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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

The Psychology of Our Exes

We are likely to be focused, in the immediate circumstances of a break-up, on what happened in the last few weeks or months to explain the end of a relationship.

But the clue to the failure often has nothing to do with us and indeed little to do with the actions and feelings of the ex in the present moment: the reason why it all collapsed may lie in their childhoods and in the long and typically unexplored paths of their psyches towards emotional maturity.

© Flickr/Ramón Peco


Maddeningly, the way people love as adults sits on top of experiences of love in the early years – and the capacity to be a reliable and contented partner critically relies on things having gone well enough with parental figures at the start,  many years before relationships begin.

Unfortunately for these relationships, at least half the population is walking around with, and falling in love while beset by, a host of uncharted psychological issues that will make it hugely hard for them to be predictable and well-attached in relationships. Often, what they ostensibly seek in love is exactly what, in the long-run, they cannot accept, for it feels unfamiliar, threatening to their defences and unearned. There is a conflict – of which we end up the unwitting victims – between what they say they seek in a partner, and what they are in fact psychologically able to accept.

For example, perhaps a beloved parent of the ex was rather aloof or often absent. When they later set out looking for love, the ex may have been hugely drawn to the warmth we offered them, but at the same time, our tenderness would have felt deeply unfamiliar and been experienced as extremely threatening to parts of their personality. They may have struggled to understand what was going on inside themselves when they went cold and had to take their distance from us, but they lacked the tools. It may in the end have felt easier for them to blame us for being ‘needy’ rather than explore the complicated reasons why their own need was frightening to them. They were replicating a past, doomed and painful version of love, without either of us quite knowing.

Or maybe our ex had a parent who was rather fragile or depressed, or who was impatient or easily irritated. As a result, they learned to be exceedingly cautious around them, always pleasing and putting others’ interests first – and never quite letting on as to what was happening in their hearts, feeling isolated and resentful instead. They gravitated towards us, hoping that we would allow them to be themselves. But, while we did our best, dynamics kicked in which meant that they never dared to explain their desires properly to us. They hid what really worried them, they buried away their hurts, they didn’t complain as and when they should have done – and eventually, they lost the capacity to feel alive in the relationship.

These thoughts chip away at our worst – most self-punishing – interpretations of what happen in our relationships that fail. It’s not – as we so quickly fear – that we are invariably revealed as defective; but rather that we’ve been co-opted into another’s fateful private love-dramas, which had their beginnings long before they met us. They didn’t manage to love us, but – a hugely unfamiliar yet consoling thought – they probably wouldn’t, at this stage in their emotional evolution, have been able to love anyone too well, given the burden of their unexplored pasts.

One of the key questions we might learn to ask a prospective partner on an early date is: How did things go in childhood? It is often deeply touching to hear there was pain and loneliness. We may long to fix them and sincerely believe we can. But given the brevity and inherent complexity of existence, we might be better off shedding some of our attractions to movingly damaged people in favour of those who will, boringly but beautifully, love us as we hope and indeed deserve to be loved.

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