Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Memories, Begone: Getting Over a Lost Love

Here is the way she tells her story:

They were together for years. They were an established couple. She loved him; he loved her. They both enjoyed their life together and had spoken of continuing it.

Then one day, with no warning, he just picked up and left. Within a few months she was hearing that he had found a new love.

She feels bereft, abandoned, alone, rejected, and thoroughly embarrassed.

We all know about the feelings of loss and solitude that accompany a lost love. We are less likely to recognize the embarrassment that comes along with it.

She is embarrassed that she had not see it coming; she is embarrassed that she invested so much of herself in a deeply flawed relationship. Now she has to announce it to friends and family, to hear their questions and consolations, and to discover that they had never liked him anyway.

When they tell her that they did not like him they are trying to console her. She hears it through the filter of her shame. How could she have been so blind? How did she not see what was obvious to everyone else?

Everyone wants to help. They want to help her to think through what went wrong. Yet, the more they want to talk about him, the less she wants to see any of them.

As if that was not bad enough, she cannot get him out of her head. When she tries to go to sleep, she keeps thinking of him. When she wakes up, he is on her mind.

She keeps asking herself what went wrong; she rehashes the relationship day by day, minute by minute, to see if she missed the warning signs; she feels tormented and oppressed.

Of course, memories of a long relationship do not vanish overnight.

Time heals, but time takes its time to heal. If she was truly in love, then her inability to forget him would be a sign that her love was not true. If she could flick a switch and forget her lover that would say that her love was frivolous and superficial. She will not accept that he left because she did not truly love him.

Strange as it may seem, she has a stake in feeling tormented. Her inability to get over him speaks well of her. It confirms the truth of her love.

Still and all, the memories are always there. And they are undermining her, distracting her from her job, making her feel like a martyr to love.

So she decides that the proper mourning period has passed. Enough is enough.

She wants to know what she can do to make them stop.

The answer is both simple and complex. On the one hand she has to revise many of her thought patterns. If she was thinking and talking of we, now she needs to start thinking and talking of I. If her dreams and plans included him, she needs to learn how to visualize events and experiences in which he is not present.

This mental reconstruction will surely take some time. It is very much like replacing bad mental habits with good ones.

But memories are not always produced automatically. They can be provoked or evoked by external cues and stimuli. Most importantly, she she can exercise a greater degree of control over these cues than she over what does or does not flash into her mind.

If, every time she opens the front door she sees his old umbrella in her umbrella stand, then the object will evoke a memory of him. If his picture is on her dresser or if she is wearing his old shirt to clean the bathtub... then these will conspire to keep his memory alive.

And what has she done with his gifts? Is she still wearing the necklace he gave her on their first anniversary? Does she have mementos from their vacations arrayed on the mantelpiecee? Can she sit on the couch without recalling the times she cuddled there with him? Does she still sense his odor in the throw cushions?

All of this to say that hiding or disposing of these objects will help her to stop thinking of him.

She must also reconstruct the rhythm of her life. When two people are involved in a long term relationship, they develop a myriad of routines in common. Perhaps they get up together and have breakfast together. Perhaps one has to wait for the other before using the bathroom. Perhaps they read the Sunday paper in bed every Saturday night. Perhaps they speak on the phone every day during lunch.

Just as objects remind us of lost loves, so do the routines that we construct with them. Once she can identify those routines, it will be much easier for her to create new habits that are her habits, not their habits.

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