Kicking the limerence habit

Reader Vincent suggests “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg as a useful perspective on limerence.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

It’s a great book. I really enjoyed it, and there are some fascinating insights. One of the episodes that really stayed with me was a man who had suffered a stroke that severely damaged the region of his brain that is needed for retention of new memories. He was therefore stuck in a strange world where he couldn’t lay down new memories. Despite this, he was able to learn new things. After moving to a new house with his wife, he could not explain where the kitchen was to an interviewer, but when he was hungry he would get up and walk into it to make himself some food.

That anecdote illustrates the core principle of the book: habits become ingrained at a deep level of the brain – not at the high “executive function” level. A great deal of our day-to-day behaviour is driven by habits, not by thinking. The implications for limerence are clear.

1) Limerence is a deep rooted drive

Not a hard one for a limerent to accept this, but it shows that the impulse to seek LO is not being driven consciously. It’s an urge driven by the subcortical parts of the brain to initiate reward-seeking behaviour. In Duhigg’s model, habits are composed of a three step process:

Cue → Routine → Reward

The cue is the trigger that activates the habit “circuitry” and starts the routine. It’s a little slippery what exactly the cue can be. It could be a fundamental urge like hunger that initiates food-seeking behaviour, leading to reward when you’ve successfully made and eaten a bacon sandwich. Or, it could be more subtle – a time of day or event that recurs and has become associated with a habit. Like always wanting a cigarette after lunch, or making a cup of tea as soon as you get home from work.

For limerence, the concept of an identifiable cue is the part of the model that is least useful for me. First, there is the problem that LO is such a dominant part of your mental landscape that everything is a cue. Life is basically one giant hyper-cue for LO. Thoughts of LO can be triggered by a song, an idea in a book, a similar-looking person, a smell, a room where you once met them, social media, the work environment, etc. etc. Added to this is the even slipperier concept of emotional cues: when you feel sad, or happy, or lonely, or fearful, it can trigger thoughts of LO as a (ultimately counterproductive) self-medicating pleasure. So, the problem in identifying a specific cue that triggers limerence-reinforcement is that almost everything can be a cue.

The next two stages of the model are more straightforward. The “routines” most limerents fall into are rumination and/or LO-seeking. The myriad cues all trigger the urge to contact LO either in person or in your imagination. The “reward” of course, is the big old surge of dopamine (plus other neuromodulators) that make you feel all vibrant and giddy and alive. I’d also suggest that limerence constitutes a hyper-reward. I can’t think of many other life experiences that come close to the euphoria experienced during the early stages of limerence. Chocolate doesn’t quite measure up.

2) Once the habit is ingrained, it is difficult to shift

Once the pattern of neural activity that encodes the habit is reinforced, it becomes effortless to execute. No cognitive strain needs to be exerted to initiate the routine. In fact, the routine often begins before the conscious awareness that you are doing it AGAIN catches up.

I’ve touched on this before in relation to rationalisation, we often act-then-justify, rather than think-then-act. It’s a psychological truism that we are cognitive misers – we won’t expend energy on thinking through a problem if we can instead follow an effortless intuition or ingrained behaviour. That reality is a major part of why it is hard to break a habit. You have to not only exert willpower to intervene when “autopilot mode” has kicked in, but to make the intervention last, you also have to weaken the established patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. And it can take longer for an executive-based behaviour to be learned than something as instinctive as pair bonding (i.e. “I’m not going to do this anymore because it is disrupting my life goals” is less weighty than “must mate with super-attractive person”).

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Hardly a close call

3) Changing the habit may be possible…

Despite recognising the difficulty of kicking a bad habit, Duhigg does offer hope for a strategy for changing. It is based around identifying the details of the cue → routine → reward pattern, and substituting a new routine and/or reward for the old one. He gives the example of breaking his own habit of snacking on cookies. His suggestion is that analysis of the cue is the starting point for fixing the habit. If the routine is to interrupt your work and get up from your desk go to the cafe and grab a snack or drink, he suggests looking beyond the simple explanation. Perhaps the cue is not hunger, but boredom. The urge to go to the cafe is not for food, but for company. In this scenario, the actual reward is spending time socialising with colleagues, not food. Once the true cue is recognised, you can substitute the routine to get the same reward. In his case, you would go to a colleague’s office, or the cafe, just to chat. Same cue, same reward, but zero calories.

