Reader question #37: Overcoming lust and second thoughts to set boundaries with an ex.

Let Jesus dance between you.

Hi there, Captain Awkward, how are you?

Brief (ish) back story. I dated this guy for ~14months. I think he was the nicest guy I’ve dated since my relationships moved beyond simple kissing. It was comfortable, and mostly happy. Then my parents separated whilst I was in the process of moving cities as part of the change from undergrad to postgrad, basically, several major life upheavals all at once. I felt like he wasn’t listening to me and couldn’t get his head around my worries and upset. We argued, sort of, but always reached an impasse. I moved away, and over the following two/three months our relationship fell apart. It took three attempts of me telling him ‘I am breaking up with you’ for him to get the message. I tried twice in person and both times he was all ‘we can make it work, I can change. We can last another 6months ’til I can move to be with you’. I eventually broke up with him over the phone, about two weeks before Christmas. Make of it what you will.

Anyhoo, since then I’ve talked to him twice in person. The first time, when he drove the two hours to get to me to return my things, was so odd. It was like, without all the pressure, I remembered exactly why I’d fancied him in the first place, and saw again how attractive he is/was to me. The air was sparking with the chemistry; if he hadn’t had to leave we would have had passionate break up/make up sex right there and then.  The second time I saw him was a week ago at a music festival in the town where we met and lived, the city that had been my beloved home for the last three years. We stopped and chatted, how’s this, how’s that, and I jumped straight back in with the old familiarity and intimacy, telling him how much my Gran had been winding me up etc. We hugged, and hugged some more. He kissed my neck and said ‘I’ve missed you’. I teared up and said it back.

We went our separate ways as he had things to do with his band. I went to watch their first few songs and couldn’t hack it and legged it out of the club as fast as I could without running. I was furious, fuming and nearly in tears all at the same time. I calmed down after a little while and went back to the club for the rest of the festival and the rest of the weekend passed without incident. Once back in my current city though my head imploded. I couldn’t concentrate on uni for two days straight. Wednesday evening found me sat in pub listening  to some live bands, drink and phone in hand, typing a text that said:  “F*ck u, (name). F*ck u! if and when i next see you, don’t tell me that u miss me! it doesn’t help u bcoz I’m not going out with u again n I’m not gonna change my mind.”

Suffice to say, I didn’t actually send that text. I also didn’t send the more toned down version: “(name), sorry to bother u but could i ask u not to tell me that u miss me as n when we next bump into each other please? it’s not fair of u to mess with my emotions like that. Thanks NessieMonster.”  After my best mate said not to because it would open a line of communication and would most likely be taken very badly by him. My view is that in the text I have succinctly stated what I need and why.  I *know* he misses me. I know he’s broke. I know he spent the better part of the Christmas week drowning his sorrows down the pub. But I also know that I made the best decision for me… I think. And that’s where the doubt kicks in. Did I? Could it work if we got back together? Surely it wasn’t that bad? I wasn’t *that* unhappy. On and on it goes.

Then I look at my parents and remember how often I felt bored hanging out with the guy. How he irritated me. How we could sit in the car for miles and not say one important word. How he wouldn’t stop tickling me when I asked him *repeatedly* to do so because he thought it was funny. How I was behaving towards him pretty much exactly how my mother behaves/d towards my dad, like he’s an mischievous, naughty school boy who needs to be cooked, cleaned and ironed for. I thought, holy crap, if this is now, what would we be like in 5, 10, 20 years time?  And yet, I think I loved him very much, same as I love my dad. The guy is good at things I am not, like fixing computers and cars, and  DIY, and he was/is good at listening to me and understanding me for the most part, and they are attributes I really value. But they are not enough to build a life on.

Maud, reading this missive, I don’t know who I’m really trying to convince, you, Captain, or me

. tl;dr: A guy and girl dated for a long time. Life got in the way, they moved apart physically then emotionally. She dumped him. It broke both their hearts but it was slightly easier for her because she thought she knew why she was doing it. When they were in each other’s company again the wounds were raw and the boundaries shaky. They said some stuff. It messed with her head and made her doubt herself. Now she’s here asking what the hell should she do? How does she let her ex-SO know that he hurt her with his words and how does she explain why it’s not okay to say those things again, without getting drawn into the emotions and mess where she went so very unheard before?

