Dear Captain Awkward,
I have never been in a relationship and yet somehow I often wind up being among the first people told about break-ups of others. Today a friend I haven’t known for long (couple of months but we hit it off right away) send me an email to apologise for not replying to my emails because her boyfriend had unexpectedly broken up with her. I don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t sound like it was a good break up!
I was at a complete loss what I should say and eventually merely said that to let me know if she wants to go for a meal sometime and that I find keeping busy helps. I suggested a night in w/ film/pizza/drinks (the usual) but I am not sure how to handle the situation should she want to do this. What kind of film? Preferably no rom-coms I guess. I don’t generally hug people although this feels like a situation in which I probably should… My flatmate recently broke up with her boyfriend and we never spoke about it although I made sure to be around plenty for meals and stuff so she wasn’t alone.
As life goes on, I can only assume that as break ups are part of life, I will be in this situation again. What would your advice to awkward geeks be on how to handle other peoples problems?
As someone who was recently a member of Team Sad Panda, I have a lot of thoughts about this. Well, one run-on sentency sort of thought like usual.
It’s very good to reach out to your friends who have broken up and make time to spend with them. You are a good friend and you are doing it correctly! I lived with my partner, and while living alone again gave me the opportunity to hit “Play Next Episode” approximately 300 times* as I worked my way through many seasons of Law & Order and all of Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey & Sherlock and re-watched a bunch of Dr. Who and started getting into Being Human, it was really fucking lonely to go from “Every day is a slumber party with my best friend!” to “No one will know if I eat cheese & crackers for dinner again and that I last cleaned myself 3 days ago and am starting to kind of enjoy my own feral stink.” The breakup came very close on the heels of the death of my grampa, who was very close to me, so it was like there was this big slowly exploding grief-bomb in my chest for a long time.
My friends were great at both taking my mind off it and letting me wallow in it and at not making me feel embarrassed when suddenly a FEELINGSBOMB would detonate without warning. I also had this weird thing going on where I felt I should be able to be smarter than the feelings? Like I *knew* that it was the right decision to break up, and I *knew* that things get better with time and I *knew* exactly how to ride it out (I did not realize when I wrote that that I would be writing it for myself), and somehow knowing that should make me feel less shitty, so why didn’t I feel less shitty? So then we went here for a while. Awesome, right?
So here’s what my friends did that was great (noncomprehensive list):
-They invited me to do stuff, like go to Hot Doug‘s and to the movies and to plays and over for dinner.
-My best friend GAVE ME HER OLD APARTMENT (she got hitched and didn’t need it anymore). That is above and beyond the call, you guys, and not a baseline of what all friends should have to do, but it meant that I had a place I could go right away and didn’t have to keep living in the old apartment, like, “good morning, ex boyfriend, did you have a good date with a shiny new lady last night? Oh, she is still here? I guess it went well! Does she want breakfast, I can throw another egg in the skillet, no problem! Have you seen my shoes, and all of our hopes and dreams for how our lives would work out? No? Maybe they are under the couch? Well, have a GREAT day!“**
-They didn’t assume anything and straight out asked me what I needed.
-They told me I was smart and pretty and that they loved me. I’m fortunate that we are a demonstrative bunch and sometimes have conversations like ‘YOU ARE THE BEST’ ‘NO, YOU ARE’ ‘ONLY BECAUSE YOU INSPIRE ME TO BE THAT WAY’ ‘OKAY, WE ARE ALL THE BEST’ ‘YES WE ARE AWESOME, IT IS TRUE.’ When you are down, it helps to be reminded that you’re loved. When you are up, it is awesome to be reminded that you are loved. Sometimes FEELINGSBOMBS are made of love and kindness.
Edited to Add: I forgot kind of a big one: My friends gave me veto power over when/whether my ex was invited to parties and events in the friendspace and respected the 2-3 months when I needed to have no contact at all. I feel like this is a big one for nerds/geeks/dorks/chosen urban families, like, “If I break up with my partner will I also lose all my friends?” but I feel like if everyone is grown up and cool you can have a few months of space and then if everyone is meant to stay friends it will work itself out.I can’t tell right now if this led to less crying (knowing I wouldn’t run into him) or MORE crying (safe to cry – he’s not here to see it!) but it was a huge help to me to feel like I had some control about when and how I interacted with him./Edit
So, Not Sure, your instincts to make yourself available and ask your friends to do stuff is right on. The best thing you can do (when anyone is sad about anything) is to ask them – “Do you want to take your mind off it, or do you want to talk about it?” and be ready to roll either way.
You’re right to avoid rom-coms, mostly because they are shitty and full of stereotypes of romance that are simultaneously exaggerated and unrealistic and also so much less than what actually falling in love with someone is like? And because watching two boring plastic white heterosexual people with blindingly white teeth fall in love within the same 10 square blocks of New York or LA is really fucking boring and played out? Once upon a time I wrote this nonsense, so I am obvs. not immune to adorable people and their love stories, but I agree that right after a breakup is Not The Time.
The other stuff, the stuff not to do, is the same stuff you would avoid saying to anyone who is grieving about anything. We don’t tell the recently bereaved that it’s okay because their loved ones are “in a better place” now and it was “God’s will.” And we do not remind the bereaved person of the deceased’s more annoying qualities and suggest that they will be better off not having that person around. My grampa delighted in being a provocateur…one might say “a pill” or a “noodge” or “narcissistic pain in the ass ” and he was old as fuck and lived a really great, giant, huge life and was as ready as anyone can possibly be to die and I don’t miss his many-fonted and animated .gif’d forwards from the Cranky Old Man Internet but I miss the hell out of the person who I loved and who loved me. Anyone who tries to suggest that I’m better off without him on the earth is going to get punched right in the cunt.
So we don’t do that whole American! Optimism! Must! Prevail! “But don’t you see how this is really a GOOD thing?” with recently broken up people, either. Respect that even for a doomed, dysfunctional relationship that there is grieving and the grief is real. Your friends may need to tell you all the terrible stuff about their ex that they won’t miss. Listen. Or they may need to tell you about all the great stuff that they miss. Listen. Or the stuff – the terrible and the great – may come out all jumbled together, and the picture of Horrible Person, Glad S/He’s Gone! and The Love Of My Life, Why Did S/He Leave Me? might overlap like a film dissolve. Listen. Don’t derail or look for consistency – “But yesterday, you said….” “But I thought….” Listen. When you need to say something, start with “I’m sorry, that sucks” and you’ll never be wrong.
So there you go. It’s “Stop, Drop, and Roll” for the dumped: Invite, Ask, Listen.
Who Is Kind of In Love With The World And Her Friends Right Now (But Not In That Way)
*Not an exaggeration.
**Note: Intern Paul and I are AWESOME friends now, and I fiercely love his cute smart ass forever (thought not in That Way). This is largely because I got the fuck out of there ASAP and took the advice of The Sexy Gay Jesus.