Whether or not you find this example persuasive, the central thesis is that switching the dysfunctional routine for a superior one is the best bet for changing a habit. You’ll still want the reward. You’ll still experience the cue that triggers desire. The key is finding a new routine that satisfies it.

That’s the point where I think limerents will struggle. What can you substitute as a routine that will give a limerent reward without either involving LO or ruminating about them? Transference to another LO is possible, but also fraught with problems, of course. It could be a failure of imagination for me, but the reward being sought is so specific and so linked to LO that it is hard to devise a way to redirect it onto a different routine.

4) Can the habit be broken?

So is there no hope?

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Ah c’mon! Don’t be defeatist.

There’s always hope. I think the message of Duhigg’s book is powerful – that more of our lives are governed by habit than we realise – but it is possible to override old habits with training and determination. The executive centres of the brain do have ultimate control. We can regulate our impulses. It’s not easy, but I’ve spoken before about possible strategies.

The key thing for me is that we all have habits that we have fallen out of, so we know it’s possible. I used to have the habit of taking a walk every lunchtime, which was rewarding, restorative and enjoyable. But I took on more responsibilities at work, time pressures crowded in, and I just… stopped. I didn’t exactly make a decision, I just missed a few days, then missed more days than I took, and then I just wasn’t doing it anymore. I’m sure if I went for a walk next week I would find it rewarding. I even think it was a good habit that I should probably have continued. Nevertheless, a change in my schedule (shortening lunch to fit more work in) was enough of a disruption to override the old habit.

Now, obviously, skipping a midday walk is a different order of magnitude to overcoming limerence. But, for me, the route to mastering limerence was not in repurposing the habit loop, it was in over-writing the whole routine with a new mental association: LO = reward, was superseded with LO = risk.

 

A wider perspective on this is that it is very valuable to understand exactly what is rewarding about LO, and why you might be seeking it. With the usual reservations, it may well be worth exploring your emotional drives with a therapist of some sort, to try and identify both the reward that you are getting and why you are seeking it now. Also, I really do like the idea of deeply analysing the cues that trigger the habit cycle. All knowledge is useful in the project of understanding yourself and deciding to take control over your life and fate.

I recommend the book. It’s worth a try, and at the very least, you’ll learn a lot of interesting stuff about how people work.

29 thoughts on “Kicking the limerence habit

  1. Interesting, extremely so. In my quest to quell my limerence I now have trained myself to feel fear and apprehension when I see my phone identify that LO is calling vs. not so very long ago when I was filled with euphoria and excitement at every text, every call. That reward was powerful…like an electric current running through me. I do wistfully miss that incomparable feeling but I know it was all just an unhealthy illusion and a harmful one at that.

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  2. What wonderful timing! I started a new routine a week ago.

    Old routine:

    family frustrations—-> hide and daydream about LO —-> immediate relief from daily stress

    New, improved routine:

    family frustrations—-> achieve ONE task quickly ( walk a mile, one household chore, read one blog on this website, or read one chapter in your current novel —-> immediate relief

    Same cue and reward, different habit. I would emphasis on the word ONE. If the routine is too difficult or time consuming, daydreaming about LO is much more appetizing.

    Good Luck to everyone!

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    • That’s a great example, Aggie. I focussed more on trying to break the limerence habit entirely, but your strategy is great for breaking the association for that particular cue.

      Even better, the routines for your new “coping with family frustrations” loop are all healthy and useful!

      I guess the only challenge would be disciplining yourself to not spend your mile’s walk ruminating on LO 🙂

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    • Love that Aggie, is it working?

      As Dr L said there are so many cues for me, it’s hard to isolate a pattern. It’s just like she’s taken up a residency in my mind, always there ready to take to the stage.

      Maybe we have to just notice the cue and just as the old routine starts up, quickly switch it to something else. I really like the idea of little tasks I’ve been putting off – they are always satisfying to complete.

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  3. Okay, time to be honest. I’m posting this to help everyone that’s having a hard time with NO Contact. I went NC for 10 whole months. My LO is narcissistic and a dangerous spouse poacher. I have enough insight to recognize that LO is an addiction. LO=reward
    I used rationalization to “stop” in and speak with LO. My God!! That voice, his skin and those eyes. (How in the world did he become even more breath-taking? Asked my Limerent brain.)
    It was like an alcoholic binge. Ten months down the toilet. We hugged goodbye. (Huge mistake)

    Realistically, he’s average in a handsome way.

