I was in a relationship for four years. I am 31, he is 36. I was unhappy, he was unhappy, but we were scared of being alone I guess. I don’t even know what went wrong, really. We had some beautiful memories. We were very close. We went through really hard times together. But at times he made me feel weak and unlovable because of my mental illnesses. He believed if I couldn’t be happy with him, then I’d never be happy with anyone. We had explosive fights. I stopped working completely because my confidence was so low, and then I let myself depend on him financially. My friends and family hated him. I didn’t think I could do any better. I was so depressed.
But then something happened. My crush from college (for over the last ten years, nonstop) asked me to leave everything to be with him before we even shared our first kiss. He just knew. I just knew. No doubt about it. I left my then-boyfriend the next day. I lost my financial security, my home, my dogs, all of my belongings. It was hard but I knew it was the right thing to do. The new guy wasn’t scared of the pressure. He was ready for it. And thankfully it worked out perfectly. We fell madly in love, and now we live together. He’s the love of my life. I even have a job! I’m not doing great financially but I’m supporting myself for the first time. I never knew such happiness was possible, not for someone like me anyway — someone as weird and difficult and emotional and sensitive as I am. I’m healthy. I got my ambition back. I’m in love. Life is so much easier now. I don’t bear many traces of mental illness anymore. Even my IBS has gone! Just like magic. My friends and family love my boyfriend.
But obviously the ex is angry. So angry! It was a year ago and he won’t give me my things back (and I really need them — why is he hanging on to all of my things still?!), spreads nasty rumors about me, divulges very personal things about me, gets mad at our mutual friends for still hanging out with me. I tried to meet up in person but he ignores my emails or answers with cutting one-liners. The last thing he told me in person was “I was only with you because of your looks and now that you’re 30, you’re useless!” Great. I always knew he hated women.
I feel like a boring urban legend, the “Long-Term Girlfriend Who Left the Guy Who Paid for Everything for a Younger Hotter Cooler More Successful Guy,” one that he feels the need to tell everyone. I get it. I’d be bitter, too, if I were in his shoes. But I hate being hated. He’s full of hatred. He hated all the ex-girlfriends who dumped him. He stalked them obsessively on Instagram, every single day, and wasn’t embarrassed about it (even girlfriends from five years ago). He probably does the same to me. He hates random people he’s never met but who threaten his confidence in some way. He’s an angry, bitter person with a huge ego. It frightens me to be at the receiving end of his hatred. But I’m sorry. I feel guilty. I wish my current happiness didn’t result from leaving him and thus breaking his heart. It makes my happiness and my relationship feel illegitimate.
He makes me angry because his reactions taint our happy memories. Because he’s robbing me of four years of my life. Because he makes me doubt that I deserve happiness. Because I couldn’t get closure as he never wanted to talk things out calmly. Because I’m scared to bump into him and I avoid going to the places I love the most. Because he never admitted that the fact I left him for someone else hurt him. Instead he said I’ve hurt him by making him unhappy for four years, as if I was the one keeping him captive. He makes me angry because he’s said such hurtful things and I can’t get them out of my head. He’s keeping me stuck. Maybe I’m the one keeping myself stuck. I know he loved me so much. I know he thought we would end up together. But I had to leave!
I am very jealous of my boyfriend’s breakup with his latest ex, a few months before we got together. It was cordial and unemotional like nothing had ever happened. I’m jealous because he gets to think of her in nice terms. I’m jealous of her, because she’s a nice memory to him albeit not a very long one. And I don’t get to be a nice memory to my ex, after four long years together and everything we went through. It makes me feel inferior to my boyfriend’s ex even if what they had was nothing compared to what we have. I’m still dragging the dead weight from my past relationship when it should be the happiest time of my life. I know we’re both hurting from staying in this shitty relationship for way too long, I just have it easier because I’m in love with someone else now.
And yet I have to admit, his hate is so visceral, it’s validation that he did love me and maybe still does. It’s when I leave the men I am in long-term relationships with that I realize how much they do love me. It happened the last four times. I wish I weren’t like this. I wish that I could completely take in my current boyfriend’s love for me without wondering how destroyed he’d be if I left. That’s probably why I compete with my boyfriend’s exes. I can be the love of someone’s life, but am I really anything until I have broken their heart into little pieces and made them cry for months on end? I know this doesn’t make much sense with everything I wrote above.
