You Need Help: I Can’t Get My Exes Out of My Head

Q:

I’ve been in a nearly 7-year relationship with the same woman. I love her (sometimes I don’t totally know why, but I do). Still, there are a few people from my past that I just can’t ever get out of my head… like my ex (who was horrible for me and sort of a “rebellion-based” partner) who tried to come between me and my current GF in the early stages. My ex didn’t want me, but didn’t want anyone else to have me either. I still somehow have desires to be “friendly” towards most exes, though I don’t necessarily want or need them. The other person is an ex-best friend. I was completely in love with this person (before my actual coming out process) and in her own way, I know she loved me too, but because I knew it wasn’t the same type of love, I pushed her away. I wasn’t the only one… apparently her dad straight up asked if we were lesbians one time because I hadn’t come over in a couple of days. We were that close. Eventually, I was the one who helped get her together with her now-husband. Since I’m older now and it’s been nearly a decade, I have the hindsight and reason to see why she cut me off (codependency and unfailing erratic BS to avoid my real unshared feelings), but it just hurts my heart and causes me guilt that I lost someone so important due to immaturity of my emotions. Has anyone else struggled with this before? How do we let go of past rejections and past mistakes when we cannot talk to the other person involved???

A:

Hello, friend.

[sits carefully on the gay green couch and invitingly, platonically pats the seat next to me]

You are a person who loves deeply. And I have a feeling we have something in common. I have a feeling that you, like me, give a lot to your partners in your closest relationships, with friends and with lovers, and don’t ask for a lot in return. And thus, when that relationship ends or fades, there is a significant chunk of you, your time and energy and heart, missing and gone with that person. But I promise you, you are still whole. All the extra space and time and energy you created for these missing persons may be gone and it makes sense to grieve it, but they can’t take your wholeness with them. What you do for others is a gift and unfortunately, you sometimes have to let it go with them.

It’s totally normal to still hold feelings for people you have loved and lost touch with. Frankly, there is no magic ritual to make that feeling of longing for them disappear. The only slow, uneasy balm is the passing of time and gaining some distance and perspective as you get older, which is where it sounds like you are now. You have every logical reason to not reach back out to either of these people: the ex-partner who was unhealthy and manipulative and the ex-friend who cut you off for being “too much.”

The ex-partner sounds like someone it’s just not healthy to have in your life anymore. I wonder if this “rebellion-based partner” is appealing to a younger, more idealistic and seemingly exciting version of yourself you want to reconnect with more than the actual ex. It sounds like it was one of those fast and hot relationships, with drama to keep it interesting. I imagine that 7 years into a relationship you may not feel that same heat with your current partner anymore, which is something you really should explore if it’s true. Most long-term relationships change over time and it’s not uncommon for a sexy and spontaneous beginning to eventually smooth out to something more like comfort and familiarity. Maybe there’s something even more to your current relationship in that it’s not meeting your needs anymore. Something implied in the phrase “sometimes I don’t totally know why, but I do” in your question says there is something you need to tease out there, maybe with your partner, maybe with a therapist.

Beyond that, it’s fantastically normal to still wonder about and think about exes. Just because they’re not in your life doesn’t mean they didn’t play a large role in your life. They’re a part of your life story as much as you are theirs.

However, we don’t need to be friends with our exes. One more time for emphasis. We don’t need to be friends with our exes. It’s extremely rare that it’s a sustainable and healthy thing to do. It sounds like it already ended badly the last time that you tried to be friends. Exes are exes for a reason and despite overwhelming lesbian stereotypes about everyone being everyone else’s ex a la “The Chart,” my real life experience is that, more often than not, exes part ways fairly permanently. Maybe amicably — maybe an occasional social media comment and maybe a quick chat when you run into each other at Pride. That’s a best case scenario. Many just never talk again and that’s that. The exes-to-BFFs thing is just extremely rare and oversold in lesbian media, in my unscientific opinion. For most people, it’s healthy to separate from someone whom you have a harmful experience with and, even in the most tame and gentle break-ups, there’s much heartbreak that needs time and space to heal.

