You Need Help: So Your First Girlfriend Broke Your Heart — Now What?

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Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q: I was broken up with three years ago by my first girlfriend (it was bad. A bad relationship but also a shattered heart at the end). And now I’ve kind of met someone new but I’m terrified of going out with her because I don’t want to hurt again (classic) and I’m currently not 100% sure about my feelings for her, so I don’t want to hurt her either.

Also though I’m still kind of thinking about the last girlfriend. I’m pretty sure I’m over her, but I still occasionally stalk her on social media and even now thinking about dating the new girl, I can’t help but think of the old gf seeing pictures of us and maybe being jealous. I mean how delusional is that.

I just don’t know what to do. I know you have to date people to end up with someone (if that’s the goal, which in my case, it is) and I know there’s something to be said for just having fun and dating people even if it doesn’t work out but I feel like I need to protect my heart in the process, but that also seems impossible.

Anyway, that is my story. Any advice?


Hello dear friend.

There’s so much to chat about here, and this is one of those questions where there’s not a right answer. This is one of those questions where there isn’t even one question. So I’ll tell you what — right now, I’m in my pajamas and I’ve got a nice glass of wine. It’s 11:11 pm (make a wish!). My fiancée is asleep already and I’m still on the couch with my computer, writing to you. What I’m going to do is pretend that I know who you are, that you’ve stopped by my apartment right about this time. I want you to pretend, as I am doing, that I’ve lead you to the grey armchair in my living room, poured you a glass of Malbec or tea or water — maybe I’ll even have mixed you a drink from my bar. And we’re just going to shoot the shit about this one. Because there is no prescription for what you’re going through right now, not even more cowbell.

First, I want you to know that everything is going to be totally okay.

Now to tackle your first paragraph — I see two things going on here. You want to protect your heart and you want to protect her heart. This is good. You’re not emotionally reckless. But I want to explore the notion of emotional safety. Have you heard of the sex education community’s push to talk about safer sex instead of safe sex? I know, I know, you didn’t ask about sex. But that’s usually the kind of question I answer, so just take my hand and go with me here. The reason this push exists is because there’s no such thing as sex thats totally safe — hell, once I burned my hand on a massage candle. Once a cat jumped on my back during sex and raked his claws from my shoulders to my hips. Even when all practical measures have been taken, there’s still a chance that something will happen to you that you didn’t plan for.

I bring this up only because I think we need to talk about safer dating. Safe dating is a myth. I was going to type, “anytime there are two people involved, there is potential to get hurt.” But I actually want to take it a step further than that: any time a person exists anywhere on the planet, and they don’t even have to be taking actions at the time, there is potential for that person to be hurt. Kinda sucks, right? Except it doesn’t; accepting the reality that romance, dating and emotional life is never 100% safe is liberating. It normalizes yucky feelings and missteps and false starts. It provides a context in which we experience heartbreak without breaking our souls. Heartbreak is common, and you aren’t alone here. Chances are the girl you’re talking about has her own experiences with heartbreak as well.

Now I also hear you’re not sure about your feelings for her, but alas friend. The way you figure out your feelings for a person is by spending time with them. Much of the time, that involves dating. So how can we synthesize the concept of safer dating into your situation, here? Well, actually that’s not something I can definitively answer for you because you didn’t tell me what was bad about your last relationship and your last breakup. But let’s engineer it backwards — what sucked last time? Was there a specific action or boundary that could have prevented it from sucking, or made it suck less? Sit down with a journal, and make a list. Go ahead, I’ll leave you to do that in my grey armchair in my living room. I’ll even pour you another glass of… what was it you were having again?

Are you finished with that? Cool — maybe not on the first date, because usually that’s reserved for things like, “what’s your favorite color?” and “Do you know all the lyrics on the Wicked soundtrack?” But maybe when you get around to a second date (if there is one), or a third, you mention the specific things you’re looking for out of dating. For example, if one of the things that sucked last time was you moved too quickly before you really got to know your ex-girlfriend, be really clear how you want dating to proceed this time. You might say, “last time I jumped in with both feet and that was an experience I needed to have. This time, though, I think it might be better for all parties concerned if we take things slower and I get to know you one step at a time.”

Now the secret here — whatever these boundaries are, however you want dating to proceed — if the person you’re looking to date doesn’t have the same ideas, you might want to question continuing the dating process. That’s what safer dating is all about, right?

There was some other stuff you mentioned that I’d love to chat about. You mention you’re still kinda Googling your ex, and that there’s an aspect of moving on that’s performative and done for the benefit of your ex’s imagined jealousy. You recognize that these behaviors and feelings aren’t emotionally productive for you. So I’m going to offer up some advice that I feel like some people will disagree with: just stop doing that. I actually think not looking your ex up on social media, and I mean ceasing the action, will eventually stop the resulting feelings. We fall into patterns of behavior, and the way we act is directly linked to the way we think and feel about ourselves and the world — think about the common advice to build a habit of out-loud positive self-talk. Ending the pattern behavior can go a long way to ending the feeling — but what if the two are connected in a vicious cycle of terrible things and thinking? Every time you get the urge to look up your ex-girlfriend, or to alter your behavior based on her imagined reaction, as yourself one simple question: “do I really care?” And no matter what you actually think or feel, answer yourself, “no.” And rationalize that. Come up with why you don’t care.

Here are some example reasons why you absolutely do not care what your ex is doing right now, or what she thinks of you:

  • Because her thoughts and feelings have no impact on your day-to-day existence.
  • Because you’re too busy with [insert literally anything here] to devote any space in your life to something as unproductive as caring. (A simpler way of stating this: You’ve run out of fucks to give.)
  • Because you didn’t trust her judgement of you at the end of our relationship and you still don’t trust it now.
  • Because exploring your own thoughts and feelings is a better use of your time than imagining hers.

I could keep going, because there are a bajillion reasons why you actually don’t care. Now if you were just a few weeks out of this break up, I probably wouldn’t give this same advice; everyone needs a wallow period, as evidenced by season one, episode seventeen of the Gilmore Girls. But you’re three years out. Your wallow period is long over. No matter what, you do not actually care! Here’s where I pour you a third glass of whatever it is you’re having and we accidentally wake my fiancée up because we’re screaming “WE DON’T ACTUALLY CARE” back and forth to each other in my living room.

All this is to say that I think you’ve got this. I think you should move forward and have at least a first date — ask her if she knows what happens in season one, episode seventeen of the Gilmore Girls. And if she answers that question correctly, well then. On your second date, be crystal clear about what safer dating means to you. Don’t make compromises that compromise your emotional safety, and have fun! You can do it. I know you can.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 539 articles for us.

36 Comments

    • <3 Thank you Maddie.

      Also that cat was demonic and I loved him very much. Abby and I were talking about that study this morning, and we’ve reached the conclusion that neither of our current cats would kill us on purpose, but they might do so by accident.

  1. Beautiful words of wisdom, Ali. Wish I were sitting in your grey chair. Also, this:

    Here’s where I pour you a third glass of whatever it is you’re having and we accidentally wake my fiancée up because we’re screaming “WE DON’T ACTUALLY CARE” back and forth to each other in my living room.

  2. “accepting the reality that romance, dating and emotional life is never 100% safe is liberating. It normalizes yucky feelings and missteps and false starts. It provides a context in which we experience heartbreak without breaking our souls.”

    Thank you for this, Ali. Thank you for the grey armchair safe space to normalize our sucky shitty missteps and the opportunity to accept heartbreak as an acceptable, essential part of living and loving and learning and growing and also thank you for shouting with us I know I needed it

  3. “Once a cat jumped on my back during sex and raked his claws from my shoulders to my hips.” I think there is possibly another column writing itself here – ‘What to do with animals before sex’. Or perhaps, ‘What to do with animals in the event of sex’.
    Yes, I am going to leave those titles as are.

