#480: Post-breakup friend custody with a gross congealed moldy side of stalking

Spike and Angel
We’re only evil stalkers *sometimes.*

Hi Captain!

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

Dear Rock:

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.



80 thoughts on “#480: Post-breakup friend custody with a gross congealed moldy side of stalking

  1. This is great advice all around. The hardest part is going to be the mutual friends, but here’s the key: they are independent adults. It’s up to those people to decide if they want to remain friends with Rock, her ex, or both. And if they can’t respect her wishes regarding communication with her ex? Then she knows, indirectly, which side they are really on. Good luck, Rock. You are handling this wonderfully. ~Fallah

    1. Then she knows, indirectly, which side they are really on.

      Yeah, that. Hard but true.

    2. A world of this. After my ex and I broke up, a bunch of my friends stayed friends/ friendly with him. And they knew that I was in a lot of pain, so they kept that friendship as separate from me as I needed them to. Really truly good people can manage and navigate reasonable boundaries with love and respect. And right now, it sounds like you need a lot of really good people in your corner. *jedi hugs*

  2. Because you can do nothing to “fix” this, make the cut-off notice to mutual friends as blunt as possible: “He’s an emotional vampire who feeds off any mention of me or our past relationship, so don’t speak of me to him or him to me, no matter what. Ever.”

    1. Calling him an emotional vampire to his friends is not helpful. Ordering them to not do something is likewise bound to be unproductive.

      Name the behaviors, make a request. If they don’t go along with it, that’s on them.

      1. Agree, calling him a vampire to HIS friends, not helpful. To her friends? An apt description. 🙂

      1. I have a REALLY strong urge (born of my eleven-year-old self and her first crush) to defend Angel against your TERRIBLE maligning of him because REASONS!!!!1! He’s not a BAD-baddie! He really loved Buffy! It was just his TERRIBLE unfair, not-his-fault Bad Stuff that had Happened To Him with his soul and vampirism!

        And then I realised that Angel was my first Darth Vadar.

          1. Plus, you know. His abs.

            I have no excuse, I was 23 when I first watched Buffy.

        1. INORITE? When I was watching Buffy the first time around as a teen, Angel was the COOLEST THING EVAR.

          I finally started watching Angel’s spin-off show recently. (Yeah, way behind the times, I know…) Pretty quickly I came to the conclusion that Angel SUCKS, HARDCORE. He spews six colours of unnecessary overdramatic angst at the drop of an anything. Every time he’s on screen, I want to throw something at the TV. I’m officially only continuing to watch for Cordy.

          Big Spike love though. ❤ I mean, if I met a real life Spike, I'd probably hate him. But as entertainment? TEH BOMB.

          1. I never watched Buffy but a few years ago I watched Angel and I found it hilarious. I never had any kind of a crush on the character, though, so I had no illusions to be shattered.

            He IS super-melodramatic and the show actually does start making fun of that later on, which is even funnier.

          2. THANK YOU. I love a world of Buffy, and Angel is beautiful for so many reasons, but he is a whiny overdramatic ass.

            I really wish I could still love Spike wholeheartedly. But, you know, he tried to rape Buffy. It makes me sad in my heart that THAT had to be his curbstomp moment of villainy.

          3. @M Dubz – if it helps, James Marsters has said he was incredibly unhappy with that scene and absolutely hated doing it. To the point where he apparently angrily shot down some fans who were flirt-jokingly saying Spike could do that to them anytime.

          4. Glad to hear that about James Marsters, manybellsdown.

            I, er, only really like Angelus. Angel’s kind of a whiney douchebag. At least Angelus is entertainingly evil.

          5. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right, though his pinky ring is off-putting if you need a crush-killer.

  3. “I would like to put forth the thesis that Good Ex and Bad Ex are the same” – yes yes yes! I think for me, in a similar but less stalkerish/intense situation, it helped to think: these failures at communication / inconsiderate behaviours / whatever on the other person’s part are part of this person, *whether deliberate or not, whether changeable or not*. I could try and go on working with this person to change them but I’m deciding not to cos it’s not worth my energy. It’s not about passing final judgement on them, but about their compatibility with how I would like to interact with people.

    1. Plus all the numbers to this. I am still trying to properly learn this. I know it, but I still can’t figure out how to make myself KNOW it, you know? Loving this comment though.

