Doctor’s Note: today’s letter involves discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.
Hello Doc. I apologize in advance for how dark this is.
I’ve been in a long-distance relationship (my first real relationship) with someone for two and a half years. They (non-binary) have a ton of issues, in terms of mental health and personal baggage, and I knew part of that going on. Sometimes, they’re great, but other times it’s a nightmare. They tell me they’re going to kill themselves over things every few days, there’s one person they’re absolutely obsessed with and they push and push and push me to get that person back into their lives. It doesn’t work because I respect that other person’s autonomy.
They’re poly, (I knew this going in, I don’t have a problem with them being poly) but they occasionally try to meet someone IRL and when either nothing happens or things go sour, they start screaming at me over it and telling me they want to die. And sometimes making an attempt at suicide that doesn’t go anywhere. I’ve done a huge amount of emotional labor for them, and they do very little back. They talk about wanting “emotional support” but I can’t figure out what they actually mean by that because the definition seems to change at random. When they say nothing can ever get better, I try to say it can, but apparently that’s not what they want, but they won’t tell me what they actually want.
If I break up with them, they will try to attempt suicide and I don’t know how to deal with that. Intellectually I know that if they do follow through, it won’t be my fault, but I can’t take that last step. I’m miserable and I get stress migraines every day from this. I’ve done so much for them and it just makes me feel like a monster that I can’t fix anything and that they seem to constantly fight against attempts to make things better.
I need to break up with them but I don’t have the slightest clue how.
Thank you for listening,
Oh man, I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this, Handcuffed. You’re stuck in a bad situation with your partner and it’s understandable how stressed and miserable you are.
So let’s start with the most obvious: you are not at fault for any of this. You’re not responsible for your partner’s mental health, you’re not responsible for “fixing” them and you sure as hell aren’t responsible for their actions. I realize that it’s hard to separate yourself from these feelings of obligation and that sense that you should be able to do something for them, but here’s a truth: you are not their doctor. You are not their counselor, their social director, their parent or their servant. You are their partner… and what they’re demanding of you is neither fair, nor kind, nor fucking possible. What they need is far, far beyond what you are capable of providing. The fact that they continue to demand that you provide it somehow isn’t just unfair, it’s cruel, and in many ways, abusive.
Everything they’re doing — and I do mean everything — is an abdication of their responsibilities, to themselves, to you and to others. They have taken things that they are responsible for — whether it’s managing their outside relationships or their own emotional health — and dumped them on your shoulders. Worse, they’ve made you feel guilty for not being able to do all these impossible tasks, as though you were obligated to take on their burdens while they do… something. Their shifting demands for “emotional support” is an example of this; it’s apparently whatever they decide it means in the moment. This leaves you in the position of running as fast as you possibly can just to stay in one place, while they shift everything out from under you at a moment’s notice.
No goddamn wonder you’re dealing with stress migraines.
The threats of suicide are the topper on this particularly toxic cake. While they may be somewhat serious with their threats — you indicate that they’ve at least attempted suicide before — the purpose of these threats of killing themselves is to maintain control. This isn’t a relationship, and it doesn’t seem to have been one for quite some time, it’s a hostage situation. They’re telling you: “do what I say, give in to my demands, or I’ll shoot the hostage.” In this case, your partner is both the terrorist and the hostage, using the threat of self-harm as a way of keeping you under their thumb and always at their beck and call.
But there’s a reason that governments don’t negotiate with terrorists; once they know a tactic works — in this case, threats of self-harm — there’s absolutely no incentive for them to not keep using it in order to get their way. In this case, your partner’s been keeping you trapped by threatening to hurt themselves and demanding that you accede to their latest whim or else. And… well, as you can see, it’s worked.
However, there comes a point where you have to decide whether you’re going to continue to live like this… or you’re going to call their bluff. And unfortunately, that means being willing to risk the possibility that they’re serious enough to make the attempt.
Now I will say this: I don’t think that they’ll actually go through with it. You say that those attempts never went anywhere. That leads me to believe that their behavior may be more of a cry for help or attention than an actual attempt at ending their life. But the fact that those previous attempts didn’t go anywhere — for whatever value of “didn’t go anywhere” means — doesn’t preclude them from making a more serious attempt, or even succeeding. But the truth of the matter is that whether they do or whether they don’t, that is not your fault. You aren’t obligated to stay with this person forever in order to keep them from harming themselves. They are a grown-ass adult; they, and they alone are responsible for their own choices. What they’re trying to do is rob you of your choices by making you responsible for theirs. And while you may care for them… staying isn’t helping them, or you. You need to be strong enough to love them enough to let them go and to love yourself enough to not let someone else manipulate you like this.
