One of my patients gets together sometimes for lunch with his ex. It’s always awkward, he says, and a bit melancholy, but there’s something nice about it, too, and so it’s become a ritual.
This time she brought a piece of news – she’d met someone, and was getting married.
He was happy for her. He knew that. They’d been broken up for years, and were never really right together. They’d dated for about seven months – she was the first person he’d seen after his wife died in a car accident. Even when they were dating, he’d realized she was probably too young for him and they had different interests and maybe he wasn’t ready and…well, it never really worked.
Yet, somehow, this news still hurt.
On the way home from the lunch he asked himself – Why? Why does this hurt?
And then it came to him.
He pulled out his cellphone.
She was at her office, and seemed surprised. He spoke to her frankly.
Listen,” he said. “I’m truly happy for you. I mean that.”
“But…” she said, prompting him.
“But,” he hesitated. “This sounds nuts, because we’re not together anymore, and we don’t want to be together anymore…but…I guess I just want to know I’m still your guy.”
He felt a little ridiculous, and wondered if she was going to hang up – but she didn’t.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “Don’t worry. You’re still my guy. You’ll always be my guy. That will never change.”
He felt tears welling up, and all he could think of to say was,”thanks. I love you.” And that was the call.
Now, in his session with me, he said he felt a little shaky, but okay. It was as if she’d lifted a weight off his shoulders. Their connection, whatever you wanted to call it, was still there after all this time. Whatever she meant to him – and whatever he meant to her, still mattered.
Break ups are tough. They are necessary sometimes, but they can leave you with a certain melancholy, an ambivalence. There is always unfinished business in a relationship even when it’s run its course.
That was especially true for this guy because he’d lost his first wife suddenly, after only three years together.
“After my wife died,” he told me, “I vowed I’d never take for granted that I could talk to anyone whenever I wanted. Of course, I’d give anything to talk to her again, but she’s not there. So I talk things over with her in my mind – that’s all I’ve got.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to interacting with ex’s. The relationship has run its course, and you both have a right to move on. Strong feelings may linger, and you might have to give each other some space.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be gentle. Your ex is a person with whom you’ve invested a chunk of time – a person you have loved, who has loved you, and made you special in his life. Some vestige of that bond is worth preserving, if you possibly can.
Of course, it’s toughest if the feelings remain strong.
One of my patients ran into her ex recently at a social function. He told her he missed her, and she was surprised, when she looked in his eyes, to see an imploring look. He meant it. She knew, without asking, that he wanted to get back together, to give it another try. But that was impossible.
It wasn’t that part of her didn’t want the same thing. He was the one who had wanted to break up all those years ago, and she knew this was some kind of redemption – a chance to make him happy, and get that wish she’d clung to for so long.
But their time together was years ago – and she’d moved on. She was in a new relationship.
She felt torn in two – one half in the past, wanting to give it another chance. The other in the present, knowing it would never work.
And all along she was wondering if it was entirely in her head. Maybe she was just reading something into his words, and his facial expression, that wasn’t there.
So they chatted about nothing, and then her ex turned to leave. Nothing much was said.
She felt an ache for days afterward.
The next day she took out some old photos from their time together, and had a good cry.
She’d probably run into him again, one of these days. And maybe he’ll have moved on, and maybe he’ll be in another relationship too, by then.
But there would still be that ache.
That’s the gift we receive for taking the risk of loving someone else.
Maybe he just wanted to know he was still her guy.
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