#1320: “How to be fair to a co-habiting ex who dumped me, but is acting all sad that I’m moving out?”

Ahoy, Captain!

I ( 26, they/them) was recently broken up with by my partner (27, she/her) of four, almost five, years. We had been co-habitating for most of our relationship and last year, moved together to a new city for her job. We’d been planning a wedding for January 2021 which was (luckily?) cancelled due to COVID.

Here’s how the break-up went: Saturday night we had a date where we talked very happily about our future together, started replanning a new wedding, and agreed on a timeline for having kids. Sunday morning, she told me she wasn’t attracted to me and hadn’t been for years. I was blindsided and absolutely devastated.

I couldn’t afford to move out immediately, so we had to become awkward roommates for a few months until I’d saved up enough for a studio. During this time, things were honestly as good as they could be for recently-dumped-but-still-have-to-live together. We were friendly, we set good boundaries, we made sure to make time and space for one another to process our feelings with our respective support systems.

It still hurts, and I think I’m going to be hurting for a very long time. But I was really determined not to try to make her caretake for me, because I knew she felt terrible about how she handled things. I also wanted to try to make as clean a break as possible and avoid further emotional entanglements with a very recent ex.

Two months later, I got lucky: an old college friend had a space open up in their house. I’m moving in with them in two weeks, and I’m starting to get a little excited about being truly on my own for the first time in my adult life (I basically went from my parents to dorm rooms to living with her).

Now that I’ve started packing, she’s starting to get very sad and forlorn. She has no poker face, and is heaving heavy sighs and generally moping around. And I’m starting to get really mad at her. I know it’s not her fault, relationships just sometimes end, but it’s really hard for me to see her acting so heartbroken when she’s the one who dumped me and kicked me out!

I don’t want to be mad at her, and I don’t want these next couple weeks to be absolutely miserable for both of us. It seems like now that it’s real, I’m moving out, and things are definitely changing, she’s getting wistful. I just want to move on, but I’m worried that I’m going to totally blow up at her. I feel like I’ve worked so hard to keep things professional, for lack of a better term, and now she’s violating our implicit agreement not to dump break-up feelings onto one another. How can I keep setting boundaries and being kind when I honestly have no patience right now?



The good news is that this will be over in about two weeks. The hardest part – accepting the fact of the breakup, making decisions to take care of yourself, such as finding a new housing situation – is done. You are handling this so, so, so well. 

Make Space (For Feelings)

The “sad, weird, big feelings” part of breaking up is still in process, and those feelings are going to continue to show up according to no predictable or reasonable schedule. This applies equally to your hurt, shock, and grief about big changes in your life that you didn’t sign up for, and to your ex learning that making the right decision for her can still involve grieving for an important, formative relationship and what might have been. (As in, there’s “acting” sad, but there’s also just plain old feeling sad.)

The question of “how to be fair” was your framing, but feelings aren’t fair. It would be so much cooler and easier if your ex would put on a brave face like you did, but we don’t actually earn credit for secret favors or holding up our end of bargains that people didn’t know they were making. This lesson about human behavior is just as irritating every single time I’m forced to learn and re-learn it in my adult life, including the time almost a decade ago when I was the person who was broken up with and the one who had to move unexpectedly. That mental whirligig of “He dumped me, remember, so why does he want to hug me and cry all the time, ugh, you don’t see me crying on his shoulder. Whyyyyyyyyy did I get rid of my TV. Do I need more boxes? Why is he looking at me like that? I’m going to have to buy new potholders, too, dammit” is real. Firmer boundaries are going to be good for everyone in your house,  but a two-week general amnesty built on “nobody’s an asshole for having a lot of feelings right now, including me, so let’s just do our best to get through it” is also an all-around kindness.

Take Up Space (For *Your* Feelings) 

My first suggestion is logistical: Headphones. Earbuds. Music. Noise. Whenever you pack, spin up your favorite music or podcast or audiobook, put on the headphones, and be unavailable as you box your things. It’s really hard to tune out another person’s distress in the same living space, it goes against your habit (of being in love with this person for years), and likely your personality (as a compassionate person who would not ignore another person’s suffering). But if there is a way you can create a buffer for yourself to literally tune some of it out, while simultaneously creating a visual cue that you are in fact tuning out, it might help you keep your cool and your distance. See also: Working room by room and shutting doors between you whenever possible. 

