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What do I tell my ex?
May 2, 2012 5:09 PM   Subscribe

What do I tell my ex?

We were engaged 15 years ago. College sweethearts, first serious relationship for either of us. I broke it off for what I thought were good reasons at the time - mostly personality differences. But what do you know at 23?

It took me years to get over her, if I ever did. I think I have, although I do still care about her deeply. She hasn't. She's married and has a child. I'm in a long term relationship that I think and hope will lead to marriage in the near future. She's gone through some really rough times, and isn't close to her husband.

She's contacted me several times recently, telling me she'll always love me, that I'm her soul-mate. She'd marry me in a heartbeat if there weren't several thousand miles separating us. She wants to know whether I still love her, and if not, how it was possible that I got over her.

She's a sweet girl - a real quality person. Intelligent, loving, kind. I always thought she was way out of my league. I guess I'm not chopped liver, but...

WTF do I tell her?
posted by Strumpf Marionette to Human Relations (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm in a long term relationship that I think and hope will lead to marriage in the near future.

you tell her you are in a long-term relationship that you think and hope will lead to marriage in the near future and ask that she please stop contacting you, if the theme of her emails is going to continue in the same vein. then you do not initiate contact and you do not encourage her overtures.
posted by violetk at 5:15 PM on May 2, 2012 [36 favorites]


That you don't mess around with married people, that you're engaged yourself, and that she should address whatever was already wrong with her marriage that would prompt her to get in touch with you after so many years on the basis of an extremely youthful relationship despite the fact that each of you is a completely different person now.
posted by Occula at 5:16 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


That you care for her deeply. If she's so deeply unhappy, that she should get out of a relationship that doesn't bring her happiness.

You can tell her that when you're so deeply unhappy with someone, you'll often idealize the past and it becomes a "grass is greener" thing where anything is better than this. You can't be her lover as you're in a committed relationship.

If this kind of discussion is difficult for you, tell her to stop or cut off contact completely.
posted by inturnaround at 5:16 PM on May 2, 2012 [19 favorites]


There's always a chance that you are the love of her life, but that's unlikely since there's so many people in the world. What you can tell her is that you have gotten over her but that you remember your time with her fondly and hope that she can find some peace in her life. Then you emphatically tell her you are committed to and in love with someone else and that you think it's best if you don't speak to her again. Then ignore her, and don't respond to any other contact from her, because she's unhappy and will probably protest over the lack of contact.
posted by Issithe at 5:18 PM on May 2, 2012


What violetk said.
It would not ease her unhappiness to know these answers. And it would doubtless hurt your current partner and her husband if they ever found out. And... if you only "think" you have gotten over her, opening this can of worms may lead you to think that you haven't. Nostalgia works funny that way.
posted by sm1tten at 5:19 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


She'd marry me in a heartbeat if there weren't several thousand miles separating us.

She's already married. And she has a child. And you are in a serious relationship. If you're still pining for her and she's telling you that you two are soul mates, do your current squeeze a favor and break it off. Her actions after that will tell you if she's serious about you two being together or was just looking for some excitement because she's unhappy in her marriage. Tread carefully.
posted by jabes at 5:19 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


What of this have you told your current partner? Your answer/gut reaction to that question should provide significant illumination to your original question.
posted by forforf at 5:23 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Thank you for reaching out to me. It's always tempting to go backwards when we're feeling uncertain about what's going on today or the future looks murky, and while I'm flattered that you think of me so fondly, it's probably for the best that we don't continue to communicate at this time."
posted by xingcat at 5:29 PM on May 2, 2012 [25 favorites]


Tell her she has a lot to figure out and decide on her own, and starting a relationship with you is not a substitute for doing that. Then take some time to examine why, if you are hoping to marry the woman you're with, you are entertaining thoughts of how superior this woman's league is to your own. Ask yourself why it is that someone who is married -- even unhappily -- can be talking this way to you instead of working on her relationship or leaving it, but you still think of her as a quality person. This is not how quality people operate.
posted by melissa may at 5:34 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


That a lot of people would like to back to an earlier self, when the world seemed wide open to possibility and mistakes hadn't yet been made and it was still possible to pick up all the skills you'd need for any kind of career and love seemed fresh and easy...

But that you're not one of those people. You're the kind of person who has appreciated the journey; you cherish the relationships you had, and their failures, because it made you the person you are now -- capable of having the kind of adult, imperfect commited relationship you have with your girlfriend now.

(if that's true for you.)
posted by vitabellosi at 5:42 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


But please, be really, really kind when you tell her all of this wise and rational stuff. This must be a hell of a rough spot she's going through.
posted by skbw at 5:57 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I broke up with someone at 23. I think it took 20 years to get used to the idea that I was never going to get back together with him even though it was pretty evident that would never happen.

I think you should tell her what you feel. Be completely honest with her about your feelings. She wonders. So do you. You may sort your feelings out by telling her and having closure.

At the end of it all, you must convey to her that there is no intention on your part to seek her out as anything other than an old friend with an ear to listen because she knows your back story and knows how you are. If she can't adhere to that, then you keep any new correspondence short if you continue being in contact at all.

I don't think she wants to have an affair or anything, I think she just wonders "what if." Go with your gut. If it feels uncomfortable, cut the conversation short and say goodbye.

As for your relationship with your present girlfriend, it doesn't have any bearing on what your relationship should be with your ex. Your ex is not in any position to be anything to you but someone to chat with so even if you were available right now, you would not find yourself engaging your ex. I would just stand by a decision to tell her everything about your feelings and take it no further.

Good luck.
posted by Yellow at 5:57 PM on May 2, 2012


If you plan to marry the person you're with now, then I agree with commentors above that you should be very clear (however kindly) about your situation.

Don't urge this ex to end her relationship, and don't talk about how much you care about her. She could interpret either of these as signals that you too are holding out hope for a future together.

Her personality differences that grated on you before are probably still there. Remind yourself of that if you find yourself doubting your current situation.
posted by hermitosis at 5:57 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I broke up with someone at 23. I think it took 20 years to get used to the idea that I was never going to get back together with him even though it was pretty evident that would never happen.

Ha, me too (though fewer than 20 in my case). Maybe there's something magical about those years between ages 19-23 where a certain kind of lifelong love just hooks you.

But that doesn't make it better than what you have now. It is something beautiful, like the memories of climbing a tree as a kid, that you should treasure but not try to return to.

Trust that you broke up for a reason. Even now, you may not be able to fully articulate it, but eventually you will. Personality differences matter. The years of experience, and even "wisdom" if you will, that brought you to find your current relationship matter. I know it's easy to wonder about the messiness of the present moment and question yourself, but yeah. Keep moving forward. Try to let her know that you'll always treasure the memories of your time together without giving her hope that you'd like to go back and try again.
posted by salvia at 6:18 PM on May 2, 2012


It's hard to explain, and it sounds trite, but our story is fit for a novel. Maybe one by Thomas Hardy.

She was battling major health issues when I ended the relationship. I've always felt guilty about that, and wondered how much of the personality differences were real, and how much they were exacerbated by her medical condition and the medications she was on. She was in pain, in extreme stress. I was confused. Breaking it off was the second hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. My parents also put pressure on me at the time. It took me a lost decade before I really started dating again. My current girlfriend is my second serious relationship.

My understanding is that she and her husband are strictly together for the sake of their child, that he would be OK if she found someone else who treated her well, and that she's mostly with him because she's worried about how she'd provide for her child if she were single - she still has major health problems that make it hard-to-impossible for her to work. She was quite successful while she was able to work, but hasn't been able to for the past couple of years.

Lastly, this isn't an out-of-the-blue contact. We've had off-and-on contact over the years. She didn't just pop up out of nowhere after 15 years and start hounding me.

melissa may: This is not how quality people operate.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, I'd agree with you.

