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How to be human: why do I obsess over my cheating ex?

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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. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I'm 25 years old and a loving wife. I love my husband. He's simply amazing. We have been together for six years, and we were married two months ago. We’ve been best friends since 2006, so we go back.

I had been engaged before to a guy I met when we were in high school. We graduated and went to separate colleges about two hours from each other. We made it work until 2009, when he met a freshman, a really sweet girl. He started dating her while still engaged to me. Sadly I found out and tried to fix it, but my parents got involved and that made things worse.

He dated her until they got married in 2014. In 2010, I became very depressed, and I went from rebound to rebound until I met my now husband, who helped me through a lot. In 2013, when my ex was engaged, we sort of reconnected as friends (or so we say). We started talking and texting at all times, for hours. We went out couple of times, until his fiancé found out and made a complete mess.

After that, I became obsessed with his Facebook. We weren't friends anymore, but I had my ways. I figured out where he lives, his cars, everything. Finally I accepted this was an obsession and I left Facebook for a while. I didn't know myself.

Now it’s 2016, and I still dream of him being with me. I seem to want that, but I feel disgusted with myself because I love my husband and our life is great. Truly... why do I dream of him and seem to want him? I should hate him, he cheated and betrayed me.

I would love your advice!
All Lost

Hey AL,

My advice to you is going to be really straightforward. It breaks down into three parts.

The first part is about why you can’t get over this person. You know what? I don’t know. I don’t know why you can’t stop thinking about this guy who cheated on you and then married the other woman, this guy who then tried to cheat on her with you until he got caught. I don’t know because honestly, if I knew, I would solve it for all of us, create a magic pill, and be a billionaire.

The other day I was talking to a friend about someone I recently dated. It was bugging me, I said, that I still felt bad — rejected maybe, or like somehow I wasn’t valuable — because things hadn’t worked out. I felt this way even though I knew very well we weren’t a good match, and I even felt this way even though I hadn’t actually been rejected! But my brain kept focusing on that feeling just the same. They say your brain chews on it, but it’s more like picking at a scab, not thinking it’ll come off and then it does and your scrape is all gross and oozy again.

They say your brain chews on it, but it’s more like picking at a scab

So you know what, AL? I actually do know a little why your brain does this, and mine, and likely the brains of most everyone else, and I know there’s no magic pill I could create to cure it. It’s fear and insecurity. Your ex betrayed you, and he did it when you were young and in love, and probably full of a lot of adolescent hormones like all teenagers are. This is a very formative moment. Not only did he cheat on you, he went on to marry the other girl. If your brain is anything like the brains of many, many people I know, you interpreted this like so:

THIS HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH ME. IT MEANS I’M NOT GOOD ENOUGH. IF I HAD BEEN, HE WOULDN’T HAVE CHEATED AND HE WOULDN’T HAVE REPLACED ME WITH SOMEONE ELSE, SOMEONE HE OBVIOUSLY THINKS IS BETTER.

This is very, very untrue!

I don’t say this is untrue because I know what your ex’s problem is and can explain why he betrayed you. I don’t know why he did any of this. Frankly, I don’t care. Wondering about him and conjecturing about his behavior is a waste of our time. Worse, it’s a way for you to keep thinking about and obsessing on him. I say this is untrue because what he did or does is not about you. It’s about him, and whatever problems he has.

Which brings us to part two of of my answer. Right now it’s very much time for you to focus on you. This is the part where I get very real with you, in the most gentle way I know how.

It's time for you to focus on you

Your obsession with your ex long ago reached an unhealthy stage. It’s disrupting your daily existence and threatening to actually damage your life. AL, I have to be honest: If you were a guy and wrote me about how you were obsessed with your ex-girlfriend and had figured out where she lived, I would immediately be concerned for her safety. I don’t think your obsession is currently at the point where you’d go to his house, but I also don’t know. You’ve been obsessing like this for a long time. It’s been three years since you saw him last or even talked to him, but you’re still thinking of him.

So yes, I am worried, about you and your ex and his wife and this entire volatile situation.

I know you’ve quit Facebook and are no longer actively tracking — stalking — him. But your brain is still hooked in to him, in part because you want him to choose you again and somehow fix the sense you have that you weren’t and still aren’t "good enough." He’s the one who rejected and betrayed and replaced you, so he’s the one who, by returning to you, can tell you his decision was wrong and you were always the "right one" for him. He doesn’t have that power. He never did. He’s just an asshole who didn’t break up with you before hooking up with his now wife, and then tried to spend time with you years later when he was still with her. Maybe he figured because his wife was younger and "sweet," she’d let him get away with more shit. Who knows (although clearly she didn’t) and who cares. Again, this is not about him.

What matters is what’s going on in your brain. And that brain, AL, needs some help. Not from me, a far-away advice columnist, but from a professional. You need to talk to someone about your obsession with your ex. You need support so you never contact him again, or respond to him if he contacts you. You need to never search for him again or try to find him. I do not want you to get in trouble, and I do not want you to hurt yourself or your husband.

This, then, is part three of my answer. Here’s the wild thing, AL. You’ve been with a guy for six years who loves you. He’s your best friend. And unless you’re not telling me the whole story, you love this guy and want to be with him! But something in you is rejecting his love for want of this ex. I think that’s because you don’t believe you deserve it. You’re afraid you’re unlovable, because an asshole cheated and then dumped you for someone else. He was selfish and cowardly, and he hurt you. And yet you worry that you’re the unlovable one.

Brains don’t do well with rejection and betrayal. Often they make you want to somehow fix the rejection, or heal the betrayal, or get "answers" where there are none. Mostly you need to give yourself time and distance from the hurt. You need to feel bad and then work on feeling good. But time hasn’t healed you. You obviously are still feeling all of this deeply, many years after the incident. The rejection and betrayal hasn’t made you mad. It hasn’t made you say, "Fuck that guy, that sorry loser who lost the chance to be with someone like me." It hasn’t made you say, "Wow did I luck out not ending up with a guy who was clearly going to make a habit of this! Thank god I’m with someone wonderful."

Brains don't do well with rejection and betrayal

Instead it’s made you think he’s the one who got away, and if he comes back, you’ll be whole again. AL, if he comes back, he’ll just hurt you more. You’ll hurt yourself more! You think your value is wrapped up in some jerk and whether he wants to be with you. But you have to find your own sense of worth inside yourself. You have to work on that. Luckily, you can do it while you have someone who loves and supports you. That is an incredible gift, and I don’t want you to lose it.

This is why I want you to find someone who can help you. A therapist, maybe a psychiatrist, maybe both. Someone who can help you deal with your obsession and your fears. They are twin vines twisting through and threatening to destroy the otherwise lovely garden of your life. Don’t let them.

Lx