So basically I recently “broke up” with this girl. The reason I’m phrasing it like that is because we only dated for like a month. During the time I was dating her, I realized she had an abusive ex who gaslit her, was emotionally negligent and also implicitly fat shamed her by joking that she needs to lose weight. I was very empathetic to her situation and realized she was still healing from this abuser.
However, as I spent more time with her, I realized that she brought up her ex every time I was with her. She broke up with me because she had recently found out that her ex was cheating on her during a time in their relationship when things were going very well. She told me that she is not ready for a relationship and has issues trusting people who she doesn’t have any mutual connections with (we met through an app).
Now, our break up was very amicable (I even cuddled with her after and kissed her goodbye) and I really respect her decision to not dive into a relationship that she wasn’t ready for. However, as time passed, I realized that she might have used me as an emotional band-aid to forget about her ex. When she found out that he cheated, the wound just opened up more and I wasn’t enough to forget the pain. I don’t think she was being malicious or that she was doing it knowingly, however, I do feel a bit used.
To fully understand my situation, I think you need to know a bit of my backstory. I’m 24M, had a very sexually repressive childhood and socially awkward growing up. I had a transformation in college where I became physically attractive and confident and started hooking up with a lot of girls as a means to compensate for the lack of sexual gratification. I realized that that path was not going to help me, I worked on my self esteem and decided to give real dating a shot.
This girl was the first person that I decided to open up to romantically and I feel very angry and upset at myself as I didn’t see the signs. I don’t hold any ill will towards her and I think she’s quite wonderful, but I do wish that the first person that I opened up to didn’t inadvertently use me as a coping tool. I know life isn’t a fairy tale and sometimes things just don’t pan out the way you would’ve liked them to, but it still sucks.
Now Doc, how do I process these feelings of anger and resentment? More importantly, in the future, what can I do to potentially stop this from happening to me again?
There’s a saying known as Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It was originally submitted to a joke book, but it has a fairly solid kernel of truth to it. In practice, what this means is that a lot of folks aren’t actively malicious, just ignorant and unthinking. And while I don’t think as many people are actually stupid, I do find that this aphorism has applications with regards to dating… especially for people in your position.
But let’s dig into this just a smidge. I want to be clear: I think your feelings of being hurt and upset are legitimate. However, I also don’t think that this is quite as mendacious as you think it was.
Here’s the thing: the woman you were seeing had a rough go of it. First, she had been in an incredibly toxic — if not outright abusive — relationship. That alone is going to do a number on people’s heads. You don’t say how long she’d been with him or how recently they’d broken up, but this was very clearly a relationship of significance to her. Negative significance to be sure, but significance nonetheless. Getting out of those relationships can be tough; carving the toxic bullshit out can be tougher. Considering how much this guy had been twisting her up and preying on her insecurities, I’m entirely unsurprised that there’s still a part of him living rent-free in her head. Speaking for myself: I’ve had good relationships that ended, where I had a hard time not bringing up my ex all the goddamn time. But the bad ones? The toxic ones? Ooooh yeah, those are ones that I would talk about for a very long goddamn time afterwards. Still do, on occasion.
(Seriously, my friends could tell you stories. Lots of them.)
That alone is going to be the sort of thing that makes a person linger like a bad smell. But finding out that her ex was also cheating on her? That’s going to shake things up even more. He’d already been treating her badly, and while this new information is ultimately just confirmation that yeah, he’s six different kinds of shitty, it also recontextualizes their entire relationship. That’s gonna do a major number on someone, and they’re almost certainly going to need time to process things. So I’m not entirely surprised that she ended it; the wound wasn’t even healed yet and this made it worse.
