"Help! How can I get back my ex!" is the distressed plea of many of my clients when they contact me to launch therapy. After years of gradual relationship deterioration, failing communication in a relationship, and off-putting interactions, at least in the eyes of their partner, some final-straw development suddenly propelled their partner to insist that they separate.
Panic ensues. There's a feeling of having fallen into a fast-moving stream heading straight for the terrifying waterfall of permanent split-up.
The good news is that there is potential for ending up with reunion and a better-than-ever relationship ahead. Here's five steps that can save folks from crashing down the waterfall, enabling them instead to find solid ground and a bridge to a better future.
Peter's young wife Paulette had said to him, "That's it. You've betrayed my trust one time too many. You are far too nice when you talk on the phone to the mother of your daughter, and by contrast you show no love toward me. All you do with me is avoid me or get mad. I've had it. Please, leave the house."
Paulette did agree to join Peter in therapy, but other than that one session a week he was banished from her life.
Peter was devastated. He moved out of his home to a small apartment where he sat each night feeling desparate and miserable, overcome with self-loathing, regrets, guilt and shame, and loneliness.
After starting in therapy Peter began to try to get himself back on his feet by writing his thoughts and feelings. Sending his thoughts via email to his therapist (me) helped him to feel less alone.
I later asked Peter if I could publish excerpts from his emails in this article. He liked the idea that his period of deepest suffering might someday help others facing similar circumstances.
"Human experience has not yet devised anything," Peter wrote on an early email, "that can shield us from the pain of a broken love, the pain of feeling thrown out of your own world and out into the cold. Same as being born: I huddled in a very cosy place that was my natural place to be, then all of a sudden I am ejected into a new and hostile place, one that's not where I felt at home. And there is nothing the baby can do but scream and cry and feel terrible."
In a later email, Peter wrote similarly, "I am overwhelmed today with feelings of loneliness and, yes, anger. I don't want to feel this way and perhaps tomorrow I will feel differently, but I don't really know how much more of this I can take.
"I'm told that there are two people who have created this negative dynamic, and yet I feel like the only person being punished here. I'm locked out of my own house, living in a small lousy room away from my things, my comforts, my bed, and my wife, the only person who means anything to me in Denver. I am living like a gypsy …
"How long am I expected to live like this? The days are VERY lonely. It's an unbelievably depressing feeling to wake up and immediately realize that I'm not home, and have no friends or family to talk with … I get up, I meditate, I swim, I go to work, I eat, I lift some weights, I meditate again and go to sleep. Wash, rinse, and repeat. I'm not enjoying work (which would normally be a decent distraction), but feel I can't quit, as I have too many financial responsibilities I have to uphold. I'm amazed I haven't gone mad yet.
"I just want these feelings of ache and loneliness to go away."
While Peter was suffering deeply, journaling in emails enabled Peter's initial thoughts and feelings to flow through a natural grieving and healing process. Having a trusted friend or relative to talk with can help similarly. The first shock of a separation typically induces a reaction similarly to the disbelief and pain of loss that people experience after the sudden death of a loved one. Peter's journal entries enabled him to dump, explode and vomit out his distress, launching his recovery process.
Peter's writing included many insights, which we then discussed further in his therapy sessions:
"I want to stress that I don't like feeling the way I do right now. I especially don't like the feelings of anger that I am experiencing. Or the feeling of abandonment."
In our therapy sessions Peter recalled that in his family expressions of anger were not allowed. As a young boy with no one who would listen when he felt negative feelings, Peter often felt abandoned.
Early life experiences form templates for later experiences. Peter's reactions to his current situation consequently repeated the abandonment feeling he had felt as a kid whose parents wanted him to be seen but not heard.
"Yesterday, I wanted to read a novel that I have at home and, of course, the house is off-limits except at hours of my wife's choosing. I could have phoned and arranged a time, but why am I always put in the position where I have to ask for something? It's demeaning and emasculating."