---

Not trying to argue here, just giving a little extra backstory. Probably doesn't make much of a difference.
posted by Strumpf Marionette at 6:25 PM on May 2, 2012


No, it does make a difference. I was harsh. From the perspective of someone who is happily married to the best person I know, I can't bear the thought of being just another alternative. If he described another woman the way you're describing this one, I'd be heartbroken.

I have a health problem that affects me much as the same as whatever's afflicting your ex. The financial and emotional stress of serious illness is unbelievably hard on a marriage even when the relationship is already strong. If her husband doesn't support her, her sadness and fear must be overwhelming, especially when she has a child. If you've been talking to her for two years, you must know that inside and out. That you still feel drawn to her so strongly despite her health and emotional problems is truly significant. I can't imagine any ex of mine, including the ones I'm still one friendly terms with, knowing the details of our struggles yet wanting to love and take care of me the way my husband does now.

But you're thinking about it. I don't know what the means for the two of you. It can't possibly mean good things for you and your current partner. I'm sorry.
posted by melissa may at 7:03 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, wow. So, is the proposal here that you'd work toward marrying her and helping to care for her and her child? Or is the proposal that you'd be her extramarital partner while her husband continued filling that role? If the former, then I'd make sure you know what you're getting into and that it's really what you want from your life. If the latter, witness the frustration of the man in this AskMe question.

Tell her she has a lot to figure out and decide on her own, and starting a relationship with you is not a substitute for doing that.

melissa may is right here, and if the proposal was that you'd marry her and help care for her child, she'd have a major transition to go through: negotiating a divorce and possibly child support, then grieving the loss of this family. If she wants to leave her marriage, she'll have to do all of that whether or not you enter the picture. If you do really love her enough that you want to go through this with her and support her through it, well, again, just make sure you really do want to throw away what you have now and that you're willing to go through that with her. (Are you willing to be there when she cries for missing him, or willing to know that she can't see you tonight so that she can do that grieving on her own? That's one of the perils of getting involved with someone who isn't currently single, that you'll be there when they come to terms with losing the old relationship, even if it was bad.)

This all sounds highly risky, and it scares me to hear you defending it. I'd feel better if I was hearing a clear-eyed determination that you did the wrong thing so many years ago and truly wanted to overcome the massive barriers here to undo that decision. Instead, I'm hearing what sounds like denial about the magnitude of the issue (she and her husband are strictly together for the sake of their child, that he would be OK if she found someone else who treated her well), incomplete clarity about the breakup, and residual guilt.

Please don't make this decision out of guilt, because that will eventually run its course. You can express deep sorrow and regret that you weren't able to be there for her at the time without taking this on.
posted by salvia at 7:11 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is one of those situations were you have to go with your gut instead of your heart and your head.

Part of you wants to save her and part of you wants to walk away from her again, and no matter what decision you make, whatever you choose will stay with you for the rest of your life.

There is a strong chance (although not 100% because this has not been an out-of-the-blue contact) that she will leave you in the future. You could be her transition relationship.

Similarly, you might be overestimating your ability to cope with someone's health issues, divorce, and child. You may feel trapped and burdened by responsibility.

So go with your gut - but with both of your eyes fully open.
posted by mleigh at 7:16 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am confused. Do you love the woman you're with right now? If so, why are you even considering getting back together with this other woman? If you love your current partner, you owe her the decency to break off contact with this woman. You can wish her all the best in the world without actually listening to her tell you about how you're her soulmate and her husband doesn't understand her and blah blah blah blah blah.

If you don't love the woman you're with right now, you owe her the decency to break off your relationship with her. Then she is free to find someone who loves her and puts her first, and you are free to get your heart broken by your ex-girlfriend. Because that is what will happen, but maybe this is a mistake you have to make.

In any case, you need to break off either your current relationship or your relationship with your ex. What you are doing now is unethical and unfair to both women.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:45 PM on May 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


And this is just another one of the nine hundred and ninety-nine times, at least as far as the information you have given us indicates.