    2. YES. This is so, SO important.

      My marriage didn’t blow up shortly after the birth of FirstKid (and as an added bonus, Spouse did not commit suicide) in part because I recognized this, stopped making excuses for Spouse and buying Spouse’s excuses of “I’m just stressed because of This One Thing and then everything will be fine,” insisted he follow through with the psychological help, and then plunked my thirty(mumble)-week-pregnant self down in a waiting room chair by his side and refused to move until the clinic followed through with the psychological help.

      My marriage didn’t blow up shortly after the birth of SecondKid (and as an added bonus, CPS didn’t take The Kids when they got called to investigate the combination of a freak accident and a malicious jackass making a false report) in part because Spouse noticed that my brain was really badly misbehaving while I insisted that even though I wasn’t fine nobody would help because I wasn’t acutely suicidal, and he went with me to the doctor and held my hand while I said, “I, um, think I need psychiatric medication” and he corroborated the nature and severity of ADHD symptoms I was experiencing.

      I know that Good Spouse and Bad Spouse ARE the same person, and that really, if Good Spouse is so good, it’s up to him to make sure that Bad Spouse doesn’t irredeemably wreck shit. Spouse knows that Good Cheshire and Bad Cheshire are the same person, and that it’s up to Good Cheshire to make sure Bad Cheshire doesn’t irredeemably wreck shit. It works because we call out each other’s BS, even (especially!) if said BS is a Legit Mental Illness Symptom(tm), and because we take it seriously, no matter HOW begrudgingly, when the other calls this out. And we’re probably the one couple in a very small number who can fill in the broken spots for each other like this, because it only works if BOTH members of the couple are on board.

      When the other one wasn’t…well, the Darth Vader Ex is another story.

    3. Yes! Someone once gave me a fantastic piece of advice. “Never stay with someone for their potential.” Good Ex might be in there somewhere, but you can’t *make* him win out over Bad Ex, and you aren’t obligated to stick around and suffer more abuse just because they might someday decide to change.

      1. That’s a nice way to phrase it.

        Good Ex might be in there somewhere. Good Ex might even be as real and legit as Bad Ex. That doesn’t mean you have to stick around while Bad Ex is doing bad things.

        This goes quintuple for Good Boyfriend/Bad Boyfriend.

      2. “Never stay with someone for their potential” is smart, smart advice.

        1. A-to the-men on not staying with someone for their ‘potential’. Besides being unhealthy for you, it’s incredibly insulting and demeaning to the person whose ‘potential’ you’re trying to see. You are not a grade-school teacher writing comments on a report card, which is the absolute ONLY place I ever want to see the phrase ‘so and so is not meeting their potential’.

          Be with people who are *already* what you want and need in a partner, don’t waste your time on people who are seen as ‘fixer-upper’ properties.
          Sorry, I don’t mean to come off snarky, but having actually heard my abusive ex-husband tell me (in whiny, martyred tones of aggrieved tolerance) that I ‘had sooooo much potential’ that I failed to live up to has really made that a sore point.

          1. Yeah, I had a partner who was expressly staying with me “for the potential.” I had ridiculously low self-esteem at the time, so at first I took it as flattering… but over time it got to be a real downer to think of myself as a fixer-upper. I realized that I need to be with someone who thinks I’m awesome *now*, not someone who sees me as a home improvement project.

  4. Mutual friends are HARD.

    I live in a pretty small town, and it seems like half the town is related to my ex. There are some people (including her COUSIN and her MOTHER) that I’ve maintained good relationships with, but other people trigger me just by turning down the aisle at the supermarket and seeing them unexpectedly, because of behaviors they engaged in during and after the breakup.

    When I said to these people, “My relationship with Ex is over, I don’t want to talk about it, I want to talk about YOU, YOU are in my life, her only relevance is as the vehicle through which I met you” – the ones who respected that are still my friends. The ones that honed in on that statement as one of vulnerability, and poked at it by actively gossiping in both directions, are tangled up with her and categorized as BAD EVIL POISON in my head. And the people who recognized their own emotional investment in the thing and pulled back from BOTH of us for a couple of years, until we were two separate and unrelated entities in THEIR heads, I’ve been able to re-establish friendships with.