But the fact that the wound wasn’t healed yet doesn’t mean that she knew it was still open and raw. I don’t think she went into this relationship with you as a coping mechanism, even unconsciously. None of this sounds at all like she was using you, like she was trying to do the whole “get over the ex by getting under someone else” bit or that this was some way of, I dunno, trying to feel desirable again or something. It sounds to me like she went into this with good faith and best intentions; it was only as things progressed that she realized that she wasn’t over her ex as much as she thought. The most telling part is that she recognized she wasn’t in a place where she was ready to date and called things off. That doesn’t sound at all like she was using you, that sounds like someone who realized that she was in a bad place and realized she needed to prioritize her recovery and emotional health.
I get that you feel used. But honestly, I think that’s coming from your background, rather than anything she’s actually done. It’s easy to feel this way when you’ve decided to take a chance with someone, to open up to them and get ready to make a space for them in your heart, only to have it yanked away suddenly. But like Hanlon’s Razor said: it’s adequately explained, not by stupidity but by ignorance and the willingness to believe that she was further along in the recovery process than she actually was. Like an athlete with an injury who is getting frustrated sitting on the sidelines, she tried to get back into the game before she was ready. And while it sucks that this happened to you, it’s better that she realized this as early as she did than later down the line when you were both considerably more invested.
What do you do now? Well… mostly, you sit with your feelings for a bit. Let yourself feel, let yourself be upset about it… but you can be upset and sad about it without applying malicious intent. You weren’t being used; you were just unlucky. You found someone who liked you well enough to recognize that she was being unfair to you and ended things as quickly and cleanly as she could when she realized. That’s actually a good thing. It says good things about her and it says good things you and your taste in women. You chose someone who was caring and kind and who had the respect to give it to you straight. Again: it sucks that she wasn’t in the right place to date you… but that’s a matter of bad luck and bad timing, not someone taking advantage of you.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that you can do to control for this to the point that you eliminate all risk. You can try to tilt the odds in your favor as best you can, but there’s always going to be an element of random chance in every relationship you have. So your best bet is to find someone who’s emotionally intelligent and generous, and caring enough to know when it’s time to hold on and when letting go is the best option for the both of you.
So what I suggest is a combination of compassion and forgiveness… for the both of you. For her, I recommend forgiving her for not realizing just how deep the wound actually was, while wishing her strength, healing and a speedy recovery. And then you should forgive yourself, as the bard said, for loving not wisely but well, and give yourself the gift of self-compassion. This was unfortunate, but ultimately not anyone’s fault. It’s simply an unexpected bump on the road to love. What this proved, ultimately, is that there are women out there who dig you and appreciate what you have to offer. This didn’t work out the way you hoped… but there will be others. This wasn’t the end. It’s just the end of the beginning.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I want to know the propriety of doing something I’ve been thinking about. Back in 2011 when I was in grad school, I met a very charming man at a bar. We met up for drinks the next night and we ended up casually dating a bit. He was in a different field and funny and smart, but I was not looking for anything serious at the time. We hung out a few times, he introduced me to his friends, we had a few sleepovers, and he even mentioned that he normally didn’t do sleepovers with women with whom he wasn’t in serious relationships. All that to say, I think he was more into me than I was into him, but I still liked him.
One day he texted me to hang out and I responded (or thought I responded) that I couldn’t, I was sorry, but I was busy studying. Anyhow, I never heard from him again. This was the second time in a row I think I had declined an invite to hang out and frankly, I thought he was upset with me about it so I never reached out to him again. It was only – literally – a couple of months later that I discovered that my phone (a blackberry at the time) was glitching and many of my texts were never getting out and I wasn’t receiving some incoming messages and I immediately went back to this incident and wondered if he ever got my message and if he thought I had ghosted him.
Anyhow, I’ve never stopped thinking about how I may have accidentally ghosted this man who was so nice and really didn’t deserve that. He unfriended me on facebook but every so often I thought of him and wondered if I should reach out, explain what happened and apologize if he never got my message and I accidentally ghosted him and for failing to reach out earlier (and also, potentially, open myself up to humongous humiliation if it turns out that he actually got my message and essentially ghosted me). I am not looking to start anything new (I am married now with a kid). My desire to reach out stems mostly to ease my conscience after talking to some friends who have told me how painful it was to be ghosted. It has been 8 years. Is this completely (or only partly) stupid? Is this worth the hugely embarrassing predicament I could find myself in? Do people care at all?