This doesn’t mean that you need to harden your heart and quit caring for them, nor does it mean that you need to stop being concerned with whether they live or die. What it does mean is that when you leave, you want to leave in a way that protects you and helps them. Even if they’re not ready to accept that help yet.
Now the good thing — such as it is — is that you’re long distance. This makes it a smidge easier to make a clean break; the odds of your soon-to-be ex showing up on your doorstep are pretty damn remote, especially with COVID making travel far less plausible. But easier isn’t the same as effortless. You’re still going to need to have a plan in place and be ready to execute it.
Here’s what you do.
First and foremost: let your friends know what’s going on. You are going to need their support during all of this — not just emotionally but to help provide a wall between you and your ex. Your ex will likely try to reach out to them in order to get in touch with you. They need to be aware of this and that they are to give them absolutely NO access nor information of any kind.
Next: gather resources. This includes mental health resources in their area, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) and relevant websites. Compile these into a text document.
After that, compose two emails in a text app. The first should be to your ex. Keep this short and simple. You tell them that you’re breaking up with them, that they need help that you can’t provide and that you aren’t going to let their threats control you any more. Tell them that you wish them the best, that you want them to get the help they need and paste that list of resources. The next email should be to mutual friends, your partner’s parents or people in their life to let them know that you’re breaking up. Tell them that not only are you breaking up with them, but they’ve threatened suicide multiple times, and people should check in on them. Provide them with the resources you’ve put together. Save both of those messages as text documents.
On the day you’re going to break up with them, go through and methodically block them on every form of contact you have. That means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Steam, Snapchat, Kik, WhatsApp, your phone, everything. Having the tabs open all at once to the relevant settings will help speed the process along. Then, as soon as you’ve taken the nuclear option, copy those messages from the text documents into email, send them and then proceed to block your ex’s email address too. Then get a friend — or several — with you as safely as you can, and take time to decompress. You’re going to want Team You to back you up on this and help you process. This will be a stressful feeling, but also a deep sense of release; you will have done an incredibly hard but necessary thing.
Now here’s the most important part: you’re going to need to stick to your guns. It’s possible that your ex may find a way around your blocks. No matter what: you need to not listen. It doesn’t matter what they promise you, what they threaten you with or how much they insist that things will be different now. You need to simply block them and move on. You will feel like the worst person ever. You willl feel like a monster. You’re not. That’s guilt talking — the guilt that’s been imposed on you BY your ex. You are not responsible for them or for anything they do. You need to do the kindest and most loving thing you can do, and that’s to cut them out as cleanly and as thoroughly as possible.
One of the things I say a lot when it comes to break-ups is that the clean break heals fastest. That doesn’t just apply to the person you’re breaking up with; that also applies to you. Making this as quick and clean as possible is what’s going to make it easier for you to heal and to move forward with your life.
You’re in a shitty position and I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this. But you’re strong, you’re kind and you’re brave, and you will get through this.
Write back to let us know how you’re doing.
All will be well.
Dear Dr. NerdLove: I’ve never done this before, but I need guidance.
So, my older sister is 27 years old and I am 23. When I got to college, I became close friends with her friend group because we went to the same college and lived together for a year. One of her best friends from high-school quickly became one of my best friends. He’s a guy and he stayed in college for 8 years so after my sister left. It was like I built this new friendship with him outside of my sister. We became, and are still super close, he’s been my best friend now for about 5 years. Honestly, I think we’re closer than my sister and he have ever been.
Recently, I left college and went back home, and he lives like 10 minutes from me so our friendship grew even stronger. But then, we drunkenly had sex one night. At the time, it didn’t mean anything and we didn’t like each other, and we felt super guilty. We decided to move on and thought it was best not to tell my sister and our friend group because it seemed like unnecessary drama. But, the last 2-3 months, we fucked up and slept together several more times and essentially it escalated and he told me he wants to be with me, in a relationship. We talked and decided we have to tell my sister and stuff in order to even think about going that far.