  4. I’ve always had a problem with Facebook stalking the ex because if I ask myself if I care, the answer is “YES, I DO!! I literally cannot stop thinking about this person 24/7.” I don’t have enough Jedi mind tricks up my sleeve to convince myself I just don’t care. So I take a slightly different approach. When I have the urge to Facebook stalk my ex, I ask myself if anything I see on that page could possibly make me feel anything but horrible. What if I see she has a new girlfriend? I’ll feel horrible. What if I see she doesn’t have a new girlfriend and she’s taking pictures of her Chinese takeout and watching Netflix alone. I’ll still feel horrible because she doesn’t want to do that with me and would rather be alone than have me there. There is literally nothing I could see on her page that wouldn’t make be feel horrible. Then I decide I don’t want to feel that way and do something else.

    • I am so there myself! Pretty sure my ex is dating someone new and I really can’t stand to see that pop up in my newsfeed all the time, so I just unfollowed her. Again. Now if only she would stop popping up as the first friend in my friend list and the first suggested tag every time I post a pic, that’d be great. It sucks that even when you’re actively trying to avoid Facebook stalking, it still seems to happen against your will.

  5. *settles in another grey armchair and sips on a glass of Merlot”
    Another member of the broken heart Club here:
    You know, I’ve thought that I had gotten SO fucked over by life for the longest time, and I can’t say that it didn’t take me quite some time and some very, very awkward attempts at dating (abstain from alcoholic AND highly caffeinated beverages while you’re stumbling back into this, if you want some decent advice) to realize that I really don’t care anymore and moreover just how liberating that is.
    I’m not waiting or hoping for Love like a lost puppy at a train station anymore that someone, someone very special, someone who means home and forever has simply forgotten to pick up.
    I’ve lost faith in that kind of love, but that has made me
    pick myself up and I must say, it’s a relief to not be in Love or looking for it in every friendly smile anymore.
    Most of the hearts beating around out there have been broken in one way or another, there is, after a while, a certain peace to it.
    Cheers

  6. This is lovely advice. I want to hang out in your gray armchair too!! Also, I wanted to add: therapy. The asker mentions it was a bad relationship, they had a shattered heart, etc. I know there’s a stigma about going to a therapist, but honestly, they’re for everyone, and they can really help. I just started seeing one to unpack a previous bad relationship that was ended a year and a half ago and is still affecting me, certainly unconsciously, and also through triggers and such. This asker’s previous relationship may not have been abusive-bad; maybe it was just two folks who didn’t have the communication tools or just weren’t right for each other. But therapy can still help and I would highly recommend it. Some things you can’t unpack on your own.

  7. Ugh. I am still not totally over my first love-of-my-life from SEVEN YEARS AGO. And what’s worse, I was the one that broke it off, not her. Plus I’m married now, to a woman I am in love with and happy to spend the rest of my life with.

    But I still dream about my ex frequently. My dreams are always so bittersweet. They start super romantic and we’re either getting it on or just cuddling, and we’re like, “Finally we are back together where we belong!” and then I remember my wife, and I get so terribly awfully sad because I realize that being with my ex means I have to leave my wife (sorry, polyamory is a no-go with my wife). And then the rest of my dream is just me being SO FUCKING SAD that I can’t have a lifetime of cuddles and sex and hand-holding and heart-to-hearts with both these people that I love.

    In real life I try to dream up ways to run into her, think of excuses to text her. It’s horrible, and it’s not fair on my wife.

    I thought I would be past this by now. I feel like I need to exorcise her from my heart and I don’t know how.

    UGH.

    • I have a straight friend in this situation. Her ex, who she thought she would be with for the rest of her life, broke up with her and promptly impregnated another lady (this is relevant because they are both super-Christian and he broke it off by telling her she “wasn’t the one God had for him.”).

      She has gone to lots of therapy, because now she has been married for 7 years and has a small child but is still working through this.

    • This sounds harsh, I am really sorry.