    I’m back on this website to read everything again. No contact and adverse conditioning are definitely the answers to my Limerence. Thanks to this website, everyone’s post and past personal angst, I got back on track faster. This is actually completely in my control. I think it will always be a beast in the closet. It’s up to me whether I want to open the door and play peek-a-boo.

    Vincent,

    Yes, this “replacing bad habit” is working. My house is cleaner, knees are a bit sore from walking and husband is happy. (Sometimes, a lavish dinner is a “quick task” to replace ruminating about LO)

    Try it and let us know if it works!

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    • Even more riches from Aggie!

      This sort of “slip up” is super common and I think it’s really important that you haven’t let it demoralise you totally and get stuck in the limerence habit again. Slip ups happen, teach us something important, and can be used to bolster determination.

      I mean, they’re obviously a Bad Idea, but responding constructively rather than beating yourself up is the best way of making the most of the moment of weakness.

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      • Aggie, if it helps I had my own slip-up a couple of nights ago. Work night out, we’d all drunk A LOT and LO and I ended up having an argument on the street at the end of the night, before she stormed off! She was upset that I believed what someone else had said about her, as given our relationship I should have trusted her. It’s the type of conversation I’ve been trying to avoid, as it’s intense and intimate in its own way, certainly more than an average co-worker conversation. Of course I’ve been replaying it and figuring out how to handle the fall-out ever since. Hardly part of my plan of staged withdrawal!

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      • After LO left my company last year and we had an emotionally intense summer together, she told me she was returning to my workplace 2 mornings/week for an undefined period of time. So NC was clearly not in the cards at that point, and the uncertainty of when she would not be needed anymore played with my mind. We definitely talked every day that she was there, letting the attachments take a stronger hold. We went through phases of more distance followed by more closeness, all the while sharing our lives with one another.

        There was a peacefulness (and sadness) when she told me that her part-time position was going away soon. I knew that meant I had a chance to “move on”. Of course I didn’t right away, as we still maintained a closeness for a bit longer. But soon after, I had a chance to try NC, and am in the early stages. But I don’t know how I could have “moved on” if I worked with LO. Maybe I would have needed a different type of disclosure with her. For those with LO in their workplace, I wish you and extra bit of luck.

        I did not have a slip up yet, but I had commitments with a group and I did interact in person with her twice over a week ago. I don’t think I slipped up, as I did briefly respond to 2 texts she sent about meeting for lunch (NO!) and commenting on one of the events where we went. She said that I didn’t respond to her email she sent, and I said “yes, that’s right”. I basically had nothing more to say about it, as I had said my peace a month ago. We are at a point where, for both of us, things must end. She does believe we can have a friendly, “tamer”, relationship, but I know deep down that isn’t possible for me. The benefit for me would be dwarfed by the suffering. Just seeing/interacting with LO followed by a solo business trip led my mind astray. Did I say that being alone is really tough for me, so I try to keep social? LO will be returning for a brief stint in my office sometime this month. I’d rather not see her because I am afraid of falling back into a more unhealthy routine. Getting this down on “paper” is also healthy for me.

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      • I do feel for Aggie’s situation. If LO is not a decent human being (i.e. in my case – LO using his professional position of power to trap me into an inappropriate relationship) it makes it all the more difficult to break the habit because of his manipulative tactics. I have struggled with NC since April. He tried to re-engage in August, after which I completely blocked his number. He then uses his professional contact with my mother to try and get to me. Normally I listen over the phone with my mother during her appointment with the LO as I am her carer. But this time I decided to protect myself first and will stay out of it. I also have a list about LO – including his unkind remarks about vulnerable people, things he said that were red flags which escaped me during limerence. In order to heal from this habit of emotional dependency, I had to painstakingly identify the triggers. A therapist might help a bit, but in the end you still have to do it yourself. For example, there were things that I admired in LO, which I decided were areas for development in myself. My husband is aware of the situation, and my vulnerabilities, which helps a lot in my personal journey to heal. Once I internalise the fact that LO is an illusion, a mirage, a symptom of my own existing wounds that need a chance to heal, then it gives me strength to let go. I’m making this thinking a habit.