This doesn’t have to be expressed a hostile or defensive maneuver, even if it feels like one. You mentioned that making an effort to keep things “professional” at home was helping you cope, so why not adopt the same tone you’d use to give an officemate a friendly heads-up that you’re about to put your head firmly down and focus without interruptions? You wouldn’t ask a peer at work for space, or reference weird feelings, you’d just say what you’re doing and then act on that. “I’m going to commandeer the kitchen & dining room for the rest of the afternoon while I pack. I was thinking of ordering myself some dumplings for dinner, I can check back around 7 if you think you’ll want in on that.” 

Sometimes you just gotta gently set people on the path of least resistance (where the easiest, most obvious response  from your Ex is something like “Good luck with packing, talk to you at 7″ or “Oh, I’m all set on dinner, but yes, stop by for a second and say hi if you want) and hope they stay there.

Say What You Need 

If that fails, if you sense that she’s really trying to interrupt or derail you and force a conversation about her feelings, and you don’t want to engage, it’s okay to both be more direct and react honestly. You’re worried about accidentally Hulk-ing out, but feeling annoyed and being honest about what you need isn’t the same as being mean, and it’s actually not the end of the world if you end up arguing during a breakup where feelings and tensions are still high. I sense that you will feel better if you do keep your emotions in check and can know that you behaved “professionally” throughout, but where is it written that you must be a robot of perfect detachment?

Answer: Not here! You’re allowed to feel angry at being dumped and having to uproot your life, and you don’t have to tamp down every momentary flash of irritation. If you were trying to punish your ex and make her feel bad, that would be one thing, but you’re clearly not doing that. Keeping out of her way as much as possible, and saying “Look, this sucks, but I cannot both process this with you and keep my own shit together, sorry” when and if she does breach your limits, is completely within bounds. When someone breaks up with you, along with all the painful stuff, you also receive a permission slip to stop working on the relationship, put your own needs first, find a sustainable level of polite and civil, and let the rest go. 

Additional scripts:

  • I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this with you.”  
  • I’m doing my best to make a clean break here, you can help me by giving me space while I box everything up.” 
  • “I can see that you’re upset, but I’m sorry, I really can’t.” 
  • “Look, I’m trying to keep my cool, but that’s the third sigh in as many minutes. If there’s something you want to say, please say it. Otherwise, please leave me to it.” 
  • “I know we’re both processing breakup feels, but I’m the one who is being displaced by this. Until I’m all set up in my new place and have had time to be by myself, I just really need to disengage from talking about ‘us.'”
  • “I’d like to be alone right now, thank you.” 

They may be painful things to say, or to hear, but none of those scripts are particularly mean, rude, or untrue. If you start to feel guilty, remind yourself that your ex has choices about seeking support from friends and family, cranking up the volume in her own headphones, going into a different room to the extent possible, taking walks, running errands, etc.  It’s not some unforgivable display of fury on your part if hitting a wall of, “Yep, it sucks, nope, don’t want to talk about it” from you nudges her her in one of those directions. 

Follow Words With Actions

If you do end up adapting any of the scripts, think about how you might put a door between the two of you as soon as possible after you say the thing, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Take a walk around the block, invent an errand at the corner store, move into a different room to grab a glass of water or to write something down before you forget it. Remember that bathroom time = alone time.

The exact manner and justification are less important than the fact of creating a tangible physical or spatial interruption in the conversation’s momentum. You’re trying to erect new boundaries and break old habits, and accidentally creating a cycle where you work up the skills to tell your ex that you don’t want to talk about feelings right now, only to immediately get trapped into dealing with the feelings, is only going to make you feel more annoyed and powerless. Words describe boundaries, but it’s our actions that maintain them. So, like an actor leaving frame, or a director calling “cut,” like deliberately wearing headphones, or hanging up a telephone, the act of physically moving away where once you might have stayed and hung on every word can help you reset the scene and give yourself the space you need. 

Two more weeks. You can do this. Two more weeks. 

Brief Announcement: Like today’s Letter Writer, I am also packing for a move, in about two weeks. Not a breakup move, thankfully, just, our lease is ending and the whole Awkward Household is moving to a new place. But since Mr. Awkward is still in Texas looking after his mom, it’s just me right now. Twice the stuff (and cats) + half as many people as last time = I’m about to close the mailbox for a couple of weeks until I’m settled. Please take very good care of yourselves and hold that thought for now. Thank you!