Why I Can't Be Friends With My Exes

My parents had a relationship similar to Catherine and Healthcliff’s from Emily Bronte’s tale of Wuthering Heights. Their relationship seemed like something to be desired because of its passion, but in reality they loved each other with a lot of jealousy, controlling ways, and violent behavior — a perfect mix of unhealthy relationship qualities. 

The Law of Attraction states like attracts like — meaning we tend to attract what we put out into the world, we receive what we ask the universe for, and have relationships with people who are like us.

As I get older, I realize how much this is true, especially in the relationship department. Since I grew up with a distorted idea of what love is, many of my relationships have struggled. Through it all, I learned a great deal about myself and have come to appreciate the people I used to know in my life, but staying friends with them post-relationship has never been something I felt was a healthy idea for me.

My parents had a relationship similar to Catherine and Heathcliff’s from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Their relationship seemed like something to be desired because of its passion, but in reality they loved each other with a lot of jealousy, controlling ways, and violent behavior — a perfect mix of unhealthy relationship qualities. Growing up exposed to this meant I sought this kind of love for myself and loved others the same way — and because of this I brought dysfunction and found or created dysfunction in my relationships. I tried to love the way I knew how and sought love based on how I knew it to be.

I struggled with codependency and boundary issues in my relationships to my own detriment. I gave up pieces of myself (mostly my hopes and dreams) to be with people — mostly lovers, but sometimes friends, too. I looked to them for approval and believed any disapproval made me terrible in some way, and that the opinions they held of me was the truth of who I was. I put others on a pedestal and placed unrealistic expectations of them. I put unrealistic expectations on myself too as I tried to measure up to being the perfect, right woman (whatever that meant). I once cut my hair very short for one of my boyfriends. It killed my self-confidence for years until it grew back — deep down, I knew better. It was a relief when we broke up.

According to the self-help book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, feeling relieved when you separate out of a relationship is a sign of codependency. Once I started reflecting on the relationships of my past, I started to see a pattern of codependent dynamics from as far back as I can remember.

When the little voice inside of my heart told me when it was time to leave a relationship, I wouldn’t  or I would try to leave, fail, and get depressed. I would feign happiness, even though I wanted out. When I finally got out of one relationship, I would quickly find myself in another — either with a friend or another romantic partner  repeating the same pattern of avoiding myself and looking for something I was never going to find over and over again. Many of my past relationships were unhealthy and the disintegration of them included infidelities, dishonesty, and violence — friendships thereafter would not be possible because the foundation of respect needed for any relationship to grow, thrive, and eventually evolve was not there. The men I dated didn’t always respect me, and I didn’t always respect them or myself.

Every time I ended up alone, I found myself looking inward at some of the dark, icky parts of myself. I’m still doing it, and it's difficult, but it’s worth it because through this work I found my super powers and learned to make more meaningful connections with people. For example, by realizing the ways in which I was trying to control and change others, I realized what my “dealbreakers” are and what I’m willing to change (or not) to keep a relationship healthy. Above all, I've learned to let go of the need for “Prince Charming” to approve of me, and I've learned that it’s OK to be alone and rely on myself when the alternative makes me feel unloved, especially by myself, and creates a situation that breaks my spirit in some way.

Through all of my relationships I experienced joy, disappointment, and loss. Over time I learned how to love and communicate in healthier ways. I learned that the people I want to be with aren't always right for me just because they have the capacity to withstand pain for as long as I do. Parting ways out of a relationship, for me, has always been confusing and painful. In order to “stay above the line” through breakups, I have had to let go completely. One experience had me going back to “pick at the scab” too much by hanging out with him after we broke up, which prolonged my healing and ability to move forward.

Attachment theory suggests childhood issues become apparent when people fumble along trying to love each other how they were “loved.” We attach to each other based on how we understand attachment to be. For some of us, love and attachment meant experiencing violence at the hands of people we trusted or who were neglectful to us because of their own issues. The way we internalize traumatic experiences from violence and neglect becomes a part of how we thrive in the world. Sometimes this means positive survival traits, and sometimes this means not-so-great traits, like being fearful, and our relationships with others can suffer or mirror what we learned from our parents.

As I get older and learn about the effects of childhood abuse and trauma on relationships, I’ve come to hold a soft place in my heart for those I grew up with or used to know in my life — the guys I dated, the people I worked with, the friends I told secrets to. I have a much deeper understanding and empathy for the struggles they went through.

As someone who has suffered with a waxing and waning self-esteem, I’ve always had to be careful with myself. A coffee date with an ex could easily open up a healed wound, not necessarily because of their “stuff,” but because of mine. Since my parents were always dealing with issues and unhappiness between them, it left my needing a kind of love that was hard to find, especially when I was young and inexperienced and didn’t know how to love in healthy ways — not even myself. I remember every person I spent romantic time with fondly, but I continue to move forward in my life. Perhaps one day that "forward" will include inviting them back in again as friends. Until then, I’m definitely a work in progress.

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