Advice: "How do I feel again?"

After the end of a decade long relationship, a man wonders how to connect with the world and future love

How do I learn to feel again? A decade ago I unexpectedly fell in love. A friend of a woman I occasionally went on dates with decided she wanted to go out with me instead of letting her friend not commit.  So over the course of her last two weeks in the area we had a whirlwind romance. She was the only person who could ever convince me to skip work to spend more time with her. She came out as bi. Eventually, she left the US and we tried to keep it alive long distance via skype and e-mail. But it was tough and she broke up with me on Valentines day. However, we had committed to go to her brother’s wedding together. So we both flew in to Europe. I came from the US, she came from the Middle East. And it was like we had never broken up. We had a great week together and our relationship was back on. Eventually she finds a way back to the US temporarily for a year so our long distance is only in the US. And despite being two people who never thought they'd get married we end up getting married. We adopt a cat. We struggle through the green card process. But once it's complete we move from where I am from and move so she can get a free masters. She works at a college while getting it. Things are good even if I have gone backwards in my own career. Eventually the college job wears on her and a triggering incident kind of just begins a weird descent in our relationship. But things continue jobs change, apartments change. We decide to adopt a dog. A month after we adopt our dog she reveals she has feelings for someone else and has been seeing them for months. I am devastated. We continue to live together but more as friends. Finally, two years ago I felt comfortable enough to get my own apartment and take the cat with me. We still see each other frequently for the co-parenting of our animals. And then this year she announces she is moving in with her girlfriend who just bought a house. This is a different woman than she originally had feelings for and she managed to cultivate this relationship through a pandemic. And I just don't know how to feel and how to get back out into the world. Pre-pandemic flaring up in 2020 I maybe went on 3 dates. So how do I figure out how to put myself out there? And how do I get over that sinking feeling that she never had feelings for me? ...I realize some of this should be redacted or changed because anything with questions of countries...etc. But yeah I just feel like I am sinking alone in a place I don't really know anyone...but I don't know where I know anyone anymore. This is very rambling, and ultimately I know she never intended to hurt me she was just uncertain about her own identity. But it is really hard for me now to figure myself out after this especially as a person who never expected to get married due to seeing their parents relationship. And before we got married I told her one of my greatest fears was becoming my dad and sometimes I feel far too much like him.

“She decided” “she wanted” From the very beginning you remove yourself from the events, the passivity signals that you see the relationship as something that happened to you, not something you did. As a result, you haven’t been able to effectively metabolize the experience.

The details you chose to share reveal someone hoping that what I actually answer are the questions you’re afraid to ask, the judgments you want someone else to make for you. You tell me she broke up with you on Valentine’s Day, that you still attended an out of country wedding with her, that in your time together she successfully completed a masters for free while you “went backward” in your own career. I wonder too, if the fear you expressed to her about becoming like your dad says something about you needing to prove something through this relationship. You’ve written a story about a man whose past nine years were primarily shaped by a woman who sounds selfish and careless. You tell me far more about her and her choices than you do about yourself and your choices. I think you’re afraid to learn whether you made the wrong ones.

In the amount of context you provided I hear someone struggling to justify the relationship. It sounds like you’re judging yourself for even believing things could have worked out in the first place and you want someone else to tell you conclusively whether they could have or if the ending was inevitable. The questions we avoid are the ones that chain us. Thats whats causing the sinking feeling.

You’re suspended in the pull of two poles. One justifies the relationship, the other justifies it ending. If she never loved you, then it’s okay it ended. But that would reduce the most significant relationship of your life to a delusion. If she did love you, then it was okay you allowed yourself to be vulnerable enough to love her for so long. But that raises the more painful question of why that love wasn’t enough, teasing a tragically unfulfilled potential that maybe could be realized if only you knew what to do differently. I’m sure across the years there are moments that speak to both realities. You’re doomed to sink unless you resist the impulse to narrativize what happened. Whatever it was, it happened.

Our brains trick us into thinking that conclusivity will relieve us somehow. As if determining the rights and wrongs of two imperfect people who interacted can retroactively lift pain and that we must scan our memories for cause and effect in order to identify any possible truth that may expose an even more painful reality. Often we become so preoccupied trying to determine how we’re supposed to feel that we don’t sit with how we actually feel. The human mind seeks two things automatically: safety and shortcuts. We should forgive ourselves for razing the surface of our memories when what we really need to do is dive deep into how they made us feel. 

Forgive yourself for participating in the most natural human instinct of forming a romantic bond to another person and don’t pity yourself for the resulting disappointment. It is heartbreaking that your parent’s relationship had made you even less likely to marry another person and that when you did, it didn’t work out. But keep in mind what I often say about the difference between compassion and self pity. The latter is immobilizing. It is not extra sad for you then it is for every other person whose heart gets broken. You are brave for the attempt and you are capable of trying again. Your formative years exposed you to the ways people can fail each other and you still offered the best you could to another person. That’s not foolishness, that’s a hope and intention every person should move with. Neither love nor hope is a finite resource.

