My ex-boyfriend and I broke up in August 2014, just before my third year of university and just after his graduation. If I hadn’t been the one to do it, he undoubtedly would have.
Our relationship had once been built on whispered midnight intimacies, interlaced hands that fit like the clasp of a necklace, a proud sort of joy that shone out of the creases around his eyes when he made me laugh so hard that I forgot how to breathe.
But that had all been chipped away by petty jealousies and vicious fights. For months we’d been yelling at each other. We spent night after night locked in text arguments, my fingers stabbing out blunt vitriol with such force that I’d fall asleep feeling like I’d permanently dented the ends of my thumbs.
It was time to break up. I knew it was the right thing and so did he. But almost from the moment we stopped being a couple, I felt the grief and the loss tearing inside me. It was my first relationship and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Immediately after the breakup we discussed meeting up over the Christmas holidays 'to talk' but when Christmas came around, my ex — I’ll call him Matt — admitted that was no longer what he wanted. A few months later, I floated the idea of us getting back together and he answered, honestly: "I just don’t feel that [way] anymore."
What followed was more grief. Dr Gemma Harris is a clinical psychologist and appears on Instagram as @theexdoctor. "The grief of a relationship can be complex and a common reason we struggle to move on is that we’re stuck in a certain part of the grief cycle," she explains. "It could be shock or disbelief but, commonly, it’s the bargaining cycle of grief. This might not even mean actively bargaining with your ex; many people are just internally rerunning scripts and memories, and bargaining with themselves."
"Sometimes it’s the nature and timing of the ending that makes it hard to move on. Abrupt, unexpected and unexplained endings can be particularly challenging," Harris continues. "Another reason can be that we’re stuck on our idealised future and can’t seem to update the template."
The breakup overshadowed my entire third year at uni. Every club, cafe and event may as well have had the words 'Remember when you were here with Matt?' blaring out in flashing neon lights. I’d always been keen for a party but I drank so much on nights out that I started to scare myself. Every time I was tagged in a photo on Facebook, I hoped Matt would see. I didn’t really date anyone but I slept with multiple guys. I’d fight to stay in the present while memories of my loving, passionate sex with Matt elbowed their way to the front of my mind.
Sometimes it's the nature and timing of the ending that makes it hard to move on. Abrupt, unexpected and unexplained endings can be particularly challenging.
Dr Gemma Harris
Over the next few years Matt and I went through alternating periods of blocking each other on social media and chatting intermittently over text. Every time I saw his name pop up on my home screen (usually in reply to something I’d said), my hand leapt to my phone. I used any reason I could think of — emotional manipulation, advice I didn’t need — to make contact with him. I knew I was being annoying (though he was always kind) but I couldn’t help it. I needed to stay in touch.
"We often get stuck in a way of thinking or behaving that doesn’t build the foundation for healing, acceptance and repair," says Harris. "These behaviours might include preoccupation with [your ex’s] life, stalking your ex on social media, maintaining high levels of contact, bargaining with your ex (or internally), holding [out hope] for a magical repair or just going over and over what happened in your head."
Several years after we split, Matt and I hooked up after a mutual friend’s birthday drinks. I’d imagined him coming back to my flat so many times that I kept dissociating, feeling like I was watching the scene from above. We didn’t sleep together but when he was stroking my hair in bed he told me that he thought about me a lot. I’d yearned to hear this for such a long time and I couldn’t say anything. The words he’d uttered years previously — "I just don’t feel that anymore" — rang out inside my head so I stayed silent, feeling the slim chance of us getting back together slip through my hands like a bar of soap.
Later that year I went out with someone else — the only other partner I’ve ever had. I cared about him deeply and for the six months that we went out he made me truly happy. Since we broke up though, a couple of months before the pandemic, I’ve never once thought that we should be a couple again. And it wasn’t long before my thoughts went straight back to Matt.
I kept thinking about Matt throughout the lockdowns and I think we spoke more during those two socially distanced years than in all the years since we’d broken up. I mostly initiated every interaction. When we were WhatsApping, I felt like I was walking a tightrope on tiptoe: trying to hold his interest while simultaneously trying to hide how much I wanted us to keep talking. When I watched Normal People, I saw Matt and me in Connell and Marianne's 'will they, won't they?' dynamic.
"Searching for information or seeking contact only fuels the connection between you and your ex — be it two- or one-sided," Harris emphasises. "Try to limit your contact and if this is hard, try to do it gradually but consistently." Harris’ advice for people struggling to move on from an ex includes daily journalling. "This might help you understand that relationships are not just about the person but how they functioned for you," she explains. "It can be transformative to understand [that] our dependency is often based on irrational fears (like being unable to cope on our own)."
It's human nature to want to tie up loose ends and make sense of our experience but sometimes it's healthier to accept that there will be things we can never understand.
DR GEMMA HARRIS
Harris also highlights the value of acceptance. "You might never understand and that’s okay," she says. "It’s human nature to want to tie up loose ends and make sense of our experience but sometimes it’s healthier to accept that there will be things we can never understand."
Acceptance is the word that hits home for me because somewhere along the line I moved on. That’s an unsatisfying sentence to write. I wish there’d been a startling epiphany or moment of clarity that made me realise Matt and I shouldn’t be together. But there wasn’t one. I just don’t feel the burning temptation to message him anymore.
I think it’s been a gradual process. For one thing, he's with someone new. She's beautiful, with incredible skin — the sort that leaves me tracing my fingertips over the milia on my forehead whenever I see a picture of her — and they stand so close in photos it's like they're fusing into one person. They look right together.
Maybe it's because I needed him to be in a relationship that looks — from Instagram, at least — like it could be for the long haul. Maybe it’s because I recently realised I’m demisexual (the experience of feeling sexual attraction only after establishing an emotional bond with a partner), which in turn has helped me to understand why I’ve so often struggled to feel the sexual attraction I had with Matt with anyone else. Maybe it’s because I'm finally feeling centred and purposeful in a career that feels right for me, after years of feeling adrift in a stream of jobs that were 'just for now'. Maybe it’s all these things, and some other factors that I’m not even aware of yet.
I now know that if we'd got back together, it wouldn't have been the right thing for either of us. I couldn’t accept this before but somewhere along the way I relinquished my grip on the idea that he and I should be in a relationship. I’m feeling happier than I've felt for nearly eight years.
I’m not sure who I’ll be without the part of me that longed to be with Matt. I haven’t been that person since I was 19. But so far it feels good. Finally, I’ve remembered how to breathe on my own.