I know my ex knows how much I hate being disliked. So it’s his last power over me. Keeping my things, turning people against me, tainting my reputation, not forgiving me. How do I let it go? How do I forgive myself even if he doesn’t? How do I give myself closure? Should I tell him all these things and acknowledge his pain even if he’ll probably never reply? Also, I don’t want him to think I’m obsessed with him!
Worst Ex-Girlfriend Ever
Dear Worst Ex-Girlfriend Ever,
You and your ex both need therapy. You’re living inside his twisted perception of you, and he’s living inside your rejection. You wouldn’t be obsessed with this if you didn’t suspect that there was something wrong with you. Your shame and your unexamined compulsions are teaming up to haunt you, but you’re only seeing them through the prism of your ex’s ego-driven fixation. And by the way, his fixation isn’t proof of his love. It’s proof of his damage. His ongoing rage boils down to “How dare that unstable, useless, over-the-hill woman get the best of me!”
And now you’re honoring his narcissistic rage by calling it love, and you’re refusing to honor your very sane act of self-preservation in leaving him by calling yourself selfish. The only thing that was impulsive about your exit was that you leaped straight into the arms of someone you didn’t know that well, and you left your dogs behind. (Sorry, I’m still worried about those dogs. How do you walk out on your dogs like that?!!)
Thankfully, you’ve found someone who accepts you for who you are. I know how much of a difference that can make, but it’s just a start. Now your self-acceptance needs to catch up with your partner’s. That’s going to take some time.
Whenever you leave one person for another, it takes some time for your emotions to catch up with reality. This tends to muddy the waters of your perceptions and your affections. It’s natural to feel unexpected and unexamined emotions around a long-term ex. But the way you’re translating these natural feelings — anger, confusion, guilt — into self-recrimination suggests that you don’t understand what you’ve been through, who you were then, or who you are now. That means you also don’t see the crucial differences between your ex and your current boyfriend. I know you can see some of those differences, but until you understand, at a deeper level, how your ex controlled and demeaned you, you’re going to live in fear that it could happen again. By viewing your ex as loving you like crazy (as opposed to just being enraged by the fact he couldn’t control you) you’re also going to see yourself as someone cruel who trampled on that love. You’re going to worry that you’re capable of doing that all over again, even to someone as great as your current boyfriend.
In order to nurture a long-term relationship, you have to have faith in yourself. When you doubt yourself or question your motives or choose to use someone else’s rage as a prism for your shame, you erode your faith in yourself and damage your ability to live in the present and be honest with your current partner.
Being envious of your new boyfriend’s breakup with his ex is just one bad sign among many that you have porous, unhealthy boundaries and you don’t know how to properly integrate your past into your present. Those porous boundaries will make it easy for you to become overly possessive and jealous in your new relationship. You have to separate your fears, your history, and your shame from each other instead of lumping them into one murky swamp of self-hatred and dread. You have to slowly sift through the forces acting on you so you can build healthy boundaries and see the world through clear eyes. Your concern with what your ex is saying about you is a direct reflection of your lingering fears that there’s something deeply wrong with you. In order to stop fixating on your ex and his gossip, you (somewhat ironically!) have to LOOK DIRECTLY AT your disordered perceptions and your damage and your true, real flaws.
That’s going to take some work. It’s going to scare you, to admit that being in love with someone new doesn’t erase the past or erase the worst version of yourself who lived there. That said, once you do that work, you’ll also realize, for the first time, that the real “magic” of your new life comes from within you and belongs to you. When you trust yourself and build faith in yourself, you see the world through new eyes.
Right now, that newfound clarity is threatened by your habit of black-and-white thinking. Black-and-white thinking is a side effect of shame and fear. You describe your new relationship as perfect in every way, which implies that any flaws might mean that your “worst self” could reemerge and ruin everything. Your new boyfriend’s relationship with his ex must be “nothing compared to what we have” because if his old relationship were actually good, that could mean (in your mind) that he misses his ex or that he might leave you. Instead, you’re living inside a black-and-white fantasy: You two are madly in love, your mental illness has vanished, and everything bad is behind you for good.
No wonder your ex’s stories about you feel so threatening. Everything feels threatening when you’re attached to fantasies instead of reality. You can’t integrate real human beings with flaws into your worldview. You can’t acknowledge that we all feel emotions that we can’t control. We all miss some of our exes sometimes. We are all a little bit mentally ill, because we’re all imperfect and we live in an imperfect world. Love can still be magical and your new boyfriend can still be amazing. But you have to learn to live in reality and make some room for flaws — your own, your boyfriend’s, and everyone else’s.