    What the Captain says about pulling back being sometimes less about winning/holding territory and more about a kindness? That’s a hard true thing. There were certain friendships and social settings that I just let go of after the breakup – and there was some bitterness about that at the time, but ultimately it’s been such a relief, and I know that those relationships have been far more comfort to her than they would have been to me in the years since. And there are others that I just quietly staked out as valuable to me – not “we’re going to fight over this”, but rather “you do what you do but I’m not going to go away.” She has indeed pulled back quite a lot, but also had to define her own social spaces and relationships within a larger sphere that she knows will always include my influence, and I think that’s been a valuable thing for her to learn.

    The thing is, it has to not be about him; it has to be about you. Is this a valuable and wanted connection? Is this person treating you with respect and kindness RIGHT NOW? Is this person respecting the boundaries you set? Are they acknowledging, by word or action, that you’re made more vulnerable than they are by the continued stress of the evolving situation?

    1. What you say here about letting some friendships and social settings go, that was exactly what I was trying to say less eloquently. There are times when I’ve had to make peace with losing a connection, and other times when I had to decide quite firmly that I wasn’t going to give something up just for ger comfort.

  5. “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 wish they taught this in schools. Of college. And had public information films about it.

    There are folks who have problems and misbehave themselves, and we’ve all made dreadful mistakes which we can look back on and think, “Who was that?” but ultimately, we are our actions. Perhaps not so much our long past actions – folks can change – but ongoing ones, certainly.

    Also, it may be just a turn of phrase, but Rock said

    “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.”

    I very much hope you don’t think you are, or have ever been, making him sick or unhappy. This guys problems are very very very much all about him.

    1. “…I wish they taught this in schools…”

      Yes! It should be mandatory for both sexes, Along with “The lost, scared, sensitive, soul (of either gender) who just needs someone to truly believe in and understand them” is a giant sucking vortex of need that can never be filled.
      They will drain you, move on to the next ‘soulmate’, them come back to drain you again just as you’re moving on with your life for as long as you let them.

    2. You know, you’re right.

      I’m taking notes on what I think of as “Dame B’s Guide to Dating” for my daughter. She’s 7. But I keep thinking, as I do, that I should turn it into an actual class or something for tweens in my neighborhood.

  6. Good on you for taking care of yourself and moving on. You’re on the right track, just keep going! Time and boundaries are your friends here. You seem like a really nice person. But you don’t have to be nice to him, you know? You don’t owe him anything and you can only do so much for someone else. Your ex has his nice moments but he’s the same guy that doesn’t respect your ”no”. So, not a friend to you. He may be speaking a lot of pretty words, but look at his actions. Good luck with your new relationship!

  7. Your ex-boyfriend is abusive and scary. Go you for getting out and making a happy and fulfilling life for yourself. No matter how he tries to spin it, none of his issues are your responsibility.

    Seconding the Captain’s advice regarding friends.
    One of the best things that came out of a long, ugly, breakup with my ex-fiance was the confirmation of how wonderful my friends are.

    After changing apartments and phone numbers, I only gave my new info to my close friends from before the relationship, and pulled back from large social functions for a couple of months. As we kept our problems private, Ex was generally well-liked by my larger social group. I requested that they let me know beforehand if they were inviting him to things, and that they not talk about me to Ex, or Ex to me.

    I blocked Ex’s friends from my e-mail, and sent the cool ones a nice e-mail letting them know how awesome they were and wouldn’t it be great to get together for lunch/movie/art exhibit sometime from a new e-mail address.
    After Ex nagged a couple of them into sharing that address, and started spamming me with FEELINGSMAIL I gave up on keeping those friends. It was just too awkward to put us all in that position.

    My friends on the other hand despite having been all “He’s awesome! You guys will be together forever!” respected my wishes, didn’t second guess me, or try to ‘help us work things out’ and after a couple of gatherings where he interrogated everyone, phased him out of our group. Which was the most beautifully supportive, helpful thing they could do for me.

  8. Forgive me if this is maybe a bit of a tangent, but I think the whole “Good Ex/Bad Ex” thing is related to the prevailing idea that abusive and dysfunctional people are obvious, evil villains. It makes it so easy to make the logical leap to “this person has good qualities and I care about them, so they clearly aren’t outright evil, so therefore they must not actually be abusive, it’s just their drinking/stress/medication/etc. talking.”

    Just one more reason I wish people were taught more about relationships and communication and behavior patterns at a young age.

