s been passed over for promotions. She spilled soup last week on her favourite dress and the dry cleaner can’t get it out. There’s an airline somewhere, at some point, that’s lost her luggage. She, too, probably has an asshole in her past who crumpled up her self worth like printer paper. Mostly, to you, she’s a person you’ve already spent way too much time thinking about because your former boyfriend is manipulative.

When you’re 82, do you want to look back and think, “Fuck, I spent a lot of time 49 years ago fixated on a woman I’d never met because that’s what some irrelevant dickhead told me was important” or “Fuck, I’m grateful for that day 49 years ago when I packed up my things and had the courage to start making my own choices and ate cereal for a few nights while I thought carefully, unencumbered for the first time by external pressure and what some man was telling me I should care about, about what it was I really wanted”?

Be proud of how damn far you’ve come. And carry that pride into tomorrow and the day after and just keep going. Keep. Going. It is the single most important thing you will ever do for yourself.

PS, cereal is awesome.
posted by oywiththepoodles at 11:11 PM on June 2, 2022 [11 favorites]

Does he talk about her or doesn't he?

On one hand,

I constantly drone on about his ex when he mentioned her like 3 times, 3 years ago. But I can't let it go and it's unhealthy for both of us. He wants me to let it go, but somehow I can't. We have tapped into some kind of vicious wounding cycle of each other.

So he doesn't talk about her.

But on the other fully laden, crushed-to-the-floor-under-the-weight-of-the-evidence hand,

So when I get upset about his comments about his ex, he gets incredibly defensive and doubles down. I genuinely think and have suggested that he needs to go to therapy to process this time in his life.

So he does talk about her?

There is also:

...a number of people have said that he would rave about any ex but its not true.

He has another ex he dated for a year (admittedly not the 4 years he was with "the" ex) and he barely ever talks about her. He even once mentioned she wasn't as organised as the first one.

So it seems he does talk about her.


So no, I genuinely do not think he compares every girl to his most recent ex and I don't think he would speak anywhere near as highly of me as he does his first love.

So yes, he does talk about her.

All the time.

He talks about her allllllll the tiiiiiiiiiiiime.

Can you consider making ending this break and returning to the relationship contingent on his going to therapy to process this time in his life?
posted by Don Pepino at 7:58 AM on June 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

His ex is awesome; it’s irrelevant. She’s awesome despite having dated this guy who keeps his current girlfriend wrapped around his finger but makes her feel like she’s a failure and they, two failures, belong together.

YES. This is what bothers me so much about your situation. The rumination is unhealthy and I know you know that. But you are now using this webinar as another cudgel against you and also seem to be finding empathy for your boyfriend who has declared that you both are failures? You are using a webinar as a reason to want to continue in a relationship with someone who thinks that you both suck?

As I said earlier, this is not a healthy dynamic for a relationship. Even if he doesn't talk about her anymore, do you see how miserable it would be to be in a relationship based on the idea that both you and your boyfriend are inferior beings compared to this person who you don't even know? Two people wallowing in self-pity and a determination that they will never amount to anything? This sounds like signing up for a lifetime of misery, continued self-loathing, continued self-esteem issues, and for what? Why do you want to be with someone who tells you that you are low functioning? You're not! Look at what you have overcome in your life? What is he even talking about?

This is some bullshit, is what this is, and no one deserves to feel this miserable in a relationship. If it's this hard, if you're coming here and asking this many questions about this guy, this is not worth it. It's really not. There is someone else out there who will love you for the strong, capable person that you are, that won't make you feel insecure and reinforce your existing self-loathing. Staying in this relationship is essentially you punishing yourself for your perceived inadequacies. As some have mentioned above, feelings aren't facts.

Cereal for dinner occasionally is awesome. Getting settled into a new place takes time. Try to befriend your housemates. Find activities to do that don't involve your boyfriend. I love the suggestion to volunteer at an animal shelter. Talk to other people, become a regular somewhere. I used to live down the street from a pub and I made so many friends there. So many. Just by sipping on a pint or two and making friendly conversation. I have social anxiety too, but atmospheres like that will help you loosen up and feel more comfortable around others.

Use this break as a way to learn how to move on.
posted by nayantara at 8:02 AM on June 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @DonPepino I am the one who brings her up, during almost every argument we've had. He hasn't voluntarily brought her up in over 2 years now. He only mentions her in response to me getting distressed and bringing her up.
posted by Sunflower88 at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2022

Hmm. Okay, the contradiction must be elsewhere, then. Perhaps it is this:

Does he want you to stop bringing her up or doesn't he?

On one hand,

He wants me to let it go, but somehow I can't.

"Somehow." Heh. Like, because of a flaw in your personality you can't. Not because of anything he might be doing; perish the thought. Anyway, to continue the construct, on the one hand, he keeps saying he doesn't want you to talk about her.

But on the other fully laden, crushed-to-the-floor-under-the-weight-of-the-evidence hand,

So when I get upset about his comments about his ex, he gets incredibly defensive and doubles down. I genuinely think and have suggested that he needs to go to therapy to process this time in his life.

