#517: Closure, continued. Who owns the story after a breakup?

Dear Captain and Co,

Almost 3 years ago I broke up with my then-boyfriend of 6 months.  We’d been friends before, and due to being in the same friends group, stayed friendly afterward.  I thought we would be able to make better friends than a couple, but I didn’t push the issue, as it was obviously awkward.  Then we both graduated college, moved to different places, and lost touch.  About a year, maybe year and a half later, he defriended me on Facebook, so we’ve been completely out of touch for a year and a half now.

My problem is that I owe him an original short story due to a lost bet.  The bet happened at the start of our relationship, and while I made notes about the story I intended to write, due to school and stuff, I never actually got it written.  I’ve had the time to write the story for at least a year now, but haven’t because I’m not sure that it’s still appropriate for me to contact him.  This keeps bothering me because it feels like a broken promise.  I promised a story and I didn’t deliver, and there was no time limit on the delivery so I could still keep the promise.  But he chose to defriend me and I want to respect that too.

Whenever I think of sending him the story, I think of saying in the email something like “I still owed you a story, you don’t have to get in contact if you don’t want.”  But that feels awkward enough that I haven’t done it.

Should I just write this off as something I won’t be able to complete?

~ Open to Being Friends

Dear Open:

Of course you should write the story, if only to get it out of your system and check “wrote story” off your mental to-do list.

But you shouldn’t send it to him, not only because he closed off contact with you, but because it’s your story now.

This dude passed through your life for good or for ill, and you have memories and feelings and lessons that you’ve earned from that that are part of your story. That story is yours to write, to submit, maybe to publish, to share, to develop. Don’t offer it up to some dude you broke up with to pay off a bet he’s probably forgotten about. Your muse doesn’t necessarily need to be your audience.

When you break up with someone, here’s what you owe them:

  • Communicating your decision in a clear way and not making them guess or find out about it on Facebook when you change your status to “Single” or “It’s complicated“, i.e. “Not quite single yet but definitely open to fucking new people!
  • Paying back money and giving back their stuff in a timely fashion and sorting out legal issues like leases, rent, custody of pets/offspring as fairly as possible.
  • Respecting their wishes about (lack of) communication and making your own boundaries and expectations clear.
  • Doing what you can to be kind and fair, but not at the expense of your own well-being.

You don’t owe them further communication. You don’t have to be friends.

You don’t owe them telling your story in a way that makes them look like the good guy.

You don’t owe them fulfilling old promises. Ever heard the phrase “All bets are off”? It definitely applies after a breakup. That’s your story prompt:

“‘All bets are off,’ she said…”

One way you can find closure after the end of the relationship is to reclaim all the stuff that is yours as YOURS.

If you are having trouble letting go and need to avoid all things that remind you of your ex (family, ex-friend, etc.), so be it. I hear you, and you should do what works for you. But if you’ve let the person go just fine, you shouldn’t have to give up your love of things you love just because they are associated with a past love affair. So what if your ex recommended that great novel or movie to you. You loved it? Cool, it’s yours now, part of your canon. Your favorite restaurants and bars and coffee shops and bookstores? Yours. Go there, head held high, and eat the delicious food and drink the delicious drinks. Friends you made during the relationship, who you would still like to hang with? Call them up. If you genuinely care for each other and have things in common besides common knowledge of some dude or lady, the friendship will work just fine. If it doesn’t? It wasn’t meant to be and you can let it go. Loving someone means letting a whole bunch of new experiences, associations, and inspirations into your life, and you’re not obligated to let go of stuff that you love (or worse, creative work you made) just because the person didn’t stick around in your life forever.

Letter writer, I pronounce you sole proprietor of any stories you write as a result of your relationship with one former datepartner. I also absolve you of the obligation to write any story whatsoever unless you want to for your own reasons.

64 thoughts on “#517: Closure, continued. Who owns the story after a breakup?

  1. “Loving someone means letting a whole bunch of new experiences, associations, and inspirations into your life, and you’re not obligated to let go of stuff that you love (or worse, creative work you made) just because the person didn’t stick around in your life forever.”

    This is a very good way to put it.

    I became a vegetarian because my first long-term girlfriend was a vegetarian (my choice to be closer to her, not any pressure from her end). When we broke up, I had a day where I thought “well, since I went vegetarian because of her, I guess I could go back to eating meat now.” But then I realized that vegetarianism had become *my* thing too, and I kept it up even as I moved on to date omnivores.

  2. I think The Captain has it spot on, as usual.

    When I read the LWs letter, my first thoughts were “so what?” I think he made a pretty decisive move to de-friend you on FB, and clearly doesn’t want any contact, which you haven’t had with him for the better part of 2 years now. And for someone just out of college, 2 years is a long time, with a LOT of changes to deal with.

    It is possible (I guess) that he thought, “shit, I won’t get that story she promised me if I break off contact!” But the important thing to note is that, even if he did have that thought process, he still DID IT ANYWAY. The fulfilment of a bet didn’t rank highly enough with him to maintain the contact. And the more likely answer is that he hasn’t given that bet you made a single thought in years.

    It is hard, when you break up with someone, to feel like you still have that one thing you want to do/say with/for them. And even harder when it’s them who have made the decision to end contact without it being a mutual thing. But, LW, you have to respect that, for whatever reason, your ex is not interested in any form of communication from you. It sucks, but that’s the way it is, particularly when you don’t get a chance to say your final piece.

  3. Something that’s not clear to me is whether the LW *wants* to write the story or simply feels obligated to. If the LW is not really that interested in writing it, and three years of avoidance points that way, just don’t write it. Give it up, set it free, have a little farewell ceremony where you burn all your notes. Maybe don’t burn the notes, just tuck them away in a closet, and one day, you will either be able to burn them or feel like writing that story.

  4. Wonderful answer is usual.

    I had a follow up question for commenters.

    What about gifts from an ex?

    I have an ex who loved getting me all sorts of little trinkets and gifts – a habit I didn’t actually care for because I couldn’t really afford to do the same nor did I really have the inclination to show affection that way – and post break up I felt weird about using these gifts or wearing the clothing/jewelery he or his family gave me. Not so much because they reminded me of him, but rather I felt like I “shouldn’t” because I wasn’t with him anymore. One of these gifts was a rather nice pair of earrings that I haven’t worn since, but sort of want to.

    1. I still have things that My ex gave me as presents, including one or two really nice bits of jewelry (not valuable, but lovely all the same).

      I still wear them, though I didn’t for a while after we broke up. I don’t have bad memories associated with them, and they are mine now and not his so I wear them.

      It helps that I don’t see him any more, it would feel weird to see him and be wearing the necklace he gave me for example.

      I think possibly where some of the conflict might come from (for me, anyway, no idea of your gender, apologies if this doesn’t apply) is that gift giving from men to women in relationships sometimes becomes a kind of statement of “ownership” because Patriarchy etc. And so if you wear a gift after the relationship has ended it’s like you’re still owned by them.

      1. I (a lady-person) ended up giving away all of the jewelry from my ex (a man) after we split because it felt like such a culturally loaded present, in a way that scarves and books (which I still wear/enjoy) did not.

        But that was me. esis0020, if it doesn’t feel weird to you to wear the earrings, then it’s not weird – enjoy them!

    2. Gifts are gifts, i.e., yours. I understand feeling weird about it, but if you like the earrings, wear them. Mentally rechristen them “A gift from an old friend,” so if anyone asks, you have something to say. No one will ask, tho.

      1. As a side thought, I have a few pieces of jewelry that were gifts from my partners, and selected in part as reminders of the relationships. If I were to break up with the person who gave me one of those, I doubt I would wear the relevant jewelry–even if nobody else was aware of the symbolism, it would be too strong for me.

        But most gifts between people who love each other don’t have that sort of symbolism, or have it much less strongly–it’s more “I love you and I think you will enjoy this book/pair of earrings/souvenir of Mount St. Helen’s” than “I love you and hope you will think of me when you read/wear/look at this object.” This is subjective, of course; I suspect the distinction is whether I decide to wear this item today as a reminder of the person, or because the color goes well with my shirt.

        1. …Although I will say, the symbolism of wearing a Mount St Helens souvenir after a relationship has imploded is exquisite.

    3. I think that for gifts that were not returned or asked for, they’re yours now. You can do what you want with them. Wear them, sell them, burn them, whatever.

      But I get the weird feeling. I have a bracelet that a partner gave me. It had a particular significance for us, when I wore it. I haven’t gotten rid of it, because it was important, but I don’t feel comfortable wearing it, because the thing it was significant is not true anymore. So now it’s just sort of there, in with a lot of other stuff that I have. It doesn’t bother me anymore.

      You might wear the earrings around the house one day to see if you feel all weird about them.

      1. I have this problem about my (ex) engagement ring. It’s a beautiful ring, and due to the particular design it isn’t glaringly obvious that it is (or was) an engagement ring, and so for a long while I wore it on my other hand. But now I am with another partner it feels weird to be wearing it, even though my new partner is not actually bothered.

        What makes this even more annoying is that it’s quite valuable – up there with the most valuable things I own – but if I sold it I would get a fraction of the cost and also I have enough emotional attachment to it to not want to sell it. So it’s this beautiful, costly piece of jewellery that I don’t quite feel right about wearing and don’t want to get rid of either.

        1. Aside for legal issues: Depending on where you live, the engagement ring might legally be the former fiancé’s. If they aren’t asking about it, it’s probably not a deal to them, but another thing to think about if you decide to sell it.

          1. I’m in the UK, so this isn’t an issue – engagement rings are considered outright gifts unless they’re presented with an explicit condition otherwise. (As it happens he’s also the one who broke off the engagement, so… it functioned as the notional insurance payout, I guess? That was not at ALL the spirit in which I accepted the ring, though.)

        2. Investigate the legalities, and if they fall in your favor, reset the stones/recycle the metals into another piece of jewelry?

          1. Apropos of nothing, my friend’s grandmother has been married (and divorced) 4 times. She saved each engagement ring, reset them together and now has a massive, 4 giant-stoned ring that she wears whenever she damned well feels like it. It is ridiculous and so fabulous and seems like something Elizabeth Taylor or the Dowager Countess would have done. I just love that about her.

          2. Yeah, this is probably what I’m going to do eventually. It’s got a pretty nice stone which would work well in a necklace, so when I can afford the cost of the work I might have it remade.

          3. Two of my exes in the past have given me jewelry that was just Not My Style, and because it was all beads and chain I took it apart for components and made some pretty neat stuff with the bits. I fully support restructuring gifts-from-exes to make them feel like your own.
            I also have a more recent ex that gave me several things I still wear at least occasionally, but mostly they were things that either I picked out or things that he happened to have lying around and thought I could use, so there’s a lot less symbolism attached than the This Necklace Represents My Love For You gifts.

        3. Obviously this would be contingent on the size and shape of the stones and your own personal taste in jewelry, but I think it would especially nice to get them re-set into something other than a ring – a brooch, some earrings maybe?

          1. Zooey,

            I couldn’t reply within the thread but if you live near NYC, I have the most wonderful jewelry resetting contact for you. They do wholesale work and charge wholesale prices (they’re the people that Macy’s/Bloomingdale’s, etc. send out their repair stuff to).
            They reset a diamond I already had, surrounded it with 2 sapphires in a 14K setting for $200 total. When my sister lost one of her black pearl earrings, they recreated the a pair and turned the original into a pendant for like $50. I am not a fancy person but these people are lovely and suddenly you are an owner of fancy things!
            Happy to hook you up if you’re interested.

            PS–I am not related to them or anything like that.

          2. Palliser — I am not Zooey, but I am near NYC and have a bunch of broken/damaged jewelry I have been keeping in hopes of finding a place I can trust to repair it, so I would LOVE that information!

          3. I also can’t reply in the thread, but wanted to thank Palliser for the rec. Sadly I’m on the worng side of the Atlantic, but it looks like the suggestion was useful for people not-me, so it’s a win. 🙂

        4. With time, you might feel more comfortable wearing it. When my mother and her husband were divorced, she decided to keep the very fancy jewelry he purchased for her – wedding and engagement rings, earrings, and bracelet. I think she viewed it as like asshole tax for all the stuff she put up with during their marriage. She also had to pawn them a few times when they were married to pay his bills, so I think she feels like she’s earned them. She also loves the set which she originally picked out. She doesn’t wear them all the time, but usually saves it for when she’s going out somewhere fancy.

          1. Heh, asshole tax. It’s not impossible that I will come round to wearing it again – I did wear it for quite a few years after we split up because I liked it so much, and it’s only when someone else serious came along that it started to have an emotional weight. I can imagine that when the new relationship isn’t so new, it might retreat back into ‘nice bit of jewellery which happens to have been given to me by an ex’ territory.

          2. Hi Elizabeth,
            The contact is S&A Jewlery Repair. 212 966 4075. I believe they are at 78 Bowery but call to double check. Normally they are in during mid day weekdays only with weekend hours only during the holidays. Enjoy! They are such sweethearts and will take great care of you.

        5. I have my mum’s ex-that-she-didn’t-marry-engagement-ring! I haven’t ever actually worn it because it’s a very old-fashioned setting, but one day I’ll probably get the stone re-set.

          My mum tried to give it back to her ex when she broke up with him, and he insisted that they were going to get back together so she should keep it. (I think this lack-of-interest-in-her-point-of-view may have been part of the break-up.) As far as I know she never wore it again, but it always fascinated me as a child, this symbol of the life my mum could have had but didn’t. So you could always consider it a gift for a future child/niece/nephew/friend’s kid or whoever means a lot to you.

      2. Yeah, I’ve found that, with time and use, most things lose their weirdness. Not all things, though, and the ones that don’t eventually have to go for me to have peace of mind.

    4. Those can definitely get tricky – I know exactly what you mean.

      There are some things that exes have given me that I did ultimately end up keeping, especially when they were just gifts we exchanged at the holidays or something. However, there were also a lot of gifts that just had too much baggage for me to be comfortable wearing them, and eventually I gave them away. Most of the ‘too much baggage’ gifts were things I got in a similar situation that you’re describing – it wasn’t a habit I was all that keen on, either.

      That said, I think that this is all about your comfort level. If you’re okay with wearing them, you should feel free to do so – there’s nothing wrong with wearing a gift.

    5. I have a necklace my first boyfriend gave me for my birthday. For me, it’s tied up with so much – my first love, the loss of one of my best friends, and the enduring affection I feel for him, even if we’re no longer in contact. It took me a long long time to feel comfortable wearing it, but slowly I’ve come to think of it as both his and mine. I still think fondly of him when I wear it, but I’m happy to wear it whenever I want now. I’m very very glad I didn’t give it away, or get rid of it.

      1. That’s a really nice story! I think the sense that it may one day feel okay for me to wear it and think fondly of all the good bits is one of the things that’s made me hold off selling it or having it made into something else. The breakup was intensely painful at the time (as they are), but it wasn’t actually a case of anyone being horrible, so it’s not something that brings up bad memories. Just – wearing an ex engagement ring has particular freight, I guess.

    6. I misread this at first and thought about gifts from exes long after a breakup, which I’ve had a few of and I’m mostly fine with. Unless it’s something super extravagant or wrapped in expectations and entitlement, but I’ve never had one of those. I did once have an abusive ex give me a sex toy for my birthday, though. THAT was super inappropriate.

      Gifts from when you were together, I think of like any other part of the relationship. You can choose what to hang on to once it’s over, and which things you want to discard, but they’re your things now, and so is the choice.

    7. I always use gifts from exes. They are my things now, and I am going to appreciate the hell out of them, since I very rarely buy things like jewelry for myself.

    8. I always feel better about keeping and using gifts from exes if I can term them as being from “a rejected suitor.” (Some were rejected for initiating a break-up, but shhh, details.)

  5. Can I ask a sub-question about ex-roommate closure? I know it’s probably only bugging me because I’m moving really soon, and if I just leave without saying anything it’ll probably be off my mind soon enough. But right now I’m really bothered about it.

  6. Something that I always find helpful is flipping the situation around in my head. I can sort of see where the OP is coming from, but…

    If any of my exes – even the one I’m still friends with – sent me a short story, I’d feel very uncomfortable. Writing something for someone else is a really intimate thing, at least in my mind, and it’s not something I’d want to receive from someone who’s not either a very close friend or in a writing community with me. That’s doubly true of anyone I haven’t spoken to in awhile.

    Even if they promised to write me one.

    Promises and plans change when situations do, and that’s okay. People expect that, and they understand it. I doubt your ex even remembers the bet, and if he does, I’m sure he’s not holding you to something you promised several years ago when you were dating.

    If you want to write the story, by all means, do so, but I wouldn’t send it. I suspect that receiving it would feel a lot more uncomfortable than it would feel gratifying.

    1. Right. Someone I used to know and considered did me a HUGE favor years ago and I offered to make her a custom pair of knitted gloves. And then she dumped me flat out of her life a month later. As far as I can tell, someone she considers “family” now hates my guts and asked everyone in that group I was friends with to dump me (no, I don’t know why), so they did. Those people are nice to me if they see me alone but are frosty cold awful if they see me around and the girl who hates me is there with them.

      I didn’t bother to start the gloves. Promises are off when the relationship is, period. Your bet no longer matters.

  7. ok, so I live in a place with 3 other people, and this summer I got into a conflict with one of the other women who live there. (over cleaning and basic bullshit). It got to the point where she seemed to be losing her temper and so I told her that if it ever seemed like she didn’t want to live with me anymore, she could tell me and I’d make arrangements to move out. Then things went ok for the next couple of months

    Then, during a time when I was having some mental health issues, she came back from a vacation and (while drunk) sent me a text message in the middle of the night declaring that my negative attitude was getting to her and I needed to move out within the next month. I was asleep when she texted me, and the next morning she sat me down and had a totally reasonable talk with me asking me to move out within the next three months. At which point I looked at my phone, saw the text and was like “WTF.”

    She didn’t apologize, just said that she had been drunk and that was the reason for the “differences in tone” between her insulting text message and the nice, reasonable discussion the next morning. BTW both of our other roommates were on vacation at the time. I put out a lot of effort to calmly inform everyone that I would move out and never spilled any details of the way everything went down. Also I remained entirely cordial with her, just pleasant and superficial etc.

    Since then, she has said a lot of shit to me such as claiming that since I seemed happy to be looking for a new place, she’d obviously made a good decision to kick me out and it was all just going to my benefit. Um, trying to put a cheerful spin on things =/= being totally ok with being kicked out. Plus, I had started new medication, and I found it really insulting that she’d assume my state of mind had anything to do with her. She also tried to retroactively claim she’d been really concerned I was going to commit suicide and didn’t feel she could deal with the situation, and that’s why she wanted me to leave. Uh… not only did she never breathe a word of that to me, but she had been mad at me about things that were a legitimate conflict of personalities, and she specifically chose a situation in which there was nobody home to stand up for me. I couldn’t believe she was trying to recast kicking me out like that as a sign of her compassion and sensitivity. Plus, I put out a ton of effort to be open about my mental health struggles (which NEVER involved suicidal ideation) and I just found it really inappropriate and ignorant for her to claim she was worried I’d kill myself.

    So I guess my question is, is it even worth trying to say something to her? Particularly the ableism stuff? I don’t feel like it’s ok to tell a depressed person that “you bring everyone else around you down” in a text message, make all kinds of assumptions about how I might be about to end my own life, or figure that my state of mind has something to do with her and her b.s. when I am working really hard on treatment.

    I’m thinking of sending her an email asking her only to contact me with important info when we get our yearly utilities bill, and telling her I don’t want to be in contact personally. But I don’t know whether that would be too dramatic, and I should just leave on neutral terms and not stir up issues. Plus, I don’t know if it is worth trying to write her about the things that are bothering me, particularly because I know she has a friend who’s dealing with depression and it makes me cringe to imagine her complaining to anyone else about their “negative attitude” etc. in that situation.


    1. Move out and get yourself to a safe, stable situation. Remaining cordial was a way of you taking care of yourself until you could make it out.

      If you do say something, keep your expectations low that you will ever get an apology or any kind of closure. You will not likely resolve anything with this person, or get any kind of apology or answer that you want, so recognize that this is all about you getting stuff off your chest. That can have value of its own, but know that’s what it is going in. “I think you handled this whole thing in a way that was maximally hurtful, stressful, and able-ist. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted to get myself and my things out safely, but things are not okay between us, and I do not want you to contact me again for any reason.”

      Then block her on every possible communication method, and if they want money for utilities one of the other roommates can reach out and you can decide if you’ll pay it.

      I would suggest that you re-post this in the forums for further, more detailed discussion.

      1. I was in a similar situation recently and went into survival mode trying to get out of there. A little bit before I moved, my roommate who I had a better relationship with approached me and asked to talk about what had gone wrong. I was able to tell him some of the things I had been uncomfortable with in the house and how hard it had been for me to live with them. I didn’t get any apologies and he didn’t admit that they were inconsiderate roommates, but I was able to say what I needed to say and that felt good. As the Captain says, if you can let go of your expectations for the response and you still want to do it for yourself, then go for it. It can feel good just to stand up for yourself, especially in a situation where you felt like you had to swallow what you wanted to say so many times.

    2. Man, I’m actually in a similar situation, though it hasn’t gone as far as yours. I live with two others – one is buying the house from her father, the other is a flatter like me. He and I don’t get on that well, but in the way where you don’t notice because we just avoid each other. I have serious mental health problems involving depression and social phobia. I find it very difficult to even leave my room when he’s home because he stomps around and swears to himself and just sounds angry to me. A couple of weeks ago he accused me of doing “nothing” around the house but couldn’t really quantify exactly what I should be doing except for not leaving dishes around (occasionally I left clean ones on the bench to dry – now I wash and put away dishes the instant I’m done with them) and keeping windows and doors open when I’m home to let air through, then mutterings in the kitchen that I overheard about occasionally leaving a few dustings of flour on the bench after baking. He said if things didn’t improve he’d move out and hey, suddenly I’m eating a lot less because I’m hiding in my room and rarely baking! I still do plenty around the house, but I do it in the mornings when he’s working, so I have no idea if he even realises I’m doing it. Needless to say, very stressful, and I’m working on getting together all the information I need to apply for a higher paying benefit for people with disabilities (currently getting student allowance which is bullshit) so I can move out and live on my own. IF they grant me it, that is.

      Flatmate stresses are some of the worst, honestly. You have to live with them, there’s not many places you can go to escape them. You still have responsibilities around the house that you can’t avoid and other people who you don’t want to drag into your conflicts, especially if you feel like you’re the one being picked on unfairly (though I definitely wouldn’t if I just took a disliking to someone, either).

      How much contact do you really need to have with her, if you’re moving out? Writing her an email in your defense is always a bit iffy. Will she respond reasonably? Will it cause drama? Sometimes you can make an educated guess on that, sometimes you can’t. If she mentions to you that you seem fine with moving out, or in a public forum like Facebook where you can reply easily, I might be tempted to just leave a gently contradictory comment like “Just because I’m getting on with it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, I just didn’t want to cause a fuss because I’d previously told you that I would move if you wanted”, but I probably wouldn’t go to the lengths of contacting HER in order to say that sort of thing. I don’t think it would be that productive.

      1. He said if things didn’t improve he’d move out

        A sassier person than me would ask, “Do you PROMISE?” and then go on a bakeathon.

        Good luck on getting better benefits!

  8. Independently of the Captain’s explanation that you (the LW) don’t owe the dude that story anymore, I want to suggest that even if you did owe it, it’s a debt you should not pay.

    If he had lent you $1000, it would be a debt that (barring some unusual circumstances) you should pay back; no normal post-relationship distancing would undo that obligation.
    But if he had lent you $4 that one time that you were a little short to buy a DVD – or if you owed him $4 over a lost bet – then your obligation to pay it back could easily be trumped by the kind of relationship you have with him today. If you’ve drifted apart over years and then he’s taken clear extra steps to distance himself further, then going after him to give him his $4 back would not be a cool gesture. That guy would not be wanting or expecting his $4 back after defriending you (or if he would, that would be his poor understanding of how human relationships work).

    I’m not trying to liken the _value_ of your story to any amount of money. I’m talking about the probable impact, on your well-being and your ex’s, of you renewing communication in order to pay that debt back. First you would be investing yourself into a very personally-involving piece of work specifically written for him (writing a story for someone is not the same as getting them groceries); then you would be coming back into the life of someone, who might be having all kinds of feelings about you and actively trying to forget you, with “hey, here’s this personal and original piece of work just for you, that I’ve obviously spent a fair bit of thought and labour on; because I owed it to you; but hey, I’m not trying to intrude on your life, feel free to not write back”.

    Some people in some different hypothetical situations should give their exes those stories; in your situation, as much as can be seen from the letter, it’s definitely not the case. This stands regardless of whether you “actually” still “owe” him the story.

    I understand your desire to have the break-up behind you perfectly clean, but in the end that’s a chase after the chimaera Closure. We all eventually accumulate some small imbalances in our life ledgers, little things that will never be zeroed out, and that’s okay. The guy is not being hurt by not having your story, and you’re not especially enjoying your agonizing over whether you should pay that little debt. It’s been three years. It’s okay to forget about it.

  9. This may not be where the LW was coming from, but I have really strong feelings about promises. As in: they must not be broken. I feel really guilty about breaking them, even if it’s accidentally, even if it’s a really small thing, even if the other person doesn’t give any indication that they care at all. It’s just that it’s **A Promise** and that’s a sacred thing in my head. If that’s the case, and guilt about breaking a promise is what’s causing the difficulty here, then write the story and stick a copy of it in a folder in your computer or an envelope and file it away. Tell yourself, “I did what I promised, if he ever asks for the story, there it is.” He’s not going to ask, and you could even do something else with the story, but fulfilling the letter of the obligation (and respecting his boundaries by not contacting him) is something that would be comforting to me. YMMV, of course.

    1. I have the same feelings thing about promises, I don’t break them and I think your solution is good.

  10. Writing is my hobby, and a much needed outlet from my nine-to-five job. I’ve written from story prompts, and for competitions. I’ve even provided my writing services for a charity auction – but in all honesty the only writing that I actually enjoy is that which comes from my own ideas ie from within.

    If you write because of a bet, and you write for someone other than yourself, then you probably won’t feel ownership of the story in the same way as you would if it was your own idea. And maybe that’s why it’s taken you so long to do anything about it. Your muse is maybe loath to perform on demand.

    Leave it be, or write it to get it out of your system, but if you do write the story don’t send it to him. He doesn’t want to hear from you. Best wishes in whatever you decide to do.

    1. Yes!!! I feel the same way. I write nonfiction stuff for a living, it is my job. My fiction is done on my time, for me. I have learned the hard way that when people ask me to write stories/books/screenplays for them, I end up feeling terribly blocked and guilty, and am never able to finish. I’ve realized, over the years, that I just don’t have any creative juice left for anything beyond my own ideas, once I’m off the clock.

      For me, the pure guilt of Having To Write A Story Because I Promised to an ex who no longer wants to be in contact would come with such a rotating baggage claim of guilt/shame/badfeelings, there’s no way I’d ever get that story done. Let it go, LW. Write that story for yourself.

  11. Is it me or this letter the flip side of the previous letter to a degree?

    The previous LW was receiving emails from her estranged Aunt, and felt hurt because if her Aunt wouldn’t contact her properly the LW wanted the aunt to *stop sending me communications I am not allowed to reciprocate*
    Today’s LW is the Aunt, in a way?

    The previous letter is al about how sending someone an emotionally charged message and then asking them not to write back, and how triggering and hurtful that spontaneous, out of the blue message can be.

  12. The Captain has a great general take on dealing with things received during a relationship, but I think beyond that, literary culture already has a protocol for this! It tends towards, “Write it.” (Much of literary culture does.)

    I don’t think that if you’ve promised to write someone a story, that necessarily means, “I promise to write you a story, deliver you the original draft, and never do anything else with it.” It doesn’t become “their” story in a way that means they get the whole say about what happens to it.

    A lot of stories are written for or dedicated to different people. It’s why dedication pages are a thing–you can say that this story would not have existed without X person, or was written largely for the enjoyment of Y person. And sometimes these dedications are much more symbolic or ephemeral than literally handing someone a manuscript and saying, “Here you go.”

    Write the story to discharge the debt, but keep it as yours. Do what you want with it. Maybe in some fabulous far-off day if this person ever comes back and says, “Hey, where’s that story you owe me?” you can say, “Here, let me fetch you a copy of the award-winning magazine that bought it from me!” And if it really matters to you, then maybe under your byline it can say something like: For $Person, since he won a bet and I promised I would, to discharge a debt.

  13. I just wanted to say thank you so much for posting this, Captain! I’m in the middle of the aftermath of a break up (as in, literally less than two weeks ago my ex moved out). I’ve spent the last week being indecisive about emailing him to deal with bills & furniture as I thought maybe it was too soon, and then composing these long apologetic missives with a bit of practical stuff since clearly, I needed to email him anyway, right?

    Thanks to your website and advice, (especially for today’s dot points about what you actually owe an ex) I held back from turning it into a feelings!email and just got the important stuff sent. So, thank you for teaching me how to be a more considerate human being.

    Letter writer, good luck with whatever you decide to do.

    1. Ugh, that sucks. The logistical stuff *has to be* dealt with and it can be pretty fucking hard to keep the emotional stuff out of it. My ex and I went through that this summer after 8 years, 6 of them living together.

      Deep breaths! You’ll get through it.

  14. My favorite perfume (in the history of ever, I love this stuff so of course it was super limited edition and my one precious 5mL bottle must last my entire life) was a gift from an ex, and I wore it when I was meeting the current beau in person for the first time. I only realized it partway through, and mentioned it, but thought it was kind of funny. It was probably the best, most thoughtful gift the ex got me, though it was gotten sight unseen (smell unsniffed, I guess?) and was completely random that it worked out to be so perfect for me, which is an interesting thing to say about that relationship. Anyway, I thought it might be weird because scent is so visceral, but it turns out I never really associated the scent of the perfume with him on an emotional level, just an intellectual one, so it ends up not feeling weird at all and just seeming sort of inevitable that I’d end up with a bottle of this stuff somehow.

  15. Give it away. Or keep it and give it away later. My young daughter received a lovely pendant from a happily married friend that had received it from an old boyfriend.

    1. I once received a set of two distinctive bracelets from a family friend, who’d been given them by an admirer.

      Unfortunately, I bumped into said admirer while I was wearing them a while later. I saw the moment he saw them, and I’m still dying of embarrassment a little bit now even though that was almost a decade ago.

      1. Sorry if this is an intrusive questions, but why was that embarrassing for you? To me, the relationship between the family friend and the admirer doesn’t implicate you – or did you feel that it did?

        1. Because he was visibly embarrassed, and it was contagious, and neither of us knew what to say to make it stop. It was just awkward.

  16. I have an issue like that. For me, it’s: I should give G his books back.

    Went on a date with a guy, slept with him, and he lended me a few books that he had recommended to me. I read & enjoyed them, but before they were finished we had broken up (after never really being together in the first place, it was just a few dates). I kept looking at those books, seeing how well-read they are, realising that those are two of the very few books he brought from his home country when he moved here, and feeling guilty about not having given him his books back.

    More than a year later I run into him, we politely ask how the other person is doing and then I blurt out I still need to give him his books back. He says he’ll talk to me online. It never happens. I belatedly realise he might think that the books are just an excuse to see him again. I decide that I really tried and now will just let it rest. Another 6 months later I leave the country. Another few months later I learn that he also left the country, months before me. I still have the books.

    Moral of the story: don’t lend someone books if you’re not very sure you’ll continue to know this person.

    And also: if the ex was very invested in the story, he would have asked for it, or at least asked how it was progressing. (If G had really wanted his books back, he had only needed to ask.)

    1. *sympathy* I had some books that I carried around with me for a decade. They belonged to my lover’s wife (poly, not cheating) who had loaned them to me when we were all on happy good terms; as things got increasingly awkward, I had trouble finding an opportunity (read: procrastinated and avoided making the time) to return them, and then I broke up with him, and then moved across country rather abruptly. And then he died. And then I found them in one of the last boxes I unpacked from the move, a year or so later. I knew she had ZERO interest in hearing from me for any reason whatsoever, but I felt terrible about having her books (there was some emotionally charged history in her acquiring them, as well) and so I just… put them on a shelf by themselves and thought for a long time.

      Eventually, I donated them to a small special library in a community where she is a name of some reknown; I know they’ll be loved and used, and there is a not-insignificant possibility that, someday, someone who is not me will recognize her name on the inside cover, give her a call, and say, “hey, these turned up, would you like them back?”

      Books can be SO emotionally charged, at least as much so as jewelry in some circles.

  17. Dear LW,
    If it makes you feel oogy that you haven’t kept your promise, then sit down and write the story. That would let you tick it off your mental to-do list and might bring you some peace of mind about it. However, I would suggest that you don’t send it to him.

    Still, if you feel a need to “give” him that story and if it is ever published, you could think about dedicating it to him. That might let you feel that you had given him “his” story without having to force the boundary he set when he de-friended you.

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