    1. “prevailing idea that abusive and dysfunctional people are obvious, evil villains. It makes it so easy to make the logical leap to “this person has good qualities and I care about them, so they clearly aren’t outright evil, so therefore they must not actually be abusive”

      THIS, so much. For such a long time I had a hard time identifying abusive behavior as abuse, because thought (and was outright told, often by my abusers) that abuse only came from “bad people”, and my parents/boyfriend/friend/etc weren’t “bad people”. Bullshit.

      There are very few people who are outright sociopaths in the sense that they actually don’t give a fuck about how they affect others ever, don’t care if other people dislike them, etc. Most people who treat people poorly do so for reasons, and they usually think their behavior is justified or excusable. Sometimes those reasons are things that make them seem totally sympathetic! Maybe their bad behavior comes from a place of insecurity, or they are mimicking behaviors they learned from a caregiver, or they are struggling with addiction or other severe physical problems.

      That doesn’t make their behavior not abusive. Having good intentions does not magically make everything you do okay.

      This is scary, because most of us don’t want to be “bad people”, and it’s terrible to contend with the fact that people who seem totally normal can do horrible things. But if we want to improve other people’s behavior and our own, we HAVE to face this. We have to recognize that we are all capable of ‘evil’.

      1. Oh my, yes. I grew up hearing about how my maternal grandparents were holy terrors, which is absolutely, 100% true, and which makes me not deal with the remaining grandparent if I can possibly avoid it. I also grew up hearing that this is why it was okay for my mom to verbally and only occasionally (relative to my grandparents) physically abuse me, and I should understand, and I should just give her everything she wanted, because her life was so hard. That messed me up right proper for a long, long time. Why was I not fixing it by giving in? Why did I have to be perfect? Why was I supposed to know more than my mom, who was an adult? The day I realized that “excuse” and “reason” were not synonyms was a revelation. Sure, she had been through Some Shit, but that didn’t make it okay to tell me it was solely my fault her life wasn’t what she wanted it to be. Even now, when my mom’s horrible behaviors are not pointed at me, I don’t trust her, because she’s just pointing them at other people now. She’s not sorry and she’s not safe– and I am not a horrible monster for acknowledging that and taking steps to stay safe. No one is a horrible monster for acknowledging dangerous people as dangerous, and managing their relationships so that they are safe from the danger.

        1. I have a very complicated relationship with my father and the day that my mother told me, while I was in the midst of trying to excuse some shitty behavior on my father’s part, that there are plenty of people who have shitty things happen to them but remain decent human beings was INCREDIBLY powerful for that very reason. Yes, there are all kinds of reasons for his behavior, but it didn’t actually matter. What mattered was that the situation was uncool in the extreme.

        2. Yes, this is very similar to the situation with my mother except that she speaks fairly well of my grandparents (my aunt had to give me the dirt on their childhood). My mother’s behaviors have improved a bit towards me, after several confrontations over the past several months, but now she’s more aggressive towards my father. I feel like she’s mainly “sorry” so I stop screaming at her.

          1. “situation with my mother except that she speaks fairly well of my grandparents (my aunt had to give me the dirt on their childhood)”

            This is the situation in my family as well. My mom’s parent’s BOTH died of cancer when she was 18, six weeks apart. I knew that was traumatic for her, but she always portrayed them as perfect parents and that her trauma was solely from losing them. Basically, she believes hardcore in “don’t speak ill of the dead” and she’s put her parents up on a pedestal. When my mother and I started having really severe conflicts as I grew up, her family members, mostly her sisters, started pulling me aside to explain the historical context/precedent for the behavior in my mother’s own childhood. My mom just flat out disagrees that the shit she does is happening or that it’s wrong in any way, and the people around her agree that it’s wrong but excuse it based on her traumatic history. And I feel for my mom and her family, I do, but NONE of that changes the fact that I had to deal with her inconsistent, abusive, unacceptable behavior (mostly emotional abuse: telling me I’m a horrible daughter, telling me I’m wrong for being upset by anything she says, telling me I don’t love her enough, generally being horribly manipulative….etc.)

          2. My mother is a very conservative Christian, “honor your mother and father” (one of the ways she pushed abuse onto me; it still upsets how not okay all of this would have probably been if she weren’t super religious), she has never spoken poorly of them per se… but when I analyzed certain things she has said, realized that none of her siblings have good relationships with their parents, talked to my favorite aunt — who told me that my mother is basically the female version of their father — I started to understand our effed up family dynamics a bit better.