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  4. Several years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote an article about affirmations. You can read a bootleg copy here. http://www.cryan.com/pdf/Affirmations.pdf

    After she said “goodbye,” I used “Stay away from [LO #4]!” as an affirmation for over 6 months. I had one relapse but it helped. I typed it out in Word, copied it and by holding down “Control-C,” I could copy a whole page in seconds. I never saved them. It’s been a year and a half since the relapse. But, I’m lucky. No Contact is possible and she said goodbye. Score one for disclosure.

    When LO #2 showed up after 25 years, I used a slightly different affirmation, although I didn’t call them that at the time. I imagined myself saying them to her.

    “I don’t want to be with you.”
    “I don’t want to be around you.”
    “I don’t want anything from you.”

    Somewhat brutal but effective.

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  5. Such great ideas from everyone on this! I am trying all of these techniques in my current LE. We are in No Contact for the moment, but there is no doubt I will have to see her again at some point. Nothing seems to really work well for me–except time, lots of time. And, of course, purposeful living. Since I’m married, my “task” each day has been to focus on how I can improve my relationship with my wife. I have also found that writing this down is helpful to squelch the ruminating (in this case, on things she said or that we did together). I’ve decided to try to record the entire episode as if it were a novel–and indeed, it comes out of me like that when I can find the time to sit down to write. It’s all in a Word document (password protected, of course). As are all of our texts (again, password protected). Somehow having it all down on “paper” allows me to put in a box and stop thinking about it, which on some level, I think I do because I want to remember and preserve it. It is a special, rare feeling. And then when I’m simply too old to have these feelings–tell me that day comes eventually–I can look back on the whole thing with some nostalgia, fondness, and perspective and not have it ruining my life.

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    • Be careful with archiving things. I wrote a 12 page history of my relationship with LO #2. I used it as a basis with the therapists I worked with. I got rid of all but a few pictures of her.

      I deleted every piece of correspondence I ever exchanged with LO #4. If I ever want to revisit that LE, I can go to the website I met her on. I’m all over it. She also used one of my blogs as a basis for a chapter in her book.

      Even password protected, the files can cause problems. First, they can be cracked.

      one reason I deleted the evidence was I didn’t want my wife or kids to find them if something should happen to me. I don’t want them to find something and wonder why I kept it all this time. I don’t want the idea there was another woman in my head and I was hiding something from them in the same time zone with them. I never want them to get the faintest inkling that our life together was some kind of lie or she was someone I settled for.

      I recommend at some point you get rid of them.

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      • I have lots of notes. That’s mainly a result of having no one to talk to regarding my limerence. Feeling alone and isolated with my emotions has been very difficult. I still think about seeking counseling, though I want it to be the right help.

        I know exactly what Landry is saying; but I hope for the day to come when I don’t even remember these notes exist and they serve no purpose. My logical side agrees with Scharnhorst, but the emotional side is fighting it. Months ago, my LO purged a lot of our communication for fear of our secret deep friendship coming out. I felt sad at the time, though I totally understood. Though nothing is really completely deleted electronically if somebody had enough incentive to dig deep.

        As of now, I occasionally add notes in the midst of trying to form more of a negative association with LO. And part of my note keeping is due to the creative aspect of feeling really bad. Why does it take me being in a down state to create powerful songs/lyrics? Part of me wants to complete songs while the other part doesn’t want me thinking about LO at all.

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      • Don’t sweat the timeline.

        From when I started writing my history of my relationship with LO #2 until I deleted it was over 7 years. I got to the point where it was counterproductive. Knowing it was there and re-reading it was keeping me in a place I no longer wanted to be.

        As opposed to a shrine, I put my LOs into a crypt. It holds my mother, my grandmother, LO #2, and LO #4. LO #4 was a late addition so they have a foursome for bridge or canasta.

        But, that really only works because I have the advantage of time and distance so I no longer have to deal with any of them.