In short, no, it’s not strange that you wonder about this person and hold some love in your heart for them and for what they used to mean to you. That’s entirely normal. But it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself having more closure even if you do get back in touch. And I’d think about why they hold so much space in your head. Is it about them? Or who you were when you were with them? Or about the contrast with your current relationship and current partner? Many of us have people in our lives who feel like “the one who got away,” but that doesn’t sound like the situation with your ex by how you’re describing it. It sounds more like you don’t feel you got closure and you feel you’re spending too much time thinking about this person now. Examine why that is. What is making you think about them and the way you were together, now?

Speaking of ones who got away, let’s talk about the friend…

Twice in my adolescence, I had very close best friends who abruptly cut me off. At the time, I didn’t understand why and it hurt, as much as — no, more than — any of my teenage romantic breakups. I went over and over in my mind, both times, why they didn’t care about me, what I could have done wrong to offend them, how I messed it up. As these friend breakups happened within years of each other, I also wondered if there was something wrong with me, as a human person, something undesirable about me that, twice, my closest friends shut the door on our relationship without reason.

In both cases, these friends came back years later as adults to disclose to me that they’re queer and that being near me back then, as I was coming out as bisexual, made them panic and need to shut me out. I was probably in love with one of them, looking back. The other one was in love with me, definitely. None of us dealt with it well at the time.

I say this not to give you a false sense of hope about your friend coming back to you or whether they may have reciprocated the feelings you had for them. I literally have no idea what your friend’s thoughts and feelings are or were. I share it to emphasize that, most likely, whatever happened with your friend had to do with them and not with you. It sounds like they were giving you mixed messages about wanting to be close to the point that their family members suspected you were dating and then coming back and saying you were too codependent. That doesn’t sound like a “you” issue to me. It sounds like you were both trying to figure out your own shit in a world that makes it extremely hard to figure out your shit if it doesn’t comply with a heteronormative, cisnormative, binary identity.

I want to fully absolve you of feeling like you did something wrong or that the end of the friendship was because of your immaturity. Maybe some of it was, sure, but regardless, it doesn’t sound like you could have done anything differently at the time, and it doesn’t sound like she communicated well with you, either. I imagine you were both acting in ways that were ridiculous, that you can see now with more clarity and time. Also, finally, it doesn’t mean that the friendship wasn’t as meaningful to her as it was to you. Obviously, you were very close. It’s highly, highly, almost certainly likely that she thinks of you, too, and remembers that time as a significant time in her life, too. I believe this is true with my whole heart. I hope it brings you comfort.

And still, with all this history and all this unresolved relationships trailing behind you, you move forward. You may never hear from either of these people again and you may always carry a bit of an ache for them, because they were special to you, because you loved them. Love them? And frankly, part of the whole “growing up and having hindsight” deal is realizing that life isn’t a movie with a beginning-middle-end and a clever little morality lesson to learn in closing. Life is full of relationships and moments left unfinished, full of beginnings and conflicts and climax points and unpredictability and very short on neatly wrapped-up resolutions. As frustrating as it can be, that is part of the grand ache of a life well lived. And within all that mess, we have the capacity to curate our own stories and that’s how we move forward without knowing exactly how it all ends. We are collectors of our own stories, many unfinished and many more not yet begun.

I recently viewed a piece in a surrealist museum exhibit, a 30-foot long exquisite corpse drawing title “Long Distance” and started and curated by Tom Joans, a Black surrealist artist and jazz poet. An exquisite corpse is an art piece that is made by many people, with one person starting the drawing from where the last person left off. Joans started the piece in 1976 and it ended in 2005, with 132 participants, and two years after his death. There can be beauty in unfinished endings and to letting people be a part of our life, making a permanent mark on us, for a time, and also believing your story will keep going.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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KaeLyn

KaeLyn is a 39-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, over-caffeinating herself, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 230 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. “Exes are exes for a reason and despite overwhelming lesbian stereotypes about everyone being everyone else’s ex a la “The Chart,” my real life experience is that, more often than not, exes part ways fairly permanently. Maybe amicably — maybe an occasional social media comment and maybe a quick chat when you run into each other at Pride. That’s a best case scenario. Many just never talk again and that’s that. The exes-to-BFFs thing is just extremely rare and oversold in lesbian media, in my unscientific opinion. For most people, it’s healthy to separate from someone whom you have a harmful experience with and, even in the most tame and gentle break-ups, there’s much heartbreak that needs time and space to heal.”

    THANK YOU

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