Reader Question #12: How do I deal with my boyfriend’s ex-from-hell?


Dear Captain Awkward:

So, it’s like this. I met a great guy, and get this, it’s one of THOSE love stories where the girl winds up with the guy she went to school with, it was him all along! Hurrah for fairy stories!!!

So, all well and good and life is great with us, but the snag is he has an ex-girlfriend with whom he shared 20 odd  (druggy) years. After they split they stayed friends (without the benefits) and were very close. She’s got some fucked up Bonnie and Clyde fantasy going on, romanticizing the good old days when they robbed book stores to feed their habits (yuck!) and, while she says she wants him to be happy with someone else blah blah, in reality is making all kinds of noises (via Facebook comments and sending cards in the post) to let me know that she and he were the golden couple and will be forever.

I can’t help but get jealous about their obvious ‘history’ but as we are in a (new) relationship I feel weird that she sends him cards saying how much she loves him, and sends them addressed from the love nest they once shared.  She posts that she loves him all over his FB page, KNOWING that I’m going to read it. (Hello, we are over 40 btw not school kids!)

Is she trying to send a message to me? and how do I deal with it? We aren’t in the same country for a start, which helps, but I feel as if there are three of us in the relationship as he messages her and texts her EVERY day.. I am getting pissed off but don’t want to act like a needy jealous whinge-bag..

Thank you Captain.

Not Needy or Jealous (well ok, a bit)

Dear Not Needy, Definitely Jealous:

I feel comfortable saying that this woman is trying to send a message.

People don’t go to the Post Office on purpose and stand in line to get the special stamps that will send letters to other countries without taking a little extra effort to work that into their day.  If you and your boyfriend lived in the same area as this woman, she would send you both a lot of messages, like sneaking into your house and peeing in all the corners and dressing up in your favorite clothes and rubbing her bizness all over your pillow so that you will go nuts trying to figure out why everything in your life suddenly smells like crotch.

It’s upsetting even in French:

To handle her, my suggestion is:  Disengage.  Detach. Do whatever you have to do to let go.  Every time you interact with her or mention her name or read one of her messages, she gains a little bit more power.  Not power over your boyfriend – you can’t actually control that – but over your feelings about yourself and your relationship.  If you can, cultivate an attitude of scathing, detached, amused pity, like, “Oh, that poor sad girl is crying for attention again, I hope she gets the help she needs.” I don’t know your politics, but this is how I handle the existence of Sarah Palin.

Simple, right?  Ha.  No.  Believe me, I get why you might feel jealous and anxious.  Someone whose answer to “I am happy and in love and elsewhere, but I’ll always treasure our friendship” is to behave the way this woman is behaving is not someone you want in your life. (And, please tell me that the letters aren’t signed in blood.  Or, if they are, don’t tell me. I have a Squick.)

Okay, that’s the good news.  You’re not paranoid.

The bad news is that with two addictive personalities with a dysfunctional past, I think you might have a Double Darth Vader situation.  Because, I’m sorry to do this to you, and I’m not making fun, but when I read your letter this is what I see:

Ridiculous ex
Ridiculous ex
She is bad
She does bad things
Totally out of line
Who goes to the post office?  I mean, some people obviously go because whenever I go there’s a huge line which is why I never go…okay, I spaced out for a second there…
Twenty! years of drama, addiction, and Sexy Evil Danger.  (Zuh?)

I read a lot of advice columns, and this is a common theme in the letters –

“My boyfriend’s terrible ex is terrible, here are all the ways she’s terrible, what should I do about her?  Is there something I can say to her?

Oh, by the way, my boyfriend is totally enabling all this behavior.  So, how should I deal with her?”

How should you deal with her?  You should not have to deal with her, ever.

I’m sure your dude is great, but one thing I have no patience for is someone who wants to be the good guy so bad that he abdicates responsibility for handling his own relationships.  He has a relationship with you.  He has a friendship and a past with her.  You do not have a relationship with her and should not have a relationship with her.  But you feel like you do because he’s thrown up his hands and been like “What can I do? (text text text)  She’s crazy. (text text text text).  Don’t be jealous, baby, that’s all in the past (text text text text text text).”

The person who is making you feel sad and insecure is not this chick.  Look, she’s pining for lost love.  In her story, he’s not Your-Fairy-Story-Long-Lost Love, he’s hers.  She’s got 20 years of evidence that says that the two of them are meant to be.  Probably a lot of that same evidence shows that they’re not to meant to be, but she’s conveniently ignoring that for now.  She’s not a bad person for being invested in the relationship that took up literally half her life on the planet. She’s just sad and hung up and doesn’t know what else to do, and then she says something wounded and hopeful and loving and he responds.  She’s like the rat in the maze, hitting the bar over and over again.  She will not disengage as long as he keeps rewarding her behavior with more pellets of sweet, sweet attention.  The happy ending for her is that a year from now she looks back on her behavior and thinking “Man, I was crazy for a while back then.  Thank God I finally got him out of my system before we escalated to pregnancy scares and suicide attempts.”  He’s her Darth Vader, too.

