Kinstler: A love letter to yourself

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Writer

Recently, a reader of The Observer asked why she still missed her partner even though he had hurt her. She explained that she felt bad for missing someone who clearly didn’t care about her feelings. This sort of self-criticism and judgment is common when relationships end; however, ruminating over the “why” rather than simply accepting the situation as it stands will only prolong the healing process. 

We come by these prejudices honestly though. The “keep calm and carry on” mentality has somehow become the standard for good mental health. You may tell yourself that you need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and just keep it pushing, but sometimes that simply doesn’t work, and that’s okay. Mental strength does not come from being strong all the time; it comes from knowing how to be vulnerable in your toughest moments so you can accurately describe your emotions and triggers and find the space and clarity to employ the strategies that will help you grow.

When relationships end, it can feel like our loneliness, sadness and anxiety are gripping our brain so tightly that no other thoughts can slip through the cracks and loosen the hold. When this happens, it’s probably because you’re romanticizing your partner and aspects of your relationship.

When we miss someone, it does not take much to be reminded of them. Perhaps a certain song, place, smell or location is enough to send us spiraling. The mental grip tightens, and we not only reinforce these habitual patterns of anxiety and longing, but we also convince ourselves that our partner is someone worth missing. You put so much effort into making the relationship work that you begin conflating your effort with your partner’s character; why would you have worked so hard for someone who wasn’t worth it? This is a defense mechanism known as “projecting.” When a relationship ends, we may fear that we wasted our time chasing someone who was not the person we thought they were. To avoid the crushing reality such a realization would bring, we convince ourselves that our effort was worth it. How do we do this? We only remember the good times in our relationship and what we liked about our partner. We ignore the negative aspects of our partner and excuse their role in our pain to save ourselves the trouble of feeling foolish. Ironically, these projections are meant to help instead of impede your healing because you’re longing for a perfect situation and a person who never existed rather than accepting what was. Step one to stop missing your ex: break up with your projections.

Understand that there is a reason all relationships end, even in amicable break-ups. So, start by making a list of all your partner’s qualities that you disliked. Don’t be afraid to be brutally honest. Whenever you begin to miss your partner, you can refer to this list as a reminder that your partner was not perfect. This exercise allows whispers of reality to slip through when we grip onto our sadness so tightly; when that grip loosens, we can finally breathe. Next, connect the dots. Now that you’ve established that your partner was not a paragon, what did you learn? Based on things your partner did not have, what are things you need to be satisfied in a relationship? This aspect of the exercise shifts the focus from simply lambasting your partner—which can certainly be cathartic—to your own healing. Eventually, the hope is that you will continue to learn new things about what you need from a relationship based on what your partner did not give you. Further, you’ll view your partner not as the finish line, but as the jumping-off point for your self-love and healing journey.

Another reason you may miss your ex is because they were emotionally unavailable, which creates a cycle of toxic longing. When things are good and your partner shows affection, they are great! Your partner is everything you could have hoped to find in a person. But then, your partner recoils without warning or explanation, leaving you to wonder why? And then, soon enough, your partner is back with “good morning” texts, lunch dates and flowers. Shortly after, though, they recoil again. Of course, you don’t want to assume the worst of your partner. You tell yourself that your partner loves you. If someone loves you, they would never intentionally hurt you, and so you try and understand why they would suddenly become so distant, and you convince yourself that the reason is you. So, you work harder and harder, putting in more effort to try and keep your partner’s affection. Subsequently, you’re that much more grateful for even the slightest crumb of affection your partner may give you.

Additionally, remember projections? Because an emotionally unavailable partner puts us in a cycle of constantly fighting for their attention, we work just as hard after the relationship to justify that effort. Thereby, we put our partner on a pedestal so high that it makes our sense of loss feel insurmountable.

An emotionally unavailable partner will always leave you feeling like you are not enough to make the period when things were “good” last. When things end, this mindset tells us that we are the reason things fell apart when, in reality, it was our partner’s own inability to show affection and effectively convey their feelings that are to blame. You did nothing wrong and never deserved the emotional rollercoaster that was your relationship.

Furthermore, humble yourself. You do not have the power to change people at their core. If you did, you would be the world’s most renowned therapist, appearing on every talk show in the country. You did not cause such a drastic shift in your partner’s behavior; they simply showed their true colors and will continue to traverse relationships in this pattern of emotional inconsistency. Because we assign blame to ourselves, your sadness may combine with the fear that your partner will find someone who is enough to make them happy. However, no one could ever be enough for an emotionally stunted partner, and a person insisting on perfection will rarely find happiness. Let a therapist figure it out and take solace in knowing that you did everything you could.

Finally, whenever you feel sad, you miss them or you feel anxiety begin to creep into your brain, close your eyes and breathe. Imagine that you are sitting by the banks of a flowing stream. Let each thought and feeling be like a leaf in the water flowing away. Simply breathe into each feeling acknowledging that “here is a feeling of anxiety” or “here is a feeling of sadness,” and attach it to a leaf, allowing it to flow away. Do this for as long as it takes to loosen your mental grip. It’s okay if you assign multiple leaves with a repeating thought, not allowing judgment for it, and simply let them flow away. If your mind begins to wander, that’s okay too; simply acknowledge the experience and bring yourself back to the stream, attaching that thought to a leaf and allowing it to flow away as well. With each thought, remember to breathe. The point is not to empty your brain of these thoughts or completely detach yourself from your experience; instead, the point is to allow reality and the present moment to seep through the cracks and simply loosen your grip.