            She has improved, but to get her to where she is now took A LOT of emotional, mental, and physical energy, yelling, not backing down, standing up for myself, inner tumor, guilt, and I mainly did so because I currently live with her and she instigates so much confrontation. And that being said, this is as good as it gets — better than it was before, but we are just different people. Best case scenario, she is just not someone I would confide in or look to for genuine comfort.

        3. Hello me. :: waves ::

          Yes, my mother’s life sucked. Like a lot. Her mother used to hit her kids and I can see how what my mother does to me seems less bad. But there’s nothing good in ‘less bad’ and there’s no reason I have to let her take all that out on me.

        4. Are you my sibling?

          Seriously, my mom’s favorite way to try and make me make her feel better about herself is to seek reassurance that she isn’t anything like her mom. Things got reeeeeeeal awkward the last time she asked me that.

          But yeah, you don’t get any medals for being a less abusive parent than your own parents were. You don’t get any medals for “only” physically abusing the one kid you found really difficult to raise and not all your kids, and “only” emotionally/verbally abusing the others. I can give her partial credit for trying to break the cycle of abuse, but she wants to believe she completely broke it and that’s just not true.

        5. The day I realized that “excuse” and “reason” were not synonyms was a revelation

          This. Reasons and excuses are not the same thing. Such an important thing to understand.

      2. Exactly. This was one of the many reasons the movie “Tangled” affected me as it did: Mother Gothel is the spitting image of my mother (but my mother is/was meaner), but she wasn’t a “typically” evil Disney villain.

      3. All of this, so much. I have a coworker who is going through some stuff with a soon-to-be ex-husband. She has insisted to me that because he “loves” her, he won’t do anything to hurt her; that he is basically a good guy and isn’t abusive. This is AFTER he threatened her and her son with a gun (and fired it in their house, twice). This is after he spent a month in jail (and is now out on bond), and she started divorce proceedings. This is despite the fact that everyone else here at work is on heightened security in case he shows up, because you know, he threatened her with a lethal weapon, and he could come here to do so again.
        Yes, he might have some good qualities. But those don’t cancel out the bad ones, or make him less likely to do horrible things that he’s already done (not the first time he’s gone for a gun when agitated, based on what she’s told me). And it’s not her fault if he does incredibly horrible things–it’s only his fault. I’m glad she’s taking care of herself and her son and getting out of that marriage, and out of that situation. But I worry that she’s underestimating what he might do, because she still sees him as a good person, and wants to see those bad actions as an aberration or something he just does when he’s drunk.
        I guess what I’m saying is that even when the behavior is stuff like “threatens with a gun”, if you’ve believed long enough that the person is a good person, in some cases people still try to separate the bad from the person doing it, because we are *so* groomed to think that only evil/bad people will continue to do those things, so someone we know to also be good can’t also be evil/bad. And it’s important to know that that’s not the case. People who we know to be mostly good can do terrible things, and vice versa.

        1. It’s actually a really common survival mechanism for victims to underestimate and minimize the risks of their abusive partners. If you admit what the risks are, you might be too scared to think straight and stay safe.

          I’m glad you’re all on high-alert and that your co-worker has you to look out for her.

    2. Yes, so much this. I shall join you on this tangent and also post this link, if I may:


      I thought this post was incredibly moving in the way that it painted a picture of an abusive relationship. It is SO much harder to spot true, real-world bad mojo when TV and books spoon-feeds us ‘evil abusive partner’ caricatures as though that’s what all abusers look and act like.

      And then we get Twilight and Fifty Shades, which give really accurate depictions of true manipulation and abuse, and we are sold on the idea that such dramatic relationship dynamics are the pinnacle of romantic achievement.

      Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in the world who understand what an enormous travesty of justice that pop-culture combination is to all young people everywhere, and feeling so alone is incredibly frustrating.

      And then I come to blogs like Captain Awkward and The Vagenda, and the world is a better place for a while.

      1. thanks for the link griffykate, one day I hope I’ll be able to say “I’m not scared of you anymore”.

      2. I totally thought the link about the toxic narrative we’re culturally addicted to was going to go to “50 Shades”.

    3. I think the whole “Good Ex/Bad Ex” thing is related to the prevailing idea that abusive and dysfunctional people are obvious, evil villains. It makes it so easy to make the logical leap to “this person has good qualities and I care about them, so they clearly aren’t outright evil, so therefore they must not actually be abusive, it’s just their drinking/stress/medication/etc. talking.”

