Obsessing over ancient history
July 25, 2006 6:51 PM   Subscribe

I can't understand why I'm still thinking about a very ex-boyfriend.

I've been with the same man for ten years, married to him for seven. Prior to that I dated a guy for a whopping ten months. It was a silly relationship -- I was eighteen and he was 21 and very neurotic. He constantly accused me of sleeping around on him, and threw hissy fits if I chose to spend time with friends, especially male friends, instead of him. We purchased a bed together although we never lived together, and he got me a kitten and talked about us getting married and having kids and how much he loved me, when all I wanted was a casual relationship and plenty of sex.

I finally broke it off when I went to a party with my roommates and he turned up at the same party and followed me around verbally abusing me and making us both look ridiculous. I broke up with him then and there and he turned up in his car to my place that same night, before I could get home on the bus, and tried to carry off the aforementioned queen-sized bed and all the clothes and things he'd bought me. He called me a user and various other names, but the "user" one particularly stuck with me. I never thought that I used him, but for ages after that I was constantly worrying whether I was too willing to accept all the things he bought me. I made sure to pay him for his share of the bed, which I kept. Even now as a stay-at-home mother I worry that I'm taking advantage of my husband.

My husband and I recently moved back to the city where I had lived when I dated the ex, and I often feel anxious that I might bump into him in public, and what he will think of me if I do, and how I would act and how he would act, and whether he still thinks I used him or whether it was a word used in anger.

Should I really be worrying about this? I mean, I'm guessing not but do other people worry like this about something that should be history? Is there something I can do to stop worrying about meeting someone who shouldn't have any impact on my current life? Sometimes I check how I look before going shopping because if I see him that day, I want to look good, not because I still care about him romantically but because I need to somehow prove myself to him. Ack.

Help me to stop thinking about someone I don't particularly like, as well as stop doubting myself.

Any questions, please email me at obsessed_or_not@yahoo.com.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you still have contact with him? Would it be weird if you arranged a meeting? Lunch or something? Then you can stop running around your city, worried you're going to run into him. You were both very young- I imagine he's changed a lot in 10 years, hopefully for the better. Perhaps catching up on who he is now will allow you to have some closure.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:00 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think this is quite normal. If you meet him he'll be older and fatter and it'll be quite awkward and then you'll have an enormous sense of relief and forget about it.

If the subtext is that you feel slightly guilty about what you did, well, you were very young then and so was he, and really at this point nothing should be held against either of you.

If you bump into him, have a coffee and a few laughs and a wry smile and it'll be fine. He's probably thought about all this much less than you have, strange as it sounds.
posted by unSane at 7:12 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

You're actually suggesting she get together with an ex she's thinking about all the time --- did you read that she is married?

If you didn't notice that - ok, party foul.

If you did, then I disagree with you. Very, very strongly.

I think I'm pretty secure and I've learned not to be irrationally jealous/worried, but if my wife (were I married) met up with a guy she dated ages ago and has been thinking about ever since, I would have serious reservations.
posted by twiggy at 7:13 PM on July 25, 2006

I'd vote that you meet him. I do this sort of thing myself — think a lot about people from the past and get this whole soap opera going in my head. And then I see the person and the whole mental state I've worked up about him or her just... deflates.

But I'd be leery about giving this guy contact info for you. You never know, he may have gone downhill mentally since you last saw him.
posted by orange swan at 7:18 PM on July 25, 2006

Alternatively, if it's not possible or doesn't seem advisable to meet this guy, try setting yourself an assignment to write about him every day for a month. Write down everything you think and feel about him. By the end of the month you'll be sick of the very thought of him and will delete the file from your computer with a sigh of relief.
posted by orange swan at 7:20 PM on July 25, 2006

twiggy, she says she's not attracted to him anymore- sounds more like she feels bad about how things went down between them. What exactly is going to happen- they're gonna jump on the lunch table and start doing the nasty? I doubt it. They'll probably chat about life, find they're both happy, have nothing in common anymore, and that'll be the end of it. If they *don't* meet, she's more likely to keep obsessing about it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:27 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think it's natural and normal to think about people you have cared about, even if it's been years since you've seen them, and even if the relationship ended badly. I still think about women I dated in college, and that was more than 30 years ago.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:39 PM on July 25, 2006

I totally disagree about meeting him.

I have had this boyfriend before- in fact our stories are much alike, except mine still emails me "updates" about what he is doing- three years later- even though I have never responded.