While his current situation was inherently upsetting, Peter again gradually saw that he was reacting through the lens of his family-of-origin realities. Loving responses were not freely given there. Asking for his parents' attention felt demeaning and emasculating.
Tracing strong reactions to current life events back to their origin in earlier experiences can enable a person to identify what felt the same then and now. The healing question then is to find what in the present situation is different.
Peter realized that now, as an adult, he had more options than he had had as a child for finding solutions to his life challenges. Therein lay the hope for change, pointing the way toward healing. He could safely ask his therapist for attention. His wife also did not intent to put him in a demeaning or emasculating position. She just wanted change.
Peter discovered that if he wanted to talk with his wife, he would get the best results if he asked from a stance of self-respect. He tried asking if she would meet him for coffee. She replied, "Sure!" In fact, the groveling and self-deprecation that Peter had learned as a child were the opposite of what his wife wanted. The more confidently he addressed her, the more positively she responded.
Writing down his painful feelings helped to free Peter from continuously thinking of them. Writing and then talking with his therapist about his thoughts enabled him to let go of beating himself up in anger and also of drowning himself in self-pity.
Peter meanwhile gradually began to find ways to "get back on his own feet." He began feeling less desparate and terrified, moving forward toward safer ground.
Getting back on his feet involved reconnecting with old friends, and making contact with new ones as he pursued interests in activities he enjoyed. He joined a book group, found a place with religious services that he liked. He recalled the sports activities that in better times, he used to enjoy and returned to doing those activities again. Bit by bit, his spirits lifted.
As he felt stronger, Peter felt less need to rant. No need to play the same recording again and again. Anger begets more anger, and repeatedly reminding himself how bad he felt was making the message 'a little bit louder and a litte bit worse' with each go-round.
To his relief, Peter began to experience his small apartment somewhat more positively. Now it felt like a cozy place to read and enjoy time alone. His loneliness, too, began to abate to the point that some evenings he even preferred staying home alone to running out to activites with others lest he drown in the pain of loss.
Step 2: List your spouse'scomplaints.
For years Peter had reacted to Paulette's complaints about him with defensiveness. When he did allow himself to hear information about what he was doing that troubled his wife, he'd get mad at himself. Listening to her had escalated his agitation and distress instead of leading to learning. Now Peter decided he'd better address her concerns, beginning by writing out a list of all he could recall. "Information is power," he reminded himself to ease the sting of shame and guilt.
a. An affair. Even though it was just a one-night stand, he had to acknowledge that this action had seriously violated the rules of their marriage.
b. Appearing to treat his wife as a second-rate citizen by ignoring her much of the time and by disagreeing with whatever she would say when they did talk. His kindly telephone conversations, by contrast, with his ex-wife added fuel to her fire.
c. Walling himself off from her as he sunk in a sea of depression and self-pity about his job.
Step 3: Clean up your act.
Peter focused one by one on each of the three arenas in which he now realized that he'd made serious mistakes.
a.Learning from the affair: Peter wrote out the series of misteps that he had allowed himself to take down the road to sexual betrayal. He listed what had motivated each step — and also what would have been far better options for responding to his concerns at each point in the pathway. He identified the specific situational, thoughts and feeling cues that triggered each step, and the alternative action he would take in the future in response to each cue.
For instance, in the future when he was traveling for business and staying alone in hotels he would plan ahead what to do in the evenings: phone his wife, work on his computer, read, watch his favorite TV shows. He would NOT go to the hotel bar. If he met people in the lobby, if the acquaintances were women he would speak with them briefly and then say goodbye. He would go out to dinner only with men friends. If women joined them, he would not engage in one-on-one conversations with them. Alcohol, private time with women plus loneliness and a disconnected relationship with his wife had been a dangerous combination for him.
b. The lack of positive conversations with his wife.
Peter realized that his wife was right that he had been avoiding talking with her.
He had been avoiding conversations in part because when they did talk, talking seemed to lead to arguments.
Exercises on listening skills helped Peter identify the counter-productive listening habits that he had developed that had been a major factor in creating needless antagonisms. With more effective listening skills, he could see right away that he could make the tone of their conversations more positive.
