Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Twice a month, he’ll answer reader questions about life, love and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
I am currently — like millions of other people — spending too much time at home, trying to get my head straight, and watching a lot of videos.
I experienced a dramatic breakup just [before we went into lockdown]. It was a two-year relationship that was getting serious, with both of our families involved. He ended it, and it wasn’t the first time he expressed that our relationship was too much for him to handle.
I was always empathetic with him, trying to pace things so as not to overwhelm him. There was a big part of me that felt like if I left him, I’d be abandoning him. He is the one who decided to leave, and it has left me devastated. I am really confused and sad. I feel like one day I was somewhere nice in life and finally achieving stability, and the next day everything was shattered.
Heartbroken in Lockdown
(Editor’s note: This letter was edited for clarity and length.)
While certain aspects of our lives are on pause during the pandemic, many of the regular problems and setbacks that life presents — like heartbreak — are not. Breakups are extremely painful at the best of times, but it must be especially devastating when the life you were looking forward to having after the shutdown is no longer possible.
It is natural to mourn the loss of a future you can no longer have, but I believe your life with your ex would have been quite problematic and far from rosy. I say this because when I read the sentence, “It wasn’t the first time he expressed that the relationship was too much for him to handle,” alarm bells went off in my head. Loudly. Stick-fingers-in-my-ears loudly.
Your ex was telling you that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the relationship at all — which is a terribly hostile thing to say to someone you’re dating. I can only imagine how hurt, upset and anxious that must have made you.
He didn’t ask you how you felt and what your needs were, nor did he specify solutions that you could then negotiate. Instead, he issued a threat and left you scrambling to try to fix things by yourself. That put you at a double disadvantage. Relationships require both people to speak up about problems and implement solutions together. But here, he was the only one speaking up about problems and you were the only one trying to figure out solutions.
By being so focused on making the relationship work for him, you were bound to lose sight of the ways in which it wasn’t working for you. I doubt you felt entitled to bring up how upsetting, hurtful and anxiety provoking his repeated threats to leave the relationship were, because you were afraid doing so would be “too much for him”.
When you say “there was a big part of me that felt like if I left him, I’d be abandoning him,” it shows you were in touch with how difficult the situation was for you and how unhappy you were at times — enough to consider leaving. The fact you felt that leaving would constitute abandonment is a sign you were operating out of guilt and self-imposed obligation.
Many of us mistake guilt for love, because guilt similarly tugs at our heartstrings and, paradoxically, makes us feel needed and wanted.
But guilt isn’t love.
Heartbroken, you need to get over your ex and move forward. Here are my suggestions for accelerating that process:
1. It’s important you come to terms with how unsuccessful the relationship was for you. To that end, make a list of all the ways both your ex and the relationship itself weren’t right for you. His lack of empathy, his self-focus and selfishness, all the compromises you made, the hurt feelings you had, the unmet needs you were never able to express, the one-sided efforts you had to invest, the times you wanted to leave but didn’t out of guilt. Refer to the list whenever you miss him or the relationship — to remind yourself how flawed he, and it, actually were. Being honest with yourself about these issues is important not just to help you get over him but to keep fresh what you’d like to do differently in your next relationship. Speaking of which:
2. Make another list — of what you learned about yourself from the relationship and from the breakup, what you should avoid doing in your next relationship, and what you should insist on getting from your next partner that you didn’t from your ex. For example, your list might include that you want to be careful to not take on the responsibility of fixing problems alone, or that you need your efforts to be valued and appreciated, and that you need to speak up about your needs and feelings when you’re feeling hurt or frustrated.
3. Do not follow your ex on social media. It is a highly curated medium that makes it seem as though everyone has a charmed life (yes, even during a pandemic). It won’t be helpful for you to see your ex smiling at home, seemingly recovered when you’re still hurting.
4. Social distancing certainly makes it difficult to jump back into dating and find a new partner — which is a shame, as doing so has been found to aid recovery from heartbreak. But while the Big Pause we’re all living through has slowed down in-person dating (or should have), virtual dating is thriving. And the big advantage of dating via text, phone, and video is it actually forces you to get to know someone via conversation — lots of it. It also makes it easier to assess how equitable the efforts you’re each making are. Is the other person initiating texts and calls as much as you? Are they asking a lot of questions and seeming eager to get to know you? Are they making themselves as available to chat as you are? Are they coming up with fun ideas for virtual dates?
5. Another factor that is important for recovery is social support. While you cannot get in-person hugs from your friends, what you can get from them is compassion, empathy and caring, so I hope you’re letting yourself receive these important comforts from them.
6. Lastly, one of the hardest battles that people wage when trying to get over someone is to avoid stewing about the breakup and ruminating about their ex. This may be particularly hard to do when so many of our normal distractions like movie theaters, restaurants, sporting events or clubs, are closed. Plus, the massive uncertainty, anxiety and stress we’re all living with aren’t exactly conducive to an optimistic and hopeful mindset. The reality is, many of the changes the pandemic is imposing will be with us for a while in some form, so many of us — including you — will need to adjust our plans and rethink how to move forward. Plotting future paths can be a good distraction, and it’s also a good topic for you to discuss and work through with your friends.
Your future plans were upended, which is very painful, but they involved someone who was not a good partner for you, which means the future you planned would have been painful as well. Now you have the opportunity to find someone who can accommodate your needs as much as you do theirs. When you do, you’ll likely have a better life together than the one you would have had with your ex.
Heartbroken, you clearly have a lot to give. Use this time to find someone who will give you a lot back in return. You deserve it.
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Watch Guy’s TED Talk on getting over heartbreak now: