Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Tell People I’m Back With My Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been reading and enjoying your column for quite a while now. Your advice has been eye-opening and quite informative. I have an unusual situation that I’m feeling lost with and could use your perspective on. It’s about talking to your family after you take back someone who left you.

First, some background. I’m a straight guy in grad school. I was seeing a woman, I’ll call her “T”, I’d met through a job, and there was a big age difference. I’m in my late 20s and she’s in her mid-40s, so there’s just about a full generational gap. When I met her, she was in an abusive marriage for over 10 years to a guy who can best be described as “redneck”, but she was able to leave and divorce the guy. Afterwards, “T” and I hit it off, and we were seeing each other for the better part of 2 years. I never told my parents though. My mother especially would not have approved of me seeing her due to her age. Despite the secrecy, things started well, but became much more one-sided over time. I was still very into her, always wanting to hang out and have her over, but she grew distant. I didn’t notice (or probably rather refused to notice) until she hit me with it all at once: she decided that she needed to date another person to “get things out of her system” (her words). “T” had been spending time with one of her old classmates and decided she liked him enough to put a stop to what we had. Needless to say, I was devastated. I had only been in one relationship prior to her and I was feeling so bad and so out of control that I ended up seeking therapy for the first time in my life, which was and still is extremely helpful.

After the break up, “T” and I decided to try and be friends, which ended up working after I entered therapy and was able to clear my mind and heart. I told my mother about what had happened and while she wasn’t happy, she appreciated I told her. But then, one day, “T” gives me a call and says that she broke things off with whoever she started seeing and wanted to meet up and talk. I agreed, and she was in tears as I talked with her. She told me that she was sorry for leaving, she loved me, and that what she and I had was better than anything she had ever had before. She said she was committed to me now and that she’d never stray again, even going so far as to write me a long letter saying as much. She had never been very emotional before, so I was taken aback by how she was crying.

After some soul-searching I realized I still love “T”, and I agreed to take things slowly with her. The relationship’s been far more equal than it was in those prior months (for example, she asks me to spend time with her as much as the other way around), and she’s been doing everything else in her power to demonstrate that she’s serious about being with me. Things like gifts, long chats and extended time together (while maintaining social distance of course), and stopping all communication with the guy she ran off with, paint a genuine picture of remorse to me. I’ve let her know I appreciate her actions, and I feel closer to her than at any time before. Now though, the problem is telling my family. My mother especially now holds “T” up as “red-flags personified” and expressed how angry she’d be if I ever ended up with her, so I’m not sure how to eventually tell my mother about things. I don’t want to live in a secret relationship forever and want to tell her, but I’m afraid of essentially being kicked out of the family because of how I feel. “T” seems to be genuinely trying to make amends and I still truly love her, but my mother would likely not see it that way and insist that “T” is using me.

I’m lost on what course of action to take. Do I “damn the torpedoes” and tell my mother anyway, or do I heed my mother’s words and break things off with “T” despite how I love her? Like I said, I don’t want to be in a secret relationship, so I’m eventually going to have to go down one of those two paths I outlined above. What’s you take Doc? Or is there something I’m not seeing since I’m directly in it?

Thank you so much for your advice,

Between Two Places

DEAR BETWEEN TWO PLACES: So, there’re two inherent questions in this, BTP. One is how to tell your family that you’re getting back with T. The other… is whether you should get back together with her at all.

I literally just finished a two-part video series over at the DNL YouTube channel about whether it’s a good idea to get back with your ex (it usually isn’t) and if so, how to go about it. In my episode on whether you should or shouldn’t get back with your ex, I bring up that there’re a series of questions you need to answer before you decide to roll those particular dice. Two of the important ones are: why now, and have the things that lead to your break up changed? These are questions you probably should be asking — either yourself, or T — because they’ll inform everything else.

One of the more unusual phenomena during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise of people reaching out to their exes and trying to kick things off again. This isn’t entirely unexpected; during times of chaos and strife, there’s an almost instinctual desire to reach out for the known and familiar. In a lot of cases, those are people you’ve been in relationships before; after all, time has a way of sanding down the rough parts of the previous relationship and nostalgia tints everything, making us feel like maybe things weren’t that bad. People want to get back to the way they felt in the early days of their past relationships… even if the rest of it was a giant flaming shit show.

If it’s the case that T is reaching out because she’s suddenly single or feeling the need for comfort at a chaotic time… well, that’s going to be a warning sign. The odds are good that the impetus is the crisis itself, and absent that motivating factor, the relationship will fall apart a second time.

The answer to the second question is equally vital, and often paired with the first. After all, if nothing has changed, then all you’re doing is signing up for the 12″ dance remix of your previous break-up. It’s the same song, just a little faster and with a slightly different beat.

In this case, T left because “she needed to get things out of her system”. 9 times out of 10, when someone says that, they’re saying they want to fuck other people and aren’t willing to do things like, say, negotiate some form of openness or ethical non-monogamy.  In this case, T was having a flirty relationship with a classmate and the urge to be with the shiny new toy was overwhelming the desire to be in a relationship with you. And the way she dropped all of this on you all at once was, frankly, not cool. It’s not like there’s a good way to tell somebody that you want to bang someone else (and stop banging you in the process) but saying “hey, I want to fuck this other guy so peace out Cub Scout” is a particularly cruel way of doing so. So while I don’t agree that T is “red flags personified”, I can’t blame your mom for not liking her.

However, it’s important to note that “I need to get this out of my system”  almost never ends with the one time. There is almost no case where someone needed to do something “to get it out of their system” and actually did get it out of their system. In fact, more often than not, it just gave them a taste and they needed more. So I would be giving T more than a little side-eye over the way she’s come crawling back, especially with this timing.

All that having been said, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that she has, in fact, realized she made a mistake and is trying to make things up to you in good faith. If she is trying to make amends and if you do decide to get back together… well, I would advise giving it a little time at first. You and she aren’t picking up where things left off; you’re starting a new relationship with the same person. You have to treat this as though you were dating someone else for the first time — the person she is now instead of who she was the last time you two were dating. In that case, I would give things some time before you made it Facebook (and Mom) official.

I’d also point out that you were barely out of the honeymoon stage last time when T dropped the “I want to see other people” bomb on you. I’d personally want to wait until you got through the same period before declaring that this is a love to last the ages. I’m just sayin’…

However, if/when you do tell your mother, the thing that you do is point to all the work that T has been doing to make amends. Not necessarily the gifts — that carries the feel of bribery — but the fact that she is making an effort to make things up to you and prove that she’s in it to win it this time. If T’s putting in the effort to be a better partner this time around and can demonstrate to you (and your mother) that she’s a woman of integrity, then her actions will convey the message far better than words. Your mom may always have some hard feelings for her — she hurt her little boy! — but if she’s a good person who makes you happy, she’ll at least be able to accept it, however grudgingly.

Good luck.

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