My ex (“John”) and I, who are both in our late twenties, were together for a number of years. The relationship was lovely at the beginning, but because of intermittent long-distance, different life experiences, and so-so communication, it was increasingly bad for a few months. One day, John called to say that he wanted to talk about ending the relationship. I asked if he still loved me, and he said yes and then sobbed for thirty minutes. Then, I asked what he saw as the problems in our relationship and whether they were fixable, and he talked incoherently for an hour. I asked if he wanted to end the relationship that night, he said no.
I asked for two days of no communication, then we spoke again and I told him that though it wasn’t my idea and I was sad about it, I felt relieved by the idea of breaking up. He freaked out and started convincing me to get back together. I said I would think about it, asked for more time to think before he was scheduled to fly out to visit me. He flew back to our apartment in the city where we met, it was good, and bad, and emotional and then halfway through the week I found out my friend had a terminal illness. The same one (down to the subtype) that my mother died of when I was a child. I told him that I wasn’t sure I could cope with our relationship issues while also coping with the inevitable loss of my friend. He told me he could be there for me, I believed him.
Turns out, he couldn’t be there for me! And then he broke up with me. On the anniversary of my mother’s death. Repeat: on the anniversary of my mother’s death. And I spent an hour comforting him while he sobbed, in his boxers, over Skype. We haven’t spoken in the year since.
I’ve heard that you shouldn’t fixate on the details of “how” you get dumped because what you’re really upset about is the relationship ending. And, of course, I was sad the relationship ended because a lot of things about John were great and we had some good times, particularly when we lived together in the same city. But at this point I don’t miss the relationship or him. It’s been a hard year, but I recognize that the loss of this friend (he passed away six months ago) and other challenges would have been harder with John. I’m doing healthy things like pursuing my interests and traveling. I even met someone new who is much more compatible with me. The one thing I can’t get over is that John couldn’t let me be dumped with dignity. That he had to choose the worst possible moment to do it. That he had to prove that he could win me back. That I never told him that these things he did made me lose a lot of respect for him. I even comforted him during our last conversation when he was worried he was a bad person.
What do you think? I don’t really want to talk to this person again, but I’m having a hard time letting this go. I’m angry that I was treated this way by a person who claimed to have loved me for many years. Am I mad at myself for not seeing through this shit? And what should I do? Just wait it out? My therapist thinks that I’ll be able to let go of this with time, but what if that’s not true?
[Also, don’t worry, I’m in hella therapy for the dead mom/friend stuff. And other stuff too.]
The guy you’re describing is very emotional but can’t handle other people’s emotions. He knows how to pretend to be an honorable guy, but he has very little ability to put anyone else’s emotions before his own. You say you were disrespectfully dumped, but what you’re describing isn’t a lack of respect, it’s a total lack of ability to deal with intimacy and emotional responsibility. He recognizes that he’s wildly dysfunctional in this regard, and he’s already ashamed by it, hence the copious sobbing. Yes, even the sobbing is all about him. But it’s also an implicit acknowledgement that you’re stronger than him, more level-headed than him, healthier than him, and more capable of moving forward, honoring other people, and finding love than him.
I don’t see the point in shaming him further. He’s already pretty goddamned ashamed.
Now, you say you two broke up on the anniversary of your mother’s death. I’m guessing you were involved in some ritual to honor her death or you were just particularly emotional that day, and you called on him to be there for you. He wanted to be there for you. He tried. And then he sat around, soaking in your sadness, and the walls started to close in. He panicked and broke up. It was life or death.
Then there’s the moment where you told him “Yes, you’re right, let’s break up,” and then he immediately wants to get back together. That’s a classic. Most of us have been involved in a slow motion version of this a few times. A guy dumps you. You cry. You mope around for a few weeks. Then, you scrape yourself off the floor and get your shit together. You start working out more and feel better than ever. You get a new haircut. You have a spring in your step. Guy reappears, amazed by your non-wilty appearance and attitude, and says he wants you back.
My guess is that this guy really does love you and respect you, and he basically would want to stay with you forever if you were a robot without feelings or emotions of any kind. You say that things were bad for a few months and he bailed. That’s the robot-seekers classic profile. Your ex has no concept of working through a hard time together, either because he’s immature or because the second you’re angry or sad that looks unattractive to him and he wants out. (Forget the unattractiveness of sobbing in your boxer shorts over Skype and allowing your freshly dumped girlfriend to reassure you that you don’t suck.)
But let’s be fair. The guy is emotionally challenged. He’s ashamed of himself. He wants to love you, but he can’t tolerate the heaviness and the hurdles. He’s hoping to happen upon someone who is light and breezy without fail. Maybe you’re a little smarter than him. Maybe you’re more intense. Maybe you’re also more capable and that makes him feel weak. Maybe he wants to be the strong one, but your strength makes that difficult. Maybe he feels like a flaccid slice of lunchmeat when he’s with you.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rejection isn’t personal. Even after you spend a few years with someone, they may still have some idea of the perfect girl lodged in their head, and you will never compare favorably to their ideal. This guy in particular has so much shame and so much flinchy approach-avoidance in the mix, he’s likely to long for a woman who soothes and reassures him that he’s heroic and special no matter how twitchy and evasive he is. And he’s not wrong: women like that do exist. Some people don’t discover that their spouses absolutely can’t show up for them until they’re going through something truly terrible.
As unfortunate as it is that you’ve seen so much death at such a young age, those experiences probably prevented you from signing on to a lifelong commitment to the wrong guy. Your therapist is absolutely right that you’ll get over this in time. Shit happened to me in my late 20s that I thought would stay with me forever. Life changed so fast over the next decade that I couldn’t even kick up interest in the same obsessions a few years later. Major fixations and traumas from that time eventually shrunk down to these odd little artifacts from the past that I’d stumble on and become puzzled by. It was like looking at a flower without being able to remember the smell of it. All of the tears and the bluster and the agony, all of that was wrapped up with a very young person’s fears about her future and fears about whether or not she was strong enough (or sane enough!) to ever be happy.
One word about your late twenties: Ugh.
So much panic and drama. Trying to get your career, your friendships, your finances, your love relationships right. Assuming that these things should be all sewn up by the time you’re 30 or 32, or else you’re a fucking loser. Only a 28-year-old could believe in that kind of epic lifestyle game of Musical Chairs: You hit 32 and the music stops and if you don’t find a chair, you’re screwed. The assumption being that, from that point forward, everyone stays in their little chair and life is exactly the same for the next 40 years.
I think that, even though you’ve moved on, you’re certain that this past relationship and the way it ended says something about your destiny, about your ability to find love and keep it. You’d never say that about a high school relationship or a college relationship, because everyone agrees that those are fleeting and superficial most of the time. But somehow your having spent a few years with this guy at the ripe old age of 27 or 28 reflects poorly on you in a more permanent way.
In this little part of your perception, you’re not that different from your ex, sobbing in his boxers over Skype because he thinks he’s a bad person. This fixation is about you and your fears and deep insecurities, and it ultimately has nothing to do with him. Just as his battle with “bad or good guy, capable of real intimacy or incapable” will rage on as he sallies forth without you, the deep insecurities and worries kicked up by his callousness are yours and they don’t have his name on them. Addressing them with him at this point (and he’s sure to be even less helpful and sensitive than ever) will only make that worse. Just as his battle is about being able to challenge himself to tolerate other people’s emotions and be there for them without giving in to the urge to flee, your battle is about admitting your insecurities without viewing them as unforgiveable flaws that damn you to a life of loneliness. This struggle you’re going through isn’t really about him, it’s about your ability to sidestep the disappointments of the past and refuse to define yourself by them.
You could have three more breakups that were even more awful than this one, and you’d still just be playing the averages in terms of regular female experience in your late 20s and early 30s. You write, “The one thing I can’t get over is that John couldn’t let me be dumped with dignity. That he had to choose the worst possible moment to do it. That he had to prove that he could win me back.” I think you’re ascribing way too much rational intention to this guy. He didn’t CHOOSE to dump you without dignity. He didn’t CHOOSE the worst possible moment to dump you in order to maximize your suffering. He didn’t CHOOSE to win you back simply to prove that he could do it. He acted from his own panic and bad impulses. Like so many very weak, very fickle, very young men (AND WOMEN! AHEM!), he runs towards the indifferent and flees those who want him and ask for more from him. It’s time to forgive him for being one of a herd of twitchy, indifferent dudes. If he were capable of making rational choices, he wouldn’t sob to you over Skype about his fears of being a bad guy. I’ll bet he’s more haunted by how things ended (and how weird and flinchy and chicken-shitted he was) than you are.
Now I’m going to get a little bit harsh with you, because you’re asking for growth and forward-motion in your life, and I think this is the key. You emerged from that relationship with very little understanding of who that guy was and what the pressures working on him were. You still think he made these calculated choices, that he did these injuries to you in some kind of thoughtful way. You don’t offer up any evidence that you understand him at all, or that you grasp the faulty dynamics of the long-term relationship you were involved in. Your communication with him was incomplete. You were going through traumatic times, truly, but what was he going through? What effect did your emotions have on him, behind his guarded efforts to APPEAR the honorable, stand-up guy? Did you have any hint that he was playing along at all? Did you ask him about his feelings? Did you listen closely when he talked? Did the two of you discuss heavy stuff, ever, and was it a two-way conversation, where you both learned a lot about each other and felt closer to each other afterwards?
I think you need to be wary of allowing men to play roles in your life without really showing up. I think you need to be wary of your own impulse to get your emotional needs served without really asking yourself where your partner is and what he needs, emotionally, and how his experiences have molded him emotionally. What you describe, in this guy, is a narcissist who can’t make it about you even when he’s dumping you. I’m not entirely convinced that you aren’t also a little narcissistic when it comes to your story of what happened and how you weren’t properly served by him. You have to work on giving other people space in your life, space to have their own experiences and responses to stress and to situations that make them uncomfortable. Your traumas, while HUGE, can’t blot out the sun so completely that they always, always take center stage and push everyone else’s needs to the side. If they do, then you should probably be alone until you’re strong enough and resilient enough to enter a relationship with a spirit of generosity, of give and take, where two very different people bring different qualities and passions and also injuries to the table.
It’s natural to be narcissistic when you’ve been through hell and you need support and you’re at the exact age when all of it seems like DESTINY, like whatever happens now will determine THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. I was a raging, raging narcissist at your age. RAGING. I could SERVE other people, yes, but I couldn’t really show up and let them in. Know what I mean? I think you AND your ex fit into that category, both of you. Forgive yourself for that, and forgive him. You’re not as different as you think.
Before you go to bed at night, I want you to write down 5 things you’re grateful for in a (new!) journal. Then I want you to write, “I am sending (your ex’s name) my love and my forgiveness. I hope he finds happiness.” Death is hard to process. It haunts us, and casts a shadow on our lives for a long time. Your ex appears to be wrapped up in your experiences of loss, but he really wasn’t a part of them. He was on another planet. There’s no intention involved there. He got tied into some story in your mind, a story about how people leave you, unexpectedly, for no good reason at all. It was a twist of fate that he even wound up in that story. He’s flashing through your mind and you’re providing a melancholy soundtrack that doesn’t fit him. When you’re older, these two deaths you’ve endured will still feel weighty and important to you, but he will be separate—this strange, blurry image at the edge of the picture that had nothing to do with any of it. You will have a sense memory of your mother, and your friend, but this ex-boyfriend will be odorless, colorless, weightless. He doesn’t matter as much. He is not central to your story.
Honor the dead. Keep them close to your heart. But forgive this guy, and then forget him. Even as you release him from your life, use the pain to open yourself up. Make room for your contempt, and watch how it crystallizes into pure sadness. Don’t protect yourself. Stay vulnerable to the injuries you’ve sustained. By staying vulnerable, you’ll slowly let in more light, more color, more joy, more possibility. By staying vulnerable, you’ll make more room for other people, in all of their flaws, with all of their vulnerabilities. You’ll see that people don’t really make choices most of the time. They’re all flying blind, just like you are. Seeing that is a beautiful thing. Seeing that is forgiveness.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Double cat photo by “zeevveez.”