Here is a guy that verbally abused her in front of others and was controlling. He said those things to you at the end of the relationship to make you feel guilty and to try and get you to stay. He was only half successful, but please understand that seeing him will only give him a misguided glimmer of hope that he can still control you in some way. You are not a user- he is a creep who doesn't understand how to accept responsibility or hear the words, "It's over!"

This guy has gotten to you for too long. Forget about him, and if you ever run into him ignore him, or at the most, smile, wave, and walk away. Even if he has grown up, it isn't worth it.
posted by haplesschild at 7:46 PM on July 25, 2006

My guess: He became a pain in your neck with his control freak behavior, and when you finally couldn't take it anymore and called it quits, he did his best to control the situation by making you doubt yourself and your motives. (Were you "too willing" to take his presents? What is "too willing"? Supposedly people give you presents because they want to, not because they're buying you or your behavior.)

In other words, he got under your skin, and the concept of running into him brings up fear that if you do, he'll make you feel bad again. Try to remember that you were young and malleable (weren't we all?). Now you're older and more experienced, and if he tried that kind of behavior now, you'd see it for what it is, an attempt to control how you behave by making you doubt yourself. He has no power over you. It's completely irrelevant if you run into him, because he's nothing and no-one. :) Let it go.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 7:47 PM on July 25, 2006

Not the exact same situation, but I often find myself romanticizing memories of an old flame. The guy wasn't even that great! He was kind of a pain, and argumentative, now that I really think about it. So you're not the only one. I also worry that I'll run into him and have to hide behind something in the grocery store because I've gained weight since then. Crazy.
posted by theredpen at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2006

If it helps at all, I know exactly how you feel, right down to obsessing over that one last accusation he hurled at me.

Meeting up with him? Well, I couldn't do it. Hearing him say "I'm sorry I was an asshole all those years ago" wouldn't take away the hurt and self-doubt he caused. But maybe hearing an apology would help you.

And if he still is an asshole, well, then it's good that there's distance between you.

And trying to "let it go" doesn't help. If you could just let it go, you would have. I feel a little better knowing I'm not the only person out there who let someone get under her skin and now can't get him out.

I guess what it comes down to is figuring out whether it's something from him that you need to get over it, or something within you.

For me, there's no apology or explanation from him that would make me feel better. I was young and foolish, and now I know better than to get involved with someone who would wildly come to such bullshit conclusions about what kind of person I am. It helps that I've realized that now.

Figure out what life lesson, small or large, there was to be learned from that hurtful exchange you had with him, then recast that memory in its proper life experience context (you know, in the "older guys think they totally know everything about how their younger girlfriends' minds work, but really they're just full of shit, and now I know that" category). Doesn't mean it wasn't a crappy experience -- just one that helped you move forward to where you are now.

And I'd still run and hide if I saw him.
posted by katieinshoes at 8:25 PM on July 25, 2006

Sometimes things just happen to catch your subconscious just right, and you end up with a jagged piece of metal jammed into your brain. You were at a time in your life when you were struggling to make your own way in the world. I'm sure every expense weighed on you, and yes it was a relief to have someone share it. It's such a precarious thing - and what he said to you highlighted all that. Made you doubt yourself.

Everyone has a few of these pivotal moments where someone else seems to have this insight into you that makes you reassess your own motives and outlooks. The emotional effect of this has carried with you for ten years. Your life is radically different, and yet you still feel like that same girl when you think about this. This is a matter of context and timing and then the weight of too much worrying. I seriously doubt it says anything about your character.

There are two ways to handle this, one is to pull out that jagged piece of metal. This would involve either meeting this guy and hashing things out, or working very very hard to cultivate a 'aww, fuck it' attitude. Whenever you think of him, summon up with all your will power an image of your life as it is, and push aside what happened a decade ago. You need to hold that moment of separation in your mind and make a decision that you're cutting off your guilt about what happened, whether or not there was any truth to it at the time. I'm not saying to get angry or anything, just to finally make a decision to not wallow in thoughts about him when they come up. Because you've got to admit, there is some sick sort of pleasure we all get out of picking at our scabs.

The other option is to keep building up scar tissue around this wound. Obviously, you're a functional individual with a decent life. Doesn't this get better on its own every year? With this option you keep making your gradual peace with what happened. But it's clearly taking a long time. It's sort of the path that you're currently on, and you're clearly not happy with how that's working.

Best of luck ... I'm haunted by my own ghosts, but unfortunately most of mine are of my own making instead of externally imposed.
posted by voidcontext at 8:26 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

twiggy, she says she's not attracted to him anymore-

The problem is, this statement can't really be taken at face value and the fact that this post was even made lends credence to the possibility that the statement is not true. It's also wholly possible that the poster believes the statement to be true even though it is not. Denial ain't just a river in egypt.

