I’ve got a nice, awkward, many-years-running situation for you!
So when I was in my early 20s, I dated someone I shouldn’t have dated, whom I’ll call Dean. I dated him for five years. At the time, I was so isolated where I lived that it became a kind of “well, it’s better than not dating anyone” thing, until it became a love thing, and then an inertia thing. He wasn’t right for me in so many ways, but he wasn’t exactly bad to me either…and I was 23 and had very little relationship experience. Partway through the relationship I relocated to a major city for grad school, and took the opportunity to break up with him. However, after a few months and some insistance from him that surprised me (because he’d always been so passive), he moved to be with me again. We lived together until I got interested in polyamory, met what would become my community (and next partner), and then broke up in slow motion over an agonizing year, during which I dated my new person openly, Dean planned to move out of state, and we had maintenance sex that I tolerated because if I didn’t, he would make me miserable.
Context: this person was a functioning alcoholic, a burnout artist type, and most of the time treated me very well (still the most thoughtful gift-giver I’ve ever met), but see above re: the manipulative sex, and manipulative behavior in general that usually amounted to refusing to take a strong stance on anything, but guilting me if I did. Even now, close to 20 years later, it’s hard to explain exactly how that relationship (mal)functioned, and even when I’d been through a year of living with him while wanting nothing more than to be officially broken up, I was still sad when he left, and he still wanted to stay friends.
For a while we weren’t in touch, but over the years he started sending me cards and pictures again, letting me know how his life was going, and so on. More recently, he’s also been texting me, and a couple months back we had a long telephone conversation that reminded me of all the ways he used to keep reeling me back in (it was a way longer phone conversation than I wanted to have). His texts often have the flavor of his self-styling as a “comedian,” which means that at times they say offensive things that he “doesn’t mean” as directed to me, but is testing the waters as to whether they’re generally funny. (They’re not.) He and I used to be massive fans of Bill Hicks and other edgy comics; these days I look back at that material and find a lot of it horrifyingly offensive. So the texts go back and forth between expressions of “gee life sucks, but you were a great part of it so I keep in touch with you,” and weird backhanded comments I don’t know how to respond to.
In short, Dean and I are just as poorly matched now as we ever were, but I get the strong sense that he was closer to me than he had been to almost anyone, and that even now, I’m one of the few people he genuinely cares about. On top of that, he apparently has early stage Alzheimer’s, which is just…terrible. I can’t help but feel, however, that the diagnosis is yet another way for him to make me feel bad for him so he can keep me around. Which makes me feel like a jerk.
When I spoke to him last, I told him my dad had died, and he expressed genuine regret; they’d been close, possibly because my dad was a similar kind of fuckup. He expressed the desire to come to his memorial when I had it, and in the same breath said he’d understand if I didn’t want him there, which I appreciated.
But the whole thing is just so sad at this point. I feel like encouraging him by inviting him to the memorial, seeing him again, etc., could make him start contacting me more regularly and sucking my time and energy in a way I’ve found really unpleasant in the past. On the other hand, am I a jerk? I just keep finding myself ignoring his texts after a while, and then finally answering them because I feel bad, then starting the cycle over again. We’re both in our 40s, repartnered, living hundreds of miles apart; though his occasional contact obviously frazzles me, it feels like it’d be cruel to just be like, “Don’t talk to me anymore.” They say that the older you get, the more you need people who knew you when you were young, but I have to admit that that me isn’t someone I love being reminded of, and that person isn’t someone I felt knew or understood me well at all.
Recovering Passive-Aggressive Bullshit Taker
Dear Recovering Bullshit-Taker,
Good news! This is an opportunity for you to recover one step more.
You told me in your letter what the answer is with your own words:
- “sucking my time and energy”
- “manipulative behavior“
- “guilting me“
- “really unpleasant”
- “I just keep finding myself ignoring his texts after a while, and then finally answering them because I feel bad”
- “we had a long telephone conversation that reminded me of all the ways he used to keep reeling me back in”
- “just as poorly matched now”
- “it was a way longer phone conversation than I wanted to have”
- (his texts) say offensive things that he “doesn’t mean”
- “weird backhanded comments I don’t know how to respond to.”
- “maintenance sex that I tolerated because if I didn’t, he would make me miserable“
- “his occasional contact obviously frazzles me“
- “I feel bad“
- “I feel like a jerk” “Which makes me feel like a jerk” “Am I a jerk?”
This isn’t the story of old friends happily reconnecting in middle age, this is the story of the annoying guy who drained the life out of you resurfacing to…still kinda drain the life out of you. The guy who once guilted you into having sex you didn’t want is now guilting you into having texts you don’t want. He’s really, really good at this whole worming his way into your life and tripping all of your guilt sensors thing, so, forgive yourself for being at least a little curious and hoping that things would be better this time around. Forgive yourself for wanting to wring some kind of comfortable resolution out of a relationship that really, really didn’t work. Forgive yourself…and then take action to make your life better.
You are allowed to say goodbye to people. You are allowed to move on from that relationship and that time in your life. You are allowed to choose to be friends with people who make you feel good and who don’t leave you guilty and annoyed all the time. It’s sad that this Dean dude has Alzheimer’s, but assholes we don’t like or talk to or think about for years get sick all the time without it becoming our sworn duty to let them try out their shitty “comedy” on us.
You don’t seem like a “New phone, who dis?” kind of person (music video from”You’re The Worst” w/explicit lyrics at the link), so, try this:
1) Plan your Dad’s memorial without inviting Dean or telling him anything about it. That is an event for you, for your family and/or for people who loved your Dad, for people who are important in your life now. Dean’s offer was most likely heartfelt but it would have never, ever occurred to you to invite him to this thing had he not suggested it. Do not make an opportunity for him to be close to you when you’re grieving and vulnerable, (Unless you want 10 more years of texts you don’t enjoy that you guilt yourself into because “well, but he came all the way to my dad’s memorial service that time.”)
2) Block Dean on every conceivable form of social media where he might be able to monitor or access information about you (except your cell phone)(yet!).
3) Send one last text along the lines of: “Dean, it’s been interesting to catch up with you but I’m realizing that time in my life is not one I want to revisit now. I’m going to wish you well and then end our conversations. Goodbye!”
4) Block his number in your phone as soon as you send the text. If he texts you again they will be sent into the void.
6) If somehow he does get through from another number or through another medium of communication, never, ever, ever answer it. Let him have his own little heart-funeral for whatever it was you once shared.
7) Accept your totally official, in no way janky diploma that I just made on the internet.
Forgot to say:
For those of you struggling with your own “Dean” (or “Mike“)(or “Victor“)(or “I have cancer. NOW will you date me?” guy)(or “good you’re home let me tell you about MY day” guy)(ET FUCKING CETERA), here’s a calculation:
You are a good person and you don’t like hurting other people’s feelings if you can possibly help it. But…is this person doing even a tenth of the emotional labor you are doing in your interactions?
Are they showing even 1% of the consideration for your feelings/your space/your needs that you are tying yourself in knots to show for them?
Ok, say they were pulling their emotional labor load and trying really hard to be considerate of your feelings.
Do you like them? Do you look forward to your interactions with them? Do you feel energized and happy after you talk with them?
Pity is not enough for friendship.Wanting to be “nice” is not enough for friendship. Habit is not enough for friendship. Guilt is not enough reason for friendship. “I don’t think this person has many other/any other friends” is not enough reason for friendship if you don’t actually like them. I’ve always loved Kahlil Gibran’s words On Friendship, these in particular:
“And let your best be for your friend…
…For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.”
My loves, don’t pour your beautiful selves into other people’s empty spaces. There is nothing there for you.