This is gonna be a long one so I apologize in advance for that. I’ve been having some strong resentful feelings for my ex and I can’t seem to get over him. Let me explain.
At the start of last year I (m) started seeing a guy who I had a huge crush on for the longest time. I should also mention this is was the first guy friend I’ve ever had a crush on and the first guy I’ve dated. Originally he didn’t feel the same way about me. He actually had a crush on someone else at the time. This didn’t stop him from sleeping with me however at a party and after a few weeks of being patient he did tell me he was starting to have feelings for me as well and eventually we started dating. We went out for a few months then he broke up with me, stating he had mental problems and couldn’t handle a relationship at that time. Me caring about his well being was understanding and told him as soon as he’s better we could try again. Only I found out later that was a lie, he was just spoon feeding me some bullshit so he could go out with the guy he originally had a crush on. I was pretty devastated for a while after learning that. I felt betrayed and used. It seemed like I was only a placeholder until this other guy became available.
Anyway, after a few months I met someone else. We hit it off right away, started going out, and almost a year later we’re still together. I can honestly say that my relationship with my current bf is the best I’ve ever had. We connect on so many levels, we share a lot of the same interests and we love each other deeply.
So all in all things worked out for me in the end but here’s my issue. My ex, who I’ve blocked and unfriended on every social media site I can imagine is still part of the same friend circles me and my boyfriend are in, so no matter how hard I try, from time to time he still pops up in my periphery. And every time he does I just feel overwhelmed by feelings of anger and resentment. Before he and I even went out, I’d like to think we were pretty close friends and the way he led me on for a few months only to discard me as soon as it was convenient for him, like I was tissue paper just destroyed all that good will between us.
I know these feelings are unhealthy and that I’m better off with my current boyfriend, but I don’t know if deep down there’s part of me that still cares about him and that’s why I feel this way. I don’t want it to impact what I have now because like I said, we’re all in the same friend groups. Now that things are starting to open up again it’s inevitable that I’ll be running into my ex at some meetup and I don’t know how I’m going to react.
I’ve often thought about sending him a message and just laying it all out there to him and try to bury the hatchet so to speak, but I’ve had some friends tell me that’s a bad idea, that he can just claim no wrongdoing and turn it back around on me and make me feel even worse.
Sorry this was so long. I wanted to provide as much context as possible. I’d be forever grateful for any advice you can provide 🙂
Still Resentful For Some Reason
On the surface, it’s pretty simple, SRSR: you’re still angry with him because you feel used. You were dating somebody in good faith and you had that faith betrayed. You believed that his feelings for you were legitimate, until he gave you a line, dumped you and started dating this other guy. You don’t say how long it was between your being dumped and his taking up with someone else, but it was obviously close enough to when he ended things with you that you feel like you were a placeholder. That is entirely and completely understandable. It’s a really, really shitty feeling.
That being said, I wonder if there’s a part of you that’s angry at yourself too. To be clear: I don’t mean that you’re to blame, but that you’re blaming yourself for being taken in. Is it possible that there’s some part of you that feels like you should’ve seen this coming, some red flag that, in retrospect that you either missed or ignored and shouldn’t have?
Let’s get this part out of the way right off the top: if it is the case that there’s a part of you that feels like you should’ve been smarter, been more observant or that your Spidey-sense failed you when it shouldn’t have… well, then you should forgive yourself for that. This is very much a case of loving not wisely but too well, and that’s not something to be ashamed of.
Here’s the thing: It’s very easy to look back and say “how did I miss this??” or “How could I have been so stupid?” There’s a reason why hindsight is 20/20. The truth is that you didn’t miss it. You weren’t stupid. You were going into a relationship under the (reasonable!) assumption that he was being honest with you when he said he was having feelings for you. You’re backfilling information and context that you didn’t have at the time and honestly couldn’t have had. You were making the best choices you could with the information you had at the time.
