October 18, 2016

How do I get over this guilt?

Hey Anna, 

I dated my ex for nearly five years. We broke up because I wanted marriage/children and he didn't. We're still friends, and love each other but definitely are not IN love with each other now, a year later. I started dating my new boyfriend about 4-ish months ago, and we're like... super in love. We're going to move in together, we've talked about marriage, kids, the whole deal. I'm really happy. The problem is that I feel guilty about moving on sort of quickly, almost like I've done a disservice to the half-decade I spent with my former partner. He hasn't found a great person yet, and I know he's lonely, which might be why I feel like this. How do I overcome the feeling that moving on has cheapened an important relationship in my life that I'm also glad is over?

Before I address the guilt you're experiencing, I want to tackle this cheapening issue first.

Let's apply this logic -- moving on with a new guy is cheapening your relationship with your ex -- to something else.

Does having a wonderful dinner lessen your enjoyment of a delicious lunch? 
Does loving "Westworld" cheapen your enjoyment of watching "Fleabag"?
Does finding a great deal at TJ Maxx detract from the joy of finding a great deal at Old Navy?

The answer: OF COURSE NOT. 

You can hold both in your heart at the same time: excitement at your new relationship and appreciation for the time spent with your ex. One has no bearing on the other as they're two totally different experiences. Yes, they both involve men you're romantically involved with. But you're a different kind of partner to each person. You have different inside jokes, different habits, and different trajectories.  

I don't know where you're getting the idea that your new relationship cheapens your last one. Relationships don't work like that because any relationship -- romantic, platonic, adversarial, familial -- serves different needs at different times. The best you can do is be thankful for the lessons you learn along the way. Your ex helped you see that you require the shared goal of marriage and children in a romantic relationship. That was his role in your life. All you can do is be grateful for the lesson.

The second issue is ridding yourself of the guilt you're feeling. Although the thought make you uncomfortable, it's okay for your ex to feel lonely in the short-term. In fact, seeing you in a happy relationship might motivate him to carve out a better life.

How he makes sense of his loneliness is up to him. You might feel his life is small because you're moving forward and he's not. But in reality, his future is now wide open. Maybe he'll finally finish the novel he's been thinking about writing. Maybe he'll sell his stuff and travel across the country just to see what it's like to roll into a new town where you don't know anyone. Maybe he'll throw himself headfirst into charity work and meet a kind woman with curly hair who doesn't see marriage and kids in her future too.

If you're looking for permission to enjoy your new relationship guilt-free, I'll give it you. But you need to tell yourself a new story about where you're at. You aren't a heartless monster moving on while your ex suffers in solitude. You're a flower lifting its petals towards warm, nourishing sunlight. In time, your ex will move his face towards the sunlight too. And when it happens, as his friend, you can be the first to cheer him on.

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