I think you want me to tell you once and for all whether your former partner’s behavior was that of someone that loves you or that of someone who doesn’t so you can decide how to move forward. Neither of us is qualified to answer that for you. And we don’t need to for you to able to move forward. I’m going to tell you something more useful. It doesn’t matter. Your experience does. The veracity of her words and actions, or conjecture about her intentions, is irrelevant and impossible to determine.

You say that she was just coming to terms with her own identity. Your desire to be sympathetic to her experience is admirable, however identity and orientation and even the process of self discovery do not exempt someone from treating another person with love and respect nor does it disqualify your experience from registering as painful. You experienced a very devastating and confusing break up multiple times with the same person.

You say that “ultimately I know she never intended to hurt me”. I’m not sure you do. I think that’s another one of your lingering wounding questions. The one most people are left with after a painful relationship; does the person we care about care that we’re hurting? It’s very difficult not to take it personally when people don’t love us the way we want them to. But we have so little to do with their strengths and abilities and even less to do with their desires.

It’s very useless to tell someone to simply stop needing what they need. It’s better to try and identify the unmet need that lives beneath the impulse of our feelings. Whether or not she meant to hurt you is irrelevant, all we can know and all we need to know is that you’re hurt. This was a very significant part of your life and you’ll need time to mourn it. You don’t need to confirm her intention to allow yourself to feel what you feel.

“They didn’t mean it” is a very dangerous train of thought, it’s an assumption that distracts us from how we were impacted even when it’s true. Your former partner need not have been malicious to have hurt you. You’re still entitled to how you were affected. It’s very important you realize this so you can finally metabolize your past and move forward without its burden. 

I’m using the word metabolize very intentionally. Feelings you don’t let yourself feel remain in you. Allow and absorb, so it can dissipate. It took me a long time to understand what people meant by the phrase “feel your feelings.” It seemed so redundant, but it makes sense considering the lengths we go to to avoid pain. Turns out letting yourself feel is as simple as pausing your thought process to admit something hurts, or makes you angry, or confused. Or that you miss something that once felt good even if it no longer does. Most of the time our too invisible hearts just need to feel seen and all of time we’re well placed to do the looking ourselves.

The best and worst part of feelings is that they don’t last. You can be happy again. You could be sad again, maybe even in the same way. But you’ll know then too it won’t last. I don’t care whether or not she “really” loved you. I care about whether you felt loved. And how well you can love another now. So should you.

Stop seeking the story and realize there are many. Give yourself one of them - the truest story that allows you the most peace. This is more relevant to you and your life than trying to arbitrate events that contain many different equally valid interpretations, which you will only exhaust yourself trying to compare against each other. 

One story is that against all odds and self doubts you proved to yourself you can love and even marry. Don’t nurse the wounds and wounding questions of the past even though they’ve been such reliable company to you. It’s time to get out there right? Being out there will yield nothing until you make yourself ready to be there with clear and honest intention. Because right now, even if you were to meet the right person, you’d be looking to them to answer those wounding lingering questions. Or distract you from them. When you meet your next partner you must come to them with your love not your pain. 

After a breakup the person you’re obligated to understand is yourself. The only intentions you have enough information to analyze are your own. And while you can forgive every person involved the only person you can hold accountable is you.

All of us have a responsibility to heal our own pain in order to show up authentically in a relationship. Whether it is childhood trauma inflicted by adults that failed us or pain from failing ourselves or another, the hurts we haven’t healed are guaranteed to block any love that tries to reach us.

Love stories are right about love being a transformative healing balm but it’s not one that others can apply for us. Where would they? Who else has access to the site of our injuries except us? “You must love yourself before you can love another” is almost true but not quite accurate either. Because the process of learning how to love oneself (despite one’s self) is ongoing and we’re worthy of love at every step of it. The more accurate, albeit less catchy, way to put it is that before we can engage in romantic love in a way that ensures the emotional safety of all involved we need to be aware of our hurts so we don’t accuse another person of causing what was already there. Or react to it by inflicting the same pain on them or redoubling it on ourselves. We’ll think our partner doesn’t appreciate us when we already had a wounded self belief that said we aren’t enough. We’ll think our partner isn’t being sincere when we’re too wounded to show up authentically etc.

That’s all advice for your future. At present, this former partner occupied far too much of your world and the pain you associate with her occupies far too much of your psyche. Please don’t co parent a pet with the person that broke your heart. Does a cat need joint custody or is that an excuse for something less helpful to you? Her being bi doesn’t mean it wasn’t cheating for her to be seeing someone behind your back and only tell you months later. Is this the type of person you care to be friends with? What exactly are you staying in contact for?  You sound like someone mature enough to be honest about the answers. I’m not going to impose one on you because there is so much more to this, and every connection, than is visible to anyone outside it and it matters that she mattered to you, even if the circumstances shifted over time. You wouldn’t have mentioned the most recent update in her relationship status if it didn’t mean something to you. Remove yourself from being affected by the actions of someone who is not considering you when they act.