      For me, it did take a about 10 years (yes, I am serious) to completely get over my first great lady-love, whom I met when I was 16. We were on-off for way too long and she broke my heart way too many times, but I was always willing to go back. I still have not fully unpacked what that all was about, maybe some day I will.

      Finally she moved to another country, without telling me (I heard it from a mutual friend after she had moved). We haven’t been in touch since. I think she will always somehow loom in the horizon of my mind, and I am starting to be okay with that. However, I think it is important to understand that SHE IS NOT WHO I FANTASIZE HER BEING. That one would love me and want to be with me forever, and the real one doesn’t. We should try to live in reality, not it our dreams, no matter how hard that may seem.

      Wishing you all the best on your journey!

      • “She is not who I fantasize her being.” This is so true, and such good advice. For me, I would keep forgiving abusive exes. They would say they’re sorry, I would believe them, the exact same shit would keep happening. A couple nights ago, I had a dream about my ex, and I really missed them. But I knew that it’s better for me that I never talk to them again, because they’re not actually the person they are in my dreams. Also, echoing someone else’s comment, therapy really helps. Luckily, I am finally dating someone who treats me with respect, and for the first time in my life, I know what a healthy relationship looks like. And honestly, they’re so much better in reality than I could have dreamed of.

    • New Autostraddle merch opportunity! How about an enamel pin: it says Grey Armchair Club, or just a grey armchairwear with the Autostraddle logo on it. I’ll wear it with my Lazy Femme t-shirt and my plethora of scissoring merch (I have the sweartshirt, red t-shirt, and the muscle tank,and I need more!)

  8. Great advice all around. Hell, that could have been me in that grey armchair just a few months ago. I started seeing someone but the talk just never came up. Until it did. And she and I want different things so now we’re in this weird, inevitably awkward “let’s try to be friends” thing because, well, I developed feelings along the way. And I know she did too.
    It’s gonna be ok. I keep telling myself that because it’s true.

  9. This is literally exactly what I needed to read today. I just started dating this wonderful girl and these same worries have been at the forefront of my mind. Thank you so much for such a great piece of writing.

  10. I also think it’s really important that everyone knows their attachment style while they’re dating.

    Basically, it’s the idea that the quality of attachment you have with your initial care givers (generally parents) effects your future romantic relationships for better or worse. If you didn’t get your emotional needs met initially then your attachment is ‘insecure’.This has been super helpful for me to help pick better partners, but it’s a work in progress.

    My first ,and only girlfriend was really messed up over a tumultuous relationship with her ex. I definitely carried a sense of not feeling good enough.Unfortunately, I’ve had that felt that feeling repeatedly with future dating situations because of a mutual failure to clarify what we were both looking for early on.

    So, my tips for emotional safety i’ve learned so far:

    – know your attachment style and how to work with it

    -be upfront about what you want early on ,even if you’re not 100% sure, state what you definitely don’t want (also important for anxious and sensitive people like myself)

    -if you feel something is ‘off’ don’t ignore it

    -feel the fear , and write down the facts to see if it’s justified

  11. Good advice. The worst situation I’ve been in was having a girl use me to break up with her girlfriend. Of course her gf was the crazy type and confronted me in front of all my lab members embarrassing me in front of my adviser and other grad students (most of whom didn’t know I was queer). At the end of the day, I decided neither of them were worth it.

  12. This advice is so on point, I love advice that is grounded in logic (list of reasons not to care) that is practice-oriented (every time you do X, say y). I want to send this to my ex and all my friends and myself after the next breakup

  13. I’ve been waiting for this post for a long-ass time. Hence, I’m breaking two years’ lurking time to leap on top of the grey armchair and give both the author and the people on this thread a giant hug.

    Everyone has a first love and a first heartbreak. It’s what unites us as humans, what sustains us; it’s what makes Adele’s music so damn good, and it is a milestone. You can honor and respect that in your mind, but make no mistake – social media stalking is more about temporary gratification, gambling to see if they feel just as shitty as you. Don’t do it. You just don’t care.

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