I know a couple who are the thousandth time--that is to say, a couple who have had an incredibly happy marriage for several decades, who met when they were each married to other people and realized that they were madly in love and wanted to end their current relationships and someday be together.

So here's what they did. They severed all contact for a year, they came clean to their spouses about their attachment to each other, at least one of them (perhaps both) went to couples therapy with the spouse to see if their relationship could be saved, they both began their divorce proceedings, and only then did they resume contact and begin their courtship. Because they are both highly ethical people, and that was how they dealt with this ethically iffy situation.

If you think you and your ex-girlfriend could do that--come clean to your current partners, take an extended break from contact with each other, and revisit your possible relationship after your current relationships have been concluded as respectfully to your partners as possible--maybe you can make it work. But it sounds to me like she's just spinning out a Prince Charming rescue fantasy and you're falling for it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:51 PM on May 2, 2012 [15 favorites]


Maybe the first thing to do is not think of that as a tragic love story of two star-crossed kids torn apart, but of the kind of messy break-up a lot of people go through at that age but you've romanticized due to your lack of dating experience since it.

Remember that everything you're hearing about her marriage is from her end, and whether it's conscious or not she is not going to give you a full story because she obviously has a stake in you being sympathetic to hooking up with her.

Whatever the case, if you truly love your current girlfriend and truly want to marry her, then the only respectful thing to do is to break off contact with this woman entirely. If I found out someone I was seriously dating was having continuous contact with a romanticized ex who was trying to convince them to leave me and date them I would feel beyond betrayed.
posted by schroedinger at 7:56 PM on May 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Substantially sacrificing for a shot at a low probability romance = risking a high probability of feeling like an idiot afterwards.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:00 PM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


WTF do I tell her?
Nothing until you know exactly how you feel. You can't be indirect with her. It would be wrong to lead her on and it could be detrimental to your current relationship.

And what Schroedinger has it with maybe the first thing to do is not think of that as a tragic love story of two star-crossed kids torn apart, but of the kind of messy break-up a lot of people go through at that age...

posted by OsoMeaty at 8:17 PM on May 2, 2012


I've been in contact with my ex roughly once every couple of years for the past 15 or so years. Sometimes she contacts me, sometimes I've contacted her (maybe a happy birthday email, or just a quick 'hi' phone call).

I'm not considering breaking up with my current girlfriend or having an affair with my ex.

My ex just contacted me this evening with these questions - she hasn't been pressing me with them non-stop. She has always said that she still loves me, and that she always will, but she's never really asked me directly how I feel until today. The last time I spoke to her was a couple of months ago, when she contacted me - she had some family drama (not with her husband) and needed a sympathetic ear. Before that, the last time I spoke to her was in 2009 or 2010, when I contacted her on a lark, just to say 'hi' and see how she was doing.

You know, reality is tough. I love my girlfriend and am doing my best to make it work out. We communicate well and have a healthy relationship, for the most part. But I've had this growing fear that she may be the kind of person will always look for (and find) something negative. It's hard to explain, but recently, for the first time in our relationship and totally independent of what's up with my ex, I've had several brushes with the thought that I may not be able to live with this pessimistic / negative nature forever. I wish to god she could get it sorted out, and she agrees it's a problem - I've been patient, tried to work on my end of things, and tried to support her on her end. She's also an awesome person, who I really love, but I have this feeling that she's not happy, not due to me or anything I've done, but I'm the easiest target.

Anyway, it's a weird situation. I wasn't expecting the message from my ex. I'm in a bit of a rough patch with my current girlfriend. It's all a bit confusing and complicated.
posted by Strumpf Marionette at 8:57 PM on May 2, 2012


If you're not considering starting something with your ex, being super clear about that with her is a must. Even if that means breaking off contact.