So, I just told my sister, and it went horribly. You have to understand I come from an extremely tight-knit, immigrant family. Our culture is very different and we always place the utmost respect for our family. So, she freaked out and now she says she will never speak or see him again and I’m genuinely worried this will actually happen. They’ve been close friends for 10 years now so for her it’s such a betrayal and there’s a lot of mistrust from us hiding it. My parents also probably will not support the relationship because they don’t see him as a “go-getter” and they feel betrayed by him as well. They dislike the fact that he didn’t “man” up and that we’ve been sneaking around. I really do like him, but for now I just don’t know what or how to make this situation better. She hates the idea and is not speaking to either of us, but me and my sister are so so close. She has been there for me through every single rough patch and I understand why this is such a betrayal to her.
But, please help, what do I do? I assume she needs time and space, but I genuinely don’t think if I were to ever pursue this relationship that I would have any support from her or my parents and I can’t do it without their support. So should I just let this whole thing go and move on? Find another person to be with? I guess it sucks because then I would never know what could’ve been and this guy has grown so much from the time I met him to now. He’s stepped up and has shown how much he cares about me. I really like him and see a future with him. But, it’s not that easy. Thanks for reading.
Y’know, it’s interesting, SA. There’ve been a lot of times I’ve had to tell people that you don’t get to call “dibs” on someone or dictate who is and isn’t allowed to have a relationship with them. Most of the time, though, it’s been guys who’ve had this issue — either someone started dating a person their bro had a crush on, or their ex, or what-have-you. This hasn’t been something that’s come up terribly often with women, and especially not when there wasn’t a conflicting romantic interest in the person in question. So that’s an interesting twist on a classic problem.
However, my advice remains the same; people don’t get to dictate who is and isn’t off-limits for dating, whether it’s an ex, a crush or — in your case — an old friend. You and your friend are grown-ass adults, capable of making your own decisions. This includes whether or not you two want to be friends, the occasional hook-up or to start dating. Relationships aren’t a democracy, nor are they up for public comment. Other people can disapprove all they like, but they don’t actually get a say in the matter. They especially don’t get a veto, no matter what their relationship is to you or your beau.
To be sure: I don’t know what the dynamics are in your culture or your family, so I can’t comment on that angle of things. What I can say is that your sister is having a freak-out that’s bordering on a tantrum, and one that’s incredibly unbecoming of someone her age. I don’t know if it’s because she had feelings for this dude herself, because she feels like she’s being squeezed out (especially as you say you think you and he are closer than she and he ever were) or she feels like he manipulated you or what. Regardless, the way she is acting is not just out of proportion to the supposed “offense”, but out of line as well. And honestly: this isn’t a betrayal of anyone. You two didn’t bang at her and I would hope that this isn’t some weird-ass CW drama plot by your friend to… fuck, I dunno. Get back at her for some slight, I guess. Calling it a betrayal is… well, honestly it feels a little overly dramatic, all things considered.
(And, all things considered, I can’t blame the two of you for keeping things on the down-low. Considering the drama bomb that’s gone off, I can see why you wouldn’t necessarily want to make a big deal out of things.)
Now, while I can totally understand wanting to be “sisters before misters”, especially with your literal sister, giving someone else veto power over your relationships leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m especially not a fan of rewarding what’s ultimately childish and unacceptable behavior. It would be one thing if she had a problem with it and you two talked it out like adults. But her freaking out and insisting that she’s never going to talk to you or him again ain’t that.
That being said: I think what your sister needs more than anything else is time to process things and to cool down. It’s entirely possible that this came so out of the blue that her brain vaporlocked, and this was more of an emotional gut reaction to changes in the status quo than anything else. Hopefully she’s mature enough that she can cool down and actually talk to you like the adults you both are. That’s when the two of you can discuss just what her issue is, and you can explain that you and he became close over time and this was a natural evolution of your friendship together. At that point, hopefully the bond between you and your sister could reassert itself, she could see that she’s being unreasonable and you all can let this go as an awkward but amusing story in your history together.
In the meantime: if you want to date your friend, then continue dating him. If you want your family to see that he has stepped up for you and to see his potential as a partner for you, then let him have that chance. I think ending things with him over what — I would hope — is temporary family drama would be both premature and a damn shame in general.
Give things some time to settle down, then grab your sister and hash things out with her. If you two are as tight as you say? I imagine you’ll be able to repair things with her and keep your relationship.