      THIS + a gazillion. The Amazing! Guy With The Wicked Dark Side myth – and the companion myth that women (especially) are supposed to rescue and “save” troubled (often, but not always) men – are sold over and over again beginning in childhood (Beauty and the Beast, anyone?), and are SO dangerous. These myths not only make it difficult for someone in an abusive relationship to recognize it as such (but zie’s not THAT bad!), they make it easier for people outside the relationship to pass judgement of the “what’s wrong with hir that zie stayed with hir abuser” sort. Because to an outsider, anyone that does X behavior is automatically Horrible Monster!!1!, while inside zie is just an A!GWTWDS.

      I wish we could instead teach people that sometimes good people do bad things, and sometimes bad people do good things. Good and bad are not mutually exclusive.

    4. I think this is so true. There’s such a temptation to go, “Well, he didn’t actually, literally suck my blood or murder my family, so he’s clearly a good guy!” (Or she/girl, not gender specific.)

      But there’s so much middle ground, including “not Dracula, but not great,” and “I don’t hate him/her but I don’t particularly like him/her either,” and “good guy/girl, but not good for me.” And those are all completely valid.

      1. The hard thing is that “good person, but not good for me” is SO COMMON, I think, and so hard to deal with. Sometimes you just seriously are a BAD match for someone and your personalities/coping mechanisms/baggage hit each other in a way that makes bad things happen, and it’s so easy to then say “well zie’s so great, if I can just get them to stop doing x”, because maybe they’re great in some situations and people you like think they’re great and clearly it’s just this one thing that needs to be resolved, right?? And then the magical key to happiness is unlocked! But, ya know, that’s not how it works. Someone can be great and not a good match. Someone can be genuinely awful TO you but for whatever reason be lovely to other people. People are complicated and there’s a ton of gray.

        1. SO TRUE.

          My BFF is, also, my ex-girlfriend.

          We are horrible, horrible partners for each other. Our brainweasels are completely incompatible, which was probably made worse in that way back when we were dating, hers were misdiagnosed and mismedicated as a different type from what they actually are, and mine were undiagnosed and self-medicated with ridiculous amounts of caffeine, sometimes canceled by excessive amounts of alcohol.

          But We Really Loved Each Other, so against my better judgement, about two years after we originally broke up we made a second attempt at being girlfriends instead of best friends. And it turned out pretty badly.

          More than a decade past our second breakup, I still love her to a zillion tiny pieces. I still say “I love you!” on the phone to her, which really pissed of my Darth Vader Ex, and kind of bugged Spouse when we very first started dating.

          She is an awesome person, and no doubt an awesome partner for the person she married. And I am awesome for the person I married. We were just…not awesome for each other at all in the role of life-partner. I can imagine a slightly-alternate universe in which we could have been awesome for each other, but in *this* universe we are just not.

          Glad I got to keep my BFF, though, because she’s cool. Even if she did have to go and move to the other side of the USA. 😦

  9. I’ve already discussed my abusive relationship and its aftermath roughly a bajillion times here, but it’s relevant here, so forgive me my repetitiveness…

    I broke up with my boyfriend of six years, who at the time had become my fiance. We’d been together so long that almost all our friends (except for my newest friends that I had from living apart from him for the few months preceding the breakup) were mutual friends. More than half were people we met together, but I also knew most of his close friends from the before the relationship and he knew most of mine.

    After we broke up he fucking LOST IT and started harassing me and all my friends. He tried to make everyone hate me and make them choose. At first, I tried to explain myself to people and deal with the bitter back-and-forth, but that quickly exhausted me. Partly because of that, and partly because at the time I felt very guilty about leaving the relationship, I ended up just backing off with most of those friends and essentially ceding them to him without a fight. I told ALL of our mutual friends that I didn’t want to make them choose, but that if he was trying to force them to, that I could handle some radio silence from them for awhile while they supported him, because I felt he needed it more than me. I also told them all that I didn’t want to discuss him with them AT ALL, because I didn’t want to put them in a difficult position. I made it clear that I valued their friendship, but that I was respecting their need for space to make their own decision.

