Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Ask Polly: My Ex Dumped Me Callously And I Can't Get Over It!

Hi Polly,

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.]


Disrespectfully Dumped

Dear DD,

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.


Are you hung up on the past? Write to Polly, then!

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."

23 Comments / Post A Comment

It REALLY does help when you can finally let go. Even if you can't process and acquire everything Polly outlines above, in the end you can tell yourself "It really doesn't matter." Because, well, it REALLY DOESN'T MATTER. It does hurt at first for awhile even when you tell yourself that but with time and acceptance that IT DOESN'T MATTER you will feel so much better and more open and willing to accept new people in your life.

@Faith Louise Martin@facebook
If IT DOESNT MATTER, which is where i am now. then how can you feel better. all i ever wanted was a family, when my husband left me we are no longer a family. all i ever wanted was a house and to do the right thing. now after 14 years of doing the right thing, i dont matter. nothing i do matters, not the house, it doesnt matter, not me telling him i dont want the children around his new girlfriend and our divorce is not even final. he still does whatever he wants, because what i say doesnt matter. after years of thinking i was loved by him, i find out that overnight i dont mean a thing and IT DOESNT MATTER. i for sure DO NOT feel better right now

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

Side note: I looooves that cat picture.

A Snood Mood (#1,737)

@werewolfbarmitzvah Seriously! Cats are incredibly hard to photograph. I could *never* get a shot that good.

RobotsNeedLove (#236,743)

Polly you are so wise!

LW, what do you actually want? It seems like you think there is some action that would result in catharsis, which I might guess could involve contacting John. Don't do that, nothing will come of it.

You want the past to be different, but it won't ever be different. You can only forgive, as Polly suggests. You could contact John in a million different ways and never get the catharsis that you want, because he just can't give it to you. Would an apology be enough? Probably not, right? An abject one? A list of the things YOU did wrong, too? Anger? Sadness?

Talking to John will only make you feel sick, and drawn back into the place you don't want to be. He hurt you, and the only choice you have is to forgive him, or to drown in the past forever.

Xenu01 (#244,135)

One time I actually got to live the bitter dream- I sat down at a cafe table across from my brand-new ex and I told him that the way that he chose to break up with me (not answering his phone for two weeks and then texting me that he'd met someone else) really blew and that in the future I hoped he would show women more respect and break up with them using his words to their faces.

And he? Shrugged. That was basically it.

In retrospect, I give him kudos for acquiescing to my request that he meet me in a well-lit public place one last time because I had something to say to him. That was hard for him to do.

For me? Frustration of being heard but not understood.

My point here is that Polly is so spot on here it is ridiculous, and also that you cannot control other humans and that sometimes they are shitty to you and that is just how life is. And also that even getting that mythical, brittle "closure" is sometimes less a triumphant closed door than a sheepish little fart.

The Inspector (#257,930)

Way too long comment here, but god this resonated with me. When I was 27 my loving, supportive, committed, 7 year relationship suddenly collapsed after I moved interstate for a fantastic job (like an hour plane ride away, not the ends of the earth). Although my ex was initially very keen to move over, our relationship began to unravel in a drawn out whimper that lasted months. This culminated in me finding out that during our 6 week 'break' he had started dating someone and had just 'hoped' a mutual friend would let me know.

Like the LW, I was very fixated on on the manner of the dumping, right down to the focus on the fact that I was denied dignity in the process. God I think I used the exact phrase to my therapist and my friends.

I did get to sit down with him 6 months after it all happened and I did actually tell him how much he had hurt me and how weakly he had behaved. It didn't come from a place of anger but more a desire to have him bear witness to the damage that he had done (something he had completely avoided). He was kind, he was apologetic, he admitted that he had done the wrong thing, he claimed that our break up had changed his self-perception. And yet, for me there was no resolution. If anything, meeting with him caused a whole bunch of my wounds to reopen and probably made my break-up recovery take far longer. He wasn't a jerk, he wasn't devastated, he simply was… It was anti-climatic – I do believe on some level that he felt bad, but in that moment he would never feel bad enough for me. Outlining my pain was satisfying, but it didn't fix things or give me closure.

Even if you get the meeting, even if 'John' acknowledges that he was a bastard, it doesn't erase anything. It just lays bare the fact that people are selfish and sometimes people, even people we love, do crappy things to one another for no particularly reason (indeed, I would argue that in the end we ALL unthinkingly hurt other people). Most of the time that comes from a place of selfishness or narcissism, but sometimes it can just be unthinking cruelty. And even if he apologised, even if he let you know that this weighs on him and he continues to feel terrible about the manner of the dumping – Would you truly believe him? Would it change the way that the end of the relationship figures in your inner world?

Where I think Polly's advice is fantastic is this point: 'He got tied into some story in your mind, a story about how people leave you, unexpectedly, for no good reason at all.' We create narratives which prioritise certain points. Some events have meaning because they 'fit' a story that seems to say something about ourselves and our future happiness. My therapist tried to tell me this over and over again and for a while I could not listen. My narrative centred on low self-esteem and a long history of depression and major issues with abandonment. For me the brutal dumping was made more damaging because deep down inside, I thought that I got what I deserved and this is what life would always be like.

Therapy, adjusting my medication, time, and exploring who I wanted to be were the things that gave me closure. Focusing on changing my inner narratives, or at least not giving so much weight to the the negative chatter, these things helped the dumping and the person fade from view. A lot of this was triggered by the fact that I didn't want to give my ex any more power over my mental and emotional state – I didn't want to let my sense of self be defined by how I was dumped. I also realised that bitterness towards my ex and his new girlfriend did not make _me_ feel better. In fact focusing on the dumping, or on his new relationship, often seemed to be a way to make myself feel bad. It probably took about 18 months all up until I felt 'free'. There were a lot of dark spots where all I could do was work and then curl up in a ball, but whenever I felt the darkness lift I tried to explore and bring into being the 'new' me, not defined by her ex or the negative inner chatter. After all, the more I held on to my grief and sadness about how I was dumped and how my ex had hurt me, the bigger I made those things and the more weight I gave them in my inner narratives.

When my healing was done, I had a moment that was almost ecstatic. I'd spontaneously travelled to another country to spend 2 weeks with dear friends, and I was at a club. I ended up separated from my friends for a bit and I was wildly dancing to terrible music. In that moment, I just had this moment of profound joy and independence and calm and compassion. I realised I was so happy with who I was now and where I was in life, and I felt wildly, truly free.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@The Inspector Damn, this is almost as good as Polly herself! Thanks for sharing.

SophietheHatter (#257,984)

@The Inspector Very powerful, especially that last paragraph. I've had that moment after a breakup a few years ago and it was liberating. "Profound joy and independence and calm and compassion" is the perfect way to describe it.

pookiesmom (#248,639)

Oof. It hurts so good.

tealily (#257,985)

Going to throw in a comment here because something specific resonated about me current relationship. I love my boyfriend. We've been together 5 years and plan to get married. However. Whenever I have faced a major trauma or stress in my life since we've been together, he just checks out and/or gets very emotional himself and takes it out on me. Is this a deal breaker? I mean, it really, really sucks. But I know him and I know what to expect. He is not the person I can expect to lean on in moments of grief, and I even feel like I have an understanding of why he behaves this way. It's okay if I'm okay with it, right? Or is this just awful and something I shouldn't be forgiving in a partner? Can anyone offer some perspective? Thanks.

mystique (#240,961)

@tealily what will happen when you have to face a trauma together? when you have a baby who gets sick, a dog you have to put down, a hard job situation? That's why the reaction is important: it determines whether he can show up when both of you have to deal with something together as a team. Perhaps you don't see yourself getting married to this guy — oh wait, I just saw you do. Maybe you have a familial or friend structure where you will have people to lean on no matter what when it comes to trauma, and maybe that's okay for you — but personally I can't understand why you would be okay with it. What does he give you if not a shoulder to lean on, a partner in strife?

Beyond that, do you show up for him? Has he not been through trauma in the past few years? Something tells me either he hasn't, or he doesn't discuss it with you. If it's the former, you will grow out of him. If it's the latter, then maybe you should ask yourself why you are fine not guiding him through trauma. Also, maybe it's option #3, where you DO guide him through trauma — are you okay with you being there for him and not vice versa?

OR OR you will go through trauma or grief together and will both show up and will be there for each other. But I don't know if I see that happening…

chevyvan (#201,691)

@tealily In my opinion, this is a deal breaker. You either need to address this with him (possibly in therapy) or get out. I've been through this experience with someone – I had a family crisis and my ex basically turned into a needy, whining, tantrum-throwing 4 year old. It was such a horrible experience that I couldn't even believe it was happening. Ultimately, I knew it wasn't about me…it was his own issue, his own effed up family history of dysfunction that led him to have this reaction to the most difficult/scary/traumatic thing that ever happened to me, but that still didn't mean it was acceptable. It directly led to our breakup and I'm forever grateful because we were on the fast track to moving in together. Like, he had literally started packing his belongings when this happened. What if this had happened after we moved in together? I would have been majorly effed over because when the shit hit the fan I really really really needed him and the way he acted made me hate him for a long time. I couldn't imagine being stuck with someone like that.

Just because you are capable of being empathetic about the *reason* behind him acting this way doesn't mean it's acceptable or that he's capable of having a healthy relationship. You need to have a healthy relationship before you commit to this guy…not just shrug your shoulders and hope for the best. You deserve better. We ALL deserve better.

mandor (#1,014)

@tealily I was with someone like this for 6 years. Then things got difficult and he bailed without warning. I should have known this given how he often disappeared in moments of trauma/stress during the relationship.

Can the two of you talk about these things? If you can talk, there's a chance.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

@tealily In 5 years he has shown you who he is marriage will not change that and therapy can be a long process. Been there, done thay. Now he can't show up for our teenage children. I mean completely checked out.

@tealily I don't know… I can accept that behavior from friends, and know that I'll just never be that close to those people, but I would not accept that behavior from a partner. Life just gets harder as you get older. What if you get really sick or someone in your family passes away? Is he just going to bail because he can't handle it? I think it would be very difficult to stay married to someone that you knew you couldn't count on during the hardest times of your life.

Lyn (#258,123)

You should really check out I found it to be a very supportive community. Good luck. For more info, check out their video:

girlsarepretty (#258,140)

After reading the Awl/Hairpin for a year or so now, I registered just to comment on this article. I read it through tears. A year ago, I went through a different thing than the LW, a MUCH shorter relationship (under 3 months!) but it left me obliterated and I have PTSD-like experiences still, though much of the pain is gone. But, oh, the advice fits exactly to my story. It pokes at the pain but is also validating. Definitely bookmarking this.

karenology (#258,236)

@girlsarepretty same here, except in my case, I was dumped *yesterday* after a very intense and accelerated 4 month relationship, and I am still processing what just happened to me. It hurts so bad, but I am trying to maintain perspective and this advice is exactly what I needed to read.

giorgie (#258,178)

Every week I am so fucking blown away by your advice. Thank you for doing what you do.

You Know What? (#258,220)

Once again Polly knocked it out of the park. I have two things to say about this letter-
1) Expecting a certain reaction/behavior/way of doing things is heading down a long and fruitless path. LW could just as easily be upset that he broke up with her a week before or after the anniversary of her mother's passing. He sounds narcissistic enough that he was probably unaware of that (admittedly unfortunate) coincidence. LW makes it sound almost as if he did it on purpose, just to be an asshole. It's much more likely he was so wrapped up in the drama of the relationship that he just had to bail right then. But whatever the reason, LW being so wrapped up in this one aspect of the whole enchilada is pointless. The problem is not wether he feels properly remorseful or not-it's her EXPECTATIONS that are the problem. Hard as it might seem right now, LW should just let go of that. Her reaction is the only thing she has any control over. Expecting him to feel the way she would like him to, and then further expecting that this will somehow magically give her closure, is unrealistic and immature.
2) As to the benefits of a person who folds like a lawn chair when things get tough, being present during difficult times is one of the few true measures of a person. Ignore it at your certain risk. Right up there with cruelty to animals and daddy/mommy issues. Don't say you weren't warned. LW should be happy to be rid of him and commenters, get the hell away as fast as you can if you're with such a person.

Jspazz (#258,462)

@The inspector and Polly..thank you so much. I think I was meant to read this today. My on and off boyfriend of 12 years skulked away into the arms of another while continuing to "hang out" with me. His new girlfriend went through his phone and then cyber-stalked me for about a month until I finally blocked her and cut off all communication with him. I have been tortured with the question of closure, denial about how sick and twisted I was for continuing to return to a really unhealthy relationship. I kept thinking I needed to see him to find serenity and now I see it will be worse. @ tealily, I wish that after the first break-up in 2003, that I would have been smart & strong enough to not go back. My ex would check out when the going got tough. He broke up with me while I was in the hospital and I still took him back! Please save yourself the heartache….

Post a Comment