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How to be human: moving on after heartbreak

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. After IGN, she completed her PhD in sociology, but so many people mixed it up with psychology that she figured she might as well get back into giving advice. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com.

Hey Leah,

I was in a seven-month relationship with a girl who's 19. I'm 26. Everything was wonderful, but we started having arguments over trust issues, and then she left me. Every time I would see her after that, she gave me the biggest smile, yet two weeks later I caught her kissing another guy. I haven't talked to her since then, but I can't get her out of my head. It's been a month and a half now, and I still miss her so much because we shared a lot of intimacy. What should I do?

Thanks,
Can't Forget Her

Hey CFH,

Oh man, I am sorry. As someone who went through a rough breakup earlier this year, I completely sympathize with what you're going through. It's hard!

In fact, let me tell you a little story about that very breakup. We loved each other, but there was a big set of problems forcing us apart. I couldn't fix those problems, as hard as I tried. Only he could. So we split. I was heartbroken, and I thought he was, too.

But then! Three or four weeks later, guess what I saw all over Instagram? You got it. My ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, canoodling and posting like crazy from all their fun adventures and appearing to have the time of their lives. CFH, it was awful. Beyond awful. It felt like it was directed at me, like he was out to hurt me. And there was not one goddamn thing I could do about it but unfollow both of them and talk to my friends on long walks in the woods or over cocktails. That hurt email I sent definitely did not help the situation.

Here's an unfortunate truth about the universe: you cannot control anything in it but how you act. And even that is sometimes hard to control.

You can't control any of that

Why am I telling you that? Because in this situation, it's pretty normal to want to control everything going on. How you feel. How fast you're getting over her. How it seems like she's not bummed out like you are over the end of your relationship, and she should be. How she still smiles at you, and that should mean something. How she's out there kissing other guys where you can see her.

You can't control any of that. Not your feelings, not how slow time seems to be going, and definitely not her. I'm not saying you are controlling — although you tell me you had some trust issues, so maybe this is something you struggle with. But in this situation it's a totally normal and human reaction to want to control things because it seems like that will help you feel better.

It won't.

I have a sense this isn't what you want to hear, but I'm going to tell you anyway: what you should do now is give yourself time to get over her. It's the only thing that helps. A month and a half or two months seems like an eternity because you're so miserable, but it's not that long, especially not when you love someone and you shared so much intimacy. Just because it seems like she's moved on doesn't mean you need to be in the same place. And just because she's kissing someone else doesn't mean it has anything to do with you. Maybe it's because she's 19 and in a different place in life than you are. Maybe it's because she hasn't ever really had her heart broken, so she doesn't know how you feel. Or maybe it's how she gets over things, by distracting herself rather than dealing with her feelings.

The only thing that truly helps after a bad heartbreak is time

Right now you're probably like, ugh, what a boring and unhelpful answer. But I'm telling you this from the bottom of my heart. The only thing that really truly helps you feel better after a bad heartbreak is time. You've got to give yourself time to feel better and get over her. Not just any old time, either, but time away from everything that has to do with her. This means no peeking at her Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, old emails, old texts, photos, anything. You miss her so much, and every little bit of contact you have with her or your relationship is basically a little hormone jolt, that feeling of how much you love her and were happy to be with her. Then you come crashing down again from that mini-high, and if you do that over and over you never really have time to heal. I know you're not talking to her, but no looking at anything, okay?

Stay as busy as possible. Work out a lot at the gym or in the pool or on long hikes with friends. Go to the movies, where you can't pull your phone out. Hang out a lot with friends. Learn how to speak a new language. Take a yoga class. Wear yourself out, and distract your mind and your body.

Oh, and one more thing: when I was in the midst of my breakup misery and trying to force myself to forget that guy and feel better, a friend sent me a link to this talk by a woman named Tara Brach, a teacher of Buddhist meditation. It's about letting go of control and letting yourself feel bad so you can feel better. I know, that sounds super dorky, but trust me. I realized the only thing I could do was let myself feel bad, because then I was going to give myself time to feel better. That, my friend, is what you should do too.

