My clients are always surprised, then relieved, to learn that thinking about an ex is a normal part of being engaged. As we spiral into deeper layers of transitions, our past comes floating to the surface of our thoughts, dreams, and emotional life. For some people, the past includes thoughts or feelings about unfinished transitions -- leaving home for the first time, their parents' divorce, the end of a friendship, the loss of a loved one. As she walks toward her wedding day, the bride-to-be finds herself re-living the loss associated with the previous transition. The unconscious bride does anything she can to avoid these uncomfortable feelings that she thinks she's not supposed to have during "the happiest time of her life." The conscious bride recognizes that loss is an inherent - and important - part of any transition and she allows herself to process the sadness as best she can.
The same principle can be applied to thoughts about an ex. However, since the thoughts involve another man (or woman), it's often a lot more challenging for my clients to accept it, make sense of it, and move on without feeling guilty or questioning their decision to marry. The thoughts then inevitably become drenched in anxiety. As is so often the case with anxiety, it's not the thoughts or feelings themselves that are a problem; it's the meaning we ascribe to the thoughts that create the pit in our stomachs, the furrowed brow, the hidden tears. So when a client tells me that she can't stop thinking about her ex and I tell her that's normal, she breathes a big sigh of relief and can begin to let the anxiety go.
Without this awareness, a bride-to-be (and it could just as easily be a groom but for this article we'll talk about the woman), begins to wonder the million dollar question, the question that causes most of my clients to do a google search for "wedding stress" or "engagement anxiety" and find their way to my cyberspace doorstep: Am I making a mistake? The internal dialogue looks like this:
"If I loved my fiancé, why am I thinking about this other guy? I felt so passionate for this other guy in a way I don't feel for my fiancé. Does that mean I'm not supposed to marry the one I'm with? Am I making a mistake? Am I settling? What if he's not the one?"
So during our first session, I inquire further:
"Tell me about the ex. What was he like? What was your relationship like?"
To which they invariably respond with some version of:
"Oh, he was your typical bad boy. We had a great sexual connection but I could never rely on him. I knew all along that he wouldn't make a good husband or life partner, but it took me a while to extract myself from his hold. I was always pursuing him and he was always putting on the brakes to some degree. But what a great connection we had! He was so interesting, alive, passionate, and creative! My fiancé isn't really that way."
"Tell me about your fiancé."
"He's the best person I know. He's a gem. He's reliable, kind, responsible, loyal, and I know he truly loves me. He'll make a great husband and father. We share similar values about all the important areas. The sex is good, but not always fantastic. I knew early on that he was a great match for me. He's my best friend. Before he asked me to marry him, I never doubted that he was the one I wanted spend my life with. So why am I thinking about this other guy now?"
Hmmmmm... which would you choose? Obviously, the current fiancé is the better choice, but why is it so difficult for women on the verge of marriage to accept the smart decision? The answer is three-fold:
1. Closing out the Old Life:
When you decide to marry one person, you have to say goodbye to every other possibility of life partner. With billions of members of the opposite (or same) sex on this plant, that's a lot of goodbyes! So instead of grieving about every single other option, the mind focuses on the one option that usually represents the polar opposite of the person you're marrying. Where your husband-to-be is responsible and reliable, the ex on the brain is irresponsible and unreliable. Of course, those aren't the characteristics you're focusing on; all you can think about is how spontaneous and fun he was! But it's important to reel the mind back in and say to yourself, "Yes, he was spontaneous and fun and sometimes my groom isn't those things, but along with those qualities came an irresponsibility that never would have worked as a life partner." And then allow yourself to grieve that no one is perfect, and no matter who you married you would have to accept his imperfections and limitations.
2. Cultural Conditioning:
Our culture tells you from the moment you're born that the person you marry should be "the one," "your soul mate", "your perfect match," etc etc. These buzzwords can send the most sane and rational woman into a tailspin of questions during her engagement as she begins to wonder if that other guy, the one who made her stomach belly flop and her head swoon every time he walked in the room, was indeed this sought after soulmate. Isn't that what love is supposed to feel like, she wonders. Isn't that how I'm supposed to feel about the person I'm about to marry? The answer is a resounding NO! Those feelings that the other elicited are just that... feelings. They're not a basis for making a decision to marry.
Our culture calls it love, but it's really closer to adolescent infatuation. Now that's not to say that sometimes those feelings don't transform into a solid foundation on which to base a marriage. But more often than not, the bad boy that broke your heart does not magically turn into the adult man who is wiling to take on the responsibilities of marriage. It's our culture who transmits a faulty message about love, and an engagement is often the time when women decode this message and learn, for the first time, what real love is really about.
3. The Pursuer-Distancer Syndrome
Part of learning about real love is learning about the typical -- and unhealthy -- dynamics that inform many people's early relationships. During adolescence and in your early twenties, you may have pursued boys that weren't as interested in you as you were in them. When they did give you the time of day - or more - you felt ecstatic, loved, and validated. When they ignored you or broke up with you, you felt devastated, and equated this negative2 feeling with love, thereby forming the false belief that loss equals love. For many people, love and loss are fused into a confusing knot that only becomes disentangled with a healthy love relationship. But on the threshold of marriage, when you analyze every aspect of your relationship, the old beliefs thrust back to life and you find yourself thinking about the one-who-got-away, wondering if those intense feelings meant that you loved him more than the one you're with.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and through accurate support and skilled guidance, anyone can lay the past to rest and move toward her wedding day with clarity and gratitude about the wonderful person she has chosen to marry.