(Doctor’s Note: Today’s column includes frank discussion about abusive relationships and suicide)
I’m in a confusing, morally conflicted place and I could use an outside perspective.
For a long time, I was crushing on someone tangentially attached to my friend group. This didn’t stop me from dating other people, but I always paid attention to this woman in case my chance ever came up. Unfortunately, she was dating (in my biased opinion) a weapons grade asshole who was, at a minimum, verbally and mentally abusive to her. There was gossip he was physically abusive, with no obvious proof. Eventually, they broke up.
I waited a respectful amount of time then asked her out. We went on a few dates, things went well, we went on a few more, became exclusive, and time marches on. She tells me over and over I am the best boyfriend she’d ever had, she’s never been happier, so I thought things were going ok.
Until the ex shows up again, swearing he has changed, and he wants her back. You can probably guess what happened next. At first, she wanted nothing to do with him. Then she agreed to contact because she wanted closure. Then she agreed to continuing contact because she felt sorry for him. Then suddenly, she’s “unsure” how she feels about him. When it got to that point, I told her she had a choice; either him or me. She said was not prepared to make that choice. So, I broke up with her.
I didn’t scream or yell. The last time we spoke, I wished her well. I also told her that I seriously doubted the ex had changed, and I thought she was heading towards big trouble with him. I requested that when that trouble came, to leave me out of it. Given how betrayed I felt, I was not up for even pretending we could “still be friends” nor would I be willing to “get in touch” or “catch up” or anything like that after the you-know-what hit the fan. I unfollowed her on all social media, removed every physical reminder of her I could find, and went on with my life. I never brought her up or discussed her with any of our mutual friends and discouraged those friends from telling me about her. Nevertheless, I learned she moved in with the ex shortly after our break-up, which didn’t improve my mood.
Unfortunately, turns out the ex hadn’t changed. About a year after the break-up, I heard about things going badly for her; she had to flee their apartment, he got scary to the point the police got involved. Our friends started a collection to help her defray the costs of finding a new place and buying essentials. I was very happy to give money to that. But now, I’m hearing from our friends that she wants to “talk”.
I could not have been clearer when we broke up, and I have not changed my mind. I am not interested in that. Some have told me it would help her heal to talk with me. I don’t see her healing as my responsibility. I have been accused of being a bad ally. I have been told I am cruel for being willing to ignore what we once had. I would never say this to her, but I can’t help but notice that what we had didn’t count for much in the moment, so it isn’t clear why it should mean that much to me years later.
Other friends have said that if I really meant what I said about not being involved I never would have given that money; that by doing so, I raised an expectation that a relationship could be salvaged, and it would be cruel to take that away. If I am honest, that argument makes some sense to me. It doesn’t make me want to interact with her, but it does make me wonder if I have obliged myself to do so.
Finally, are some mutual friends that support my decision.
I read all this over and I know I must sound like a cold, unfeeling bastard. Believe me when I say the opposite is the case. It is way beyond my ability to describe my dread when the ex showed back up and she started giving him more and more of her time, or to describe the kick in the balls it was when she admitted she still had feelings for him, or how sad and lonely I felt when I was getting rid of all my reminders of her. Even now, there’s a part of me that fantasizes that we’ll meet back up and live happily ever after. But I know that isn’t going to happen. The same part of me that knew the ex was bad news (for her and for me) when he resurfaced knows that nothing good is going to come of re-engaging with her. It isn’t about punishing her, it’s about protecting me.
My preferred outcome would be to communicate back to her through our mutual friends that I am glad she is safe and well, and the best way for her to remain so is to focus on her future, not dwell on the past. If she believes aspects of our previous relationship offers some insight, she would be better served working that out with a professional. For my part, I am not interested in any sort of relationship (romantic or platonic) going forward.
So I guess my question to you is given our history and what she has been through, do I owe her anything? Am I obliged to meet her in person and hear what she has to say? Or can I go through with my preferred outcome and consider that a justifiable response? Your opinion would be appreciated.
Gluing Myself Back Together
OK, GMBT, this is a complicated one. And that means it’s going to be time to break out the Chair Leg of Truth to sort it out.
On the one hand, you have an absolute right to decide what kind of relationship you want (or don’t want) with your ex. As I’ve told people before, you aren’t required to be friends with your ex, or even have any contact with them whatsoever. You have the right to decide that staying in contact with an ex is entirely too painful for you and that seeing them again will be like a hammer to your gut and sandpaper to your soul. That is completely legitimate. I’ve seen far too many people who’ve kept emotional wounds open and bleeding because they were trying to be “the bigger person” and keep a relationship going even though it was killing them inside.
On the other hand… I think you’re being an asshole here. Yes, it’s based on ignorance – which I will get into in a second – but you’re absolutely being an asshole about this.
The problem is that you’re missing a critical factor in your break-up with your ex: the fact that she was in an abusive relationship. That changes the math on her relationship with her ex. See, people who leave abusive relationships rarely make a completely clean break. In fact, part of the cycle of an abusive relationship is that many times, the survivor of abuse will leave their abuser… and then end up going back to them. Often repeatedly. What tends to happen is that the abuse survivor will try to leave, only to have their abuser re-enter their life. When this happens, the abuser will frequently love-bomb them and express guilt or remorse and make grandiose promises of how things have changed and they’ll be different this time. This is known as the reconciliation/honeymoon stage, and many, many survivors will end up going back to their abusers during this stage. It’s made all the more insidious because there’s frequently a calm period, where the abuser will make any number of promises – including agreeing to go to counseling or couples therapy. But this period never lasts, and the cycle will start again.
