Why Do I Keep Wanting My Toxic Ex?
Hi there Doc,
First time writing. I like the way you think, so I’d like your take on a really annoying problem.
To make a long story short, I met this guy online about 11-12 years ago in a chatroom. I was in the middle of a relationship with someone else at the time, it wasn’t going well, and I guess I was looking for a way out. This guy (I’ll call him Mitten) and I lived very far away from each other (he was at the top of the country, I was at the bottom) but we fell very predictably for each other in a way that only two over-emotional assholes can. My feelings grew for this person to the point where I actually got the balls to break up with my boyfriend and settle into a LDR with Mitten, who had been trying to move down to my state for awhile, even before we had met. It was a ‘relationship’ of high highs and low lows, and I was living back with my parents at the time. He was so flaky with his feelings — one minute he was blowing up my IM and the next he wouldn’t talk to me for days. Well, he finally came down, and we met. It was awesome — I’ve never felt as comfortable with someone as I did with him. Here’s the kicker though: we only met once. He couldn’t find a job and had to go back home. Once there, we decided that there was really no point in trying to go any further, but our feelings kept us close. The same old pattern took shape. I was insane over this guy. The quality of my entire day hung on the possibility of his IM or phone call. He started ‘dating’ other people. This broke my 22 year old heart because he would tell me about it. This behavior went on for about a year and a half, maybe more, until we got into a massive fight over something I don’t even remember. He didn’t talk to me for months, but he would stalk my myspace blog every day.
(That’s how long ago this was…)
Finally, he started talking to me again, but only so that he could rub his dates in my face. I said, Bye Felicia.
Eleven years passes.
At this point I’m in a relationship with another guy (LEO), and have been with him for almost that long. We were having severe intimacy issues and though I loved him, I felt rejected and alone. Guess who bursts back into the scene, divorced and ready to cause some trouble? Mitten.
And cause trouble, he did. Just like my previous relationship, I began to rely on Mitten for all the validation and affection that I wasn’t getting from LEO, who knew I was having some sort of an emotional affair with Mitten, but didn’t say boo because he was having one of his own. I should have known better, because Mitten was repeating the same exact behaviors from ten years before: yanking me back and forth and up and down, telling me about his conquests, ghosting me for days and then popping right back up, flirting with my best friend. I was sick. It was like a sickness. Couldn’t get him out of my head, everything I saw reminded me of him.
As time wore on, I began to realize that we had nothing in common except the fact that we wanted each other (in varying degrees) and couldn’t have each other. He sucked at conversation, was immature as hell, and didn’t get me the way LEO did, but my heart wasn’t with LEO anymore. Unfortunately, I still wanted Mitten, but I hated myself for wanting him. A guy friend of mine who I’ve known since childhood (who had feelings for me) let me lean on him during this hard time. He would tell me I was worth more than this back and forth bullshit and urge me to cut ties with Mitten forever. I balked. It was one thing for me to be emotionally jerked around, it was quite another to let Mitten go and have to face the end of my relationship with LEO. My priorities were so backwards.
Sooner or later, it all came to a head. I finally had the balls to just delete Mitten. I never even told him I was doing it, but at that time his head was up some other girl’s ass and hadn’t talked to me for weeks. It felt like someone had socked me in the heart, but I didn’t falter.
Now it’s two years later, LEO and I have broken up (still friends) and Mitten and I haven’t spoken. He’s had a kid since then, which is a relief to me because if anything is a dealbreaker for me, it’s kids (I don’t hate them, they’re just not for me) but no matter what I do, and no matter what I tell myself about him, I can’t get him off of my mind. It’s ridiculous. I’ve met the guy once twelve years ago, we’re not good for each other. My conscious brain knows this. Apart from learning he has a kid, I don’t visit his profile. I don’t have pictures of him and I have given myself every talk in the book, but I know he doesn’t look me up (I can’t be 100% sure, but I was always the one who cared more out of the two of us) and that hurts me on the dumbest level ever. I don’t know why my brain insists on feeling this attachment to him and I hate him living rent free in my head. I am at a loss as to what to do. I know you might say to just give it time, but it feels like I’ve given it twelve or so years, and that’s freaking enough. What is going to make my silly brain realize that I need to let this guy go?
