Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

A roundup of psychoanalytic points of view

Why Can’t I Get Over My Ex?

Not letting go of a former love may help us hold on to our loving selves.

By David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.

We are all familiar with people who have gone through a break up in which persistent thoughts about the ex seem to linger. The relationship is over, hopes of reconciliation have been exhausted, all communication has ceased…and yet the ex retains a special place in the stricken one’s heart. Could this be a good thing? In our apparent reluctance to let go of an ex, we may be holding on to our capacity to love and the feeling of being loving.

Common wisdom tells us we have to purge ourselves of thoughts and feelings about former lovers and partners. When our loving feelings endure after the break-up, we can feel confused and ashamed. Confused, because we think that as long as an ex is on our mind we must not be “over” him or her, that our romantic lives are stalled. Ashamed because we mistake our loving feelings for a desire to reconcile, to be with someone who no longer wants us or with whom we ended a relationship.

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Compounding all this is the isolation we might feel, particularly if we have exhausted the patience of friends and families. After all, they have supported us through the relationship’s difficulties and the break-up. Following a prescribed period of mourning, they expect us to move on.

Loving feelings about an ex can continue for any number of reasons. Often enough, folks take this as an indication to attempt reunion. Sometimes this is absolutely right. But frequently the lover realizes his recollected feelings and memories—the internal image of the ex—are distinctly different from the feelings engendered in his or her actual presence.

Learning to distinguish between the internal image of an ex and the actual person can lead to appreciation of our own loving feelings. While we may feel consistently injured and angry when in the presence of an ex, in our internal world we may be able to access love and compassion for that same person.

Experiencing our loving self through this internal image can be a powerful motivator during times of struggle. This is similar to imagining a parent being proud of our accomplishments, long after he or she is gone.

A year after his break-up, a young man explained to me that he would imagine his ex being proud of him when he accomplished a difficult task. The internal image was supportive, proud and dependable. Like a child’s teddy bear or blanket imbued with the special ability to comfort him, this young man’s creative capacity to love, awakened in the relationship, endowed the internal image of his ex with the power to help him through his struggles. The internal image signified the loving relationship he and his former partner created during the best of times—it was a representation of his ability to love.

For years after the end of a five-year romance, a young woman described how she continued to revisit loving memories she had of her ex, the special ”bubble world” they had created together. She remembers their first Christmas together alone in their tiny studio apartment with a found tree branch for a Christmas tree and small gifts they had made for each other. Although her ex broke up with her, recollecting the feeling of closeness she found in this relationship enabled her to remain connected to the loving part of herself.

Our lives are an accumulation of loves as well as losses. Sometimes we decide who we want to date based on avoiding the failures of previous relationships. Perhaps instead of focusing on what we didn’t like about our former loves, it might be more helpful to focus on what we liked about how we loved them.

The accumulation of internal images of lovers contributes to a richer internal world. These images represent the breath of our loving self. We are strengthened by the variety of ways in which we can experience ourselves as loving. As the adage goes, we never fall in love the same way twice. We are revealed to ourselves through our relationships. Maybe in some ways all loves are important in allowing us to experience ourselves as loving.

David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Candidate at The William Alanson White Institute. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in Manhattan.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, edited by Susan Kolod, Ph.D., and Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, is under the auspices of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, the journal of the William Alanson White Institute.

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