And deep inside, you think this won't ever get better, that it can't, because there are too many memories, too many triggers. You live in the same neighborhood, frequent the same bars. You share friends, go to the same weddings. And every time you see him, or each time you run into her, you break down, have to start healing all over again.
Your therapist tells you,
"Well, that's what happens when you light up those old neural pathways. Stay the ___ away! No Facebook stalking. No mining friends for information. Avoid your ex whenever possible. The longer you stay away from the source (of neural activation), the better your chance to heal."To heal in this case means detach. The advice is sound because forgetting is impossible when your physiology, your body, is busy remembering.
But there's something else at work, psychologically. Relationships add to our identity. Our very self is inclusive, adds those we love. We depend upon these slices of our ego to be there for us in various venues, at predictable times, and that reliability adds to our sense of wholeness. Maybe we shouldn't, but we can't help but expect things to be predictable in close relationships. This is what it means to feel attached, security in numbers. Attachment and dependency are associated.
Not that love is dependency. But we get so used to our partners, that breaking up, establishing a permanent separation, is tantamount to feeling a part of us has died. We're accustomed to too many things. Even Henry Higgins* grew accustomed to her face.
She almost makes the day begin.A huge piece of reality, of ourselves, is ripped away at the death of a relationship, whether we're waiting for it to die or not.
I've grown accustomed to the tune that
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles, her frowns,
Her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.
I was serenely independent and content before we met;
Surely I could always be that way again-
I've grown accustomed to her look;
Accustomed to her voice;
Accustomed to her face.
We see a lost lover everywhere, not literally, but everyone looks like her, like him, what I call phantom sighting. We crave the sensory stimulation that defined our relationship-- eating together, playing together, listening to the same songs, the physical and emotional intimacy, the sharing. Apart, we can't just change our habits, we still want to do many of the things we used to do as a couple.
Thus it feels impossible not to grieve, not to feel angry, even when one can say, Good riddance! Even when the other has flaws as numerous as the ice cream flavors at the shop we must now avoid.
And as good as your therapist's intentions are, this theory of avoidance is as good as the carpet in her office. One can't just move to Hawaii. There's the lease, the mortgage, perhaps children to think about, parents. Walking away to avoid triggers isn't happening. Hiding, crying, avoidance feel like the only alternatives.
To complicate the grieving might be the knowledge that the other has moved on, is even happy, perish the thought.
____ ____ ____ (these are expletives) as Henry Higgins would say. One might run into them in the usual places, the ex and your replacement. They now haunt your places. The thought of seeing him, the thought of facing her, is a tremendous source of anxiety. And it could happen. The patient asks:
What do I do if I bump into either of them in the produce aisle?The therapist:
What do you want to do?Most common answer:
Run!Running is a respectable solution, but as you were told as a child, one can't run away from problems. This will fail. Better to think, I have a right to be here, wherever I am. I have shopping to do.
And if it happens, if you run into your ex or your ex with a new partner, and you feel the uncontrollable need to cry, which is your catastrophic expectation, Well, good. Let him see you cry.
But don't engage.
Unfortunately, this is an incomplete answer, guilting with tears. We don't feel the power crying, not unless we have a histrionic personality disorder. No one wants to be seen at Whole Foods with mascara dripping down a cheek. Far better to manage these negative feelings, or yes, leave the store, shop later. Your therapist has a small arsenal of emotional management techniques that might stave off the tears. Grab a few good ones. I personally like breathing. Slowly, deeply. And squeezing a pen.
If you think, perhaps, that the answer to What Do I Do When I Run Into Him/Her might be
Tell her off!then those of us of the cloth might suggest not. Signs of aggression only validates an ex's decision to break up. You want to look good, not crazy, you want to seem rational, to exude strength and independence. Verbal violence, throwing a tomato, undermines this.
or Punch him!
That Hold your head up song by Argent feels good about now.
And if it's badSo contrary to cookie cutter psychobabble -- that you must grieve, or just avoid-- we're saying these are mutually exclusive processes. Grieve away, of course, and avoid if you must, but not at Dominick's, Jewell, Albertson's, the hardware store, or anywhere in public. Wear sunglasses perhaps, but don't run.
Don't let it get you down, you can take it
And if it hurts
Don't let them see you cry, you can take it
Hold your head up, hold your head up
Hold your head up, hold your head high
And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving
And if they shout
Don't let them change a thing what you're doing
Hold your head up, hold your head up
Hold your head up, hold your head high
You don't have to talk. Ridiculous! Why would you? You're picking lettuce, he's at zucchini. No need to talk. He sees you, you see him. Does everyone deserve a greeting? Do we really have to converse with people just because we know where they have their birthmarks?
I put it like this to the patient:
Imaging the Queen of England. She recognizes, perhaps even chats at home with the man who polishes her silver. But in public she is standing tall, nodding at people who adore her. Does the person who polishes her silver run up to her and say,
"Queen Elizabeth! So wonderful to see you!"Does Liz cry out,
"Joel! You're here! We must talk polish when you have a moment."No, they mutually ghost one another. He's invisible to her. And he wants to be invisible.
The person who has dumped you no longer has conversation privileges. Your working agreement is null and void. No need for acknowledgement, validation.** Or as I like to remind patients, If you couldn't work out your differences together, do you really think you can do it apart without years of therapy, mediation, etc?
There's a blockbuster hit, a book that sold millions its first week out, Go the "F" to Sleep. I'm not recommending it, haven't read it or listened to it on YouTube, not beyond the first expletive. But I happened to catch the author, Samuel L. Jackson, on National Public Radio. Mr. Jackson said that one night his daughter kept popping out of bed and when he sent her back for the twelfth time, finally alone, he put his thoughts down in literary form. The rest is history.
He apparently didn't know the "ghost" bedtime technique. Before there was Ferber, there was ghosting.
The child, too big to confine to a crib, is cognizant of ghosts, but isn't afraid, has been taught there is no such thing as ghosts. He knows the mantra, There's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such. . .
There may be, wink, wink, a tooth fairy, ironically, and a Santa Claus. Children should believe that the forces of the night are good.
The child has been fed and watered, but can't sleep and keeps popping up. You, the parent, need sleep. You need the child to respect your need to veg, to see an end to the day. The child, being a child, isn't terribly concerned with your needs, and wanders into the TV room.
I need something to eat.You say to your partner, "I believe there's a ghost in the room asking for something to eat. I say we ignore it."
"Right-o," says partner. "I pay no attention to ghosts. If that ghost breaks anything for attention, there will definitely not be doughnuts for breakfast, nor snacks at lunch tomorrow. Could you change the channel, dear? I want to see Antique Roadshow."
The child continues to whine fruitlessly, or scream, but at some point realizes there will be no attention, none, to be gained from wakefulness. Bed will feel better than this, being treated as an unwelcome intruder, a ghost. Off to sleep we go.
So at the bar, in the store, on the street, in the subway, an ex, one who lights up those neural pathways, doesn't exist, merits no attention. You look past him, past her.
A ghosts of relationships past, let's just say.
*Henry Higgins tutors Eliza Doolittle, makes a poor flower girl a princess in My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation of Pygmalion.
**If you parted as friends, none of this applies. And surely, when there are children to parent, there will be some conversation necessary, a good deal, perhaps, to co-parent. This dialogue is necessarily dispassionate, rational conversation. And not in public.