Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was broken up with almost a year ago and I still feel so sad and heartbroken. I’m 28 but it was my first significant romantic relationship. It ended over a single, somewhat vague text (bad on his part) and I was way too aggressive about trying to find some way to talk things over and stay friends even after he made it clear he was done with me (bad on my part). We run into each other all the time and he completely ignores me, which kills me but I really do wish him the best and he’s told me that he finds me exhausting and pathetic at this point, so I try to avoid him as much as possible.
I feel like I did everything right last year to try and get over it. I let myself grieve, I reached out to my friends and made a couple of new ones along the way, I excelled professionally, I focused on creative pursuits that I find satisfying, I redoubled my volunteer efforts in my community, I travelled on my own, I exercised a lot, and I got antidepressants and therapy as needed. Nothing really seems to be working.
I’m tired of all the breakup advice out there that says I just don’t love myself enough, or reminding me not to want a relationship too much because it won’t be perfect or it won’t solve all my problems. I had a very lonely and chaotic childhood so, yes, I struggle with self-esteem, but people in happy relationships do too sometimes. Of course I occasionally felt misunderstood or disappointed while dating and of course I still had issues at work, with friends, with my health. But I really loved him and I just felt a little bit more confident and a little bit less alone in the world when I was with this person.
How do I actually move on? What am I doing wrong? What am I missing?
Dear Still Sad,
I spent most of my dating life being broken up with. Break ups suck, but most of them could be sorted through the judicious use of friends, bitching, Häagen-Dazs, and time. But I was only really in love with one of those former boyfriends, and that break up felt as though my world was burning down. It felt as though my world was burning down for a long, long time. I’ve talked about this break up before because it’s such a significant touchstone in my life. There was a before — together, in love — and an after — alone, grieving the death of love.
This guy, your ex, sounds like the worst, by the way. Mean and moody and gross. Self-important enough to mistake your attempts at getting a clear reason for your breakup as you stalking him, infantile enough to just pretend you don’t exist when he sees you in public, which, by the way, is a way of indicating that you very much do exist. So let’s establish that you don’t miss him. Instead, what you miss is being in love.
Love, especially new love, is a wonder drug. It fills your life with color and makes something as small as watching a movie on the couch together seem to be a very important and noble event. It adds richness to experience. It also, scientifically speaking, gets you high as fuck. You were in love and it was wonderful, but now you’re now back to your normal life, sans that new love glow, and everything seems drab and dull by comparison.
Love has a life force, it wants to live. I remember, in the depths of that terrible breakup, driving home from work. I was driving down the highway, it was a grey fall day, and I was sobbing. I hadn’t seen my ex in weeks but the pain was still so sharp. I felt as though I was trying to kill my love for my ex while it was struggling to survive. When I felt strong I would block his number and email address so he couldn’t reach me because each time he did it was like someone cut off a limb. When I felt weak I imagined him showing up at my apartment with an engagement ring and I called my sister, begging her to talk me out of calling him. I imagined the love as a small, doe-eyed animal and myself crying as I hold a pillow over its face.
Losing love feels like losing life.
Here’s something you haven’t tried yet: self-compassion. You’re lonely, you’re grieving, you’re not done with the healing process yet. And that’s completely fine. It usually takes longer than the relationship itself to recover from it and then, really, you’re never actually completely clear of it. We all still Google our exes. We all still wonder how they’re doing. We all still remember the good times. We’re all still salty about the bad times. The difference is that, over time, those feelings become more and more compartmentalized as the past recedes into the distance. You store those feelings in a memory box inside of yourself and you only visit it on melancholy afternoons or when a potent memory surfaces due to a song, or a smell, or a certain bend of the light. You open the box and remember those feelings from back then, so long ago, when you were a different you. And then you close the box, and go forward.
The truth is that the end of love is transformative and transformation hurts. You don’t remake your life in an afternoon, despite what all the home makeover shows would have you believe. Change is profound and uncomfortable. You are changing, and it sucks.
When I was in the process of recovering from my breakup, I spent so many evenings by myself, lonely, wondering when the pain would end. It was like walking through a dark valley and I didn’t know how to climb out. I forced myself to go to therapy, to see friends, to make new friends, to make dating profiles, to meet strange men who I was in no way equipped to actually date. Now, sitting in my living room with my husband, surrounded by spit-covered toys, my lukewarm coffee because the needs of my children always peak whenever I have a hot cup of coffee, being alone in a small apartment and gently recovering from a breakup seems rather lovely and romantic. And that’s because I’ve forgotten cold panic and the stretching loneliness of being newly single. I have to work to remember the bad days — getting dressed up on a Valentine’s day where I had no plans and going to a bookstore across the street from my apartment. They sold wine at this bookstore, and I ordered a glass and sat in their cafe with my journal and tried to write, to use my boring lonely pain to some positive end, to feel important and noble and brave. To act as though I was a heroine in some French novel. But I barely wrote, I felt so phony the whole time. After only 40 minutes I was so uncomfortable that I slunk back to my apartment.
You’re asking “what do I have to do to get over this pain?” and the answer is, “go through it.” You’re searching desperately for ways around the pain and you’re frustrated because you already know the truth: There is no shortcut.
What you can do is adjust your focus. Focus on forgiveness. Forgive yourself for still hurting. Know that when love leaves, a scorch mark stays behind. Wounds heal but we still have scars — the same is true of love. Focus on your growth — what have you learned as a result of this relationship gone wrong? What will you never put up with again? What mistake will you never make again? How have you changed in the wake of this relationship? Focus on where you are now: Being single is far preferable to being in a bad relationship, and, despite how it feels, is also the best way to get into a good relationship.
It’s hard not to see a breakup as a poor reflection on your character. So reframe this breakup: The overwhelming majority of us are not suited to be in long-term relationships with the overwhelming majority of the rest of us. It didn’t work out not because of some flaw in your character, but because most relationships don’t work out. Every relationship everyone ever had, up until our current one, did not work out.
Love has a life force, but that life force is renewable. It can come back better, healthier. You won’t really be over this love until you fall in love again. You also won’t be able to fall in love again until you’re most of the way over it. So be patient. Don’t see the pain as punishment. It’s a resource, it’s reshaping your life, slowly, every day. Allow yourself the space to feel sad and the space to know that, one day, you won’t feel sad anymore. One day you’ll be in the full flush of new love again and you’ll know that this time wasn’t a valley but a mountain, and only by climbing it could you become who you are.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.