Just When I Thought I was Out
This one is actually shockingly simple, JWITIWO, and something that a lot of people with toxic exes are familiar with. Mitten’s been fucking with your head in a very particular way. Whether he’s doing this consciously or he’s stumbled onto something that just happened to work for him, Mitten’s been exploiting a quirk of human psychology that creates a sort of emotional dependency on certain people.
If you look back on the relationship you had with Mitten, you’ll probably notice that those intense highs and intense lows were pretty even at first, possibly even erring a little to the “incredible high” side of the equation. Then, as the relationship progressed, those lows were becoming a lot more frequent, while the highs seemed to be rarer and rarer… often to the point where you could never be entirely sure when they would come again or how to make them happen. If we were a species of pure logic and reason, it wouldn’t take much to see that this is a shitty situation, the bad times outnumber the good, and the good certainly isn’t good enough to outweigh all the bad, and we’d bounce right out of there like a 2nd tier Legion of Superheroes character. But we’re not; we’re a species that thinks that it’s all about logic and rational thinking but is ruled way the hell more by our emotions.
This process is what’s known as “intermittent reinforcement”, where neglect, poor or even abusive treatment is occasionally leavened with affection and approval at unpredictably random intervals. Those occasional moments of affection after a long stretch of neglect or mistreatment hit so strongly that it’s like a dump truck’s worth of serotonin was poured into your head. But at the same time, because those moments come so randomly, it’s literally impossible to predict when they will happen or what causes them, and as a result, there’s a part of you that keeps trying to figure out what the magic formula is to bring back those good feelings. You’re never entirely sure when they’ll come again, but you feel like it has to be just around the corner, right?
This is the exact same dynamic that casinos use to get people hooked on slot machines and developers like King Games use in apps like Candy Crush Saga. You get a couple easy wins right at the start, and then those wins get spaced further and further apart and give less and less each time. But you become determined to stick to this because you feel to your goddamn bones that the payout is coming any minute now.
This psychological quirk is one major reason why so many people stick around in awful relationships with people who are demonstrably shitty. Not even the covert shittiness of a Crouching Nice Guy, Hidden Asshole, but the sort of shittiness that can be seen from space. The sort of shittiness that makes your friends all say “wait, why the hell are you still with them, there is absolutely no goddamn way that they’re so good at head that you’re willing to put up with this.” And, hell, you were in a long-distance relationship where you never actually saw Mitten, so you didn’t even get that excuse.
It’s intense, it’s dramatic and it is really, really hard to break out of… and there’s frequently a part of you that feels like maybe those shitty times were just a weird little quirk and things would be better now.
Which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened. You were in a low place in your relationship, Mitten popped right back up, dangled his affections for you like yarn in front of a kitten before rubbing your face in all the strange ass he was getting and trying to get with your friends. And to be clear: you didn’t fall back into this dynamic because you were weak or foolish. You fell back into this dynamic because he’s a manipulator who — through chance or through deliberate practice — knows exactly how to push your buttons and he caught you at an emotional ebb when you would be most vulnerable.
Those rare highs mixed with the more frequent lows are why, even now, even knowing what a shitheel he is, you still think about him. You are, in a very real way, in withdrawal. One of the reasons why break-ups can hurt so much is, in part, because you’ve been cut off from your main source of oxytocin and dopamine. With Mitten, those hits were so rare that it was like rain to a desert plant, and your brain wants those feelings again, even though rationally you know this is a “let’s spend the night in the abandoned hospital with the shady past” level bad idea. Much like someone trying to break his addiction to Diet Dr. Pepper (ahem), you’re being hit with cravings because your brain doesn’t want to give up those sensations, even though the source is bad for you.