I know there are folks who will say “well, he was willing to bang you while he had a crush on someone else,” and call that proof that you should’ve known better. I completely disagree with that. That’s Monday morning quarterbacking with the benefit of already knowing how it turned out. It’s far easier to sit in judgement when you weren’t in that moment. People are complicated, feelings are more complicated and it’s possible to have complex feelings for one person and to date other folks in good faith. Sometimes the way you get over an unrequited crush is to put yourself out there and remind yourself that they aren’t the only guy out there. And many times, that crush fades as you realize that you’ve got something better than a dude who doesn’t like you back the way you wish they did.
So no, I don’t think you should’ve “known better.” I think you did what we all aspire to do when we date: you went into a relationship assuming good intentions and honesty from somebody you were dating. Unfortunately… you happened to date someone who, it seems, was willing to do the whole “love the one you’re with” thing while waiting for the window of opportunity to open.]
With that out of the way, let’s address the other reason I think you’re still upset: you want closure. It would be one thing if this guy was completely out of your life and you could just drop him into the trash can of your dating history. But LGBTQ circles tend to be fairly small and overlapping and the odds of seeing your ex (or exes) at events or get-togethers is high. So now instead of being able to just let things fade or imagining he’s miserable… you see him and the universe has failed to do its karmic duty and dump a bucket of horse shit on him. You (understandably, reasonably) feel wronged by him and he doesn’t seem to be paying a price for it. That’s frustrating! We like to think that the people who do us wrong will get their just comeuppance and… well, the universe doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately, some people do shitty things and never deal with meaningful repercussions, and that leaves us to just have to continue with our lives knowing that those sins won’t be punished on our behalf.
This is why I ask: just between you, me and everyone reading this… what would you hope to get out of sending him a message and laying it all out? I suspect — because God knows I’ve been there myself — that there’s a part of you that hopes that he’d see that he was The Bad Guy in this. That he’d have a moment of stunning self-awareness or that his conscience would prick him and he would realize that He Done You Wrong and would beg your forgiveness and you would finally feel vindicated. Unfortunately, I am here from the future — again, been there, done that — to tell you: that’s probably not gonna happen. Down the line, maybe, when and if he’s grown, matured and has the perspective to realize that what he did was shitty. But now? I can all but guarantee you that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong or simply won’t acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part. It may not even be out of maliciousness; it may well just be a lack of self-awareness. But that lack of acknowledgement runs the risk of making you feel worse. And if he’s the sort to try to judo-flip shit onto you… well, do you really want to open yourself up to that sort of unnecessary pain?
Here is a truth: you will never get closure from him. Closure is a gift you give yourself. It’s about accepting what happened, understanding things as best you can and making your peace with it. Part of making that peace is recognizing that you only have control over your side of things — in your interpretation of events, in your understanding and in how you decide to let go and move forward. You can’t make someone else see things your way or agree with your view, and trying to do so is often an exercise in futility. Sometimes you and your ex can talk things out and it can be a great, constructive and cathartic conversation. But not always, and not with every ex. So it’s more important to focus on what you can control, and that’s yourself.
Here’s what I suggest: write out that message you were thinking of sending. In fact, I suggest that you write it out by hand. First, this engages different parts of your brain than typing. There’s something visceral about putting pen to paper that even the clickiest mechanical keyboard can’t replicate. Even printing out what you wrote doesn’t match the feeling of looking over something you’ve written by hand. Second — and just as importantly — you’re going to take that physical letter and set that shit on fire. A (controlled, safe) fire can be an incredibly cathartic experience; watching the things that represent your complex and ugly feelings burn to ash can feel purifying. You can make this as elaborate a ritual as you want. I know some folks who like to get a small candle, scratch the name of their ex on it and let it melt away. I know some who will print out a photo of their ex and write all their emotions and feelings over it before applying the match. But regardless of how elaborate you make it, taking those feelings and those resentments and desires for vindication, writing them all out and then burning them away will bring you satisfaction and a sense of closure.
Maybe in the future you and your ex can talk things out and he’ll be in a place where he can admit he fucked you over. Hell, as long as we’re imagining, we can even imagine him apologizing and asking your forgiveness. But that’s not today, and that’s not going to help you now. So give yourself that closure. And, as you do so: forgive yourself for caring for someone who wasn’t worthy of your affection. Then offer a little gratitude for how this shitty situation has lead you to a much better guy and a much better relationship.
You’ll feel better. I promise.
Hey Doctor NerdLove,
I was wondering if I could get some general advice about boundaries.
I’m pretty bad at setting boundaries with people. I’ve gotten better over the years, but when it’s anything other than the easiest of situations, I go into a total freeze response.
I think a lot of this has to do with my past. I grew up with a mom who would scream at me, push me, or threaten me if I tried to speak up for myself. She would also gaslight me and tell me that what I needed was wrong or stupid, or mock me and call me names. This led to me learning to either keep my mouth shut to avoid her notice, or trying to blow up at her too which honestly never worked, and I ultimately gave up using this as a tactic.
I set the ultimate boundary with my mom a year ago and now she is no longer a part of my life (ironic I know) but I still carry my old responses inside me, which is to shut down and be unable to speak. I am also autistic and so autistic shutdown can happen to me when I’m stressed.
This affects me in my personal relationships. I am afraid that people will either scream at me or leave me if I try to speak up for myself, even though intellectually I know that’s not true. At this point I don’t keep people like my mom in my life anymore. My friends are all very kind people and emotionally intelligent. So the issue is entirely within me.
I’ve caught myself on occasion becoming controlling and passive aggressive trying to get my needs met, and that’s the last thing I want to do to my loved ones. I also tend to shut down communication completely with people, leading to loss of friendship when it might not be necessary. And I know I give off an air of “don’t mess with me” in public which doesn’t reflect my inner personality but feels safer. I know these patterns aren’t helping me – they are all extremes when I want moderation – but I’m at a loss for how to change them.
I have a therapist who specializes in trauma counseling, however the work I am doing with her is slow and tedious (we’ve been at it for almost a decade now, and we’ve even talked about me trying another therapist since my current counselor doesn’t specialize in autism and that might make a difference). I would really appreciate some practical advice about things I can do on a day to day basis to increase my ability to speak up for myself and set boundaries. Are there exercises I can do when I’m alone? Do I need to be around others to get better at this?
Situations that I’m afraid of include having to say no to a guy I don’t want to date or have sex with (I am heteroflexible and cis-female), telling someone I can’t give them a particular amount of my time or energy on a given day, telling someone I don’t appreciate something they said (whether insulting or insensitive, or even just disagreeing with someone on an opinion), or even something as simple as asking someone to turn down music that’s too loud. Like, who am I to ask someone to alter their behavior or preferences on my behalf? (I also have self-esteem issues that definitely contribute to this).
Just writing this letter makes me realize how unnecessarily tentative and scared I am in the face of something that would seem so simple, but I’m at a loss right now and could use help figuring out some practical solutions as well as what my blind spots might be. I really appreciate your grounded and balanced perspective with these things, so thank you in advance.
Need ‘Nother No
I’m so sorry you went through all that abuse with your mother, N3. It says a lot about your strength and courage that you were able to take care of yourself and get her out of your life, and I think you don’t give yourself enough credit for how hard that must have been. Even when you know they’re harming you, it can be incredibly difficult to draw the line with family and say “I won’t let you hurt me like this any longer”. I think it’s important that you acknowledge that you have this strength and that you’re capable of incredible bravery. It doesn’t matter that the idea of standing up for yourself is still terrifying; the fact that you can do it at all is a sign of the courage you have. As a certain general once said: “Be afraid, but do it anyway”.
So let’s get into how you can shift some of those old patterns that no longer serve you and build new ones.
