You Need Help: Is It Normal To Be Happy In a Relationship and Still Think About an Ex?

Q:

Through a moderately complicated series of events I ended up leaving a troubled relationship and almost immediately starting a new one at the end of the pre-Corona times.

During the break up process, my ex admitted to having been gaslighting and generally manipulating me since the beginning of the relationship. I was pretty shocked by that admittance. I knew that the relationship hadn’t been light-hearted or easy for a while, but that such incredibly toxic things had been happening since the beginning was really unsettling. According to her she was unaware of her actions and only upon later reflection did it become apparent to her that that was what she was doing. I believe that she may have not acknowledged how much she was manipulating, but that she had absolutely no idea is not something I really believe.

Me and my new partner are doing well despite having basically u-hauled by sheltering in place with each other for almost two months (something I would have never normally done). I feel fulfilled in this relationship and have the space to grow and be myself that was never afforded in the previous one. I truly value my partner and can see remaining with them for a long time, but there is one thing that’s really bothering me. I keep thinking about my ex, and I can’t figure out why! It clearly isn’t a relationship that I want to return to, and honestly I’m not sure if I really ever want to resume contact with her despite the fact that the queer community here is miniature.

I’ve given it my best go at meditating and trying to let anger and hurt go, which feels like it has been working, but these thoughts keep plaguing me. My therapist has been less than helpful, so it’s time to turn to the elder-queers.

Is it normal to be happy in a relationship and still thinking about an ex? Is this one of those “time will fix it situations”? Why is it months later and nothing has changed with me thinking about her? I’m very upfront with my new partner about all of this and they are so very supportive of my pain and healing, but is it unfair to my new partner that I’m still thinking about this other person months later? I feel very confused by this situation and am hoping that y’all can shed some light on the situation.

Love,
Clueless in the eastern hemisphere

A:

When I got out of a relationship that entailed a pattern of gaslighting, betrayal, lies, etc., I casually fired off a tweet to the effect of “will I ever stop obsessing over what this person did to me?” Some kind strangers told me that yes, with time, the intrusive thoughts would go away. But I had close friends who were real with me. They said that I probably would never completely stop thinking about it. And now I want to impart that same intense but honest knowledge upon you: It’s extremely likely that you’re never going to stop thinking about your ex.

That might sound bleak at first! But I actually found this realization extremely freeing, and I hope you will, too. Because once you accept it, it makes it easier to be kind to yourself when you do start thinking about them. It’s really easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of 1. Trying not to think about your ex 2. Thinking about your ex 3. Being hard on yourself for thinking about your ex. Once you accept that you probably won’t ever stop thinking of them entirely, you can more easily take #3 out of the equation. Suddenly, thinking about your ex doesn’t become a failure of yours or something that is wrong with you.

That said, it’s still extremely valid (and helpful) to seek out solutions for minimizing these thoughts. It sounds like you’ve tried a lot of these already. You mention meditation and therapy. And even if those aren’t working completely, I think they’re still good things to practice. The end goal isn’t necessarily eliminating these thoughts entirely (because again, I don’t think that’s possible in situations like the one you’ve described with your ex) but rather minimizing the thoughts and also making sure that they don’t lead to self-destructive or harmful behaviors.

Being manipulated and gaslit by a partner long-term is an immensely destabilizing experience. In my experience, intimate partner betrayal creates a haunting. It’s something that stays with you. Your brain isn’t necessarily hung up on your ex; you’re haunted by thoughts about what they did to you. Which is incredibly valid! Especially because this JUST happened to you!

Early on in the healing process following a toxic relationship, it’s easy to get stuck thinking about the “warning signs” of the betrayal(s)—and then get hard on yourself for not seeing them—and also all the potential other times they did something to you that they haven’t admitted to. Those are thoughts that you should actively tell yourself are not helpful for growth, but it’s natural to have them in the beginning. You’re still very much in the trenches of processing all this pain, and that can be challenging to do from inside a new relationship, but you’re taking all the right steps by being in therapy and also communicating with your current partner.

