Why you’re not over your ex

Holding on to phantoms of people


My high school boyfriend was the sort of guy every parent wants their daughter to marry — and the sort most daughters want to marry, too. Smart, sweet, fun, humble, hard-working, boy-next-door good-looking, and set to take over his dad’s firm one day. Better yet, all he wanted was “the family thing:” to get married, buy a house in the ‘burbs, have kids, go on Sunday bike rides, etc.

Only problem? That wasn’t what I wanted.

I broke up with the dude after two years.

And then I spent the following five pining over his ghost.

I was dating another guy during that time, of course—and he, too, was a fantastic catch: a hard-working banker with midwest morals with a good heart and good looks. And he also wanted to marry me, within a month or two of meeting.

I dated him for five years before breaking it off. And — guess what? — I spent the following three years pining over his ghost. Even though I’d spent the majority of our actual relationship pining over the first one.

These weren’t mistake break-ups

I could have married either of these dudes and been fine. For sure.

I just didn’t want to. And I knew that. Each time I took the time to re-rationalize and recall the reasoning, I would remember this and agree with the decision all over again.

But that didn’t stop me from holding on to their phantoms.

We mis-remember and romanticize

I don’t miss all my exes after a breakup. (I’ve dated plenty of dudes I set down and never look back on.) But the ones I do, I’ve totally romanticized.

I only remember the good times. I remember the sort of shit I listed above — the shit that looks good on paper. I’ll remember the feeling of security and ease. Comfort and cute inside jokes.

I don’t remember the loneliness. The lack of intellectual connection or care.

I misremember. Because we all do. Human memory is scarily unreliable.

If you show people fake photos of themselves doing something, they’ll start actually “remembering” it. This is a phenomenon known as memory implantation.”

But even short of false memories, our actual memories are like a game of “telephone.”

“Memories aren’t static… Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time.”

So every time you remember something, you’re only remembering the last time you remembered it. And over time you remember it however you want.

“Why might some guy I fucked years ago remember us as having stellar sex when I thought it was pretty average? Because he jacked off about it a bunch of times.” — Emma Lindsay

Just like we’re all jerking off to all memories of exes we miss.

It’s easier to sink your emotions into a phantom than commit to someone in front of you.

It was so incredibly easy to compare them all — to hold each new boyfriend up to a past one that wasn’t even perfect himself in real life, but nears perfection in my pumped-up memories.

“He’s not as sentimental” or “he’s not as playful” or “he’s not as stable.”

Anything to keep me from investing wholly in the one in front of me.

Once I broke up with the second boyfriend, I didn’t need to hold on to the first one. Because it wasn’t about the person, it was about having a phantom.

Love avoidants are more likely to do this.

People who are love attached or love anxious readily cling to anyone and everyone in front of them, right at the onset of a relationship. Love avoidants hang back, and one of the subconscious distancing strategies we use is dumping our frayed emotions into “the one that got away.”

Because there’s no risk of getting hurt by a phantom.

There is no “one that got away”

There is only your real life, right now, present day — and the things you choose to hold yourself back from living it.

Great relationships aren’t about finding near-perfect partners — they’re about being nearperfect partners. Which means accepting another person, flaws and all, and investing in them wholly, without carving off some of your care for “nostalgia” — or cutting either of yourselves short.

Choose the one to love. And then love the one you choose.

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