Honestly, the more you tell us about this, the less sense her behavior seems to make.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:11 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you still feel guilty about your breakup with your ex-girlfriend, to the extent that you feel you "owe" her. Are you someone who's very susceptible to feeling guilty, perhaps more than most people? You maybe feel you didn't rescue her from her bad situation before so some part of you feels you can make up for that by rescuing her now. But you don't owe her and you don't need to feel guilty. It's ok that you broke up with her, you didn't do anything wrong, and you get to choose who to spend your life with. I'm not getting the sense that you want to spend your life with your ex-girlfriend and that's fine and nothing to feel guilty about.

I don't know what's up with your current girlfriend, but I would say that to the extent possible you need to make a decision about that relationship completely independently of anything to do with your ex-girlfriend.
posted by hazyjane at 10:30 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that she and her husband are strictly together for the sake of their child, that he would be OK if she found someone else who treated her well

Did he tell you this or did she? Because I wouldn't make any assumptions until you hear it from him.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:37 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh good, then as for what to tell her, I'd lead her back to her current life if you can. What about this:

"You are such a high quality person, with such a sweet heart. You are someone it is easy to love and also to respect. I don't say that lightly. Your self-awareness, compassion for others, strength and self-discipline are a rare combination, making you a very special kind of person.

"I do not think we will ever be together as a couple again, or at least not in this lifetime. [one sentence why, maybe: "What made it not work out last time would just come up again." In the most succinct and gentle way possible, you have to convey that your mind is entirely made up.]

"Do I still love you or how did I stop? There will always be a part of me that treasures the memories of our time together, and that holds you in my heart with love. At the same time, here we are with our lives having moved forward. So it's not that I stopped, but that, I respect that we've both taken what we shared and grown into new people with new lives.

You're with Husband, and that brought beautiful little Child into your life. I really admire the way you're raising Child and the life you've built for yourself. I know you're having a tough time now, but I also know that you'll find a way forward, the way you've found your way through [other adversity], step by step.

"And my life is moving forward, including with Girlfriend. We're even starting to talk about marriage ourselves, though, who knows. So I feel like both you and I have gone forward into new lives carrying our experience together as a piece of us that has made us both who we are now."

tl;dr Basically say -- I loved you, I still love you in a certain way, but that was in the past, we won't be together like that again, we've both moved on. I respect you for what you're doing with your life and have confidence that you'll make it through this rough patch.

You could also address the question of whether you transition now to being friends who stop confusing the hell out of one another and threatening to undermine one another's relationships, or whether you stop being in contact.
posted by salvia at 12:23 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


The more you write, the more I think neither girl is necessarily for you.

Nagging feelings don't generally get better, they only get worse. And maybe that's the point of this situation, you need to find a relationship where you're not saving anyone/feeling guilty/being a target and maybe have something a bit more equal, a little less drama?

How do you deal with the ex?

I'm in a long term relationship

Then, focus on your current relationship and work out whether or not you can spend the rest of your life with someone like your current GF.
posted by mleigh at 12:57 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wasn't expecting the message from my ex. I'm in a bit of a rough patch with my current girlfriend. It's all a bit confusing and complicated.

It's not confusing and it's not complicated. First, there's no need to conflate these two, or attribute anything to a greater sense of fate or chance. The only probable relationship between the two is that 1) because you are in a rough patch with your current girlfriend, 2) you are receptive to the attention from your past girlfriend. If not 1), then probably not 2). Thus, the problem to be solved is the first problem.

Is there an element of escapism here? Creating drama with an old ex so that you do not have to deal head-on with the current girlfriend? Is there the fantasy present that if the present situation does not improve, there's another option available? Are you enjoying the game of having to women running around in your head?

The situation with your ex does not sound healthy and you probably not doing her any favours by indulging her. She seems to be looking for an escape from where she is now, thus you should probably be VERY wary of her intentions.

Because the way this logically looks is that she sorts her life with her husband out, whether or not they are going to stay together, does what is necessary, and arrives at a point of stability. Then, she can reach out to a new partner and look to build a new or new-old relationship. In the present moment, you run a big risk of getting involved in Something Really Messy.

