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Dating Maze #324: The One who Got Away

December 21, 2010 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

She waited for the call from Prince Charming – but he picked someone else.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

A few years ago I met a guy, Joshua, who I really liked. We developed a platonic friendship, and I eventually realized that I wanted much more than that. He has everything I’m looking for in a husband: deep, smart, attractive and good values.

I told him I thought we should start “dating,” and he said that although he was interested, he was not ready for that. So we agreed to date when he was ready, and continued to correspond on a regular basis. In the meantime, I was free to date other men.

Over the past year, I dated many guys, but never anyone like Joshua. In my heart I always waited for him. Then out of the blue, I found that he was engaged. I was crushed!

I have tried to move on and recently began dating someone who reminds me of Joshua, though he doesn't quite measure. Then on our last date, this guy started talking about his "good friend Joshua"! So you can imagine I haven't stopped thinking about Joshua since.

More and more, I find myself missing "the one who got away." So now I’m stuck. What suggestions do you have for me?


Dear Sophia,

You're describing a quite common experience. You meet someone you really like, who seems to be exactly what you’ve always wanted. You form a connection and in your mind think, "This is it!"

The problem is when the next phase of the relationship fails to develop. You may in fact be dating each other, but the other person doesn't feel as you do, or doesn't have the same goals vis a vis marriage. Or the situation could be more like yours, where a friendship exists without the dating element. Yet no matter the circumstances, there is a strong degree of pain and disappointment when the longed-for relationship doesn't materialize. It may be difficult to accept and to let go of the idealization that was built up about the other person.

Let's look at what happened to you. You and Joshua maintained a correspondence, but not the way a dating couple would do with an eye toward marriage. It seems that for him the whole thing remained platonic, but you interpreted it as an intermediate step before actual dating. You expected to begin dating when he was ready, and your continuing friendship reinforced this expectation. Even though you dated other men, you kept holding him up as an ideal. None of those other men could ever measure up because you were waiting for him.

That’s why the news of his engagement so devastated you.

Going out with others meant this was a very loose agreement.

Now let’s try to step back and look a bit objectively. Even though you both agreed to date when he was ready, the fact that you were encouraged to go out with others meant this was a very loose agreement. It was reasonable to think that you might find someone else, or perhaps that you'd grow in different directions or change over time. So although Joshua had made you no commitment, you felt emotionally betrayed.

But know one thing: If he was the "right one" for you, things would have worked out differently than they did. This may sound trite, but it is true. And it is a message that you need to gradually learn to accept.

Awakening Old Pain

That's the intellectual approach. On the other hand, it may take more time to deal with the emotions you are feeling. You're disappointed that the relationship didn't materialize, and you feel a sense of loss. We suggest that you allow yourself to work through these feelings and let yourself experience mourning. One way to do this is to write down everything you are feeling and to highlight those emotions that are the strongest or most upsetting. Ask yourself why you are reacting so strongly to these particular feelings. Do any of them remind you of another experience in your life? What was it? What connection do you see between that experience and the one you are trying to deal with right now?

It's quite possible that the only real connection between your earlier experience and your current loss is the emotions you are feeling. In other words, the actual experiences are different, but you are experiencing similar painful emotions. The reason you're reacting so strongly is that you're experiencing the new pain and re-experiencing the old pain at the same time.

The experience has triggered memories of another difficult time in life.

This helps explain why you feel so stuck after this hurtful incident, and why you feel you can't move past it. Once you understand that the pain you're feeling is so much more intense than expected because the experience has triggered memories of another difficult time in your life, you can begin the process of healing. When you see the connection between the old and new pain, you can put the newer pain into perspective. You may not be ready to resolve those old feelings of pain at this time, because of the amount of work it might take. However, if you give it time, you can gradually get over the new pain.

Since it is a process, it is going to take time. As you heal, it is important nurture yourself both physically and emotionally. Find one or two activities you enjoy, including something that allows you to be creative, and focus on the experience of the moment. You'll be doing more than distracting yourself from thinking about your loss – you'll also bring out a more positive side of yourself.

It will also help to take another look at what's happened from an intellectual perspective. The fact that your friend is no longer available to you means that you are free to stop waiting for him, and that you can now move on. If he hadn't become engaged to someone else, you might forever be dating men without giving them a chance, because you’d always be anticipating that call from Joshua.

Once you acknowledge that he is no longer available, you can stop "bringing him with you" on dates and comparing each man to him. Instead, you can look at each potential relationship as a clean slate. The man who is right for you will have many wonderful characteristics that may be very different from those of “the one who got away.” It's important to give each man you date a chance to show you who he is.

It's not unusual for a person who wants to get married to meet someone they believe may be right for them and then discover that it isn't so. We call this finding "almost the one." That's what you've gone through. Many people tell us that this difficult experience actually helped them in the long run, and that when they met the right person they understood why the other relationship wasn't right for them. We hope you will soon acquire this clarity, and we wish you success in navigating the dating maze.

Rosie & Sherry

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