The obvious question is “so why do they go back?” And the answer is “it’s complicated”. Part of it is that abusers prey on the fact that their victims want to believe the abuse is an aberration. Most people don’t want to believe that they’re the sort of person who would accept abuse or that they could love someone who’s an abuser. They want to believe that the person that they care for – and yes, survivors do care for the people who abuse them – could be that cruel, that deceptive or that dangerous.
Another part is that abusers will cut their victims off from their friends and loved-ones, leaving them isolated. Part of why survivors go back is that they find that their support networks are gone or damaged… many times because those friends and family will tell the survivor that it’s a “fool me once, shame on me” situation and that going back means that they’re choosing to be abused. Again: this is something that abusers will frequently rely on as part of how they keep their victims under their thumb.
(And this is before we get into the fact that many survivors don’t leave because they can’t; their abusers control them financially or through threats against family members or even pets. And then there’s the fact that leaving increases the risk of someone being killed by their abuser.)
So while I understand how that it feels like you didn’t count for anything when she was back in contact with her ex, the truth is that it’s far less about you and far more about the way that abuse and abusers absolutely fuck with a survivor’s head. I’m not saying that understanding this could have helped you encourage her to stay away from him, but I am saying that you’re holding onto insults that were never actually there. And to be perfectly blunt: I don’t know if I believe you that you say this isn’t about punishing her. The tone of your letter carries the very distinct air of “…and she fucking deserves this for leaving me.” There’s a lot of wounded ego in this and frankly I think it’s coloring your perception of the situation.
Are you obliged to meet up with her? No. You made your stance clear when you broke up with her. You have a right to decide where your boundaries are and to stick to them, regardless of what other people think.
But to paraphrase Nick Fury: seeing as that was a stupid-ass decision, I think you should elect to ignore that.
I think that it would do the both of you good to hear her out. I think it would be valuable to her to have a chance to clear the air, express her regrets and explain where her head was at when she left you. I think it would do you some good to hear that as well. And just as importantly, I think it will do you good to forgive her in person. Forgiveness isn’t for the benefit of the person being forgiven, it’s for the benefit of the person doing the forgiveness. Carrying around the anger and hurt – which you are clearly doing – is toxic to the soul. Forgiveness is a way of letting those wounds heal and cleansing the infection from within you. And while there’re plenty of crimes and slights that can be too much to forgive and nobody is obligated to forgive someone… I think this is something both of you need.
But as I said: you have the right to not have a relationship of any kind with your ex if that’s what you really need. You have the right to never see or communicate with her again if that’s what you want.
But you’re the only person who can decide if that’s the right decision for you.
Dear Dr NerdLove,
I’ve gotten myself into an awful mess. I got back with my ex a few days ago who is mentally ill. We broke up a year and a half ago, and I started really missing him, kind of forgetting how bad things were between us.
I was romanticizing all the positives, which were non-existent during our last several months together. He has BPD, bipolar disorder and acute anxiety. He was suicidal when we broke up. He is heavily medicated and I thought he was stable, but I’m beginning to see that he is far from it.
I feel trapped already and I’m starting to have anxiety over getting back with him. I’m not even sure I love him. I don’t know what to do, and I feel terrible about breaking up with him as this will set him back even further. He has a 14 year old son at home. I am selfish for doing this, and I have a host of health issues, depression being one, but mostly physical, including pain issues.
The stress is going to crush me I feel. I’m also afraid he will become suicidal again if I break up with him. Please help!
Here’s what I ask people who are in your situation Trapped – where they know they made a mistake, but they are afraid to leave because they are afraid something bad will happen to their partner when they do: how long are you willing to be in this relationship out of fear? Are you going to stay with him for the rest of your life out of fear of what he may or may not do? Are you willing to sacrifice your health and emotional well-being in a misguided belief that you and you alone can help him?
You’re not his doctor, Trapped, nor his nurse, nor his counselor or any kind of mental-health professional. You’re a person in a bad situation and who’s desperately out of her depth and you’re sinking deeper.
You need to leave him Trapped, and you need to leave him immediately. If you’re worried about what may happen then you can give his family or friends a heads-up about what’s about to happen. Once you’ve decided to break up with him, you need to make two phone calls. The first is to his immediate family that you’re breaking up with him and they should be aware that he may need them, in case he backslides or becomes suicidal. The second is to your boyfriend, to let him know.
(Normally I believe that if you’re going to break up with someone, you should respect them enough to do it face to face, but there are exceptions. This is one of them.)
You can also leave him with a note with numbers and URLs mental health resources in his area, including the suicide hotline before you leave. But you need to leave. And if he calls or threatens suicide and you believe that he’s serious (and I can’t stress this enough: ONLY if you believe he’s serious), then you should call his parents and emergency services.
It’s a shame that leaving him may hurt him, Trapped, but staying won’t help him and it will hurt you.
Get out. Now. And write back to let me know how you’re doing.