In order to get there, you have to look closely at the past. You surrendered your power to your ex. Your black-and-white thinking matched his. You were both trying to escape your fears and your self-loathing. You were both ashamed of yourselves. You were both trying to prove that you were lovable, to each other and to the outside world. Seeing these things clearly doesn’t mean that you need to confess, hash things out, or apologize to your ex. People who are ruled by their shame are always trying to apologize and explain themselves, but all it does is make things murkier and more complicated. Your letter is a clear reflection of this confusion and shame: You bounce back and forth between condemning your ex and worrying about him. You call him bitter and hateful and say he’s robbing you of four years of your life, and then you say you feel guilty and you lament breaking his heart. You blame him and you blame yourself. You want to identify a criminal and you want to be forgiven.
No one can rob you of your own history. You don’t need his forgiveness. You need your own. You say you hate being disliked, but once you truly like yourself, you’ll leave this obsession with your ex and his bad storytelling behind.
Your black-and-white thinking feeds your obsession with your ex’s stories. It makes you think that you’re either good or bad, crazy or sane, flawed or perfect. You think that if you’re really good and sane and perfect, you need to find some way to prove that to everyone who thinks you’re bad and crazy and flawed. But what if you’re just a person, and like all people, you struggle with your emotions, you make mistakes, you fall short, you cry at inappropriate times, and you have a few regrets? What if your new boyfriend is like that, too? What if his relationship with his ex was actually pretty good, not “nothing compared to what you have”? What if he has flaws you haven’t seen yet? What if your flaws and weaknesses eventually surprise him, too?
Let go of the heaven and hell of your neurotic fantasies, and live in reality instead. Living in reality will help you to honor your values (which may or may not include making a real commitment to your pets and not leaving them behind simply because you can’t handle a difficult conversation with a soon-to-be ex). Addressing your mistakes will allow you to finally let go of this fear that there’s something Very Wrong With You. It’s time to live in the real world, where we’re all imperfect, we all make mistakes, we all have regrets.
Your bad history with your ex doesn’t have to haunt you. You can use it as a guide to HOW YOU DON’T WANT TO LIVE EVER AGAIN. I’ve been using my worst relationship that way for years. Nothing is worse than living with someone who hates your emotions and feels annoyed by every thought or opinion that doesn’t come from his own brain. Remembering how bad it was makes me so grateful for how I’m living now. But that history belongs to each of us separately. My ex and I don’t have to agree on anything. He can tell whatever stories he wants to whoever he wants, and so can I. Everyone has their own stories. Accepting that will set you free.
Your ex and the shit he talks and the people who listen to it don’t matter. All that matters is your relationship with yourself. Get yourself a therapist and strengthen that relationship. Get some clarity about who you are and where you’ve been. Get a trusted friend (not your current boyfriend!) to negotiate getting your stuff back from your ex, calmly, without fanfare or drama. Don’t get involved or explain yourself. In keeping your distance, you’ll make it clear that you’re no longer invested in what he thinks or what he tells anyone else.
Once you can wriggle free from all of this shame and self-doubt, the magic in your life right now will multiply and expand in every direction. You’ll want to spread that love to others. One of the saddest things about being disordered and sensitive is that you too often confuse being full of love and ideas and good intentions with being TOO MUCH for anyone else. It’s easy to look at your greatest gifts and tell yourself that these things make you scary and unlovable and damaged. It’s up to you to change that story, though. Even your partner can’t do that work for you. It’s up to you to honor your gifts, and stand up for them, so you can share them without fear.
Once you can see the world clearly, you’ll know that anyone who says, “If I can’t make you happy, no one can!” is speaking from a place of extreme shame. Nothing is more arrogant than believing that you are the ONLY PERSON who can make another person happy. But notice that you also feel this way about yourself and your current boyfriend. Release yourself from these constrictive fantasies and live in reality instead.
When you live in reality, your ex is just another human being in pain. Be pragmatic about avoiding him if you think he’s dangerous. Otherwise, stop keeping this drama alive with your own shame. Fill that ex-boyfriend-shaped hole in your life with your newfound belief in yourself. Give up this game of Who Is Good and Who Is Bad. Give up competing with other women. Give up being your boyfriend’s dream girl, perfect in every way, devoid of issues or weaknesses. Give up seeing yourself through other people’s eyes. Give up on black and white. Build a new religion out of self-examination and self-acceptance, where little imperfections and mistakes are part of the beauty of being alive.
Seek clarity. Work at it. Demand it. Live in the crystal clear light of day. Your fantasies and obsessions and shame will only lead you back into the dark. Live here instead.
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