DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: About six months ago, I (m/22) began dating Jamie (f/22)(not her real name). We were introduced through an on-campus comic and geek interest club. We got along great, we had intense chemistry, we liked a lot of the same things and we could at least make a solid effort to appreciate each other’s favorites even if we didn’t share them. For a while, everything seemed great.
But as these things often go, Jamie and I realized we weren’t as compatible as we thought. Last month, we decided to call it quits. No big drama, no terrible fight, just an understanding that, romantically at least, we just didn’t really click and the passion was fading for both of us. It was probably the least painful breakup I’ve ever had, which I guess is a good thing.
Here’s where it gets weird, I guess. I’m used to break ups where we go our separate ways and don’t really see each other ever again. Most of my previous relationships didn’t have this much overlap with my friends or my hobby groups. While the breakup was mutual and we both agreed to stay friends, things have gotten… well, awkward. We’re in the same close-knit group, so avoiding each other isn’t an option and we both go to a lot of the same events or parties and hang out with a lot of the same people.
Every time I go to an event or gathering, there’s this tension. Half the time, I’m wondering if I should go up and talk to Jamie, or if it’s better to keep my distance. Should I crack a joke, or will that be too flippant? And then there’s the rest of the group – they’ve been super supportive, but I can’t help but feel like they’re walking on eggshells around us. The last thing I want is for our breakup to split up the group or make things uncomfortable for everyone else.
So, here’s where I’m hoping your sage advice comes in. How can I make things less uncomfortable? I genuinely want to be friends with Jamie and keep our group dynamics as normal as possible. But it feels like we’re both in this awkward dance, unsure of how to act or what to say.
Since our breakup, attending group events has become increasingly difficult. The tension between Jamie and me is palpable. I’m never sure whether to engage in conversation with them or give them space. Additionally, it feels like the rest of the group is on edge when we’re both present. I’m concerned our personal situation is affecting the harmony of the group, which is the last thing I wanted.
I feel like I’m in a really awkward place about this, because I’m not even sure if this tension is real. I’ve thought about maybe talking to Jamie one-on-one, clearing the air, but I’m not sure how to even start that conversation without making things weirder. And what if they don’t feel the same way? I also wonder if I should talk to the rest of the group about it, or if that’d just be overkill.
I miss the ease of our group hangouts and the camaraderie we all shared. I know things can’t go back to exactly how they were, but maybe it can close? How do I navigate this? And what happens if one of us starts dating again?
Thank you in advance,
Navigating Group Dynamics
DEAR NAVIGATING GROUP DYNAMICS: So, this is a good news/ less good news situation, rather than a good news/bad news one, NGD. I think that the tension you’re feeling with your friends and your club is mostly just you. That’s the good news.
The less good news is that your friends are likely taking their cues from you and your behavior with Jaime. You’re acting awkward around her, she’s probably acting a little weird too and everyone’s just trying to figure out what the new normal is now that you two have broken up.
There’re a couple things going on here, but they all come down to the same thing: it’s a matter of people trying to figure out what the right vibe or behavior is now that things have changed. The tension you’re feeling is the tension between the known (how you and Jaime behaved with each other) and the unknown (what are you to each other now that you’re broken up).
Let’s focus on the situation with you and Jaime for a minute here. One of the tricky aspects of a break up, even with a fairly short-term relationship, is that your dynamic has changed. In every relationship, a couple develops their own vibe or dynamic – some are schmoopy and demonstrative, some are joke-y and banter-y a la Nick and Nora Charles, some are dominant/submissive, some are team players, etc.
This dynamic, in its way, becomes a sort of part of your identity, just as the relationship becomes part of your identity. Your sense of self has expanded to encompass this other person; you’re not just NGD, now you’re NGD-and-Jaime. The longer you’re together, the more firmly this expanded sense of identity becomes a part of your life.
It’s not just the state of Being In A Relationship so much as how you’ve incorporated another person into your life. After all, it’s not like you live your life exactly the same except now there’s another person sitting on the couch with you. You’ve had to make adjustments to schedules, how you do things together vs. separately, you develop responsibilities to one another and so on. If you live together, this becomes even more pronounced, as the two of you work on finding the equilibrium between your daily routine and theirs.
But now that you’re broken up, the dynamic has changed drastically. You’re now in the position of having to re-learn who you are now that you’re not NGD-And-Jaime. You’re not going to be who you were before you dated because time only flows one direction and you don’t forget all the things you learned or changed while you were with them. You’re having to figure out how much of this is going to be incorporated into your current sense of self and how much is going to revert to your previous state… what does or doesn’t change may well surprise you. That could be anything from learning to like new foods or new music, different ways of maintaining your living space to different ways of seeing the world. We are all changed, to an extent, by the people we’ve loved and who loved us.
But this also creates a sort of tension between you and your ex. The longer you’ve been together, the more that the way you act with them becomes muscle memory; the sort of thing you do without even thinking. This can feel uncomfortable or awkward at times, especially in the early days – you fall back into old patterns or behaviors without realizing it. But the circumstances where this behavior was appropriate are gone and so now it feels weird and awkward… especially when you end up doing something on autopilot. In a way, it’s a little like switching between games with radically different controller set-ups; muscle memory says you hit THIS button to do X but in this new game, hitting that button does Y instead. Sometimes that’s just a minor annoyance. Other times, it causes problems that you didn’t expect, because you were acting on autopilot.
But, much as with jumping between games, this is something that gets easier over time. You may have to consciously think to change your behavior for a bit, but you’ll acclimate soon enough. It’s just easier to do when you’re not always around each other, the way you and Jaime are, currently. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, especially with an amicable break up; it’s just easier to sort out your new normal without the other person there to trigger those old habits, just as you’re trying to break them.
That same sort of tension is what your friends are feeling. They’re used to you as a couple and behaving with you a certain way. Now that you’re not a couple, they’re not entirely sure what the best way to act is. And since this is a “there was no bad guy here, we just didn’t work as partners” situation, there’re fewer guidelines than if this were a high-conflict break up.
Now, fortunately for you and Jaime, this is likely not going to be an issue for terribly long. You were only a couple for six months. That’s enough time to start developing those new habits, but they’re not going to be as firmly set as they would be if, say, you’d been together for six years. That means you’ll find your new dynamic a little faster than you might have otherwise. But the recency of your break up is still going to make things feel a bit weird.
But weird isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just different. The biggest issue I think you, Jaime and your friends are all feeling is that awkward tension of not knowing what to do or say… but also not acknowledging the awkward.
The best thing you can do about this is to just call out the awkward. There’s nothing that breaks this silent tension like calling it out for what it is – you feel weird, she probably feels weird, isn’t that just crazy? I promise you: saying “Ok, so do you feel as weird as I do, now?” to Jaime is going to break the tension like nothing else. In fact, I will all but guarantee that this will get the response of “OH THANK GOD SOMEONE SAID IT” and deflate the tension like a balloon.
Now, this won’t fix everything. It’s still going to take time for you and Jaime (and by extension, everyone else) to figure out your new groove. There’s no way to speed that up that won’t inevitably fail. But the tension will be gone it’ll be much easier to find that new groove without also pretending that nothing has changed or having to tiptoe around the elephant in the room.
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