-Maybe accidental ghoster
So you’re not wrong, MAG: getting ghosted sucks. But there’re degrees of suck and there’re degrees to getting ghosted. It’s one thing to be ghosted by someone who you’ve maybe seen once or twice and they either start getting non-committal or just straight quit responding to your texts and calls. It blows, and while it’d be nice to get a “hey, this isn’t working for me, peace out, cub scout” final message… well, a lot of folks just don’t these days. And, in fairness, there can be good reasons for that. There’re a lot of folks — especially women and trans and non-binary people — who have good reason to worry about men Hulking out over getting rejected and so they choose to ghost instead.
In your case though, it seems like you had quite a bit more going on than just a couple dates that didn’t work out. You were casual, yeah, but not only had you been seeing each other for a few weeks, but you’d also slept together, including sleeping over. If things are gonna end, that merits a discussion — ideally in person, but at least via email. Going completely radio silent and just never responding is rude as hell. So your friend was (and possibly still is) justified in being more than a little pissed that you did him dirty like that.
Now you didn’t intend to ghost him; you where having technical issues and had no idea that he never got your text and possibly never got any other texts from him. Unfortunately, that’s life, especially dating in the modern era. I’m sure if Seinfeld were still going on, there’d be episodes about Jerry or Elaine accidentally breaking up with people because of texts that went to the wrong person or getting left on read. It’s the sort of thing that happens and we have to factor it in whenever we have a “OH GOD WHY HAVEN’T THEY READ MY MESSAGE” anxiety attack.
However, while shit does, indeed happen… well, there’s an unfortunate confluence of events and then there’s leaving it for more than eight years.
The thing is, you discovered a couple months later on that texts hadn’t been sent or received. That was the time when you should’ve reached out to the guy and said “Hey, I know you’re probably still upset but I just wanted to let you know, I never intended to ghost you. My phone fucked up and I never realized that you didn’t get my response telling you I had to study. I don’t know if it will necessarily make a difference, but I wanted to clear the air and make sure you knew that you didn’t deserve that and I never intended to leave you high and dry.”
It probably wouldn’t have changed much — I mean, it was still two months later; that’s plenty of time for someone to stew about being ghosted — but at least you could’ve wiped that particular slate clean.
But this far down the line? This is where reaching out to say “heeeeeeey” is going to just feel weird. I mean, I’ve had dates who ghosted me, even brief flings who vanished. If one of them came back years later to say “so, just FYI, I disappeared all those years ago because I didn’t realize my text didn’t send” is going to seem not just random but borderline Dadaist. Hell, depending on the timing and circumstance, it could feel like a really weird attempt at trying to re-establish contact in order to get back together.
Or someone hitting step nine in AA, I guess.
Regardless, it’d be one thing if the two of you had overlapping social circles there was an organic opportunity to be back in contact. But hearing from you from the clear blue sky to say “soooooo… about when we ended things…” is going to feel strange.
And honestly: while you did him wrong (accidentally, to be sure), as far as dating sins go, this is a relatively minor one. If he’s still dwelling on this after all this time, that doesn’t say great things about him. I suspect that, if he’s a grown-ass adult with a decent amount of emotional intelligence, he’s well over it. You got relegated to the category of “well that was fucked up,” and possibly a story to bring out about how dating can suck and then relegated to the memory hole. Reaching out isn’t exactly going to reopen old wounds, but it’s going to at least be a “ok that’s weird” sort of moment.
I think the best thing you can do is just accept that this was a fuck-up, recognize that you should’ve made an attempt to reach out when you realized what happened, and then try to put this behind you. And if this guilt is still pricking your conscience? Then consider it your penance and a reminder to be a little more careful and considerate in the future.