My friend Jackson once told me that it is typical to turn to your ex for therapy because they know you so well. That is exactly what my ex is doing right now, and I get it. I have known him for 16 years, and while I may have preconceived notions about him based on our past, I also really understand his life history and his psychological tendencies.
He’s clearly going through a rough time right now. As my friend Tobey insightfully pointed out, in the last three years he lost his wife, his job and his father. That’s not the trifecta that most people look for. All of those factors, especially the last one, have contributed to his current state of confusion about what he wants.
I feel compassion for him, and I still really care for him. So when he brought up his feelings of nostalgia for our relationship, I didn’t react with an “I told you so” or a “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” (I’ve got to get a Joni reference in here from time to time). Instead I invited him to look at what is really going on. He’s unhappy right now, and neither his girlfriend nor I can make him feel better.
As much as we’d like to think that our romantic partners “make us happy,” the only way to find happiness, in my opinion, is inside ourselves. I feel like I learned this the hard way. I relied on my ex to make me happy for many years. The rub is that in the beginning of a relationship, your partner can make you feel blissful, but eventually that high wears off and you are left to your own devices, so to speak. I was particularly deluded in my relationship with my ex because that joyful stage lasted for many years, what seemed to me long much longer than the typical infatuation stage, so I had convinced myself that it would last forever.
However we eventually had new life stresses in our careers and by having children, and we started to look at each other and wonder why the other wasn’t pleasing us (and I don’t mean in the bedroom). In fact, I actually believed that my discontent with my life was his fault. I had turned down a tenure track job opportunity in Portland, OR because the offer had come after he had already accepted a job here in Massachusetts, and that stuck in my craw for years. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the academic job market, it is very difficult to pick a geographical location and decide that’s where you want to work. You really have to have the flexibility to move anywhere in the country that you get an offer. I applied to jobs locally and only got adjunct gigs. Every time I would be turned down for a position that I wanted or felt unappreciated in my job, I would resent my ex for the sacrifice that I made. He, on the other hand, was commuting 90 miles each way for three years (only three days a week during the academic year, but it still took its toll). So we each had our reasons to be cranky.
Once we broke up, I realized that it was my responsibility to make myself happy, and I started actively working towards that. I got back into my yoga practice that had fallen by the wayside after Layla’s birth, and I made more of an effort to have a social life and spend time with friends. My family noticed that I seemed like my old self again, upbeat, effervescent, and outgoing (could I have really been more introverted?).
I certainly can’t sum up all the factors that have come into play in my current happiness in one blog post, but I will say that my biggest lesson has been that happiness is an inside job. That is why I want to date someone who is already happy and not looking to me to make them feel good about themselves. And that is what I said to my ex when he wistfully talked about “us.” I couldn’t make him happy in the past, and I wouldn’t make him happy now. He has to figure that out for himself.
I want to end with a quote that I found by Garrison Keillor that I revisit a lot as a reminder to me of this lesson. “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.” I sacrificed the job that I thought I wanted to be with the man that I thought I wanted to be with forever. Now I have neither yet I am happier than I have perhaps ever been. Hmm…