Lx

Hey Leah,

My girlfriend and I have been dating for almost nine months now. We started as very good friends, despite not seeing each other often, sustaining a close friendship in college for about two years prior. We worked hard at our friendship, and when we started dating, we began to renegotiate what our relationship was (obviously). We've weathered some storms brought up by outside stress and past relationships, and we're clearly committed to each other in the long term.

My worry now, though is that we have been trying so hard to just be dating for so long, that we may have lost what our friendship looked like before. We went from being best friends to dating, and now I'm not sure what happened to our friendship. We still have fun, but not really in any of the same ways.

Help! Maybe I'm just overthinking things but I miss my friend and I want this to last.

Thank you,
Hopeful

Hey Hopeful,

Nope, I don't think you're overthinking things. I'm an expert in overthinking, so I can say that with great confidence. I think you're being a good friend and a good boyfriend, and I applaud that.

Before I go any further, let me say something. While nine months seems like so very long, it's not crazy long. In fact, I think it's a good place to be asking these questions. It's a much, much better place to ask them than at, say, nine years. You've found yourself falling into a pattern in your relationship, and you don't like that pattern and want to change it before you get really stuck. Nine months is a great time to do that, because it's going to be much easier to unstick whatever isn't working.

Being smitten is not the same as being in love

Now that you two have weathered a couple of storms, it seems like that initial "we're so crazy about each other! everything is great! nothing will ever be terrible between us, not ever!" glow is gone forever. And you know, it probably is, but that's okay because there's another, deeper glow going on. Being smitten is not the same thing as being in love, which is not the same thing as love. In the best of all worlds, all those things are connected. In less perfect worlds, they're a string of broken links. But the good thing is it sounds like you guys are most definitely in the best of all worlds. I say this because your letter tells me as much. You had a friendship before you dated, you both seem aware that friendships and romantic relationships take work, you both seem committed to working at whatever relationship you have, and you clearly want to be together. That tells me that being in love and loving each other most definitely followed the being smitten phase.

Now, I've been in a relationship similar to yours. Started off great, lots of fun, as much friends as romantic partners. But then all sorts of shit gets stirred up within the relationship and around it, mostly because that's what life does — it throws shit around, lets it settle, throws it around again. Sometimes it's good shit, sometimes not. It's hard to set all of that aside and focus on each other, not as two people who had some bad fights or as two people who are supporting each other in stressful situations. It's hard to focus on each other as two super awesome people who absolutely 100 percent know how to have fun and be friends and love each other.

You know what else is hard? Going from a friendship in which you didn't see each other a ton to being in a relationship in which you probably see each other a lot more. So you don't have the time to reflect, or to go out and get stories to come home and tell each other, or to make specific plans to do rad things together.

That's what life does — it throws shit around, lets it settle, throws it around again

So my advice to you is pretty clear cut. I want you to do three things.

Number one: I want you to sit down and talk to your girlfriend. I want you to say to her something along the lines of, "I love you and our relationship is so crazy important to me. But so is our friendship. I mean, it's a big part of the reason I fell so in love with you! We have so much fun together, but I never ever want us to stop being friends. I know we've had to deal with some heavy stuff, maybe sooner than we wanted to, but we did it well and I'm proud of us. So, I was thinking, maybe we could go do [super cool thing] and [other super cool thing] later this month?"

Number two: Think about whatever it was you did when you were friends. Did you make elaborate dinners for friends? Did you play board games with a crew? Did you go to museums? Did you go on bike rides? Pick one or two of those things and make a plan to do it together. These are not dates! These are friend things. These are you two hanging out enjoying yourself in an environment that has nothing to do with any of your relationship stress, or whether you love each other.

Number three: And on that note, make sure you both make time to see your other friends. Or to do solo activities, like fencing or yoga or painting or community gardening. It'll give you time to be yourself, rather than the you-in-relation-to-your-partner. Even better, it will give you stories to come back and tell each other. Just like you did when you were friends.

Lx