On that note, I think it’s great that your new partner is being so supportive, and I do not think you’re being unfair to them at all. But do make sure to regularly check in about their capacity to listen to you talk about your ex. And also make sure they’re not the only person you talk to about these thoughts. Talk to friends and other people in your support network. I’ve found that not talking about the thoughts at all tends to make it worse. And I’ve also found that the people who really care about me are never annoyed by me talking about my ex, even when I was going through a period where it seemed to be ALL I could talk about. I’ve found journaling to be helpful, too.

I do think that over time the thoughts might become less frequent, especially since you have some coping mechanisms in place already like the meditation and the therapy. But it’s not a linear process. Certain times of year, certain places, and other things like that might cause a spike in thoughts about your ex. Try not to think of these as relapses or a lack of progress. Try not to think of it as taking away from your happiness in your new relationship either.

I’d also like to gently suggest not resuming contact with your ex or, at least, not feeling pressured to. I think the stereotype about queers always staying friends with exes can be really harmful. You seem to be having a lot of hesitation about the possibility of ever resuming contact, so I think it’s not something that should happen any time soon, especially if minimizing these thoughts is so important to you. It’ll of course be harder to stop thinking about them if there’s still contact. I started thinking about my ex noticeably less once I decided for good that I did not want to remain in contact with them.

I don’t think this is a “time will fix it” situation, but it IS a “time will make it incrementally easier” one (which doesn’t have as nice of a ring to it, but alas). The more distance you have from the relationship and the more time you invest in healthy coping mechanisms, the less destabilizing these thoughts will feel. And it’s likely that any one coping mechanism isn’t going to be the magical solution, so try a bunch, mix it up, pay attention to what helps (again, journaling can help with keeping track of that stuff). I wrote about actively changing associations with people/places/things in the wake of my breakup, and I think that could be a helpful thing to think about. I’ve found this book helpful, too. But it’s extremely likely that nothing will expel the thoughts for good, so above all else, don’t be hard on yourself.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 237 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. A couple months is such a short amount of time! I would expect a big breakup to take longer than that to get over, and being in a new relationship is a separate thing that doesn’t speed up that moving on process.

    • I know! I heard: “I ended a bad relationship where I was gaslighted two months ago, why am I thinking about her?” Just wow, new relationship or not you can expect to be thinking about your ex fairly regularly 2 months after a break up.

      Advice is dead on. Expect to have the ex on your mind. Don’t talk to your new partner about her very much, though.

    • My first ex literally targeted me. She manipulated and gaslit me from the moment we met. I was so naive I thought I was in love. Our relationship lasted 4 yrs despite the fact that I knew I was making a giant mistake within months. When it was over she threw me out, she had gotten all she could out of me. And, in return, I had given up my dream and plan of USC Graduate Film School, my reproductive rights, and saddled with thousands in debt. What she did to me stayed with me for decades. It shadowed and tainted every relationship I had thereafter. I couldn’t escape thoughts about what I had lost and how she had manipulated me. The anger would consume me at times and make me deeply depressed and suicidal at other times.

  2. echo the suggestions to give yourself time to deal with this – it’s hard, something that our ‘immediate culture’ doesn’t help us with.

    keeping it to yourself might encourage you to dwell on it, so follow up on Kayla’s suggestions to get your thoughts/feelings out. maybe there are Zoom meetups for bad breakup support groups that could help you deal without put stress on your new relationship.

    for myself, once i know i’m having recurring thoughts that i don’t want, it’s important to actively choose to let go and seek other behavior/interests. when a problem is fresh, you can’t stop thoughts from coming up, but i seem to find there’s a point where it could turn into a behavior pattern that i allowed or indulged, and i make a choice not to. sometimes that can be as simple as asking myself, ‘what am i getting out of doing this? is it worth the time and energy i’m spending?’

    hoping the best for you.

