Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Help, My Ex Won’t Accept Our Breakup

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m in one of those situations where you break up with someone, but they don’t take it seriously.

This dude. Just. Cannot take responsibility for his own emotions. I would appreciate any kind of advice or confirmation that I’m not completely insane (or if I am insane, let me know).

Back story:

I met this guy in Feb 2019. We had some things in common and were basically a couple of weirdos in a very conservative town, so we got along swimmingly. We dated for TWO WHOLE MONTHS and had a FWB thing going on for about seven months. I quickly discovered that he can’t function independently, is a giant man-child, and is completely unable to feel emotions in a healthy way.

Well. We officially broke up at the beginning of September. He actually initiated it. We both agreed we would be better off as friends, as we were completely incompatible in a relationship (something we discussed later as well). I told him I was ok with a FWB arrangement moving forward, but nothing more. He agreed. Well… despite all of this, he didn’t take the breakup seriously. He continued to treat me like we were dating and expected me to “come around” and take him back.

This made me uncomfortable because what he was saying and what he was doing were two very different things. It culminated in a discussion last week where I had to actually sit him down, look him in the eye, and give him T-Swizzle’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Ever)”. I had to say “I do NOT want to date you again” multiple times before it really sunk in. He left, obviously feeling not great. But that’s what happens when you break up with someone.

Once he left, he messaged me and asked “when did you suspect I still had feelings for you?” and I was like… since we broke up, it was pretty freakin’ obvious, my dude (I was nicer about it when I told him). That did not go over well. He immediately blew up and directly blamed me for leading him on. Here are some direct quotes for your context and entertainment:

-“I am upset that you knew I had feelings for you and never directly addressed them before looking elsewhere.” (WE BROKE UP MY DUDE)

-“It sounds like you figured out how I really felt and you still allowed me to hold on to you like that while you were looking at other people.” (WE BROKE UP ALMOST TWO MONTHS AGO)

-“I would’ve rather you went no contact before you talked to other boys.” (IT’S NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE DECISIONS FOR YOU)

-“You don’t seem to care that I’m struggling with this particular aspect.” (WE BROKE UP, YOUR EMOTIONS ARE NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY)

-“What you did was wrong, and I’m not engaging in any form of friendship with you until you’ve apologized.” (WAT)

-“You’ve been such a good friend, and I’m having a hard time… I basically can’t believe I called you my friend while you were doing that.” (MANAGE YOUR OWN EMOTIONS)

-“If I was aware of something I was doing that could hurt a friend, a romantic partner, or a family member, I would either 1. Not to do it or 2. Talk to them about it until we were on the same page and come up with the best solution to make sure no one got hurt.” (WE BROKE UP DUDE IT’S GOING TO SUCK. THERE IS NO SOLUTION WHERE NO ONE GETS HURT.)”

-I just feel really bad that I was seeing you the way I did while you were sending whatever my imagination can come up with to other people.” (COOL STORY BRO)

I keep replaying these messages in my head and I’m just… so confused. This does not fit my understanding of an adult relationship (and I’ve been reading your blog for years). Am I nuts? Am I wrong for expecting him to manage his own emotions and, if he had an issue, cut things off himself?

I super appreciate you and your time,

What Planet Is This

DEAR WHAT PLANET IS THIS: A lot of my answer is going to depend on your timeline, which is a little unclear in the letter, WPIT. If I’m understanding things correctly, you dated for two months, then broke up and had the seven month friends-with-benefits relationship before having to have a final Come To Jesus/We are Not Doing This conversation that lead to your contacting me.

Before I get to your question, WPIT, I want to talk about responsibilities when it comes to managing emotions and what we owe to our exes when you’re breaking up with someone. Break-ups are never pleasant, even when they’re relatively amicable. When we break up with someone, we’re drawing the curtain on our shared past and causing a fundamental change in our relationship. Sometimes that change is ending the relationship completely; we’ve decided that we don’t want to see that other person (or vice versa) for whatever reason. Other times, that change is to the nature of our relationship; what once was romantic or sexual has become platonic. It may turn into a close, intimate friendship. It may become a more nodding acquaintance as we go in different directions. It may become acrimonious and one that we are maintaining only because of outside forces (co-parenting children, having to live together in the short term, etc). But even pleasant change is still change and adjusting to the new status quo can be difficult.

This is why when we break up with someone, we ultimately owe them three things. We owe them respect, we owe them clarity and we owe them as little unnecessary pain as possible.

All of these are important. When you break up with someone you want to at least show respect for them as a person and be upfront about what you’re doing, rather than ghosting or passive-aggressively trying to get them to break up with you… though, that respect may be “we’re doing this from a healthy distance because I don’t feel safe doing this in person”. While no break-up is completely painless, if you’re leaving someone, you want to avoid causing pain that could otherwise be avoided. In practice this means not dragging it out, not being cruel and possibly even leaving out unnecessary information. Sometimes “It’s not you, it’s me” is the kindest true thing that you can say; leaving the “I can’t stand you/ I’ve been banging your brother/ I’ve been dying to leave you for years” unsaid is a kindness, because the full truth is painful and unnecessary.  And clarity is important, because otherwise you end up with people trying to re-litigate the break-up or even arguing whether you were broken up in the first place.

In this case, WPIT, and assuming the timeline is as I said: while I think you could’ve handled things better at the initial break-up, no, it is absolutely NOT your responsibility to manage his emotions.

Let’s talk a little about some best practices that might’ve helped. I think the segueing into a friends-with-benefits relationship might have been blurring the line between “broken up” and “not”, depending on how you were conducting it. If you were still going out on dates, hanging out and otherwise carrying on the way you more or less had been just without the labels of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”… well, it’s understandable that he might have thought this was something more than casual. Especially if he still had feelings for you. Unfortunately, when someone’s been dumped and they’re still carrying a torch for their ex, there’s a tendency to undergo a lot of motivated reasoning about what’s happening. As with dudes dealing with oneitis, there’s a LOT of reading the tea leaves and trying to find “proof” that your ex is changing her mind. Even when you have to invent it whole cloth.

Honestly, I think the kinder option would’ve been to have called things quits entirely, especially if you knew he still had feelings for you. It’s not your responsibility to manage his feels, but making it clear earlier that this was strictly a “we are not dating, we are not getting back together, we just bang on occasion” would’ve spared him some heartbreak and you a lot of headache.

But all that having been said: you are correct, it’s on him to handle his s

t. While it would’ve been kind of you to apply the Hobnailed Boot of Reality to his dreams of getting back together… he was the one holding on to that possibility. If he would’ve preferred a “no-contact” option when you were meeting and dating other guys, then it was on him to decide to break contact, not you. You were also not responsible for whatever he imagined you doing with other guys, even while he was nursing his hopes that you would come back. And if he felt that things were unfair or unreasonable, he was perfectly capable of saying “hey, I’m having some issues here and I’d really like to discuss them with you,” which could’ve lead to a clarifying conversation. Not one that he would have liked, mind you. But a clarifying one nonetheless.

But since he couldn’t be bothered to do any of this, he’s putting the blame for his self-induced heart-ache on you. And while I can sympathize with the “continuing to have feels” part, the rest involves him having his head firmly wedged up so far up his own ass that he’s become a human Klein bottle.

The only solution for him is, frankly, to muscle up and deal with his own feelings, on his own time.

And you may have to help him with that by pulling the Nuclear Option and blocking every social media account, email and phone number he has.

Good luck.

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