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Why Holding On To Past Relationships Is The Worst Thing You Can Do For Yourself, Period

Daniel Dowling
July 6, 2017
Daniel Dowling
By Daniel Dowling
mbg Contributor
Daniel Dowling is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Photo by Boris Jovanovic
July 6, 2017

Three years ago I was a 24-year-old failure-to-launch who lived on his mom’s couch and shared a bathroom with two teenage sisters. My friends had their own houses, degrees, and independence. And there I was, broke and depressed, totally reliant on my parents. It hadn't ever not been that way.

But in 2014 I made one small decision, which led to results I still sometimes can’t believe.

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Today, I’m leading writers in a national campaign to rebrand my hometown, and I write for the best entrepreneurial and self-improvement sites in the world (mbg being my favorite; no lie). I make a great living coaching others to become the happiest and most successful versions of themselves. That’s a lot of change in just three years, from any perspective. And I can trace the transformation of my life back to one single thing: letting go of my exes—completely.

Breaking free from serial monogamy.

For most of my adult life I’d been a serial monogamist. I thought I just really loved love, but it turns out I was just really, really afraid of responsibility. So, for my personal dissatisfaction and unhappiness, self-improvement wasn’t the cure—it was a new girlfriend! And when that one didn’t work out, I'd find another. Yay for love!

Except it wasn’t love because I wasn’t becoming the best version of myself through these relationships. So after the last one ended ignominiously, I quit the love game—just not quite all the way.

I still kept in contact with my exes. And Jen—my former fiancee—was a particular crutch. We still visited each other even though we lived in different states. We kept in regular contact through texts and phone calls, especially during crises. I was still depending on her to make me happy.

Every time we talked, I renewed the connection to my former ways of thinking and behaving. It strengthened the conviction that, deep down, I could only be happy with Jen. She was my way out. If things got too tough, I could always come to her, and she could come to me. We even promised that if we weren’t married by 30, we’d get hitched. Talk about a safety net…(and, yes, also the plot of My Best Friend's Wedding).

Unfortunately, that safety net was keeping me from being the bold, successful, independent man I wanted to become. I just couldn’t seem to cut the cord on my own.

Flying without a net.

Then one day I was listening to an audio course from my favorite self-improvement mentor, Zig Ziglar. He was talking about how to right our wrongs and forgive ourselves. He advised writing apologies down and sending them to the appropriate people. But he had a special step for exes.

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"When it comes to the forgiveness you want from your exes [Zig has a drawling Southern accent], I want you to follow all the steps I just gave you. But instead of sending off the letter, I want you to fold it up, light a fire, and burn the damn thing. Cuz there’s no point in renewing emotional connections with people who aren’t good for you. That’s why they're your exes! It’s time to move on from them and fully embrace your own life."

When one is slapped by truth, one’s jaw has a tendency of dropping, and the eyes have a tendency to glaze over, lost in a thousand-yard stare. That was the picture of my face. Might’ve even drooled a little.

I thought about Jen, and Em, and Katie. I thought about how important they’d been for me and how much security they’d brought me. And I knew I had to let them go for good. For good.

No more texts or calls. No more being Facebook friends. No email updates. No nothing.

I had anxiety about the decision, naturally—severing ties with my past and obliterating a huge comfort zone. But I had a future to step into. I had to do that on my own.

Dealing with the emptiness.

I missed my former girlfriends like crazy. But instead of feeling sorry for myself and longing for them, I prayed for them. I asked God for the same things I was asking for my own self-improvement journey—courage, faith, hope, positivity, inspiration, grace, and so on. I prayed for them to meet amazing and inspiring friends who could help them become their best selves. I prayed for my future wife. And I prayed that I would become the fully independent man capable of supporting her.

In all this praying, I completely changed my focus. Instead of relying on my girlfriends for faith and reassurance, I relied on God and my own ability to handle my problems. I took back the misplaced faith in my girlfriends and put it squarely in my own hands.

That’s when I finally launched.

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Do you believe in life after love?

Just like Cher, I found my power only after letting go of my past relationships.

Without my exes as safety nets, it was just me. Nobody else was going to make me happy. So I did what I needed to do to make me successful—all the writing, studying, practicing, pitching, researching, and self-improvement. I actually become part of a community and made new friends. I fully embraced my own damn life.

Three months passed and I still missed my exes. But I was making money through my writing and making new connections.

Six months passed and I still missed my exes. But I’d started earning a full-time living through my writing. And I was growing more confident by the day, especially in my community.

A year passed and I still missed my exes. But I was fully independent through my passion. And I’d outgrown the anxiety and depression that had haunted me since I was a teenager—a by-product of my newfound faith in me.

It’s been three full years since I cut out my exes. I’m 100 percent over each one, but I’m human—I still miss them! Who wouldn’t? They were brilliant and beautiful women who were insanely fun to be with. I made thousands of joyful memories with each one.

Sometimes I’m reminded of them by hearing a certain song or watching a movie. But that’s just another opportunity for me to thank God for them and to pray for them. It’s another opportunity for me to be the independent and faithful man I know I can be for myself, for my wife, for my clients, and for my audience. It’s another opportunity to find security in myself and in a higher power. And through these opportunities, I’ve found the happiness and fulfillment I always wanted.

I advise all of my clients to go on a yearlong relationship fast, which most of them do. But the real growth comes when they fully let go of their exes and stop using them as crutches. It’s hard, hard, hard to do but absolutely essential if you want to grow.

Here are five tips to help you let go of your exes for good:

1. Start a self-improvement routine, complete with daily, weekly, and monthly goal setting.

Read this article as a primer.

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2. Meet with someone weekly to discuss your personal growth and your journey.

This person will help keep you accountable to your goals and lifestyle choices. Can be a friend or an amazing coach.

3. Stay single for a year—totally single.

If you can’t be happy with you, you won’t be happy—truly happy—with anyone else. Love that you! Commit to being successfully single for a year. That means happy, connected in your community, fulfilled in your work, and in a state of continuous personal growth. (Your daily routines and long-term goals will be critical to this step.)

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4. Surround yourself with positive, uplifting people.

Join a faith community where people strive to live out the values you identify with. This is where you’ll find the deep connections that you can grow with—and that will prevent you from leaning on your exes as crutches.

5. Pray or meditate often.

Use your emotions as mindfulness cues. When you miss someone, pray for them. When you’re lonely, pray for the courage, positivity, and fortitude to make good decisions. When you think you can’t go on—that happens to everyone—pray for what you need. This will help you grow faith in a higher power and yourself, which is an absolute must if you want to be happy alone.

And being happy alone? That’s an absolute must for loving someone unconditionally in a relationship that can last a lifetime.

Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your July horoscope, then find out if you're meeting your emotional needs (and how you can do it better).

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Daniel Dowling
Daniel Dowling

Daniel Dowling is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His writing focuses on personal development and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and FitBit. He studied sociology and anthropology at New Mexico State University.