DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So basically I recently “broke up” with this girl. The reason I’m phrasing it like that is because we only dated for like a month. During the time I was dating her, I realized she had an abusive ex who gaslit her, was emotionally negligent and also implicitly fat shamed her by joking that she needs to lose weight. I was very empathetic to her situation and realized she was still healing from this abuser.
However, as I spent more time with her, I realized that she brought up her ex every time I was with her. She broke up with me because she had recently found out that her ex was cheating on her during a time in their relationship when things were going very well. She told me that she is not ready for a relationship and has issues trusting people who she doesn’t have any mutual connections with (we met through an app).
Now, our break up was very amicable (I even cuddled with her after and kissed her goodbye) and I really respect her decision to not dive into a relationship that she wasn’t ready for. However, as time passed, I realized that she might have used me as an emotional band-aid to forget about her ex. When she found out that he cheated, the wound just opened up more and I wasn’t enough to forget the pain. I don’t think she was being malicious or that she was doing it knowingly, however, I do feel a bit used.
To fully understand my situation, I think you need to know a bit of my backstory. I’m 24M, had a very sexually repressive childhood and socially awkward growing up. I had a transformation in college where I became physically attractive and confident and started hooking up with a lot of girls as a means to compensate for the lack of sexual gratification. I realized that that path was not going to help me, I worked on my self esteem and decided to give real dating a shot.
This girl was the first person that I decided to open up to romantically and I feel very angry and upset at myself as I didn’t see the signs. I don’t hold any ill will towards her and I think she’s quite wonderful, but I do wish that the first person that I opened up to didn’t inadvertently use me as a coping tool. I know life isn’t a fairy tale and sometimes things just don’t pan out the way you would’ve liked them to, but it still sucks.
Now Doc, how do I process these feelings of anger and resentment? More importantly, in the future, what can I do to potentially stop this from happening to me again?
DEAR MR. OBLIVIOUS: There’s a saying known as Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It was originally submitted to a joke book, but it has a fairly solid kernel of truth to it. In practice, what this means is that a lot of folks aren’t actively malicious, just ignorant and unthinking. And while I don’t think as many people are actually stupid, I do find that this aphorism has applications with regards to dating… especially for people in your position.
But let’s dig into this just a smidge. I want to be clear: I think your feelings of being hurt and upset are legitimate. However, I also don’t think that this is quite as mendacious as you think it was.
Here’s the thing: the woman you were seeing had a rough go of it. First, she had been in an incredibly toxic — if not outright abusive — relationship. That alone is going to do a number on people’s heads. You don’t say how long she’d been with him or how recently they’d broken up, but this was very clearly a relationship of significance to her. Negative significance to be sure, but significance nonetheless. Getting out of those relationships can be tough; carving the toxic bulls--t out can be tougher. Considering how much this guy had been twisting her up and preying on her insecurities, I’m entirely unsurprised that there’s still a part of him living rent-free in her head. Speaking for myself: I’ve had good relationships that ended, where I had a hard time not bringing up my ex all the goddamn time. But the bad ones? The toxic ones? Ooooh yeah, those are ones that I would talk about for a very long goddamn time afterwards. Still do, on occasion.
(Seriously, my friends could tell you stories. Lots of them.)
That alone is going to be the sort of thing that makes a person linger like a bad smell. But finding out that her ex was also cheating on her? That’s going to shake things up even more. He’d already been treating her badly, and while this new information is ultimately just confirmation that yeah, he’s six different kinds of s--tty, it also recontextualizes their entire relationship. That’s gonna do a major number on someone, and they’re almost certainly going to need time to process things. So I’m not entirely surprised that she ended it; the wound wasn’t even healed yet and this made it worse.
But the fact that the wound wasn’t healed yet doesn’t mean that she knew it was still open and raw. I don’t think she went into this relationship with you as a coping mechanism, even unconsciously. None of this sounds at all like she was using you, like she was trying to do the whole “get over the ex by getting under someone else” bit or that this was some way of, I dunno, trying to feel desirable again or something. It sounds to me like she went into this with good faith and best intentions; it was only as things progressed that she realized that she wasn’t over her ex as much as she thought. The most telling part is that she recognized she wasn’t in a place where she was ready to date and called things off. That doesn’t sound at all like she was using you, that sounds like someone who realized that she was in a bad place and realized she needed to prioritize her recovery and emotional health.
I get that you feel used. But honestly, I think that’s coming from your background, rather than anything she’s actually done. It’s easy to feel this way when you’ve decided to take a chance with someone, to open up to them and get ready to make a space for them in your heart, only to have it yanked away suddenly. But like Hanlon’s Razor said: it’s adequately explained, not by stupidity but by ignorance and the willingness to believe that she was further along in the recovery process than she actually was. Like an athlete with an injury who is getting frustrated sitting on the sidelines, she tried to get back into the game before she was ready. And while it sucks that this happened to you, it’s better that she realized this as early as she did than later down the line when you were both considerably more invested.
What do you do now? Well… mostly, you sit with your feelings for a bit. Let yourself feel, let yourself be upset about it… but you can be upset and sad about it without applying malicious intent. You weren’t being used; you were just unlucky. You found someone who liked you well enough to recognize that she was being unfair to you and ended things as quickly and cleanly as she could when she realized. That’s actually a good thing. It says good things about her and it says good things you and your taste in women. You chose someone who was caring and kind and who had the respect to give it to you straight. Again: it sucks that she wasn’t in the right place to date you… but that’s a matter of bad luck and bad timing, not someone taking advantage of you.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that you can do to control for this to the point that you eliminate all risk. You can try to tilt the odds in your favor as best you can, but there’s always going to be an element of random chance in every relationship you have. So your best bet is to find someone who’s emotionally intelligent and generous, and caring enough to know when it’s time to hold on and when letting go is the best option for the both of you.
So what I suggest is a combination of compassion and forgiveness… for the both of you. For her, I recommend forgiving her for not realizing just how deep the wound actually was, while wishing her strength, healing and a speedy recovery. And then you should forgive yourself, as the bard said, for loving not wisely but well, and give yourself the gift of self-compassion. This was unfortunate, but ultimately not anyone’s fault. It’s simply an unexpected bump on the road to love. What this proved, ultimately, is that there are women out there who dig you and appreciate what you have to offer. This didn’t work out the way you hoped… but there will be others. This wasn’t the end. It’s just the end of the beginning.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org