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  6. One more idea on this: I have found that blocking LO on my phone has been a huge relief for me. We had agreed to NC for a month, but as the month drew to a close, I was thinking more and more about what our next interaction would be. And so I told her I wanted to continue NC, particularly on the phone, and gave no end date, and at the same time blocking her. I said if she needed to reach me, she could via email. (I know, that doesn’t like real No Contact, but…it’s complicated. She actually may need to reach me.) I have no doubt she will respect my request for continued NC and so I’m pretty sure she’s not calling or texting me anyway. However, “pretty sure” is still uncertain wherease blocking her means I can be certain, anytime my phone goes off, that at least it is NOT her. And that feels good.

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    • No blocking from me (yet). I feel relieved when I arrive at work and don’t see a missed call from LO, or when I check email to see she has not reached out. I just received word that LO will be returning to the office for 3 days over the next week, including tomorrow. I’m working on not thinking about our interaction and not thinking about what I will and won’t say. (Maybe after this post I will not think about it!) Whatever happens will happen and I cannot control everything. I bet LO asks me to lunch on one of the days. (Of course, I will be sad if she doesn’t, though I know it will be better that way)

      This feels like a disruption to my process that will definitely set me back by giving me more limerence food, as our encounter over a week ago validated how I can’t handle her glimmer. She doesn’t realize that even discussing mundane life updates triggers me, as we know so much about each other and can read each other. I don’t know if I need a final disclosure meeting with LO or just try to roll with indifference (which will appear as rudeness). This may sound odd to some and make sense to others, but I am trying not to care about LO and what she feels. That’s just more wasted time spent on her. I do know that a final disclosure meeting will add to my limerence —

      “What does LO think about what I said?”
      “Does LO still think about me?”

      But those thoughts will be there regardless. It all feels like a shame that I cannot have this person in my life. But other important things do suffer. My specific situation feels like a break-up.

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      • “…feels like a break-up.”

        It absolutely is a kind of break up, I think. And it’s made so much more difficult by not having anyone to talk to about it, either when the relationship was happening or when it ends. If you can find even one unbiased, unrelated third party, you’re lucky and they often don’t understand limerence, anyway. In therapy I’ve found myself unhappily wrestling with the dilemma of my need to process the grief for the end of the affair (which requires thinking/feeling about the whole thing and maybe–god help me–even processing some with LO) while at the same time needing to stop cold turkey all this thinking about it.

        I’m so normally never a blog follower, but it’s been really nice to have this blog to read and comment on. Hang in there!

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      • One of my hopes with the blog is that it can help people think about limerence, rather than thinking about LO. It may be a bit of a fine line to draw (they are in our minds, after all), but my hunch is that thinking about them in the context of how they are impacting on our general wellbeing is a constructive “deprogramming” step.

        Any time we can change our perception of LO by looking at them from a different perspective should help to disrupt the simple “they’re so mesmerising” association…

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      • Dr. L

        “Deprogramming the mind”

        This is round two for me with the same LO, since I slipped up last month and made contact. I’m better equipped this time. I’ve complied a folder with all the factual documents that proves my LO is a human being with many, many flaws.

        1. His Ex-wife’s divorce papers from her first marriage. She has My LO’s home address on the court documents. Therefore, LO snatched her from another man, and moved in with her while she was still married to her first husband. I try to empathize with her first husband and imagine his face when he finds out his wife is living with her new lover.
        That poor man.

        2. LO’s divorce documents. This woman flied papers against my precious LO after only two short years of marriage. No “other” man was involved. She just made a mistake and wanted it fixed. This wakes me up to the fact that he’s not satisfactory in some form as a husband.

        3. LO’s current girlfriend is 18 years his junior. I have a copy of her arrest record for disturbing the peace and reckless endangerment. This strongly suggests that he’s tasteless and tacky in his choice of companionship.

        4. The publication on his job website that his position will be reduced or terminated due to lack of funds. It’s an open letter to announce the current situation of the church. This makes it very real that he’s about to be severely reduced in income or worse, unemployed.

        I’m ashamed that these documents were so easily obtained online and that it’s in my possession. I would never use it to humiliate him. He’s unknown to everyone on this blog. Are you wondering, Why is Aggie doing this horrible thing? Why is she behaving this way? Simple….
        In November, I will have been in Limerence for two whole years. I want to yell, confront and even physically attack LO for starting up this entire flirtation. It has just shattered my peace of mind, and well-being. I have allowed it to rob me of precious time with my family.

        I’m going to destroy this folder eventually. But, it’s been an amazing cure for any further Limerence episodes.