We don't obsess over people we don't have some attraction to -- even if that attraction is an unhealthy and morbid one.

Call me crazy, etc, but even if you disagree with the above -- I still think it's disrespectful to one's spouse to go and intentionally meet up with an old flame.
posted by twiggy at 8:52 PM on July 25, 2006

twiggy, maybe you're a romantic, and think that love never dies, even after 10 years apart, but I'm bit more a realist (pessimist?). Old flames are generally old flames for a reason. Just because she's thinking about him doesn't mean she's going to cheat on her husband. It would be disrespectful if Anonymous lied about or hid the visit from her husband, but what's wrong with a friendly visit?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:10 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I totally disagree about meeting him.

Me too, in spades, and I find it hard to believe some people think that's a good idea. Best outcome: mildly interesting chat with somebody you used to know. Worst outcome: Boyfriend From Hell Part II: The Revenge. For all you know, this guy's been nursing a grudge all these years and would just love a chance to get back on the bitch who stole his stuff and ruined his life. (No, for god's sake, of course that's not how any sane person would look at it, but that's how a resentful loser might look at it.) Unlikely? Sure, but why take the chance? She's trying to get him out of her mind, not restore him to her life.
posted by languagehat at 6:30 AM on July 26, 2006

Whenever I am run down, tired, anxious, or having a bit of a mild depressive slip, my brain proceeds to pound the crap out of me with reminders of my stupidest relationship.

So maybe it's not actually about him at all. You've just moved, which suggests various life changes, which are usually stressful, and the only reason it's that particular situation that's coming back to bother you is that he does or may live in the area. Do you even know for sure that he lives there?

Whatever the mechanism in your head right now, the guy manipulated you quite a bit and then turned around and blamed you for being manipulated, which will leave a few scars. Unless he's still not stable, he's probably had a few good cringes about that time himself, and he's over it. Even if he's not, it's okay for you to be. You may have to actually practice letting it go - when he pops into your head, do a little inventory to see if he's really the most pressing concern you have at the moment.

Almost everyone has a few crappy relationships before they learn how to have a good one, so come to see it as a necessary lesson (which I think it is, and I think a lot of women have one like that at some point) that is over now.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:40 AM on July 26, 2006

How about changing your attitude about him from one where you worry about your behavior to one of pure scorn? Like this: you didn't use him -- he's a jerk, and he just gave you gifts so he could hold it against you later, the bastard. Personally, I like to fantasize about running into loser exes and giving them nothing more than a cold stare before turning away in silence. Wouldn't it be more fun to run into him that way than to spend your time worrying about what he might still think? Since you don't want anything more to do with him anyway, why not just decide everything was his jerkass fault and that he's totally beneath your notice? Foster some anger. It could be fun.
posted by JanetLand at 7:12 AM on July 26, 2006

You may have been a dumb-ass when you were 18. You can think hard and try and determine if this was the case or not. If it was, that was a long time ago, so does it really matter? Are you anything like the person you were when you were 18? You don't need to prove anything to anyone but yourself.
posted by chunking express at 7:20 AM on July 26, 2006

I can relate to the fact that you've lingered on a single detail in the breakup -- any breakup is emotionally trying, and it's easy to fixate on things that you believe could be faults instead of remembering the truth, that you were dating an abusive, posessive jerk.

You didn't "use" anyone. If you thought it was a casual relationship and he didn't, then it means you may have had a communication gap. It could also mean that no matter what you voiced at the time, he wasn't willing to listen. That's a dead giveaway that he was not someone you wanted to be dating.

The solution is to be upfront and honest with your husband about your marriage. If you can look him in the eye and tell him how you feel about your life together, and have an honest understanding, then you know that no one is being "used." Be secure in what you have.
posted by mikeh at 7:46 AM on July 26, 2006

I think you should meet him, with your husband along with you.
I think you'll discover that a comparison in the harsh light of day and face-to-face reality will lead you to the conclusion that the long-ago-ex is a douchebag and your husband is a great catch.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:56 AM on July 26, 2006

Does he still live in your town? Have you checked the phone book and google? He may have moved and this might all have been for nothing. Or perhaps he's just moved on to making another woman miserable.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:13 AM on July 26, 2006

I had one of these, with nearly the same judgment placed on me. He said he acted jealous because he knew I was never going to stay with him, so he was just waiting for the thing that pulled me away. (One of those things that set him off was a brief conversation with a 70-year-old man!)

I journaled about it, talked with one or two understanding friends, and did some serious thinking about what MY part was in the mess. I knew I didn't make him act crazy, but what did I do?