If that's what you want for yourself, good luck. Otherwise, I'd say 1) drop the ex (you may be in asshole territory at this point, if you've developed a hope in her mind. them's the breaks.), and 2) sort out your current relationship. Until the latter is done, the former is just really a distraction, isn't it.
posted by nickrussell at 1:35 AM on May 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


hazyjane: It sounds like you still feel guilty about your breakup with your ex-girlfriend, to the extent that you feel you "owe" her. Are you someone who's very susceptible to feeling guilty, perhaps more than most people?

Yes and maybe. I'd never want to be the guy who broke up with someone I loved, and who loved me, just because (or even partly because) they were ill. It made the decision a supremely difficult and conflicted one for me. I don't think that's what happened, but there's always been a part of me that wasn't sure.

nickrussell: Is there the fantasy present that if the present situation does not improve, there's another option available?

I guess this is a part of my confusion. To add to it, I'm an expat who has a number of practical reasons to spend more time in my home country at the moment - business, family, etc. In addition, I genuinely care about my ex. There's probably an unrealistic fantasy that if things didn't work out with my current partner, I'd practically have a life waiting for me back home, and I'd be able to 'save' my ex, to boot. I know, unrealistic and naive, potentially harmful to everyone involved.

Best case scenario for me would be that my girlfriend and I work out our relationship issues, and my ex finds a way to move on and be happy without me. I need to communicate that to my ex, gently but clearly.

If I were single, I'd entertain the thought of getting back together with her, assuming she ended her marriage. I can't leave her hanging, though, hoping things don't work out in my current relationship, putting her life on hold in the hopes that I'll be available some time. That would be unfair.

Thanks melissa may, salvia and mleigh for the input and suggestions, as well as a number of others who weighed in. You made some excellent points and suggested some refined ways to say what needs to be said.
posted by Strumpf Marionette at 2:32 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Best case scenario for me would be that my girlfriend and I work out our relationship issues, and my ex finds a way to move on and be happy without me. I need to communicate that to my ex, gently but clearly.

That sounds much more focused, and a positive direction. One final point I forgot to include before was that you only have so much time in a day, and only so much emotional energy to expend in different directions. It may be possible that your entanglement with the ex is have a very real effect on the present relationship. Often, even if we do not think these things are having an effect -- that we are able to partition or wall-off different parts of our lives -- they bleed-over and do affect us. One way it manifests is not being completely present in a current relationship. Another is even a small amount of guilt -- if the other person found out -- and whilst chances are that there is no external impact, these things change how we think. And if we go back to the old words, "What a man thinks is that which he becomes."

Also, on a positive note, you seem to be developing a great deal of emotional understanding in this process, and that is very valuable and will always serve you. To think that there will never be problems is unrealistic; problems will always arise. It's how we learn to resolve those problems that is the true task and reward.

Good luck chap.
posted by nickrussell at 2:43 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Remember that you are responsible for being your own savior. Everyone has their own problems and they have to unravel them on their own otherwise the problem will resurface. Whatever her problems are in her relationship, you could never truly solve just as she would never be able to give you what you think you might be missing. You are intelligent, articulate, considerate and kind. Don't forget that. Now go get some coffee and keep going.
posted by Yellow at 6:56 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


You sound like you're romanticizing the past. I used to do that too, which was a problem. (I broke up and got back together with the same girl three times before it finally took.) I recommend writing down the problems you had in that relationship and the things she did that made the relationship problematic. That way you have something to look at every time you feel attracted to her to remind you of why things didn't work out.

In terms of the big picture, you don't have any obligations to your ex. You do have an obligation to your current fiance, who will be legitimately furious if she finds you've been hiding the fact that your ex is trying to "win you back" and you're supporting this behavior by maintaining contact with them instead of firmly putting them in their place. If somebody did that to me, I'd probably break up with them.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:45 AM on May 3, 2012


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