First and foremost: I think you’re making the right call with trying another therapist. Therapy is a lot like dating in a lot of ways; you want a therapist you have chemistry (of a sort) with, who you feel understands you and who listens and gives you help that actually meets your needs. If things aren’t working out, you feel like you aren’t making progress with them or you simply don’t click with them, then not only are you well within your rights to break up with them, but it’s frequently a good idea. You don’t want to stay in a relationship that doesn’t work for you, just because you’ve been in it for a length of time; the same applies to doctors, therapists and other professionals. And, in a real way, this is great practice for enforcing your boundaries. After all, having boundaries is ultimately about advocating for your needs. Drawing a boundary is about saying “this is bad for me, I won’t put up with this.” You are choosing to prioritize your own emotional safety and needs over someone else’s comfort or convenience; you recognize that this is something you need to do for yourself and you are unapologetic for doing so.
But the next step, I think, would be about learning to be comfortable with saying “no” or otherwise advocating for yourself. It sounds to me like part of what’s bothering you is that you feel as though you’re stuck at extremes: a fawn or freeze response or shutting folks down hardcore, with little in between. To be fair: this is entirely understandable. You spent your formative years with someone who not only ran roughshod over your boundaries but who would punish you for trying to have them. It makes complete sense that you would feel like your only option would be to go straight to a 10; after all, you were in an abusive relationship and going to an 11 was how you ultimately had to protect yourself. When it feels like nothing but the extremes will actually help, it’s hard to fault someone who feels like those are her only options.
I think being able to practice saying “no” or asking for what you need in a safe space would go a long way towards helping you feel comfortable achieving that moderation you’re looking for. Knowing that you are not only capable of a softer response but that your softer response would be listened to and respected would help you feel empowered to give them.
As cheesy as it may sound, practicing just saying “no” or expressing yourself (“could you please not say that?” “Would you mind turning down the volume?” “No, thank you, I’m not interested in a date”) on your own might be a good start. Whether you’re practicing saying it to a mirror, to your webcam, to a silent video of someone else just listening or even a rubber duck, actually saying the words out loud can help. Think of it like doing drills for sports or a kata in martial arts; you’re practicing the motions so that they become part of your muscle memory. That way, you don’t have to think about how to shape the words, how to intone things… you just do it.
Similarly, your friends may be able to help as well. First, they may be willing to help you practice — think of it as going from doing drills to a practice scrimmage. Saying “no, thank you” to someone in the flesh — even when that’s literally all you’re doing — can help you get used to actually doing it. If you trust them — and it sounds like they’re trustworthy — you might ask about doing some structured role-plays of situations you’re afraid of encountering. You would want to make sure that you plan things out in advance so they don’t accidentally end up triggering your trauma, but being able to practice facing those scenarios could help you feel confident enough and empowered to face them when it “counts”.
You can also ask your friends to reassure you that yes, you’re allowed to say no or to draw a line and they aren’t going to get mad at you for it. You may know that you can do that intellectually, but having your friends say so explicitly may make it easier for you to actually believe it and internalize it.
It may also help to have a two strikes policy when it comes to enforcing a boundary at first. Instead of feeling like you have only “total permission” and “scorched earth” settings, having a policy of escalation could give you some guidelines towards how firmly to push back against someone. The first no is gentle and polite, the second no is firmer, and the third is “I SAID NO,” possibly with flames and a “motherfucker” for emphasis. Knowing you have this policy may also help you feel confident enough to lower that “FUCK OFF” energy that you feel like you need to carry around to protect yourself. Not all the way… but enough that you feel like the self that you’re presenting to the world is more in line with who you are inside.
And while I wouldn’t say you should go looking for times to say “no, thank you” or draw a line, making a point of doing so, gently, when the opportunity arises, would also be good practice. At the very least, it may help you calibrate yourself, so that you won’t feel like you need to play an ace when a two will do.
But more than anything else, the thing you should realize is that you are fully capable of doing this. You’ve already shown just how brave and capable you are and how strong you can be. You’ve been through the nightmare scenario already and you were able to reach within yourself, find your strength and you were able to light your darkest hour. You can do it again when you need to, and to the level that you need.
So TL;DR: find a therapist who’s right for you, practice on your own and with friends and set some guidelines for yourself while you get used to being able to speak up when you need to, at the level you need to.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.