  3. as someone almost *three years* out of a really terrible relationship (and about two years into a really great one!), I still find myself thinking about my ex more than I might like. I find it comes up just as Kayla said, around particular times or things. I’ll go weeks without thinking about it, then suddenly I’ll have a wave of emotions and a desperate need to ‘figure it out,’ and I’ll find myself journaling and looking at old texts and wanting to talk about it.

    and I’ve found the best thing to do is just, ride those out. to me, that those episodes are still happening are information that I haven’t totally healed from all that happened to me in that relationship (not that “total healing” is necessary/possible or desirable, but it’s a sign there’s still more work to do around it). and trying to tell myself I shouldn’t care or shouldn’t be thinking about it has only ever been an impediment to actually feeling better about the relationship and myself. being in a toxic relationship does a lot to you, and you’ll process all of those effects over time, in pieces, as you’re ready. – or at least, that’s how it’s been for me.

    and, it’s not a betrayal to your new relationship at all. avoiding processing bad experiences w/ a past partner can be a great way to re-create that shit with a new one. you’re doing them and your new relationship a genuine service by taking seriously your pain and feelings.

    so basically, I’ve just seconded what Kayla said. but this just hit home for me and wanted to send out some “same, same” energy <3

    • Yup. Also some “same same” vibes over here. I’m five years out and it comes up less and less, but I am still dealing with the repercussions every now and then. I also want to say I’m sorry she did this to you. It’s terrible and unfair and nobody deserves that.

      It will definitely get gradually easier as you process it, but this is a part of your life experience that’ll partly shape how you see the world going forward. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to think about it. You may notice red flags in others in the future based on this reflection, or find some wisdom that you can share with others having a hard time… For me noticing the potential value of such thoughts has helped me to be less frustrated with them. Good luck with them, and be kind to yourself, this was a hard thing.

  4. You’re in the tough part now; in the long run you’re going to be fine. My divorce was final almost 20 years ago, and I still occasionally have thoughts about my ex, but I don’t have to assign them a lot of emotional weight. Mostly it just makes me feel compassion for my younger self and even to an extent for the ex. Honestly I hope they learned as much as I did and have gone one to find real happiness with someone else – but it is, wonderfully, not my problem! :)

    Just be kind to yourself right now. I decided I was going to learn everything I possibly could from my experience, because it sucked hard for a long time and I was bloody well going to get all I could out of it and then never go through it again! A detached, kindly meant “why did I X, why didn’t I Y, what else could I have tried when Z, what will I be wary of in the future” goes a lot farther than a guilt-ridden “How could I have X!!!”

    Your current partner’s support is huge, that’s great! Make sure they know how much it means to you! I liked Kayla’s idea of making sure you don’t dump everything on them; if it’s hard to have heart-to-hearts with anyone else right now, maybe for both your sakes set a timer for ten minutes and say “we are processing the heck out of some feelings for ten minutes, then we’re going to make guacamole!”

    Good luck. Breathe. You’ve got this. You’re going to feel so much better in the next few weeks, months and years! Your hair looks amazing! ;)

  5. Kayla, you always give such empathetic and useful advice. I am about 2 years out of a toxic Situationship and I feel like I’m just getting to the point where thoughts of my ex don’t regularly blindside me. That’s not to say I don’t think of them, but I think of them less often and with less anxiety. I think reducing the stress around the thoughts is a lot more likely than eliminating them completely.

    An aside, thanks for linking to bookshop instead of A**z*n! Love to see it.

  6. In addition to all of the great advice in the post and comments above, remember that thought and memory patterns are actually physically wired into your brain cells – it’s kind of like how walking back and forth over the same patch of grass will wear a path in it over time, and you’ll be drawn to keep following that same path (thought pattern), but if you keep choosing to walk a different way (acknowledge the thoughts and then turn to something else), eventually most of the grass will grow back over.

    It’s a process that takes conscious effort and time, and especially so if the thoughts are tied up in traumatic experiences, because our brains dig even deeper paths in those cases to try to keep us safe. But it is possible, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

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