As he saw the impact of his new listening skills Peter all the more conscientiously dug into learning all he could from his relationship skills book, workbook and online program. He realized that prior to the relationship breakup he had had no idea of what a high-skilled activity sustaining a loving partnership was. Now that he understood the potency of collaborative dialogue, conflict resolution and emotional self-regulation skills he studied intensely every night as if he was preparing for exams.
c. Depressive self-absorption
With hindsight, Peter could see that the unpleasant situation he found himself in every day at work had left him depressed in the evenings. His response to depression had been to sink increasingly into "poor me" ruminations. "How can they treat me so unfairly? Why can't my boss appreciate my talents? I'm stuck in a job that's not my thing. I hate having a job that doesn't fit and a boss who's chronically negative."
Peter also switched from "awfulizing" about his work situation from a stance of helpless victim to taking a problem-solving stance. What could he do to find a more positive work situation? He began networking with others in his field, stumbled on a job that sounded far more suitable, applied, and at this point is looking likely to get the position.
Step 4: Agree with your ex that you also want to divorce the old relationship.
Explain, and show by your actions, that you would like to keep the partnership, you are determined to radically change your relationship behaviors.
Peter arranged to meet his wife for coffee. He brought with him his list of all the old habits that he now understood had been problematic in the old relationship. He also listed the new habit patterns he was building to replace the old ones.
As they talked Peter often felt tempted to say, "and you do it too!" He successfully refrained. He had learned that his job was to look at what he could change, not to criticize or advise his wife. That change proved to be one of the most potent signs to his wife that Peter was in fact behaving far more appealingly.
Step 5: Reconnect from a stance of strength
Because he was feeling so much better about himself with his new problem-solving and listening habits, Peter was able to talk with his wife in the playful and engaging mode that had attracted her when they had first met. Paulette was delightfully surprised. She appreciated his clarity about the mistaken roads he had taken. She liked his vision of the new Peter. She especially like the many ways that already he was acting in the new ways. She felt for the first time in years that Peter was actually seeing and listening to her instead of locked in a narcissistic bubble.
"I can see now," Peter explained to her, "that in my depression about work I became totally self-centered. I withdrew from you, so no wonder you felt angry and distanced from me. As both of us withdrew from each other we lost our sexual connection. I felt desparate for attention. Then I took the ultimate wrong turn by seeking sexual attention from an infidelity. Big mistake! I'm so glad that now I'm looking for a job that will be a better fit for me. I think I've found one, and I'm thrilled at the prospect."
"You were right too about how much I coddled my children's mother. The reality is that I was afraid of her. Just like when we were married I was always trying to keep her from getting mad at me. When I was depressed I had no spine for anything. That era is over as well. Now when she calls, I get the facts of who to pick up when and where, and that's it."
Closing perspectives on the question "How can I get my ex back?"
Note also that therapy is virtually always more potent if the couple goes together for some of the sessions. Paulette, after initial reluctance, decided to schedule sessions with Peter's therapist as well. They sometimes saw the therapist separately, and sometimes together which helped them to recognize and rectify the problematic patterns in their prior interactions. When both partners participate in a process of growth, the odds zoom up that the outcome will be positive for both of them.
Be sure however that one therapist works with both of you if you want to increase the odds that you will end up re-united as a couple. Two therapists, one for each partner, all but guarantees that the relationship will end.
Lastly, will Peter get his ex Paulette back?
When if ever will they move back in together and enjoy a renewed marriage?
Peter and Paulette have agreed that they need still more time before they make a final split-up or re-unite decision. Paulette is wary of false hope. She wants to be certain that she can trust that Peter's changes will hold, and hers as well.
For sure though, whatever their ultimate relationship decision, both Peter and Paulette feel out of their lifeboat and back on solid ground. The panic of a devastating waterfall ahead has been replaced by anticipation of a safer and sunnier future, whether in fact they end up together or apart.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships.
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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.