    What ended up happening is that my ex ended up driving off most of our friends by trying to force them to choose between us/constantly talking about how evil I was/generally acting insane. In the end, I lost only two friends completely–his two best friends from before we met–and I got all the support I needed from friends new and old. There were a few people I didn’t talk to much for a few months, but I’ve resumed contact and friendships with them after things settled down.

    I’m not telling you this to advise that you did exactly what I did–I was really a lot more self-sacrificing than I needed to be–but to say that if you are simply understanding about the awkward position your mutual friends are in, avoid discussing the ex/forcing them into awkward social situations, and let them make their own choices, the ones that want to stay in your life probably will. So as hard as it may be, avoid actively fighting over ownership mutual friends…. it will probably work out best that way.

    1. I think it’s admirable that you are willing to keep re-telling your breakup story for the benefit of new LWs and new Awkwardeers to whom it’s applicable. Way to put some bad crap to good use. And I’m really glad your friends were smart enough to judge which friendship was more valuable to them. 🙂

      1. Aww, thanks.

        And I’m also glad that my friends decided to stick around, but frankly my ex made the decision pretty easy by being such a colossal asshole. It wasn’t enough for him for friends to remain neutral about the breakup, they had to 100% take his side and denounce me to the world (via facebook, I guess?) as a worthless back-stabbing whore. Most people see that kind of crazy and go running in the opposite direction pretty fast…

        1. Yep, my abusive ex was the same way. Every time during our protracted sorting out of stuff (long after I moved out because he made it impossible to stay) I might start softening up and thinking he’s not so bad, he’d do some asshole thing that would firm up my resolve again. I am so thankful for that.

          And then he promptly moved across the country the day we sold the house, so I didn’t have to worry about him stalking me, which was a very real concern. So another win for me.

          We had various mutual friends, and I tried to leave them to make their own choices. It was pretty easy, since he’d moved away. Plus, he had the habit of drunk calling them way too late at night (not so late relative to his time zone) to berate them for not calling him and proving their friendship or something. But the softest-hearted of them continued to provide what support they could via phone until as recently as last year (we broke up in 2006). But several have confessed to me that when they changed phone numbers for whatever reason, they made sure not to share it with my ex. The soft no approach, which I totally get. I am not sure who might still be in contact with him. I don’t ask, and while I listen patiently when people feel the need to share, I do not encourage such confidences. Considering that he is still fixated on me 6+ years later and I am openly (mostly) happily involved with someone else, I think everyone has figured it out.

          Kudos to you for getting out.

    2. Clearly, your friends were able to see, not from you trying to force them to, that you were a good person, and, hopefully, that’s a good reason for them to stay friends with you.

      Thank you for letting us know that it actually works in the real world

  10. Wow, did I ever need to hear this. I wrote in ages ago, actually, asking about how to manage breaking off a relationship with someone toxic when we were both part of a close, enmeshed community. Well, I broke it off. I got the “I still want to be friends” speech from her. And then she proceeded to behave awfully to me, in front of all our friends, any time there was a group event, either ignoring me completely or blatantly talking over the top of me every time I opened my mouth.

    Luckily I haven’t had to worry about any stalking behaviour, but I really needed to hear the “give up hope that you’ll be friends again” bit. And part 3 about dealing with mutual friends. Lately I’ve been going to less group stuff and seeing our mutual friends one-on-one, and it does feel like I’m giving up territory – I LIKE the group stuff! But it’s keeping me away from Mean Ex and making those remaining friendships stronger.

    One other thing I’ve come to terms with is that there are some friends who are probably more ‘hers’ now. It’s kind of a matter of picking my battles – if she wants to get closer to some people, put in effort towards that and make them ‘her’ friends rather than mine, sometimes that’s okay. For some friends I’ll fight it, and for others I can let it go. Maybe things will be different with them further down the track, maybe not, but right now I’m okay with the thought of letting some of them go.

  11. Speaking as a once-obsessive ex, it was actually a HUGE relief to have limits put on my speaking about He-Whom-to-Whom-I-Now-Refer-as-Voldemort. I am very proud of editing this comment to exclude specifics and say: it was a very dramatic relationship. It took a lot of getting past. I am proud of myself, proud of and grateful to my friends and even Voldy for setting appropriate boundaries and helping me get past the crazy that our culture defines as “true love.”

  12. Something just occurred to me, and I apologize if it’s been said here before and I just missed it but…do Darth Vaders seem so awesome in their good moments because we’re looking at it relative to their awful moments instead of a more middle ground baseline?

    1. Caitlin, that’s sometimes true, but I think there’s more to it.

      I think the really dramatic, abusive, obsessive relationships tend to happen when, instead of connecting to a person, one connects to the self one lost when trying to be loved as a child. You can see it when “opposites attract” and “I have a type” (optional over post break-up margaritas: “…and it seems to be f*cking crazy.”) Your mother had chronic migraines and couldn’t stand to be around noise or movement when you had just discovered running and shouting? Your pantsbrain lights up when you see someone being outspoken. Your father ridiculed you for intellectualism? Your heart will swell when you see someone reading in the corner at a baseball game. But when you’re dating your lost shadow, you rejoice in the vicarious thrill of seeing who you want to be projected… and you get scared for them when they engage in these, because you’ve been taught that being like this means that people who do this are unlovable and don’t care about the people around them.

      Whenever you are dating an image, not an actual person, you’re heading for dodgy waters. But oh, the heady bliss of finally finding your missing piece, your could-have-been, the Peter Pan who whisks you off to adventure in the Never-Never, the manic pixie dream girl who finally gives you permission to rediscover the frivolous, the strong arms around you telling you its okay to want to be protected once in a while! It’s very like drugs— they sort of fit in to your neuro-receptors, and they dull they pain and pick you up and let you function, but they also block the good, healthy stuff from getting through. The “high” is bought at a terrible cost.

      TL:DR. I know a lot of people found _Eat, Pray, Love_ annoying in the extreme, but I think this quote is a pretty good one:


      My two cents, Confederate.

      1. Arg. “it’s.” And a hundred other typos/ grammatical errors, sorry.

      2. This is quite brilliant. I never thought about it that way, but it makes quite a bit of sense.

        The way that it was explained to me was less that we are seeking our own shadow, but rather seeking the unhealthy relationship dynamics that we experienced as children, so that we can heal them. So we look for people like the people that mistreated us, in the hopes that we can fix it this time. And there’s a real intense heady rush from getting that love and attention at first, because it seems like you have conquered your demons through shiny new love! But eventually you realize that there’s a reason that the relationship fucked you up the first time, and it’s best to not try to repeat history.

        1. Thank you. And you’re correct— I cribbed much of this from Harville Hendrix and Patricia Evans. And, alas!, about twenty-odd years of alternating between being Darth Vader and Luke.

  13. Actually, I really recommend that book. I read it a few years ago on the recommendation of my mother, who told me flat out it was the best book about long term relationships that she has ever read. My mother is someone I admire greatly, and she and my father are approaching their 40th wedding anniversary, so when she said it’s the best one she read, I believed her! And it was indeed a very eye-opening (in a good way) book.

    1. Augh, this was supposed to be in reply to UnsuckableButtercup, but my irritating browser screwed it up. :c

  14. Lani, did you read the next book, Committed? I found that one very eye-opening, myself.

  15. LW, if you take Captain’s advice, you’re going to see some of these new friends down to the bone.

    These are probably wonderful, loving people, but you need to be ready for them to sift away as you make hard choices and boundries about “Ex.” He sounds a little intense and he’ll probably lean on them to make a choice and there’s a lion’s share chance that they will come to his side if he draws lines in the sand.

    These are people that you may actually be friends later. maybe even Ex will be a friend later.

    IMHO and in my very bitter, guarded opinion, you should form a wall of polite unfamiliarity as to not bare your skin in times of war.

  16. I tried very hard to stay friends with my crazy ex. It ultimately wasn’t worth it, and in fact probably I would have lost fewer friends if I’d made a cleaner break; the fact that I’d tried to be friends ironically lent credence to the tales that he told later about how horrible I’d been to him. (And he still tells them. Evidently I am the sole author of all his troubles, and I ruined his life, even though we haven’t been together for over a decade). I also found out that some people were passing information to him about me (complete with exaggerations and distortions) and had to drop them.

    So basically I’m saying that the worst case scenario is not that you hold on to a stressful status quo, but that you actually make things worse. Be firm, make a clean break, give people room but be clear about your own boundaries. Those who are worth keeping as friends will respect that.

  17. Sometimes I feel like she was such a better person then me and I have a lot of respect for her even though I don’t know her. We run into her a lot, and my boyfriend only says hello to her friends, since they all graduated together. In a way I want to get to know his ex, but don’t want to come off the wrong way to her.

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