Yearning for ex can be a painful, difficult war

My friend was abandoned by his mother and stepfather as a young boy, abused by his father, then left to be raised haphazardly since 11 by his grandparents, without any family structure or security. At 20, he began dating a girl still in high school, his first real girlfriend. Although he had reported in times past that he was not “in love” with her, they always “hung out” together, and the month she graduated high school, they were married. He had highly cheerful hopes of creating “his own” family.

Five months later, she surprised him and moved back home with her parents, requesting a divorce (all contact was immediately severed between them). This was a huge embarrassment to him. He is now 24 years old and dating a 26-year-old for the past several months, although he seems to be obsessed with thoughts of his ex. He puts so much focus on becoming successful in life and craves a healthy relationship; however, he appears to be holding on to unrealistic dreams relating to his relationships. This is the email that he recently sent:

“I still am deeply in love with (my ex) and can’t seem to help it. These feelings make me literally sick. I feel sick that I could have such feelings for a person that hurt me so bad, and not have these feelings for a person that is very much in love with me.

“I know that I do care for and possibly love (the new relationship), yet I am not in love with her. She is an amazing person that I truly don’t deserve. She makes me a better person. She has already been there for me in far more situations than (my ex) ever could have. She is a smart, extremely attractive, mature, teaching, responsible person. In a way, I would say that she is pretty much everything I would ever hope to have.

“Though at times I look at my life and realize just how many accomplishments I have supposedly marked, I wonder who I am doing them for. Am I doing them in hopes to impress my family? Am I doing them in hopes to inspire my family? Am I doing them to prove something to myself? Am I doing them in hopes to impress other people? Or am I doing them to simply create revenge against those who have in my opinion wronged me?”

— T.L., Las Vegas

Since your friend is not my patient, I’m going to respond to this “as if.” If someone came into my office and told me this story, I’d immediately fix two thoughts in my mind that might open possibilities for the patient’s greater peace, resolution and freedom to live well.

First, I would wonder if your friend has a very normal, common ego issue. By “ego issue,” I mean nothing pejorative. I don’t mean “thinking too highly of ourselves.” And, by “common,” I don’t mean to say it’s easy or not a big deal. If I’m right, this is a very painful, very difficult war being raged inside of himself.

The human ego makes attachments to people and ideas as a means of protecting itself. These attachments can be fierce, powerful and very resistant to change. Everyone does this. In his case, I wonder if his felt experience of “still loving” his ex isn’t more an ego-defense than the deeper reality of himself. He is clutching the image of The Tragic Romantic as a defense against the loss of an ideal.

He got dumped. It’s awful to get dumped. I’ve been dumped. And I couldn’t get well until I unconditionally surrendered to that fact. The good news in his email is that he knows this. His feelings of love for his ex are making him “literally sick,” because he’s smart enough to see the contradiction of desiring someone who does not desire him, all the while standing next to someone who does desire him.

We have to grow sufficient self-respect not to want people who don’t want us.

My second thought is that your friend might be stuck working out some wounds from his disjointed, jumbled, fractured family-of-origin. Sometimes our need to redeem our past blurs our reasoned judgment of the present. I wonder if he unwittingly conscripted his high school sweetheart to help him redeem his image of family.

For the second time in his life, he is participating in a love relationship in which he’s not in love. Any sensible, caring friend of his would ask him, “What’s that about?”

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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