Should I Remarry My Ex-Spouse?
If Not, How Can I Just Let Go?
Dear Dr. Harley,
My ex-spouse and I just got copies of your book, Fall in Love, Stay in Love, and we will read it as you suggested. But we have one more question that he and I can not quite figure out. We have been through 3 extra-marital affairs (him), moved out 3 times (him), and a nasty divorce (we), and now strangely enough, we seem to be able to communicate better than ever.
But we cannot let go. He asked that I write this letter to you and see if you could shed some light on the issue of "letting go". It appears with all our emotional baggage and skeletons, that we would both be better off just simply starting over with someone else. I'm sure that it would be easier to do if no kids were involved but after all this....why can't we just let go?
The issue of "letting go" in situations like yours relates to behavior associated with what psychologists call, approach-avoidance conflicts. Almost everything in life have features that attract us and features that repel us. Usually one so outweighs the other, that we can make decisions to approach or avoid things or people without much conflict. But when what we like and what we dislike about something has roughly the same strength, we have a conflict.
Your husband is in an approach-avoidance conflict regarding you. There are characteristics about you that meet his emotional needs, so he is very attracted to you for those reasons. Then, you have other characteristics that have bother him. These repel him when he is with you. You probably feel the same way about him, with different reasons to be attracted and repelled. Part of you wants him (approach) and part of you doesn't (avoidance).
Sadly, it gets more complicated. Research has shown that when we draw near to the object of an approach-avoidance conflict, the repelling (avoidance) characteristics have a greater effect on our emotions than the attracting (approach) characteristics. That makes us want to avoid the person when they're with us.
As we get further away, the reverse is true. The attracting characteristics become more potent than the repelling characteristics. When the person is away, we wish we could be with the person. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" when the person is the object of an approach-avoidance conflict.
In your marriage, both the attraction and repulsion are very strong and almost equal for your husband, and perhaps for you, too. So you are forever like a yo-yo, getting close enough to find each other repulsive, and then getting far enough away to find each other attractive. Your husband probably feels more that way about you, than you feel about him, because he's the one who seems to come and go the most.
One solution is to do something about those repulsive characteristics.
When he spends time with you, what pops out as a reason he wants to avoid you? It may not occur to him when you are separated, but when you are together, it should appear in living color. What is it about living with you that your husband finds so difficult that he must leave you to avoid it? The answer to that question will point you to what you both needed to change in your marriage. If you can remove the obstacle to his happiness when you are together, your marriage may be redeemable.
The other solution is to get out of the trap altogether.
Every time you get together, you are being exposed to his attractive characteristics. Somehow, he is meeting your needs and depositing love units, keeping his account in your Love Bank full to the brim. The effect of it all shows up most when you are apart from each other, and you want him to meet your needs again. So to avoid being attracted to your husband, you must make sure he doesn't deposit any more love units. You must simply discipline yourself for a period of time (six months to two years), to not have any contact with him whatsoever. The saying, "out of sight, out of mind," is true if you give it enough time.
So the answer to your question, how can I "let go," is to never see him or talk to him again. Move away so you are not tempted to see him. Have someone deliver your children to him when it's his turn for visitation. Get him completely out of your life. It's what I recommend when a spouse is having an affair, which is another approach-avoidance conflict. The wayward spouse should never see or talk to his lover again the rest of his life. By doing that, he or she is able to let go.
But until you either get rid of the repulsive characteristics that drive you away from each other, or discipline yourself never to see your ex-husband again, you will continue to watch him go through an endless loop of coming and going. You both have very attractive characteristics that drew you into marriage. Those same characteristics have created a trap, keeping you from "letting go."