Thank you for your patience. Any advice/thoughts will be much appreciated…

Dear NessieMonster:

Please do not send this man any mean texts.  It is unfair to punish this guy for your own mixed feelings.  By saying that he misses you and acknowledging the feelings and chemistry that remain between you, he is not necessarily being emotionally manipulative or disrespecting boundaries, and he does not deserve a “fuck you.”  He is in fact speaking up about and demonstrating his feelings, and the boundaries you need to figure out are your own. You can ask him to keep thoughts like that to himself from now on, but right now, it’s like you are slut-shaming yourself – “I shouldn’t have these lusty feelings anymore, must control his behavior so I don’t have them.”

Vampires arent real, but necks are delicious.

If you don’t want your hugs getting all handsy and full of lust, maybe…don’t hug him anymore, or drop the hug before it gets to the part where you are smelling each other’s necks. The necks of people we’re attracted to smell amazing.  It’s fucking mesmerizing, in fact, and you are not to be blamed for not thinking so clearly once a clean freshly-washed or maybe-a-little-sweaty oh-so-familiar man-neck was so close to your nose. But if you’re broken up and you want to stay that way, you need to change how you interact, and since you are the one who wants to be broken up, it chiefly falls to you to actually set the boundaries so that the other person knows what they are.  That’s something that’s better dealt with in the moment, by saying gently, “Hey, I know things are still confusing, but let’s make some room for the Holy Ghost” and taking a step back from sexy hugs. If he says “I miss you,” instead of saying “I miss you, too” you can say “I’m sorry, I can’t hear that right now, and I need you to not say things like that to me.”   At that point, if he continues smelling your hair or trying to win you back he IS violating your boundaries and manipulating you.  Since you say he had trouble believing you when you said you wanted to break up, there may be a very blunt and direct conversation about boundaries in your future, but it’s going to be hard to have if you haven’t sorted your own feelings, and it definitely should not come in the form of a text message.

Sad fact:  We sometimes need to break up with people that we’re still really attracted to or have major feelings for.  This is why I’m so against the idea of soulmates.  The world is full of awesome sexy people who will curl your toes and treat you right.  Some of them are not for you.  Or some of them are for you, but only for a limited time.  In fact, I would argue that the most heart-breaking breakups are all are with the people who are so amazingly right except for That One Thing That’s Not Working.  So forgive yourself and forgive him for having second thoughts and still having complicated sexy feelings for each other.  Having the feelings doesn’t require you to act on the feelings or even mention the feelings.  It’s just shitty to punish the other person for feelings that you yourself are having.

And listen, no one here at Captain Awkward Dot Com Enterprises would judge you if you decide to go and fuck it out. Hot ex sex is a classic for a reason, and this is an area where I am not qualified to throw stones. It’s emotionally fraught and perilous and wrong and dirty and you probably shouldn’t be doing it and there are all these raw messy feelings….summer is coming, everyone will be wearing tank tops and skirts and showing a lot of skin and the days are endless…

It’s just not for beginners.  It only works if you can set boundaries and communicate them and work within them.  You need to have conversations like”‘Okay, I really don’t want to get back together as boyfriend and girlfriend, but obviously we’re still nursing some physical attraction, care to explore that next time we’re in the same town, or is it just too weird and painful?” and then shut up and listen to what he says and also try to read between the lines and purge yourself of wishful thinking. If he is the kind of person who can’t let go or hear negative information (and your story about unwanted tickling gives me great pause, and I understand why you are angry and hyper-vigilant about boundaries), he is probably not the right person for a sexy arrangement.  And if you can’t say directly to him “Hey, this hug has gone on a little too long for my comfort level, let’s count to three and break” or “Yes, of course I’m still attracted to you you – you’re awesome!  But we still made the right decision to break up and we need to figure out new ways of being around each other and not fall back on old habits,” you probably aren’t ready for ex-sex or even ex-friendship.  The safe and respectful thing to do is to minimize contact until enough time has gone by that you both are healed and ready to direct that lust at someone new.

tl;dr:  This guy is not for you.  It’s normal to have conflicted and lustful feelings.  Set and enforce your boundaries, but do not punish him for not reading your mind or still having feelings for you. Text messages are not the way to have adult communication about relationships.

10 thoughts on “Reader question #37: Overcoming lust and second thoughts to set boundaries with an ex.

  1. She had to break up with him three times? And he wouldn’t stop tickling her when she asked? Big red flags. He “understands” her but doesn’t respect her. If they’re still living two hours apart it’s probably for the best.

