The One Who Got Away
By Tina B. Tessina, PhD
When I was a girl, growing up in the small township of Rockland, New York, there was a tiny post office, which was a small room with a separate entry in the house next door. Rockland’s official postmistress was Clara Weiss, who seemed very elderly even when I was a very small child. She was what we used to call a “maiden lady” or spinster, who had dedicated her life to taking care of her mother, who was disabled, and not quite balanced. Mrs. Weiss had one leg, and frequently escaped from the house and crawled around the yard, yelling strange things. Clara, as you might suppose, did not have much of a social life. After her mother died, and Rockland lost its tiny post office (we had to go into the slightly larger town of Roscoe, a mile away) Clara went to work in the central post office, about 20 miles away. There, she met a co-worker, and when she was 73 years old, I remember that we gave her a bridal lingerie shower. It really is never too late to fall in love. Clara moved away to live with her husband, and they had about 10 good years together.
Several years ago, a friend and former student of Richard’s, who was in her 70’s reconnected with an ex whose marriage proposal she had rejected in her 20’s because he had a drinking problem. In the intervening years, they both married other people, had children and full lives. Fifty years after their first romance, when both were widowed, he tracked her down, she went down to San Diego to meet him for lunch and did not return for a week. They, too, married and had some happy years together.
A very dear friend of mine, who lives in another city and has been divorced for many years, has been living happily for a couple of years with the man she met in college and decided not to marry. They had each married other people, had children, divorced years ago, and reconnected last year. They are happy together.
In addition to these stories of reconnected love, I often see clients in my practice who get back together after breaking up or divorcing. In fact, some couples come to me after they have broken up several times because of fighting and disagreements, but something always pulls them back together. Surprisingly enough, many people do start dating again after they have divorced or split up. I believe in the power of love, and if your heart is yearning, it is fine to reach out to a first or former love — as long as you do it properly.
You may never have really resolved the old relationship satisfactorily, or one or both of you may have matured and become a more suitable candidate for a relationship. Lots of people find out they appreciate each other more after they have been apart for a while. Also, as I said, I have seen several couples re-connect joyously much later in life, after having marriages and families with other partners.
It depends on how accurate your memory is, and how good or bad the reality feels. If it is good, then you really think it was “love at first sight.” If it is bad, you are left with “what was I thinking?” It is extremely easy to idealize someone you have never known well — the reality never impinges on the fantasy, so the ideal person doesn’t tarnish. You remember a rosy picture of perfection. That is difficult to let go of if you never get a reality check.
Can this really work, or will it just fall apart again? Here is how to see if you and your ex can make it work.
Dr. Romance’s Guidelines for Improving the Odds with your Ex
* Consider seeing a therapist on your own, to get expert help to decide if you’re searching for this old love for the right reasons; and to help you get some perspective on what might need to be corrected.
* Make a careful first contact: strictly “Hi, how are you doing?” For example, if you see the old love on Facebook, try sending a message and asking to be friends. Do not say anything about still having feelings. Your old love may very well be married now, or even gay. You need to find out what is going on before making a move.
* Be aware whether forgiveness is needed. Did you hurt this person’s feelings way back in college? Were you hurt? Old, unresolved feelings can hang around a long time, and erupt when you least expect it.
* If you get a positive response, go very slowly. Rushing into things means you are trying to avoid some truths. If it is going to work, it will go better if you take the time to build a better foundation than you had before.
* Treat it like a new relationship. Start from the beginning and do it differently — it could work this time.
* Analyze what went wrong the last time, and consciously try to fix the old problems. If you cannot talk honestly about what went wrong and what to do differently, you will never change anything.
* Make sure your ex is as determined to improve on the old relationship as you are. If he or she is blaming you for everything that went wrong, disaster is imminent. If you are blaming your ex, it is just as big a problem.
* Insist on couple therapy for both of you. Pre-commitment therapy can help you find out the pitfalls and whether you have solved the old problems.
After all this, you might still find it is too late to remedy the problem that led to the breakup. You may discover you are clinging to a fantasy that is not supported by reality. If you try to rekindle an old love, and it does not work, then you are faced with letting go – again.
You might even have the urge to try harder because breaking up finally gets through the denial and the fantasy that behaving badly or not cooperating is OK. We also have a lot of cultural mythology about “I’ll never stop loving you” which says clinging and martyring to this lost love means you are truly in love. But clinging to an impossible lost love is unrealistic.
You must understand that a relationship is a partnership and requires work from both partners in order to succeed. The initial romance stage is not supposed to last, the relationship is supposed to grow into a real-life partnership, and that requires paying attention, learning, and growth. It is not a fairy tale– it is a real-life love story, and well worth the work required. If you give nothing, you get nothing. Love is something we create by working together, and one person cannot force it.
Clinging to a lost love can turn toxic: persisting in showing up at your ex’s house, calling or showing up at work, threatening physical harm, calling your ex’s family and friends, or otherwise interfere with his or her life, will not only push your ex away, but it is also illegal in many states and defined as stalking. Sometimes, clinging is encouraged, wittingly or unwittingly, by an ex who doesn’t really want to be with you, but who either doesn’t want to ‘hurt you’ or is still getting benefits (financial help, sex without commitment, you do the laundry, you’re willing to take the kids more than your share) that he or she doesn’t want to jeopardize. But this one-sided arrangement will not make you happy, and it is probably time to move on.
Once you are bonded with someone, it is very painful to let go. Since most of us like to avoid our feelings, we do not want to do the grieving that is necessary to let go. But, when you have had a loss, there are a certain number of tears you must cry to let go — getting on with the crying is the fastest way. Also, the dissolution of the relationship might not have been your idea, so you are clinging to a dream — in denial. And letting go is the path to finding the love you want.
I wish you love – whether it is rekindled, or you move on and create something brand new.
© 2020 Tina B. Tessina (from Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today https://tinyurl.com/y8tdwwje )
Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (www.tinatessina.com) is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 40 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 15 books in 17 languages, including Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today; It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, The Real 13th Step, How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together and How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog (drromance.typepad.com), and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter. Online, she is known as “Dr. Romance” and offers courses at generousmarriage.com. Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video, and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina