I’m having a bit of a boundary issue.
About six months ago, I ended a one-year relationship that had become deeply dysfunctional. My boyfriend at the time was very depressed, was using drugs, and was by turns distant and emotionally cruel. I still care about him a lot and I know that most of what he put me through was a result of what he himself was going through – but, I have taken care of myself and moved on. I’m in a healthy relationship now, and I’m very happy.
The previous boyfriend is currently trying to get his life together, and I’m so glad that this is the case. I know that he can be an amazing person when he’s not in the dark place he’s been in. Unfortunately, he’s not better yet, and while I’ll be prepared to be friends with him when he is, I’m not equipped to take on the role of support system while he pulls himself up.
He’s not really taking “no” for an answer. He contacts me frequently, even after promising not to, even after I have told him to stop. He talks to my friends – our non-mutual friends – and leaves posts on my blog. He goes back and forth between being remorseful to the point of grovelling and saying cruel and hurtful things. I’m not ready to deal with all of this, so I have stopped acknowledging him completely and until further notice.
The biggest problem is that we have some mutual friends, and he thinks of them as his territory. I met his best friend while we were still together, and we’ve become very close; I also became close with another of his friends post-breakup (though in the early stages, when it looked like we were going to be able to keep things friendly). I feel like I’ve earned my place in these people’s lives, and they in mine, but I know that it’s hard for him to stop fixating on our time together when I’m always in his periphery, and that he feels like I have stolen them.
I don’t want to stop being friends with these people, but I do want my previous boyfriend to leave me alone so that I can stop being caught up in all this toxicity and so that he can get better. Can I have it both ways, or do I need to cut my losses?
Rock and a Hard Place
I think the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to cut one specific loss: The hope that you and this ex will ever be friends again.
I don’t think you will be. And that isn’t your fault; he’s way too fixated on you and doing some disturbing things to get your attention and to try to control you. That’s not what friends do, that’s what obsessed dudes do. I have been driven to weird and boundary-violating behavior by unrequited love, and the only thing that allowed any kind of friendship to continue was me immediately stopping all unwanted contact and chilling the hell out for a long, long time.
Also, it’s very nice and forgiving that you want to chalk up the cruelty to his bad headspace and addiction issues, but this is still a person who, when the chips are down and things are stressful, releases that stress by being mean to you. Almost everyone who has ever been involved with an addict or a mean person has the same story to tell about this “amazing” person when they’re not drinking/depressed/studying for finals/looking for a job/grieving/using and treats the bad behavior like a massive aberration. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, many of us have done it – there is Good Ex (the one we love) and Bad Ex (the demon that comes out only sometimes and isn’t really his fault because brain chemistry/bad childhood/poorly socialized/substances) and we tell ourselves a story that our love & loyalty can defeat Bad Ex and leave us only with Good Ex. Bad Exes tends to LOVE this story and really spin it out with beautifully crafted apologies for bad behavior that end with you apologizing to them for not being forgiving and accommodating enough.
I would like to put forth the thesis that Good Ex and Bad Ex are the same (“cruel”, boundary violating, untrustworthy, unsafe) person, and that there are people who don’t say mean, terrible things to each other when they are stressed out or sad, and the story of the Amazing! Guy With the Wicked Dark Side is a toxic story that we’re all sort of culturally addicted to. I know that you’ve moved on, and are happy (SERIOUSLY, GOOD JOB, THAT WAS PROBABLY NOT EASY), and you did all the right stuff, and there were very good reasons you loved him, and you are not wrong or stupid for wanting to be as kind and understanding and hopeful as you can be in the aftermath! These are GOOD qualities! They are just easily manipulated by untrustworthy people and easily bound to the story of the fucked up guy who finally was understood sufficiently by the right woman that we all watch every week in 1,000 separate refractions on the TV. I don’t want to see you making excuses for or trying to hold onto a happy ending version of this or bending over backwards to be fair for the sake of someone who is cruel to you. That cruelty isn’t drugs. That cruelty is HIM, and choices he is making.
Let’s weigh the relative “crimes” here:
- You’ve stayed friends with nice people you met through your ex.
- He, in turn, is deliberately and repeatedly communicating with you against your wishes, often in a cruel and emotionally damaging way.
- Yet you’re the one who is worried if what you’re doing is ok and trying to manage the situation better.
You are doing a smart thing by ignoring all communications. I would go several steps further:
1) BLOCK all methods of e-communication, including banning him from making blog comments. If he’s using the phone to text and call you, get a new number that you give only to friends (and ask them not to share with others). Keep the old number and a voice-mail box turned on for a while so that his calls get sent somewhere and he thinks they are getting through. If you need to, have a friend or family member hold onto Old Phone so you have a document but don’t have to deal with it. Make the decision that you will never respond to any communication from him and stick to it.
You may think you owe him a “re-setting of expectations” conversation, like you said once that you wanted to be friends someday but that’s no longer on the table. You don’t actually owe him that. “Closure” is a lie, and he is the only one who could ever, ever give it to himself.
2) Ask the people who are your-friends-but-not-mutual-friends to do the same. Script: “Dear friend, I’ve asked my ex to leave me alone, but he keeps trying to find ways to contact me including reaching out to people like you. The best thing you can do to help is to block him on social media, document but don’t respond to any communications that get through, and don’t pass information - either about me to him, or about him and his contacts to me (that’s what he wants you to do). Hopefully this behavior will die down soon as he stops getting the jolts of attention that he’s seeking, and he can focus on his own recovery. This is really sad and not a little bit scary, so thank you for your help.”
3) Mutual friends, especially someone who is his best friend, are obviously trickier. I think if you try to keep a friendship going with these folks it has to have some parameters, like:
- We don’t discuss ex when we hang out.
- Don’t pass information about me to ex, or ex to me. Let those things be separate.
- It would be great down the road if we could all be friends again, but the stalking behavior is really freaking me out and making that feel impossible, so please, no pressure or even discussion about that right now.
- You (Letter Writer) are going to hang back from events/parties/social scene stuff where ex is likely to be for a while to give him some space so he’s not running into you everywhere. I know this is ceding “territory,” but it is actually a cool thing to do if you know that someone is struggling with seeing you and holding it together. Sometimes it’s not about fairness, sometimes it is about this person hurting and needing to feel like there are safe spaces they can go. You already won by getting out of the relationship and being happy, you don’t have to “win” every party. I think this is also safer choice for you, unless you like looking over your shoulder for this dude and the prospect of many crying & yelling scenes at parties.
Good news, if your friendship with these folks is really a friendship that is based on mutual interests and comfort and meant to survive the long-term, it will survive these parameters. If the friendship is really about bonding over the drama of dealing with ex and being his caretakers, or if these friends help their old friend keep violating your boundaries, it will not survive them, and that will be hard and painful in the short term but ok in the longterm as everyone disengages and moves on. I am sorry you are dealing with this. You are good, you are doing everything right, and it takes a long time and a lot of perseverance to shake off an obsessed ex-partner.