  2. Girl, these feelings are completely normal. Captain Awkward has run through a bunch of potential solutions but if I were you, I’d go for the simplest one: don’t see this guy. Don’t see him for a good, long time. Go out and have fun with friends, maybe start dating some other people, and don’t force yourself to try and have a friendship with your ex. The time’s just not right!

  3. Thanks for the advice. There’s lots here that I need to allow to sink in and think through. Too much to comment on at first reading.


  4. Oh man, stay strong. I was there with my ex and it’s REALLY REALLY hard to give up chemistry.

    But you gotta try and hold up. Remember the bad stuff, that you broke up with him multiple times, and stay away from the circle of lust!

  5. i have been there.
    BOTH sides – the time a guy broke up with the me *the very day after* i shelled out for a deposit on an apartment for “us”. i was crushed, confused, and sitting there going “but there’s no REASON to break up!”
    cold feet, and an easy escape were enough for HIM. [honestly, once i found out what his “easy escape” was – his ex apparantly wanted him back, and would take him without any commitment at all, wheras *I* wanted, thought we HAD, a commitment – at that point i was mostly pissed about the money. never date a pathological liar, except it’s almost impossible to KNOW they are, so try to not date a pathological liar?]

    so, from THAT end, i give you great odds that he thinks either A) you got those “cold feet”, B) you met another person when you moved, and C) you’ll “get over it”, whether it’s A, B or both.
    [i could be wrong. it’s happened before. but most guys that *I* automatically jump to one, or both, of those conclusions if their SO breaks up with them]

    and, of course, i’ve been on your side – without the 2 hours of distance between us. that was even more hellish – i *rarely* break up with anyone, i’ve done it TWICE [and i’m 34!] and in both case, said ex refused, just flat refused, to understand that i didn’t want the relationship anymore. and it actually took me getting a new boyfriend, BOTH times, to get them to go away.

    breaking up is hard – even when it “should” be easy [one is abusing the other, one is always disappearing for long periods, one is cheating in a non-open relationship, etc]. when it’s this type – where there’s nothing HE can see as “wrong”… it slids into “damned near impossible”. [after all, *HE* was happy, and if you weren’t happy, “you didn’t tell him”. whether or not you DID tell him doesn’t actually matter – HE didn’t GET that you weren’t happy, he was happy, ergo relationship is happy, if there’s a problem it’s JUST YOU. which is BS, but it happens so much that i wonder there haven’t been more dramadies/tragedies written along those lines!]

    figure out what YOU want, FOR YOU. figure that out first – you’re saying you’re having second thoughts, find out if those are REALLY “second thoughts”, as opposed to societial expectation/brainwashing [seriously – you ever notice how if a guy is unhappy in a relationship, it’s good and right for him to break up – but if it’s a woman, she’s being selfish and selfcentered? i *am* making the assumption that you’re female, based on your name and some of what you wrote, and if i’m wrong, sorry, ignore that last bit 🙂 ]

    i hope you get it figured out! GoodThoughts(tm) sent!!

    1. Oh so much of what you say is true and relevant, especially the last two paragraphs! And yeah, now I’ve had some space the seconds thoughts aren’t really second thoughts. When emotionally sober (if that makes sense as a concept) I don’t want to get back with him and there are no good reasons to do so, even in the face of the remaining chemistry. But as Cap’n Awkward said “The necks of people we’re attracted to smell amazing. It’s fucking mesmerizing, in fact, and you are not to be blamed for not thinking so clearly once an … oh-so-familiar man-neck was so close to your nose.” My emotional response to his physical prescence caught me completely off-gaurd as I did think I was over him already, which maybe comes out of a place of optimisim/denial. 😉

      1. da Nile is the most popular river in the world for a reason – but i’d like to say, “being over someone” doesn’t mean that you don’t miss them [or even just the sex!] it means “i know it’s over, i don’t want it back, i don’t think about him/her all the time, i don’t drunk dial them, etc”. it’s not ever going to be “completely totally unaffected by that person again, ever” – and thinking that’s what it is isn’t fair to yourself. my mother is *OVER* my dad; they’ve been divorced almost 30 years. but she still gets upset at things – they were MARRIED, they have two kids together, you form a piece of attachment that doesn’t just disappear. maybe it will become so slight you barely notice it… but don’t think, just because you got hit with a bucket of hormones, that you aren’t “over him” – hormones are hormones.

        if that makes ANY sense!

      2. also – just want to say that i’m stealing the phrase “emotionally sober” and i’m going to use it, FOREVER AND EVER!

        erm – i’ll credit you, of course. but stealing it!

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