Finally, one night, it just dawned on me that he was right. I wasn't exactly conscious of it, and I was so lonely at the time that I wanted the thing to work, but I really didn't think we'd be together forever. I was dishonest with him and myself when I kept saying the romantic stuff about being together forever. Of course, I said these things to calm his jealousy, rather than because I really felt them.

So, from that realization I created a vision of a scenario in which we'd meet by accident and I'd take responsibility for MY part of the mess. Now I know what my motive is if we ever bump into each other. And I feel like I've gotten as close as possible to understanding the truth of what happened. I haven't really thought about him since that night.
posted by aimless at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2006

Yeah, go and meet someone who was abusive then and give him ammunition for a "She never forgot me!" stalker delusion. That'll end well.
Maybe he's better now. Maybe he's not. Being an adult means that sometimes you run into people you don't want to see.
posted by klangklangston at 9:04 AM on July 26, 2006

Do you agree with the poster who said it might have some origins in fear? You might try reassuring yourself that you never have to see him again. Even if you saw him, you would never even give him a chance to say anything horrible. This has worked for me when I've been obsessed with someone who was mean to me.

By the way, you are not a "user." A user would not even be wondering if she was one. She would be too busy thinking, "maybe if I wear my skimpy blouse, and tell him I love him better than Gustav, and make my pouty face, he'll drive me and my friends to the mall and buy me that Versace diamond tennis bracelet. And take me out to dinner. No, no, I should get Gustav to take me out to dinner..." No time for self-assessment when you're a user. ;-)
posted by beatrice at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2006

I wouldn't be terribly worried in your situation about revenge or any such thing - I'd assume he'd moved on in the last ten years. Not unreasonable, but not certain, of course.

I'm dating an extraordinary, marvelous woman - a long time now - but of course every once in a while I have unexpected, complicated thoughts about XGF's. Even the ones I objectively can't stand. And seeing them doesn't settle things, doesn't eliminate thoughts (e.g. 'Why did it all go wrong? Is it a comment on me? On her? On love? Am I capable of having another relationship that long?'), but what seeing them does is take the edge of wrongness off of the wondering. i.e. When it's just me thinking about the past and not wanting to talk to my girlfriend about it, I feel guilty; when my girlfriend and I are able to discuss what I'm wondering, it's off my chest, and by and large doesn't stay with her for long at all. That kind of exchange is part of what you got into a committed relationship for, right? The emotional stabilization?

I say meet the motherfucker, be pleased at how much you've moved on, and treat your concerns and inklings at face value. But for God's sake stop worrying about impressing him or anyone else. That urge just wears out your machinery after a while, and it serves no creative impulse whatsoever.

Hell, you could invite him to hang out with you and your husband. Though if you bring it up to hubby and he doesn't want to hang out with the XGF, that'd be awkward. Maybe just talking to hubby about it could clarify for you what it is you want out of the meeting. He knows you better than we do, of course.
posted by waxbanks at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2006

I read your description and how it's impacted your relationship with your husband and this is what comes to my mind: PTSD.

I wouldn't have anything to do with this abuser if I were you. He may have just been a garden variety asshole whackjob who caught you at a impressionable time in your life, but what are you going to get out of seeing him again?

I know it'll set of certain whiners but I say, given that you have now carried this around for a decade, get some therapy or speak to your clergyman or whatever.

You have one of the most exhausting jobs there is - being a stay at home mom - and you worry you're somehow taking advantage of your husband? You're the exact opposite of a user: a mother. If you can't make yourself believe that then get some assistance in helping to believe it.
posted by phearlez at 2:15 PM on July 26, 2006

I not-too-long-ago met up for drinks with an old flame and wow, was it surprising. I moved to the city where I knew she lives about two years ago, and for the first year or so I had anxiety every time I went out that I might run into her. I never did, but I wasn't as outgoing as I might have been and definitely avoided certain places where I knew (by her myspace profile) she went. Also, whenever I made new friends I had some anxiety that maybe they knew her too.

Well, I got over most of that, went on with my life, established my social life, but still had some nagging issues about being in the same city as she, so decided to just be a grownup about it and have a drink with her. Her life had taken some very surprising turns and that meeting was nothing that I expected. I was able to walk away from that bar completely at peace.

My situation was different in that she was never cruel to me, although our relationship did end very traumatically and I was very badly hurt and didn't date anyone else for years afterwards. YMMV.

One thing (and some others have mentioned this) that might solve this whole thing is just looking him up to find out if he is, in fact, still living in that city. From your post it seems that you don't even know that much.
posted by palegirl at 6:48 AM on July 27, 2006

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