Dear Captain Awkward:
A year ago I broke up with a girlfriend of three years. Before she was my girlfriend she had been my best friend for over 10 years, and was someone whom I deeply trusted with pretty much everything. When we broke up it was very messy and she said some very hurtful things to me, things that, due to all those years of knowing each other, she knew would hurt me pretty deeply. And it did. But that really is not my core issue.
I’ve been suffering from depression for a couple of years (approximately 2 years), and only recently have I started seeing a therapist and taking meds to help me with my issues. And it has worked wonderfully. But those sessions have made me realize a lot of really troubling things about my past relationship.
The doctor brought to my attention that her behavior had been pretty controlling and abusive towards me, even before we started going out. A small list of her behavior: she would get upset when I went out to hang out with other friends that were not her; also, if I had planned an outing with her and a few others, she would get upset that there were other friends there appart from her. If I liked things that she didn’t like, she got upset, same if I didn’t like things that she did. It got to the point that I would just agree with her so she would’t get passive-agressive with me. She also would get angry with me for the strangest things, like, messing up the structure of a sentence or misremembering the name of her college. She would start berating me for forgetting something so easy and so on. And on one occassion, when one of my friends was staying over at my room (I currently live in a college residence) because she was sick and her roomate wasn’t there, while i was skypeing with her, she got very upset and demanded that I tell her to leave, when I didn’t she got angry and hung up. I got so distressed over that that my friend took to leaving to her room whenever she called me via skype. And whenever I called her out on her behavior, for some reason, I would always end up apologizing to her for saying anything. And she could be so condessending towards me that she made me feel bad for things I didn’t feel bad for before (I’m really short, I don’t have a complex about it. But she once told me that she avoided heels when going with me so I would’t feel bad. I was hurt and for years I didn’t know why).
It wasn’t until I broke up that I took notice of how much she monopolized my time. My friends said that they were happy that I had more times to hang out with them and I have stopped agreeing with people just to avoid a disagreement.
I am currently in a relationship and I am very happy. My girlfriend knows about my past relationship and is very helpful and supportive of me. I can’t help but notice how different a healthy relationship is.
The problem is; though, that my ex wants to have a friendship with me. She sends me e-mails asking how I am or via IM saying hi and telling me she’s bored and so on. Up until the past weekend, I would answer and chat with her for a while. However, ever since my session with the doctor I feel very uncomfortable whenever i recieve messages from her. Mostly because I feel hurt that she would act the way she did when we were going out and because I didn’t notice and allowed it to continue. I haven’t answered her messages since and I have avoided logging on on the IM, but I can’t do that forever. I do, however want her to stop trying to treat me as if nothing had happened. i don’t know how to tell her in a way that won’t end with me apologizing again.
I want to make it clear to her that I don’t want her to keep contacting me. I don’t want an apology or anything of the sort, I just want to stop contact. I just want to do it in a way that would prevent her from taking it out on our mutual friends and with my sister, with whom she is relatively friendly with.
How do I do that?
Grieving a breakup is weird. There is the part where you miss them. There is the part where you get really angry about stuff that happened, except the person you’re angry with isn’t around anymore so you’re just left with yourself and being angry at yourself for putting up with it so long. You have all this insight and the creative energy released by destruction….and nowhere to put it.
I’ve got a lot of these “delayed reaction” questions in my mailbox. “I’m realizing in the aftermath that my ex was really not good for me. Why am I still sad/angry about that even though things are so much better now? What can I do?“
Sometimes we get this delayed burst of self-awareness. M.F.K. Fisher called it “the sea change”:
“The next time we put to sea, in 1932, was not so much later, about a year…but I was more than a year older. I don’t know why; I simply matured in a spurt, so that suddenly I knew a lot about myself and what I wanted and what I had to do. It made me soberer, and I was much less shy.”
-from The Gastronomical Me, by M.F.K. Fisher
You’re in the middle of the sea change.
And you are doing all the right things to take care of yourself. Going to therapy is so, so smart. It’s the place to take this newfound voice of yours and let it talk. It’s okay to still be processing everything from the relationship – you’re not taking anything away from your new partner by working things out. Cutting off contact with your ex is one more way of taking care of yourself. You don’t have to relive all the old feelings every time she feels bored and gchats you.
Good news: You don’t have to be friends with your ex. You don’t have to justify the decision or prove any bad faith or bad qualities on her part. “I would prefer not to be in contact” is a good enough reason to not be in contact.
Bad news: You want to cut contact off in a way that will “prevent her from taking it out on your friends and your sister, who she is still in contact with.”
What makes you think you can control any part of her behavior? What makes you think there are words for this? You can’t. I can’t. Your new self-awareness is not transitive. She may well take it out on mutual friends or have a bad angry scary reaction or a lot of hurt feelings.
And let that go as something you have to worry about or try to prevent. Just take care of yourself. Even if she reacted very badly, cutting off contact with her would still be 100% the right thing to do. Her behavior is hers and you won’t have caused it. It won’t be a reflection on you. Also, there is no Being the Bigger Person Award for Suffering In Silence.
You’ve already started this process by not replying to any of her messages since your doctor’s appointment. So get your courage up, run this by your therapist, and then send an email:
I appreciate your efforts to remain friendly, but I’m finding that I need to make a clean break with you in order to fully heal and move on from everything that happened with us. I realize that this is painful given the long history we’ve shared, but I must ask you not to contact me anymore and to let me be the one to get in touch if at some point I feel ready.
I’m sure we’ll run into each other from time to time through (sister, mutual friends), and I’ll do my best not to make things weird when that happens. In the meantime, I wish you all the best and thank you in advance for respecting my wishes about this.”
Then, once you’ve let her know, block or filter her emails, and block her on every social media platform. Delete her number from your phone, or download a call blocker app. And if she gets around those safeguards and somehow contacts you, don’t answer. Even if she contacts you 1,000 times. If you answer, you just teach her that it takes 1,001 pings to get your attention.
Understandably, no one loves getting a “and by the way, never talk to me again” email, so her reaction might not be great. You describe a lot of controlling behavior within your relationship, and controlling people don’t like to see a good minion get away. She may try to get you to interact with her or to agitate your sister or mutual friends into bugging you on her behalf. She might try to manipulate a situation where you have to return stuff to each other or float some bullshit about “closure.” If that happens, keep in mind:
1. Returning stuff to unfriendly exes is what the postal service is for.
2. Closure is an illusion. It isn’t something that another person can give you. Closure is you saying “I want a clean break, don’t talk to me” followed by her having whatever feelings she’s going to have about that until she finds some peace for herself. It’s not something she will get by remaining engaged with you or by you meeting her for FEELINGSCOFFEE one last time.
ONE “Whoa, I’m really sorry to hear that, is there anything I can do to change your mind?” reply from her is understandable and within bounds. You don’t have to reply but you can say “I am sorry, I realize that is bad news, but it’s the right decision for me,” (and then not reply anymore). Any more than that is way out of bounds and deserves no acknowledgement or reply. So if she escalates or tries to drag your friends into it, don’t frame it as “I told Ex to stop contacting me and now it’s my fault all my friends and my sister are getting riled up, oh no, I made drama.” Frame it as “Ex is confirming that I made the right decision. She is making drama instead of doing what I asked her to do.”
You can tell your sister and your friends exactly what happened:
“I found I needed a clean break from being in contact with Ex, so I asked her to stop contacting me for a while and let me be the one to be in touch. I’m sorry if that put you in the middle in any way, but I feel really good about the decision. I don’t really like talking about her, so can we change the subject? How are you doing?“
It’s honest, direct, and you’re not asking anyone to take sides. If she keeps bugging them about you, they can make their own decision about what to do about that and you can make your own decision about how much of that you tolerate.
You’re going to have a day, probably very soon, where you don’t think about her at all. A day where you’ve made it all the way across the sea into this new life of yours, and when you tell the story about your ex it will be like something that happened a very long time ago to a different person. “We were very close for a long time, but it didn’t work out in the end.”
The rest is silence. Silence and time.