Doubles down on praise of her? How is this not goading you to talk about her? In no world. This would be intolerable. He's goading you to keep talking about her and to keep comparing yourself to her.

There is also:

...a number of people have said that he would rave about any ex but its not true.

He has another ex he dated for a year (admittedly not the 4 years he was with "the" ex) and he barely ever talks about her. He even once mentioned she wasn't as organised as the first one.

So it seems he does encourage you to talk about her because whenever you do, he reacts in a way that makes it very difficult for you to relax and trust that he's committed to you and not constantly comparing you to her.


So no, I genuinely do not think he compares every girl to his most recent ex and I don't think he would speak anywhere near as highly of me as he does his first love.

So he's clearly not speaking highly of you in your presence, then. Which is... well. It's basically he's cheating on you with the ghost of his girlfriend. He's depriving present you, his current girlfriend, or at least his most recent girlfriend, before this healthy break, of the love he offers absent her, his former girlfriend. This only encourages your obsession with her, which, what? Makes it very likely you'll continue to talk about her.

If he wants you to stop comparing yourself to her, he should probably quit comparing you to her, himself. But he's not, so methinks the boyfriend doth protest too much.

The purpose of the system is what it does. Something about this miserable, abusive, imprisoning system the two of you have built for each other works for you both. Until it becomes more painful than it is satisfying for one of you, you will go on waiting for Godot.

Whenever I find myself in one of these, it doesn't seem to matter how sick of it I get, I can't seem to end it myself. I always have to wait until the bad boyfriend in question gets sick of it. So I suffer needlessly for years until the boyfriend finally has mercy on both of us and calls it and leaves. I'm really hoping for your sake you're not like me and can kick out of this trap and go on to live your life.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:02 AM on June 3, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @DonPepino, yes recently he admitted that "it's like he cheated on me once, and I need to decide whether I can still be with him or can't. But that he can't deal with me bringing it up every week in an argument" - that's more or less verbatim.

I'm still in love with him. I can have deep intellectual conversations with him in ways I haven't been able to with other men I've known. He's smart and thoughtful.
posted by Sunflower88 at 12:19 PM on June 3, 2022

Response by poster: I actually did have a phone date a year ago with a guy, I've met a few old guy friends who were single and honestly they all depressed me and made me run back to my boyfriend. A lot of men just aren't on the same intellectual level and I don't think I'd feel as ambitious or driven to do better if I was with them, and I think i need that.
posted by Sunflower88 at 12:48 PM on June 3, 2022

Response by poster: Oh and also he said the reason he refuses to praise me or put her down during those arguments is because he feels I'm attacking him and I have never approached it in the right way and that now it's just so fraught he doesn't feel able to. He praises me otherwise, but never in relation to his ex, which is what I feel I really need.

I even directly, last argument, said that if he could just say one thing about me better than the ex , I would let it be. He said that's just weird and insulting and he's not going to do it, because he knows it will not stop me being obsessed. He also thinks I'm pathologically jealous and genuinely doesn't seem to understand my reaction.

Anyway since watching the webinar I'm over it.
posted by Sunflower88 at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2022

For those of us with a history of trauma, especially developmental trauma or domestic abuse, there can be a tendency to get into situations that mirror those original traumas over and over again. Part of it is that it's what feels familiar to us - it feels safe in some ways b/c it's what we know. Also, if you are used to being in environments that cause intense stress, that make you feel bad about yourself, your brain sort of automatically looks for ways to recreate it. It can be very hard to become unstuck from those patterns.

I feel like that may be at least part of what is happening here. Your boyfriend - by comparing you unfavorably with that ex - is confirming the negative self beliefs you have. Part of you may hope that if you can just get your boyfriend to say something positive about you in relation with your ex, maybe it will make all those self doubts go away. Another part of you may not want to break out of this pattern because it feels "right" - it feels like what you deserve.

But this isn't what you deserve. You deserve so much better than this. I know you may love him, but just because you love him, that doesn't mean he's the right person for you. Honestly, it sounds like he really needs to do some work on himself before he's ready to be in a relationship with another person. It sounds like you are in that boat as well. (No shame - I'm in the same boat too. It will probably take me several more years of therapy before I feel stable enough, before I've learned to love myself enough, to feel like I'm ready to engage in a relationship in a healthy way.)

I don't think this is a good relationship for you. And I think it's serving to distract you from focusing on yourself and the things you need to do to be healthy and happy. I'm just a random internet stranger, but I want better for you. And I hope you get to a place where you want something better for yourself as well.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:56 PM on June 3, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Thank you all. I have made us getting back together contingent on him getting therapy
posted by Sunflower88 at 7:58 PM on June 3, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have made us getting back together contingent on him getting therapy.

I'm happy to hear that you are taking care of yourself by setting this reasonable boundary. You are so worth it!
posted by virago at 6:08 AM on June 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

hey i just read Attached and I think it could potentially be helpful to you. It really helped me ground some of my unhealthy perspectives and learn more about myself and where my unhealthy instincts come from. Regardless of what you do with this guy, I think this book could be helpful.
posted by monologish at 8:10 PM on June 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

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