Ask Polly: How Do I Let Go When I Thought He Was ‘The One’?

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Dear Polly,

I broke up with the love of my life five months ago. That sounds incredibly dramatic, but I really believed that this man was the one for me. In the day-to-day, he was kind, respectful, responsible, generally thoughtful, fun, smart, adventurous, sexy, and every bit the type of man I wanted to marry. Now, I’m not the type of girl who awakens each day and knows that my life goal is to find a man to put a ring on it. I’m a strong individual in my own right and so is he, and I think that’s why we worked so well and lasted so long.

But on the big life decisions, partnership and love weren’t ever near the top of his priority list. He’s extremely successful, and he measures his self-value and worth by the notches on his career-driven belt. While he spent most of our relationship as a totally engaged boyfriend, he also took large chunks of time (six months or so each time) to fully dive head-first into work projects and completely push me away. I seek balance above everything else, and this always frustrated me. I remember in one of our fights he yelled, “I feel like you need me all the time, but you don’t support me! All I do is support you, and I just don’t need you!”

And when it came to his long-term goals, he didn’t need me. He was selfish. Instead of showing up for me as a teammate and adjusting what he wanted out of his future to build a future together, he clung to goals he had set long before me. So when, three-and-a-half years in, he decided on his own that he actually never wanted to have children and wanted to buy a new bachelor-pad-esque house that I was not invited to join him in, I knew it was time to let go. I knew he wasn’t going to change. I was tired of never being an equal but constantly being the only one moving us forward and fighting for us.

I know I made the right choice, and generally I am very happy with my life. I have a great job, I support myself fully, I live in my own adorable little house with two sweet cats, and I actively work on spending my days doing things that I love. I teach and practice yoga; I see a therapist; I try to take time each day for some meditation/gratitude/journaling/introspection. Even with all of that, though, I am sincerely having trouble letting go of both the man I loved and the future I envisioned for us. I struggle with the pain and disappointment every day.

It doesn’t help that our lives are inextricably entwined in this city. We both share the exact same friend group, most of which are couples who are starting to get married left and right. We are both in the wedding parties of most of the weddings, and I am dreading having to be my normal, chipper, celebratory self when my heart is aching as I see him at these ultimate expressions of love and commitment. I feel like I’m driving through a fog and my wheels are starting to spin, and I’m just ready to press the gas full speed and move ahead. I want to feel comfortable and content with a new life and future, but I can’t seem to get there. Every time I think I’m progressing by embracing a new change, I just feel more lost. And then I have to see him, and then I wonder if he’s ever going to wake up and realize that he’s an IDIOT for losing me.

I know I deserve a person in my life who is ready and willing to be vulnerable enough to let love matter and shape his life. Even though I don’t believe my ex wants to or even can become that person, a part of me is still holding out hope for him to try.

Help me let go. Help me move on.


Stuck in a Fog

Dear Stuck in a Fog,

I understand and man, have I been there! You’re in a torturous state of limbo and no amount of optimism seems to help. Immediately after the breakup, you probably felt okay because you knew you were making a good decision. It was the start of a whole new life. Fireworks, Champagne, freedom! No more tepid dudes, ever! But then the reality of moving forward alone caught up to you. When you love someone deeply and believe in him, you naturally build a vision of your life with that person. Saying good-bye to his physical presence in your life is one thing. Letting go of your vision is another thing entirely.

And coming face to face with your ex months later is THE WORST. It not only brings the full force of what you’ve lost back, but it also feels horribly, perilously unjust — absurd, even — not to be talking and hanging out the way you did before. It’s enough to kick up a hurricane of conflicting emotions. Even though you know he’s not going to change, seeing his face and wanting, in spite of everything, to hear him say that he messed up, that he wants you back at all costs? That’s heartbreaking.

But here’s what you need to start to believe and feel, deep in your bones: The difference between a life with someone who NATURALLY loves love, and loves intimacy, and needs that kind of connection (and maybe also wants kids) and someone who NATURALLY puts work first and is always striving for the next goal at all costs and doesn’t mind saying things like “I DON’T NEED YOU”? It’s the difference between feeling grateful and happy every single day of your life and feeling frustrated and lonely every day. Even if your ex did want kids, being a woman with children who’s married to a dude who puts work first, always, is a drag of epic proportions. It can be navigated, don’t get me wrong. Priorities shift. But if you’re at the starting gate and you can see that someone isn’t open to shifting ANY of his priorities for you? That’s just a bad match for someone like you. You believe in working together, making decisions together, and having an egalitarian partnership. He believes in himself and his own path. That’s okay for him, but it’s not what you’re looking for, not even close.

You’ve spent a lot of time trying to wrestle this unyielding man into something that loosely resembled a partnership, so it’s not surprising that you’re still invested. It’s pretty jarring that, after putting so much energy into it, he simply did what he wanted to do without talking it over with you. The sudden announcement that kids are OUT and a bachelor pad is IN suggests a guy who romanticizes himself, alone, and never feels guilty for things he does that are just for him, even if he refuses to take other people’s needs into account along the way.

So that’s the first thing. He might start dating someone new. Hell, he could get married and have kids out of the blue. You never know what he’ll suddenly decide is best for him. But even then, what he’ll want, ideally, is a woman who’s a part of HIS story. He clearly isn’t interested in being one of two people with intertwining, mutually supportive story lines. This guy is into HIS dramatic arc, not yours. You know that. He can be insanely charming and great and still be that way.

