#1307: “Persistently apologetic ex thinks he’s Miles Vorkosigan.”

Dear Captain,

This is a fairly low-stakes question, but I’m looking for strategies or scripts for a persistently apologetic ex.

I’m an ace/bi/“legion” woman in my early thirties (she/her).  My first relationship was four years ago, with “Miles” (he/him); we met through a shared weekly hobby that we both volunteer for.  Miles is the sort of academic who can analyze a text about emotional labor without, apparently, internalizing anything.  He often says things that range from clumsy (he was worried that I wasn’t academic enough—the masters I was working on was only a professional program) to hurtful (he never said that he loved me, for reasons that boiled down to me being ace).  He never really gets what he said wrong (he was just being honest!).  He didn’t do any lasting damage to me, but I don’t feel particularly patient with him these days (I’m also helping with a family health issue and trying to teach kindergarten in the middle of a pandemic, so my patience and bandwidth are currently limited).

Miles has ongoing issues with breakups and didn’t handle ours well.  I did a lot of work on boundaries and clear communication, including enforcing a period of no interaction.  Every time I gave him an inch he took a mile, but finally about a year ago we finally got to some kind of normal friendliness that meant we could work together on a new project (I am NOT willing to give up my work on something I’m passionate about).  It’s still unbalanced–he initiates all of our social contact–but I’m pretty sure he’s no longer convinced that we’re going to get back together.

My issue is the apologies.  The latest was tucked into a Christmas card, but he’s sent at least five or six over the past three years.  They’re all pretty similar: he uses the word “I” approximately 700 times more than the word “you,” realizes that he didn’t behave well during our relationship/breakup and regrets it, and muses on his own unresolved questions.  They each include a disclaimer about how this is his issue, not mine, and that I don’t need to forgive or absolve him—and yet they keep coming.

The apologies are sincere, and it’s very hard for me not to respond sympathetically to that—I too have over-apologized in an effort to get people to like me again!  But I’m over it.  I want to acknowledge that I got the latest note, but any response will just lead to him replying in more depth.  I need to have some sort of working relationship with him, and he badly wants to be friends.  How do I stay friendly and kind while also stopping the endless feelings!letters?  I’ve seen some of your posts about being on the other side of this issue, but I’m not sure what to do from here.


Not Ekaterin

PS: Obviously he’s not Miles either, but I’m positive that’s part of his inspiration.

Hello, Not Ekaterin,

For those who haven’t read Bujold’s space opera books, there is a scene in one of them where our protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, delivers a Very Good apology to someone he loves and has wronged.

What’s good about it: He keeps it brief, he takes full responsibility for how he messed up and the harm he caused, he’s fixed the damage to the extent he can, he stops doing any more damage immediately, and he releases the recipient completely from any obligations to him, including the one of responding. He does not ask for forgiveness or reassurance of any kind. He throws the flowery, self-justifying drafts in the trash can where they belong.

What’s even better about it: Afterward, he fucks off entirely and leaves her alone.

They do (spoiler!) rebuild a relationship afterward, but the ball is entirely in her court. He has zero expectations. 

What your ex is doing: Less apology, more literary wank exercise into your time and attention, a mix of self-insert fanfic, nonconsensual emotional support, and pure cringe. 

Letter Writer, I think you should hold on tight to your hobby — If someone’s going to take a sabbatical around this, it should be him. 

Since your ex likes epistolary communication so much, you could send the note back, with two sticky notes attached.
Sticky Note #1: 
“I think you have mistaken me for your personal journal, where this – and all future sentiments like it – belong.” 
Sticky Note #2: 
“Kindly go ahead and stick the ‘Sorry I keep sending you annoying apologies you do not want about shit that happened four years ago’ reply you are presently composing directly in your diary, too. Conversations about such ancient history really are between you and you, at this point, and the friendliest gift you can possibly give me is permanent freedom from reliving them.”
If he feels embarrassed, and bad, and awkward, OKAY. Shame is not as motivating as people think, but some embarrassment is useful on the journey to not making the same mistakes twice, the feedback loop of “whenever I do the bad thing she doesn’t like, she doesn’t like me as much, and I feel bad” is useful. Reassurances from you at this time only interfere with that important growth process. 
Then, going forward, if you do stay in touch, keep it to hobby chat, and (this is important!) disengage from that the second it becomes weird or not fun for you. Bail, explicitly and decisively, from any and all interactions where you feel like you are being coerced, again, into taking care of his feelings about you, again. In these moments it is okay to interrupt him and say, “I do not want to talk about this. Let’s regroup another time when we can stay focused on [hobby]!” and then leave the conversation. 
Toss future missives, if any, where they belong (the trash/recycling pile), unread if you can manage it, and never respond to them, even to ask him to stop. If he tries some “did u get my note” hovering during real-time interactions, you can say, with total honesty, “Oh, did you send more of those embarrassing ‘apologies’ I specifically asked you not to? Weird. So, anyway, what were we talking about? Yes, HOBBY STUFF, great.” This is called making it very boring to keep testing you on this topic. 
You *are* trying to be a good friend and hobby-collaborator. You have given him MANY reassurances and chances to stop embarrassing himself and making it weird for you. It’s been years, plural since you were even close to being a couple. He has choices, plural before him, and one of those is taking you at your word and knocking it off. If persistent shame and intrusive thoughts about a past relationship are impinging on his present quality of life, that’s a very good problem to take to counseling, but it should in no way be your problem.
I hope for everyone’s sake, he chooses wisely! But if you have to default back to ‘no contact’ to truly get this to stop (“If you can’t stop bringing this up, we will have to stop doing Hobby together, by which I mean, I expect you to take a hiatus, stop contacting me entirely, and let me actually enjoy myself”), please know that it’s in no way a failure of your empathy or friendship.   
P.S. Miles is exhausting. I loved him on the page, but, in real life, without the giant pile of money and personal space army and personal charisma, without the actually getting-shit-done and learning-from-mistakes qualities, without CORDELIA? Even on the page everybody who loves him is constantly exasperated, in mortal danger, completely exhausted, or all three of those. Charisma shouldn’t be your dump stat, but stacking it so out of balance with the rest is a recipe for disaster, especially if (like your ex) you always fail your rolls because you’ve nothing to back it up with. Miles is like one of those old screwball comedies, pure Bringing Up Baby chaos, it only hangs together if you keep moving so fast that you don’t notice the bad decisions piling up, and it (thankfully) has end-credits so you can come down from the “WTF?” haze. It’s no way to actually live! Even Miles’s loving eventual wife in the books is often like, “I miss you terribly when you go off planet for long periods, but I can’t deny that I get an awful lot of work done.” 
NO. AND. THANK. YOU. If you’re looking for romantic role models, consider Ivan, the sturdy, loyal himbo, smarter than he looks. Consider Bel Thorne, diplomatic, brilliant, and hot like fire. Consider Cordelia, intimidating science-and-space-girlfriend of my dreams; she can bring me the severed heads of tyrants anytime.