Your boyfriend is the one making you nuts, but everything is new and hopeful and you don’t want to ruin it.  It’s much easier to place all the blame (and your uncomfortable negative emotions like worry and jealousy) on the person who is the most visibly and colorfully misbehaving. He would be so perfect if not for this woman.

I once saw a weeping woman fish this out of the dumpster on an episode of Hoarders. Don’t underestimate the power of the Dark Side.

Quoting Gavin de Becker (who deserves his own post very very soon):  “People who can’t let go choose people who can’t say no.” One constant for someone who is involved with a Darth Vader is that he’s getting something out of this relationship that you can’t see – validation, a tie to his past, attention, the feeling of being able to “help” her or being responsible for her.  Something.  It could be that he thinks he’s being nice.  Nice is…overrated.  And I don’t want to hold the addiction against him, but you mentioned it so I need to say:  Addicts are not famous for their ability to set and enforce healthy boundaries.

You can’t control what she will do.  You can’t control what he will do.  And the information that she will not detach until he does would be totally right on the money…coming from anyone but you.  (Your hate only feeds the power of The Dark Side).  But he and not she is the key to solving this problem for you, and what you can do is acknowledge your feelings (jealousy, anger) to yourself, decide what you’ll put up with, and ask him directly for what you need.

If it’s really bugging you, and you live together, I think you’re within bounds to ask him to have her send the letters elsewhere – work, P.O. Box, wherever.  And he should present this to her casually like “Hey! Here’s my new mailing address” and not give a reason.   Not “My girlfriend doesn’t want your letters in the house so she’s making me do this.”  Can he handle that?

I saw in our emails back and forth that you de-friended her on Facebook.  Oh, honey, why were the two of you Facebook friends in the first place?   Eh, I guess one of the classic dick moves of the ex-girlfriend who won’t let go is to try way too hard to make friends with the new squeeze, ostensibly to show how cool and over it she is but really to keep an eye on things so she can pounce the instant cracks appear.  And we fall for it because we want to show that we’re cool and not jealous.  You won’t fall for that trick again!  If you get any pushback about this, like, she messages you and says “Whyyyyyyyy?”  you can ignore the message completely. I was going to say something about making up a story about how you are pulling back from social media and culled a lot of people, blah blah, sorry to hurt her feelings, but who cares?  Show her what Just Never Writing Back looks like.

If she brings up The Great De-Friending of Aught Eleven with your boyfriend (more likely, because it will create the most drama), let him respond.  I hope it’s something like “The reason you feel like she doesn’t like you is because she doesn’t like you.  It might have something to do with the surprisingly anatomically correct drawings of human hearts you sent last week.  What did you think would happen?” But really it doesn’t matter what he tells her because Officially You Don’t Care Anymore.

A few final thoughts:

1.  Trust your boyfriend to handle his friendship with her. “I trust you – I don’t like her behavior, but I get why she’s important to you and you should have whatever friendship with her that you want to.” This can only help you detach – She’s not your friend, not your problem, he’s handling it in the way he wants to.

2.  If you do ever end up back in the same city, you don’t have to like her or be friends with her for his sake. You don’t have to invite her to parties or sit through awkward after-work drinks.  If she walks into a room you can walk right out of it unless your boyfriend’s proximity dictates some swift generic niceties for his sake.  If he tries to cajole you into hanging out, you can say “I know she’s important to you, but she and I just don’t gel, so go have a good time and don’t worry about me.”

3.  Think carefully about how you engage with your boyfriend about his past.  The “druggy past” that your boyfriend shared with this woman is very much part of the person that you love today.  Just like all the ways he is awesome and lovable today were present then, too.  She saw the best and the worst of him, and her constant message to him is “I love and accept you.”  If the story you tell is “We were schoolmates, then…mumble mumble…a bunch of totally unimportant stuff happened… mumble mumble….THE SHINING MIRACLE OF OUR PRESENT LOVE” you risk treating him like a whole part of his life wasn’t real.  If he opens up to you about that time, be aware of your own anxieties and watch yourself for judgmental statements, even ones that seem to be supportive on the surface, like “Oh well, but you’re not like that any more!”  “Good thing that’s all over!”  Then he will feel judged and like he can’t talk to you about it.  Be careful also about saying negative things about her behavior during that time, because a lot of it could probably also apply to him.  You don’t want her to become the living metaphor for all the things about his past that you wish weren’t true.  You really, really don’t want that.

So you get the Generic Good Advice Value Package:  Detach.  Listen.  When in doubt, ask questions.