Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How to close your ex-files: Can’t get that old flame out of your mind? The solution could be easier than you think...

By Andrea Blundell, who sounds a very foolish woman

When we were together, I used to joke that Paul was my handbag man, because the only time I’ve ever experienced glances of envy from other women was either when he was on my arm or when I borrowed a friend’s Hermes Birkin bag.

Rugged good looks aside, what really made him my Mr Perfect was that he was the only man who saw I wasn’t as strong as I pretended to be. But the more I opened up to him the more he played it cool until, three months in, I walked away in a fit of frustration.

When I backpedalled and tried to get him back he wouldn’t have any of it. End of story. Right? Not even close. Seven years later, single and now 38 years old, I am no closer to my dream of starting a family.

I not only still mourn what I had with Paul, I compare every man to him and look him up on the internet more than I want to admit — even when that means coming across pictures of him and his new girlfriend, who is a teeth-clenching ten years younger than me.

I know it’s completely illogical to be hung up on a man I dated for such a short time, especially as he probably never thinks of me in return. Trust me, I’ve done my very best to stop acting like a lovesick teenager:

I’ve read books about getting over previous loves, I’ve deleted all his emails and I’ve written long lists of things that are wrong with him to give myself a reality check. If you could have a brain operation to erase someone, I’d be first in line.

But it helps to know I’m far from the only middle-aged woman with an ex obsession. At a party recently, a shocking five out of six women — married or not — confessed they, too, had an ex whose memory they still clung to. Why would so many intelligent women do this? And what’s the price we are paying for not letting go?

Nina Grunfeld, founder of psychology workshops Life Clubs, says holding on to a memory can be a way to feel important. ‘It gives us drama in our lives — and we feel special when we have drama.’

I admit she has a point. I tend to think of Paul when I’m feeling bored and past my prime, and it allows me to feel sorry for myself. But it could be costing me dear, Nina warns: ‘When your past takes up a lot of your time, you can then lose out on the future you really want,’ she says.

I have a sickening realisation that holding on to Paul is partly why I’m nowhere near starting the family I dream of. Men I’ve dated since have seemed so disappointing in comparison that now I can’t even be bothered to look, despite the giant biological clock ticking over my head. However, I know it’s not healthy and that I have to get my ex out of my life, so I go to see psychotherapist Tara Springett, author of a book called The Five-Minute Miracle that claims to ‘lift you out of the anguish of psychological hang-ups and addictions within weeks’.

Tara suggests I come to her for three sessions, confident she can help me get over my obsession. Given that, at £45 a session, it’s a fair bit cheaper than other therapies I’ve considered, I give it a go. When I visit, the pale decor and water feature tinkling in the background of her East Sussex home do little to calm the sudden fit of nerves that cause me to babble about Paul at high speed.

Thankfully, Tara is a remarkably down-to-Earth sort who has an amazing knack for making you feel that talking about your problems is the most practical thing in the world. She soon has me relaxed, telling me to close my eyes and imagine I’m surrounded by a big bubble. It feels strange, but I tell myself it’s no different to using my imagination to think of the next home I’ll buy or what I’ll have for dinner, so why not use it to try to make myself feel better? I have to fill this bubble ‘with a loving feeling,’ she says.

For the life of me, I can’t muster any positive emotions at all. She suggests I just imagine someone I really care about looking at me and use the good feeling that creates. I blank on that, too. In the end I resort to picturing a friend’s dog I recently took care of — it’s a sad reflection of my affection-starved life.

Next, Tara asks me to visualise Paul in another ‘loving bubble’. And after all these years thinking I adore the guy, all I feel is utter fury. The best I can manage is a seriously unimpressive, tiny sphere containing what looks a plastic doll. The bubbles, which she has told me help establish boundaries, now make sense — I can’t reach out and crush his head, as I’m shocked to discover I want to. We discuss my anger and I can’t help the truth spilling out— Paul often stood me up, didn’t give me enough affection, and hid from me that he was on heavy antidepressants.

Having said it, I then protest he was still amazing and we could have overcome such things. ‘You would be the first woman to cure a man by love,’ she says, gently. I am given tasks to do at home for five minutes each day — I’m supposed to imagine myself in my happy bubble and ask myself if I really want to exchange those good feelings for a life with Paul and his problems. As she tells me this, a part of my mind is still stubbornly screaming: ‘Yes, I do. I’ll pack my bags and go to him right now!’

Another part of me cynically thinks this will only work because my rebellious side will be so annoyed at being told I must think about him regularly, I will no longer want to. At first, that’s true. Having to routinely think of him just drives home how much the habit has already robbed me of. But I keep up the exercise, remembering Tara’s advice that I’ll get out of it what I put into it. Gradually, as the days pass, things begin to change. A flood of memories comes to the surface — it’s as if the session with Tara has opened a Pandora’s box of truth.

And this includes recalling all the bad things I did to Paul — a side of our story I’ve never really acknowledged. I constantly criticised him, called him a rubbish lover to his face and eventually kissed one of his friends in a crazed attempt to get more attention from him. After this, I sit on my living room floor, bawling with shame. I feel an urge to tell Paul how sorry I am, but he hasn’t returned an email from me in years so it seems pointless.

Though Tara is pleased with my progress at our next session, I feel very anxious still, so she teaches me a breathing technique to lower stress. It’s so effective that I walk out feeling like I’ve taken a sedative. I don’t know if it’s the calming effect of the breathing exercises, but over the following week I start to find my ‘bubble time’ quite relaxing. We move on to the final step of the process — I’m to wish Paul happiness, then visualise his bubble slowly floating towards the horizon until it vanishes.

After a week of making Paul ‘disappear’ I weaken and look up a photo of him on the internet. I still think he is mind-bogglingly handsome, but the gut-wrenching, forlorn feeling I used to get has turned into an almost, dare I say it, warm feeling. I haven’t achieved Zen-like detachment — I’d still be thrilled if he read this article and begged to have me back. The difference is, I wouldn’t say yes, because I’ve realised I deserve something far more committed and honest than what we had.

You see, the very act of being kind to myself for a few minutes a day has not only stopped me thinking about my ex, it’s shown me how little I’d valued myself before. The price we women pay for not letting go of an ex is even higher than I thought, because by throwing our hearts in to a daydream we have little love left for ourselves.

I can’t help but wonder if intelligent women are hung up on previous loves as a way to keep ourselves under-confident in a world that doesn’t like women to be too sure of themselves. For the first time since I left Paul, I truly believe there might be someone better for me out there after all. And I plan to meet him in 2012.