        He’s a human being with weaknesses and flaws like all of us. He’s not my shining knight in armor.

        My real knight is a kind, often imperfect husband. He works 10 hours a day to shelter and provide for me. I owe him love and respect. Instead, I’ve become a cyber stalker and stealthy gossiper that can weed out information from people who are acquainted with LO.

        I need to take ownership of my life, and well-being.

        I’m declaring “War on LImerence and LO!”

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  7. One of the more interesting habits related to limerence involved walking the dog. I try to take the dog for a walk every day. It was 15-20 minutes of just the dog and me.

    I found myself using it to indulge the LE. I looked forward to walking the dog. I could pop the earbuds in and explore the heights of limerent euphoria, the depths of limerent despair, or anything in between. When I turned the last corner, I’d start bringing myself out of it.

    I didn’t consciously modify that habit. After our goodbye, the LE started winding down and I realized I was still walking the dog but I wasn’t listening to music anymore. That habit eliminated itself.

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    • I do the same thing. I started running when the LE flared up a year ago, mainly for distraction and an attempt to feel better. But it gave me an excuse to have a good 30mins or so of pure LO fantasy (and the added benefit of losing weight, thus looking even better for LO…). It’s a good habit, I want to keep it up, but now I try to wrestle a work problem or something similar while I’m running instead.

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  8. Almost 16 weeks NC and I thought I was getting there with kicking the habit, but in the last week or so LO has crept back into my head a lot more. I can’t seem to shake this feeling that I’ve made the wrong decision going NC.

    It’s great to be off the limerent rollercoaster, but I miss having the weekly contact to remind myself of LOs flaws (Funny how the memories are all rose-tinted!)

    I’ve been trying to keep busy and form new habits, but there’s something still making me feel like I should be with LO in the future, even though rational head knows that’s bonkers!

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    • Yeah, that happens but you’re going to be fine.

      That will fade with time and self-enlightenment. The more you learn about yourself, the easier it gets.

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    • Sophie,

      Here’s a question. Do you still feel connected/attached to LO?

      It’s been 2.5 years since I went NC with LO #4 and over 30 since I last saw LO #2. I still think about them. The difference between then and now is that after working with the therapist, I no longer feel connected to them. The thoughts may come easily but they go just as easily. The feeling that these LEs were some cosmic grand opera are gone.

      I still periodically imagine having long discussions over drinks with LO #4 but it’s always tempered by knowing that to be in that position would be “against all odds.” My life would have to change so drastically that I wonder if the assumptions those thoughts are based on would even still be valid.

      As for LO #2, the best I can muster is running into her at an airport, somewhere and having a drink. But, after figuring out a lot of things, that imagined discussion changed a lot.

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    • I wonder what is it that made LO creep back into your mind? Maybe understanding that would be helpful so you can avoid/control that in the future.

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    • I’ve got a gut feeling that this sort of “relapse” is an incredibly important moment for lasting success. There always comes a point where the immediate gains of NC allow us to relax, and then a part of ourselves asks “Is this it? This is much more boring and responsible than grand fantasies. I’ve changed my mind!”

      If we’ve succeeded in really establishing a new and more purposeful life, we will recognise this as a challenge along the road to the future. If not, then we start looking back over our shoulders…

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      • Some interesting points – thank you.

        Yes I still feel attached to LO, even though I shouldn’t. I was hoping it would fade over time, but it obviously needs more time and work.

        I think the triggers at the moment may be my eldest going back to school, leaving me with more “thinking time” than is helpful. My work keep nagging me to do some extra hours. I’ve done some, but it’s left me exhausted and reduced my time with my husband further. Also at my old job, LO knew my circumstances (they mirrored his) so never asked me to work any extra. I miss having that understanding.
        My therapist is away this week, which hasn’t helped either. I’m generally feeling exhausted.

        Also an interesting point about it being a potential turning point. When I started NC I was excited to make plans for the summer of things we could do as a family, to look at what I wanted to do as a new career (my current job is good for the time being, but not a long term career!) and to start getting my marriage back on track. Now the summer has passed, the career options that I am really interested in won’t fit with family life for a few years yet and I’m not making much progress on my marriage as I’ve become preoccupied with LO again.

        Time to start looking forward again I think.

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