Make Your Dreams Come True

By Sheba R. Wheeler
The Denver Post

Years ago, the rules about breaking up were clear-cut.

Done was done. Generally that meant no speaking or interaction unless you were bound by children, work or alimony.

No longer.

For starters, it’s politically correct to stay in contact. "The person who says she can’t be friends with her ex is seen as unsophisticated and insecure," write Heather Belle and Michelle Fiordaliso, authors of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ex." (SourceBooks Inc.). "And you’re really lame if you can’t handle your boyfriend’s ex."

People are marrying later, which means they’ve typically had multiple relationships and breakups before they make it to the altar. Add to that the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce, and there are a lot of exes to go around.

Plus, it’s much easier to stay in touch through social networking sites, cellphones and e-mail.

And you can still always run into an ex at parties, which is how a divorced couple start rekindling their relationship in the movie "It’s Complicated," starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. They portray a pair who were married 19 years and divorced for a decade when they start seeing each other again.

Ardent Facebook users snickered when they heard the movie title because it refers to one of the ways people can describe their relationship status, along with "single," "engaged," "married" and "in a relationship." But the truth is that technology has made dating so public now that boundaries get blurry.

"Chat fighting" among sour exes or bad dates keeps entertainment high on online dating forum sites such as Exes from five, 10 or even 20 years ago "friend" or "follow" old flames to reconnect. Google is a cyberstalker’s best friend.

For all these reasons, coping with the ex factor is the cultural dating issue of our time, says Belle. "People are snacking on their exes and having some of their needs met through texting and Twittering without ever making themselves open for a real meal," she says.

"The ex world is so much more dynamic and toxic now than it was 10 years ago," adds Belle. "You can become a Facebook friend, e-mail someone secretly and have emotional infidelities with a person from your past without it ever being in your day-to-day life."

Therapists say it’s OK to examine ex relationships but not to live in the past.

When that e-mail or text is received, the feelings associated with "the one that got away" overwhelm our brain, says Denver psychotherapist Ben Leichtling.

"When we fall in love with the ex, we get carried away with those teenage fantasies about love and the way we think the romance should have been when we first got together," says Leichtling.

"When we fall in love with someone new, the love we feel is tempered with reality," he says. "You can see their upside and downside and how being involved in this relationship will change your life or affect your career."

It isn’t about being able to see your ex in a new light or suddenly being able to tolerate their faults. It’s about you wanting something different, Leichtling says.

"Your chances are better if you look for someone who matches that difference now."

Loneliness and fear

Time and loneliness tend to delude us, says sex and relationship coach David Wygant.

The longer we are single, the more we tend to look backward, getting stuck in a mind-set that we are never going to find someone, much less deserve someone new, says the Los Angeles blogger and author of "Always Talk to Strangers: 3 Simple Steps to Finding the Love of Your Life."

That’s when thoughts turn to an ex-spouse, lover, flame or fling and memories start getting selective. Wygant warns that anyone who recycles an ex is being driven by loneliness, insecurity and fear.

Daters forget about what caused the breakup – sex problems, an affair, fights about money, etc. Many never embraced the lessons they should have to increase the success of their next relationship.

"It comes down to their own confidence level," he says. "If you grow and take responsibility for your own actions, you will meet someone who is right for you based on who you are now."

Jason Atkins, 34, says he still copes with occasional bouts of self-doubt that he won’t find a second true love. He married first love and high school sweetheart Donna Atkins, 34, and the couple went on to have three children, divorce, remarry and divorce again.

"We were 17 and 18 when we got married the first time and there were still some unresolved feelings and issues there," says Atkins. "The second time, we hoped we were older and more mature so that some of those issues wouldn’t be a problem."

But financial difficulties, family crises and an affair contributed to the couple’s inability to maintain their relationship, and they divorced again. Atkins took a job in Cheyenne to distance himself from his ex-wife, who is now engaged to be married to Greg Harmon, 38.

"I was his first true love, and he was mine," says Donna Atkins. "That’s not easy to give up on, especially when you have children together."

One could argue that a couple with children trying to save their marriage isn’t the same thing as multiple breakups and reunions between boyfriends and girlfriends. But relationship experts say the dynamic is similar.

Holding each other up

When people can’t maintain their own sense of self or regulate their own emotions, they look for partners to pump them up. That process is called "emotional fusion," says David Schnarch, co-director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen.

In his practice, Schnarch has counseled couples who have married and divorced as many as four times.

"(Emotional fusion) is like two people trying to walk with only one leg, holding each other up so both can stand," says Schnarch, author of "Passionate Marriage." "You can’t let go of your partner, and you are both constantly affecting each other both positively and negatively."

Schnarch says emotional fusion doesn’t end with physical distance, divorce or remarriage. The process is played out, for example, when you see divorced couples still engaging in horrific fights or when exes get back together.

"They keep going back because they want that validation, emotional regulation and identity they have with this other person," Schnarch says.

Schnarch’s practice intervenes during "gridlock," characterized by constant arguing without resolution. Through therapy, couples gain tools to maintain balance in a relationship.

"Every marriage goes through gridlock because it’s a natural system, a people-growing machine," Schnarch says. "The successful ones push through emotional fusion and gridlock and maintain a solid sense of self, soothe their own heart, control their reactions and tolerate discomfort to accomplish goals."

According to Schnarch’s theories, Jason and Donna Atkins are still emotionally fused. But they disagree.

"There are no more hurt feelings. We tried it, and it just didn’t work," says Jason, who is dating again.

"I was still in love with (Jason), I still am now," says Donna Atkins. "But I now know that’s ultimately not where I want to be."

Donna’s fiance, Greg Harmon, a widower raising five children, says they have both learned valuable lessons from their previous relationships and through introspection. They remind themselves that neither of them are each other’s exes.

"I think Donna is in a better place now and is happier," says Harmon. "People handle life situations differently, and hopefully you grow."