Farewell, sweetheart (Psychologies)

Many of us have an ex whose memory lingers over the years – the one who got away. Anna Behrmann was sick of the past interfering with the present, and set out to, finally, get over him

Farewell, sweetheart. Psychologies magazine


One day, on my way to school as a teenager, I saw a poster for a novel with the tagline, ‘You never forget your first love.’ Having zero idea what it was like to fall in love, I wondered if this was true. Would I truly never forget my first love, despite the passing of time and subsequent love affairs?

Fast forward 14 years and, at the age of 28, it’s now painfully obvious. In the days leading up to my day-long session with breakup and relationship coach Sara Davison, I again started dreaming about Will,* my ex-boyfriend from university. It seemed like my unconscious was starkly aware of the coaching date in my diary, and was preparing me for it.

I was nervous about stirring up old memories, especially because I had just started seeing someone new, but this was another reason to seek help. I wanted to leave behind my first love – along with the irrational thought that has intruded on all my following relationships: that Will and I are meant to be together.

Davison asked me to tell her the story. I met Will, my first proper boyfriend, at a house party while I was university. He was tall, with blue eyes and, at first, I thought he was slightly too serious, as he was caught up in a prolonged political discussion at the party. But I found out quickly that he was incredibly funny, and could make me laugh for hours.

He acted in a lot of university plays and was well liked, so, even though I knew that he was shy, it would take half an hour to walk a short distance with him on campus because everyone would stop to say hello to him.

In many ways, we grew up together. I found living in halls isolating, especially as I had nothing in common with the engineers in my block, and Will provided a lot of emotional support for me. As part of my course, I spent six months studying in Paris. We didn’t manage a long-distance relationship well, had countless arguments over the phone, and broke up for some time. I dated someone else briefly, because part of me wanted to explore different experiences. I was caught between the feeling of wanting to be with Will forever and a desire for boundless freedom.

When I returned, we got back together, but there wasn’t the same level of trust between us. It felt as if, since our relationship had down broken once, it could break again. We still had fun together, but everything had a more serious overtone. Will had warned me that if we had another bad argument, it would be the end. We broke up for the last time when I graduated a couple of years before him. I was doing a postgraduate law qualification in London that wasn’t right for me, and I was unhappy. There was a big disconnect between our experiences. We had a row over the phone, and Will ended it there and then. Despite his warning, it was still a great shock to me.

In our session, I told Davison that I had never really came to terms with our breakup; even now, years after we had gone our separate ways. I still believed that ours was a grand romance and we would end up together. I missed everything about him, but, most of all, I missed how much he had made me laugh. I thought that no one would ever make me laugh like that again. I felt as if I had made a series of bad decisions, and that Will represented all the joy and creativity I had left behind.

A year after we split up, I penned a handwritten letter to Will about how we were destined to be together, with some terrible metaphors relating to innocence and experience, which, thankfully, I never sent. I remember ringing him from the roadside on holiday in Barcelona, insisting we would eventually get back together. He simply said that it wasn’t going to happen, but even then, I didn’t believe him. I had two other boyfriends over the following years, but I couldn’t take them seriously.

I had never told anyone the entire story before – especially the never-ending ending – and it was cathartic. It still felt so raw and, as I spoke, my voice started to shake and I was close to tears. Davison reassured me that a break up can be one of the most traumatic experiences in life. As with grief, you need to acknowledge the feelings that surface – denial, anger, betrayal and sadness – to help you recover from it.

Talking it through with her, I realised that my overwhelming feelings about our breakup were guilt and a sense of failure – and anxiety, which I’ve carried for years, that if I could ‘mess up’ something so perfect once, I would do it again. I realised that I had never fully acknowledged these feelings, nor given myself the opportunity to grieve the loss of my first serious relationship.

Davison asked me to write the words ‘guilt’ and ‘failure’ on a piece of card, along with all the other words that I associated with the breakup. She explained that it’s important to bring whatever feelings you have in your unconscious into your conscious – where you can properly deal with them. After I’d written them down, Davison encouraged me to walk across to a shredder and feed in the piece of paper. This simple act of destruction – while acknowledging that I still harboured these emotions – was therapeutic.

Just talking about the relationship with Davison, and writing down all my feelings around it, helped me see that I hadn’t made some kind of grave mistake. In fact, Will wasn’t perfect – he hadn’t been at all supportive of me after I left university, and we stopped understanding one another. It also hadn’t been the right time for me to be in a long-term relationship, while I had the overriding urge to explore other possibilities, travel and enjoy my freedom.

I might not have been able to take my next two relationships seriously, but that was not because of some character flaw in me, it was because they weren’t a good fit for me either.

Davison encouraged me to realise that I needed to be happy and secure in myself, rather than looking for something to complete me in a partner. I should have been a lot kinder to myself after my relationship with Will ended. I had told myself that everything was my fault, in terms of the relationship ending, and my decision to study law. I should have realised that the two things were separate. I became much happier once I started writing again and allowed myself to be creative, and that had nothing to do with whether I was dating someone or not.

I was also eager to talk to Davison about my new romance. Following my relationship with Will, I’d been concerned that I’m “flighty” and would find it difficult to settle down. Davison told me this is a life-limiting belief – something negative that I think is true about myself. We need to interrupt negative thoughts and challenge them, she says, or they can hold us back.

With Davison’s help, I made the argument that, since I’ve got a strong group of friends dating back to the age of 11, for who I will always be there, I am a loyal person! Acknowledging this helped me see that I will be the same in a romantic relationship, if I find the right person.

I came away from our session feeling relieved and much more relaxed about my first love, and the years that followed our breakup. I will never forget Will, and that’s OK – we shared something precious and I don’t want to blank out a large part of my university experience. But I now feel clear that our breakup is in the distant past – and I can move on from him, leaving behind all my regrets and false beliefs. I’m hopeful and excited about my new relationship too, and, far more importantly, I’m happy in myself.

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