I have a few exes like this. They might grow up, get married, have kids, but somehow they’re always the courageous protagonists of their stories. It’s not a hideous flaw. Plenty of women are like this, too. But if you’re sensitive to getting cropped out of the picture, if you want to feel like your goals and accomplishments are just as important as his, if you want to feel that domestic concerns aren’t consistently delegated to someone FAR LESS HEROIC THAN OUR FEARLESS HERO? You can’t marry a guy like that. Sensitive, ambitious, egalitarian women who believe in real partnerships need men who are also sensitive, ambitious, and TRULY egalitarian.

But moving on is still challenging, particularly when you’re bumping into him left and right. As impossibly difficult as your situation might be, though, I want you to fly ahead in your mind to a time when you run into your ex and you feel happy that you’re not with him anymore. Yes, he’s still dashing and special. But within his specialness, there’s still this intractable, embedded selfishness. You can see this selfishness clearly now. You can smell it from a mile away, and it negates your fond notions of him. It doesn’t make you feel nostalgic when you see him. It makes you feel allergic.

This is a sad thing, admittedly, but with exes — PARTICULARLY with exes who have a Party of One mentality that they can’t shake — once you move past the hope that somehow they’ll change and become balanced collaborators, they tend to shift in your perception. The vision you once had of them becomes a distant memory, like hearing an old pop song you loved when you were 13 but now find disturbingly dorky.

You need to trust that you’ll view him differently soon enough. There’s something about the FEELING of wanting someone back, the hope and longing there, that hurts more than almost anything. You need to remind yourself, over and over, that this feeling doesn’t last forever. Even though you’re battling such a palpable melancholy and loneliness over your ex now, there will come a time when not only won’t you feel wistful when you see him, but all you’ll feel is a faint fondness with tinges of pity at the edges. You’ll mostly feel grateful that you aren’t orbiting his giant ego any longer, because IT LOOKS EXHAUSTING.

That will take time. Even though you’re clear in your thinking about him, it still takes time to FEEL, in your bones, that you don’t want to go back to where you were before. It takes time to know, in your heart, that you wouldn’t take him back even if he asked. You have to be brutal about what he really saw in you. A strong, ambitious woman can’t be a bit player in someone else’s story — but your ex might’ve believed that you could, because you’re healthy and kind and you adjusted to his need for months-long disappearances. From what you wrote though, it sounds like he’s looking for a supporting player, a sidekick. God bless the sidekicks out there, who feel good about being sidekicks. You don’t happen to be that kind of a woman.

Someone can be a great catch and still be wrong for you in particular. If you don’t feel relaxed, comfortable, cared for, heard? There’s something wrong. It’s easy to feel an incredible amount of love and lust for a guy who’s smart and sexy. It’s easy to form a vision of a future together. But if you’re treated like a weak person just for wanting to share your feelings with him, just for wanting to spend time together? That’s a sign you’re dealing with someone who’s not interested in real intimacy.

So you’re spinning your wheels. But you can’t just gun it and shout, SAYONARA, MOTHERFUCKER! You need to honor your feelings and make room for them, even if you think you should’ve moved on by now. You have to stop scolding yourself for not moving faster. Some part of your heart is rebelling against being rushed. Kids are like this. You rush them, they move more slowly. Some part of you doesn’t want to feel rushed.

But when you see him, make sure you’re not searching for hints that he might reconsider how he feels about you. Don’t let yourself dress for him, lose weight, or get your hair done so he’ll notice how insanely hot you are and feel regretful. Don’t “act” one way or another when he’s around, to make him worry and second-guess his choices. Be a good friend to your mutual friends, but don’t feel like you have to show up to every non-wedding-related event in the world. When you go, make sure not to put yourself in situations that will hurt you. Don’t drink a lot. Don’t pour out your feelings to others when he’s around, simply because you can’t talk to him. Just soldier through and protect yourself. Then plan something with a close friend the next day, so you can let out some of your feelings in a safe setting. Let your closest, most trusted friends know how hard it is. Don’t pretend to be over it when you’re not. Clear out some space for these feelings and let them flow. Write them down in detail when they come up.

Give yourself time. This was a long relationship and a powerful vision you created. Honor it by allowing yourself to mourn it fully. But you should also try to do a few small things to demonstrate forward motion in your life. I know this sounds absurdly trivial, but changing your environment in a symbolic way — painting a room a new color, for example — can be really meditative and therapeutic. Get a new cookbook and experiment. Have a dinner party and invite a few new people. Change your habits ever so slightly, so that your days have a different structure to them. Clean your house from top to bottom. Consider dedicating yourself to a really big project or career dream of yours right now, while your loneliness might just give you extra motivation, and your big dream might just keep you from feeling quite so lonely.

Don’t expect to feel like a new person when you do these things. Cry through them. Don’t expect to be happy because you’re doing the “right” thing, the “healthy” thing in that moment. Let yourself feel sad. But use your sadness to fuel a few initiatives, so at least you feel productive and you’re surrounded by reminders that you’re moving forward. And in those rare hours of the day where you feel good — the sun is shining brightly and you feel grateful to be alive — trust that someday, your ex will be just another person in the world to you. The future you imagined with him was your creation, and you can create another future with someone else, someone who is ACTUALLY THERE, someone who wants what you want.

You will look back on this year and say, “I was so sad and so worried about what came next. If only I knew how incredible my life was about to be.” Believe in that incredible life. You are mostly haunted by a longing that arises from your own capacity to love. That capacity to love might bring you pain today, but eventually, it will bring you more love than you can possibly imagine.


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Ask Polly: How Do I Move on From ‘The One’?