Sometimes your brain just wants to be obsessed with somebody for a while.
My now ex (he/him), and I (she/her) broke up at the end of May. It was pretty much mutual. He asked if we could stop being exclusive for a while (we were long distance). I was already having other problems with the relationship, so I hit the self-destruct button and told him we should just break up.
I was still heartbroken after the whole thing, but it’s been a couple months, and I’m doing okay? I told him I wanted to go no contact until September, and we’ve both stuck to that. I have deactivated pretty much all of my social media to stop myself from staring at his stuff. We left the door open to be friends down the line (hence the specific time period for no contact). However, I’ve realized in the last couple months that he isn’t really a person I want in my life. I did A LOT of the work to keep our relationship going (doing most of the visits, practically begging at times just to get a short phone call, etc.). He was also really thoughtless, and not super great with boundaries, which usually ended up with me getting hurt. I don’t hate him or anything, but honestly? I would be fine never hearing from/ speaking to him again.
However, we both belong to a really tight knit community that is spread around the region. This community is made up of smaller groups that have gatherings a few times a year. While there will be no gatherings for a while because *gestures vaguely at the state of the world*, I’m assuming that there will be a large get-together next May.
These gatherings aren’t big enough that I can just avoid him. We have mutual friends. I’m worried that if I don’t reach out at some point, it’ll make things awkward when we do see each other again. It doesn’t seem like a huge issue, but my brain is turning it into a BIG DEAL, and I’m worried it’s only going to get worse as the event slowly creeps closer.
Is there some way I can not fixate so much on this? Should I reach out before hand? How should I act at this event? I’m not really interested in friendship with him, but I don’t want to straight up ignore him the whole time.
Can we just pretend it didn’t happen?
Dear Can We Pretend,
Exes do not disintegrate and pass from this plane of existence once we break up with them and I understand why your brain is picking at this particular anxiety sore spot, but what if I told you:
- I copied your email subject line verbatim as the post title, but you don’t *have to* see your ex next year. If it’s still troubling you as much then, you could decide to skip the whole thing, you could make an agreement with him to trade off every other gathering, you could do other things to see friends in that social group.
- You don’t have to ever be friends. Bumping into him at social stuff and remaining polite doesn’t mean you’re automatically friends again. “Oh, yeah, we broke up, and while I want to stay friendly for the sake of group stuff, I wouldn’t call us friends.”
- If you both do go, it will be weird when you see him whether or not you do anything to prepare or mitigate it. That’s just how feelings work, you can’t decide what they’ll be in advance and you can’t control what shape they’ll show up in.
- My prediction for the exact flavor of weirdness is “anticlimax” crossed with “surprising pleasant acknowledgement of your own growth,” something like, “Wait, what? I was IN LOVE with THAT GUY? I was worried about what HE thought about ME?”
- I may be wrong about the flavor, but I still predict that the weirdness will be both less and different than anything you could possibly imagine now, simply because when more time has gone by, he is going to be so much less important in your life than he is right now.
- On the day itself, if you run into him and say “Oh hey, nice to see you” and make the smallest of small talk for 30 seconds as you walk by on your way to hang with other people, you can cross “Did not act like a complete asshole to my ex in front of everyone we both know” off your 2021 to-do list. Ice broken!
- When in doubt, don’t aim for “cool,” or for evoking some kind of emotional response for him, aim for neutral & polite. Think of it as giving everybody a second chance to meet and form a pleasant, peripheral acquaintance. Would you say whatever it is to the nice stranger handing out drink tickets and skee-ball tokens at the info desk? No? Then probably don’t say it to your ex. As long as he is polite, respond in kind. That’s all you have to do.
- If you see him at the thing and he does act like an asshole, may I suggest saying “Nope!” and turn your attention back to whatever you were doing. You can start polite but you don’t have to pretend.
- There is a maneuver where, if someone holds out their arms to try to hug you and you don’t want to hug them but you don’t have time to say anything, you can take one of their hands in a handshake and lock your elbow to keep them at a distance. If they keep advancing for the hug, keep holding their hand as you sidestep or duck under the arm you’re holding onto like it’s a dance move, and then keep moving past them. I figured this out once from sheer ‘NO HUG’ instinct but practicing with a friend makes perfect!
- Even if you could somehow anticipate and prepare for the exact weirdness formula, you don’t have to do any work about this. You really, really don’t. Do you think he’s going to do any work about this, even though he is equally free to text you before the thing and say, “Hey, can we get the weirdness out of the way?” and try to take care of your feelings and make stuff easier on you? He isn’t.
- The beauty of breaking up is that you don’t have to work on or fix anything about the relationship anymore. You were together for a while, it ended, you still have feelings about that, it’s okay, but there’s nothing else to work out. You get to be done worrying about what he thinks, how he feels, how to be around him.
- Speaking of work, he sounds kinda passive, if not downright lazy, an incompatible-with-you quality in a partner but an attractive quality in an ex you don’t actually want to spend any more time with. If he’d spent your whole relationship being super-Intenso guy DETERMINED to DEMONSTRATE his UNDYING LOVE, I’d have different advice, but this is a man who is historically cool with letting you make all the effort, so he sounds unlikely to chase you around the event venue or try to force a confrontation or serious talk. I think this frees you to be a basic amount of polite and breezy and watch as he gratefully follows the path of least resistance.
- If you really need plan ahead, put “schedule time to worry about Ex” on your to-do list today, open your calendar to April 30, 2021 and write “Possibly text Ex to see if he’s actually going to [Thing]?” on it, and then cross “schedule time…” off your to-do list. You can make a decision then about whether it’s more or less awkward to text him before the thing or wait ’til you get there for your 30 seconds of awkwardness, maybe this will trick your brain into thinking it’s handled.
- You’ll have lots of friends there who can be nice buffer-friends, so whatever happens, you won’t have to go it alone. “It’s my first time seeing my ex, and while I’m pretty sure it will go fine, can you stick close to me the first day so I don’t have to be alone with him? I want to get through the ‘Oh hey’ part of things as quickly as possible.”
- Thirty seconds of weird. Most likely you’ve gotta get through 30 seconds of weird. After that you’ll know if he’s a “comforting old friend” kind of ex, like that hideous puff paint panda sweatshirt you forgot you owned, a “bullet-dodged” sort of ex, or just another face in the crowd.
- You can’t avoid, plan, or stress your way out of that thirty seconds. If he’s there and you’re there, you’re getting that one awkward “Uh…hi!” moment. You will survive it.
- How much of the next year of your life do you want to invest in that thirty seconds of potential weirdness? Thirty seconds that, depending on pandemic stuff, might not even happen? Rewrite your initial question as “I am not over my ex and my brain thought would be fun to have an extinction burst of excuses to obsess about him.” No shame! Brains make jerk moves sometimes! You are doing all the right stuff to take care of yourself, so please continue with your VERY healthy boundary-setting and being-nice-to-yourself strategy. This will pass.
- Imagine an electric fence around your brain, and thoughts of your ex as intruding locusts. “Oh, look, another intrusive thought about my ex.” ZZZZZZAAAAAPPPPPPPPP.
- Imagine thoughts of your ex as Space Invaders and imagine you on the ground all “pew pew pew” as you disintegrate them one by pixelated one.
- Imagine the thoughts of your ex as wispy little cirrus clouds evaporating away when the sun comes out.
- As you scoop the cat box, imagine each “clump” is a thought about your ex, ready to be double-bagged and coming soon to a dumpster near you.
- This WILL pass. You will not feel this worried or this obsessed forever.
❤ and awkwardness.
Readers, comments are open for one specific purpose:
If you have a brief, extremely anticlimactic, un-dramatic, “I was worried about what it would be like but it all went perfectly fine, considering” story about running into an ex for the first time after a breakup, perhaps the Letter Writer would like to read some of those?