You asked me “how do I feel again?” 

You already feel. Your message reveals pain, hope, love, disappointment, nostalgia. You feel a great deal. But you must be wondering the same thing many of us do, “will I find love again?” Well there’s clearly plenty within you given your past choices and your present yearning. You just need a person to receive that love, and beam some back to you. Start with yourself. Stop judging yourself, and if you can’t help that then forgive yourself for whatever still feels bad. We only do what we can at the time with the information we have. And please consider clearing your former partner’s energy from your life. Her presence is casting such a wide shadow, where could a new partner even stand? 

I hope you’re investing in yourself in ways you may have neglected to during the relationship. What are the things you want in your life and what are you doing to invite them in? What do you define yourself by? Does it serve you? These are the questions relevant to your future. It’s a big world. Reacquaint yourself with it. Don’t be intimidated by how many people you don’t know, think of how much room you have in your life to meet interesting kind people you could enjoy spending time with.

You’re clearly a decent person who isn’t irreparably damaged by your past. There’s no bitterness in your message. You tried to be gracious to your former partner even when discussing her anonymously with a stranger. And it sounds like you prioritized her over the course of the relationship. You’re capable of caring so deeply for another person. Those are strengths.

You didn’t write to me as someone expecting something of others, or even complaining about them. You asked me about something you expect of yourself. That’s maturity.

You’re concerned about the state of what you offer while so many sit around feeling sorry for themselves, greedy to get what they’ve yet to give. I respect you for being grounded enough to be introspective. This already advantages you above most men. 

I don’t know what traits of your dad you fear replicating but it sounds like you already carry guilt for being like him. Be careful, this can lull you into not growing beyond him because it’s a form of acceptance. Guilt and fear are useless emotions beyond the information they offer. You’re afraid of becoming your dad because he probably behaved in ways that hurt others and his relationships and you don’t want to do the same. That’s good. That’s information. But fear is not good. Fear keeps you from acting on information, likewise with guilt. Stop worrying and instead actively encourage habits that contradict whatever traits you’re concerned about. I bet your self awareness already distinguishes you from him. Don’t let constant self judgement turn that awareness into self-conscious.

There are two types of feelings. Those that push us forward, and those that weigh us down. In order to maintain positive momentum in our lives we must lean into that which propels us further (self awareness, accountability, forgiveness, love, acceptance) and avoid getting stuck with what holds us back (fear, shame, guilt, questions we can’t answer and don’t need to).

In writing to me you’ve revealed yourself to be a person that wants to move forward, genuinely wanting that is more than half the journey. I’m afraid I have less advice on how to meet people these days. But I can tell you how to be attractive, something I have more experience in.

Carry yourself with the confidence of someone who knows they have something beautiful to offer — sincere love. Do things that make you feel good about yourself, what are your favorite features about yourself? What is, or could be, something about you another person might enjoy or appreciate? You can’t control others, but you can decide who they meet when they meet you. 

Most of America is sorely lacking in environments that encourage community (it’s not good for capitalism) and is even more lacking in environments that foster connection. But it’s full of people looking for both. It’s a shame that America enforces so many cost barriers to the most basic human needs. When I was younger I met a lot of other kids at the after school events the local library held. I can’t think of an equivalent available to adults that isn’t an expensive class or takes place somewhere you don’t have to spend money to be at.

But I hope the following are options available to you, and I’ll turn on comments on this post for others to leave suggestions too: Apps for making new friends are popular for a reason, don’t feel embarrassed about using them because the people you’ll be interacting with are pursuing the same thing you are. And the wider your social group, the more possibilities for new love. I’m proud of you for being mature enough to resist loneliness. You are never as alone as you might fear being. This exchange is proof. Be friendly with people on social media, you may find new friends with common interests. Most colleges have programs for older students, you could audit a class where you might meet other adults. You mention your pets — that puts you in a community. Pets are a very accessible point of connection with other people, maybe take yours around town and talk to those that’ll inevitably stop to pet your animal. Coffee shops often have fliers for local events or host some themselves, that could be a great environment to meet other people. See what classes the local gym offers once things open up again and approach others with warmth. I know there are challenges to making new friends that are unique to single adult men thanks to the behavior common to other adult men. Don’t let that deter you, just move thoughtfully and respectfully. Don’t be overeager or overfamiliar. The same thing that helps sustain relationships helps start them — being free of expectations.

It’s annoying when people insist that painful experiences are lessons, it’s not fair to tell someone in pain to feel gratitude instead. Besides, I’m wary of encouraging people to rationalize suffering. Still, experience does give your life texture and your character depth and is also simply an inevitability, simultaneously the ROI and tax of life. The rest of your life can be very different not simply because of what happened to you but because of who you are as a result. The distinction is important because who you are now is still up to you even if what happened to you wasn’t. 

I hope I’ve offered you a way to look forward, you have a lot to look forward to. I promise.

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