But here’s the thing: that will pass in time. Our brains may be lazy and will fight change with everything they have, they will give up and adjust to the new normal. Hedonic adaptation is one of the weirdest and greatest gifts of being human; we can get used to anything, including “not going back to my shitty ex, ever.” One of the ways you can make this easier on yourself is to take the Nuclear Option and cut off every access point he has to your life. That means blocking him on every social network you have an account on, setting filters to send his emails straight to the garbage, making sure that his number never shows up on your phone and that he can’t so much as see your pics on Instagram. Not only does this mean that he can’t show up like a zit before a big date, but you will have to overcome multiple hurdles to ever get in contact with him. Every extra step you have to take to be in contact with him makes it that much easier to resist the urge. And while there can be a moment where the desire to see him or hear from him again may feel overwhelming… that will pass. That last, incredibly powerful surge is known as the Extinction Burst, and it’s your brain’s last gasp attempt to get that source of happy chemicals back. But if you can white-knuckle your way through… that’s when the desire will finally fade for good.
Oh, and one more thing that will help you get over the urge to see him again? Find a new source of oxytocin. Having someone else in your life — someone who hits all the happy buttons without playing fucked up head-games — will ease that emotional and chemical withdrawal, and make you much, much happier than Mitten ever did or could.
So I (f) have had an on-off relationship with my ex (m) for the past 2 years. Recently, he’s shown that he’s growing to be a better person, and I’ve been putting serious thought into getting back together with him.
Before I do so, I need to tell all of my close friends. One of these friends (m) has a huge crush on me. Back when my ex and I were on a break, this friend tried to talk me into dating him instead. I said no, because I wanted to heal from my past breakup. What’s the best way I can go about breaking the news to him without losing the friendship?
He is very important to me, but the fact that he has feelings makes the situation really tricky. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Friends In Need
Before I even get to your question, I’m gonna be honest: I’m not entirely sure why you need to give a press conference to your friends before you get back with your ex, FIN. Unless this was a break up so dramatic that it caused fissures in your social circle or he was so awful that dating him was harming you or your friends… it’s not really something that people need a heads up over. Your relationship is your business, and while your friends can have opinions on the matter, they don’t get a veto. So the need to tell everyone beforehand rather than it being fait accompli is somewhat lost on me.
But that’s a separate issue from your bud who’s got feelings for you. Not to sound callous, FIN, but frankly this is a him problem, not a you problem. Having been the dude-as-what-had-an-unrequited-crush on folks, I’m sympathetic to how he feels. But honestly, it’s on him to manage his feelings and act like a grown-ass adult about it, not on you.
Now, I do think it’s a good idea to not callously rub his face in the fact that you’re dating someone else — whether your ex or anyone in the future — or take advantage of his affection for you. It’s a kindness to not cause unnecessary pain, especially in someone who you care for as a friend. Maybe a “look, I wanted to let you know that I’m getting back together with Ex” would help soften things instead of suddenly finding out by seeing the two of you canoodling at a party… or maybe that’ll be like tapping a glass statue with a hammer and chisel. Either way, though, it’s not your responsibility to manage his feelings for him, nor can you control how he takes the news. There isn’t some magic way of phrasing things that will take away the sting of “I’m dating someone else.”
At the same time, however, if he decides he needs to step away from your friendship so he can heal and get over you… well, that’s ultimately what he needs to do for himself. If sticking around while you’re dating someone else is going to be like sandpaper on his soul, then it’s not kind to him to try to get him to stay. Just as his desire to date you doesn’t mean he’s got dibs, your wanting to keep him as a friend doesn’t preclude his doing what he needs to in order to take care of himself. If he can’t be around you until he’s gotten over his feelings for you, then it’ll suck, but you really don’t have any choice but to let go of his friendship for now and hope that he comes back when he’s ready.
At the end of the day, while it’s important to be considerate, you’re both ultimately responsible for your own feelings. He’s going to have to be able to handle your seeing someone else, and you’re going to have to be willing to accept it if he decides he can’t be friends for a while.
This post was previously published on doctornerdlove.com.
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