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"Is this thing I agreed to a date? And if so, can it not be?"
March 7, 2014 9:45 PM   Subscribe

How do I maintain a platonic relationship with my ex when I'm not sure whether he's on that same page?

So there's this ex, right? We dated for a few months in 2012 and he broke up with me. I was pretty upset at the time but got over it, and we went no-contact, although he kept reading my blog for whatever reason. About a year after that I lost all my friends and arguably my career and had a breakdown as a result that I'm still dealing with. He noticed and offered to get coffee; I was in such a bad place that I agreed, but we never did meet up, which all things considered was probably for the best.

A few months after that, around the holidays, he reached out again to see if I wanted to go to this opening with a few of his friends, and even though nothing was ever said I'm pretty sure the only reason he reached out when he did was that both of us were dating other people, which is fair enough. (I mentioned he read my blog -- he'd reached out literally a day or so after I made an offhand reference to my boyfriend at the time, after months of nothing.) That did in fact end up happening, and it went well enough. Obviously it was awkward, although I'm not sure how much of the awkwardness was in my head and how much was real -- the general vibe, plus little plausibly deniable things like calling me by his girlfriend's name by mistake or offering to pay for stuff that might be nothing separately but might add up in tandem, or might not.

Now he's offered to hang out again. Actually, it's been three separate occasions, one to see some friend's show with only a few hours' notice (I lied and said I had other plans because fuck that), one later this month with the same group of friends that I tentatively agreed to, and now this weekend, which I agreed to reluctantly because I still don't have much of a life. But there are a few crucial differences. Difference one is that we'd be alone. Difference two is that it seems significantly more "date-y" than I'm comfortable with at this stage, if that makes sense. Difference three, the big one, is that now neither of us are dating anyone. I broke up with my boyfriend (for completely unrelated reasons) in January, and I'm not sure whether he knows; he broke up with his girlfriend, which I know because he flat-out told me in the process of trying to make plans. Which seems suspect, like he was trying to casually drop hints or something, because it would have been so easy not to mention it and it seemed... well, timed, like a tactic.

So what if it is? I don't necessarily want to go out with him again. I don't know that I'm in the best place to be dating (though I wasn't any better when I was with my last boyfriend, and the few people who knew about the relationship said it seemed to help me a lot). Actually, both of us are in much worse places in our lives. And I don't think any of the issues that were there when we were dating are the kind that are likely to go away or change. (And this is shallow, but he's made some changes to his appearance since the last time I saw him that aren't to my taste.) Most importantly of all, if he broke up with his girlfriend as recently as he said he did I don't want to be a shitty rebound, nor do I want anyone to pretend to want to hang out with me with that ulterior motive, which might be even worse. Basically, the prospect of us dating doesn't utterly horrify me, but nor does it make me particularly happy -- the best way I can think to describe it is it's like this looming potential trap of an eventuality that may or may not happen to me.

But nothing I've done to deflect that -- not seeming overly eager to meet up, answering the relationship stuff with the bare minimum of "oh that sucks, sorry to hear, (implied) let's change the subject," steering things away from high-stakesy times like Friday or Saturday or nighttime -- has worked. If I were still dating my old boyfriend mentioning him could be an easy way out, but unfortunately I'm not and I can't see lying working out. I guess I could be direct, but I would prefer not to have that conversation outright ever, and if it does have to happen I would definitely not want to be the one to bring it up -- and for all I know I'm reading a lot into this and there are no hidden motives at all, which would make that conversation even worse.

So barring that, what do you even do here? A lot of the last paragraph seemed like an Ask vs. Guess thing, which might be true insofar as this would be a lot easier if he could just respect the fucking rules of engagement here. I mean, we're not special. There are rules that exes generally follow, you know? They exist because they make life less awkward and keep people from being hurt. I'm honestly considering just bailing at the last minute, but that would be shitty and rude.
posted by dekathelon to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, those "rules" exist to make life less awkward, but they kind of go both ways--he could be submitting an identical question here trying to guess whether or not your agreeing to go out constitutes agreeing to actually date again. But honestly, it doesn't really sound like you seriously want to be friends with him, either? And under those circumstances, seriously, just call and say you've decided not to go after all, and go back to the sensible no-contact thing. It seems like the big risk here is that you're going to sort of drift back into being involved with this person just because you feel awkward saying no. Deal with the awkward one time, and then it's done, and now is way better than later.
posted by Sequence at 9:54 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


If you knew 100% it was platonic, would you be looking forward to hanging out with him? Because it doesn't sound like you would.

You don't have to be friends with your ex. There's this weird idea that it's healthy, like eating your vegetables, but if a relationship with him doesn't add positively to your life, don't twist yourself up trying to make it work.

Personally, I'd tell him I was too busy and do a fade out.
posted by Dynex at 10:00 PM on March 7 [36 favorites]


My guess is, things were already going south with his girlfriend when he saw you mention your then-boyfriend on your blog, and he's had you in mind since. If you're both in a bad place, at least one of you is going to be tempted for some comfortable comfort. If you don't want to deal with it (rejecting him or being vulnerable to an initiation), agree, say no and fade out. People get headaches and the flu all the time, it's plausible. (& find something else to do this weekend.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:06 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I'm a great fan of no-contact conclusions to bad situations, but I think it's fine for (equally) unattached exes who're on good terms to just kind of check in and see if the old flame is burning. And I will also say that well-adjusted and congenial exes who are still fond of each other can be pretty great at supplying friendly, platonic, mutual ego boosts.

You know, you can just say, "Well, we broke up for some excellent reasons (e.g. we don't like or want the same things), but of course, I do think you're awesome, funny, cute, etc." You have to judge for yourself how that conversation would go with your ex. In my experience, it isn't too hard to say that or to hear it, because you know each other well enough to be really open about your feelings, but you probably have the social distance to not get too intense about it. And once your mutual appreciation is confirmed amidst some genuine sympathy and conviviality, it can give both parties greater confidence about moving on from more recent relationships as well.

But if you wouldn't enjoy any benefit from that yourself or if you can foresee trouble with him, no contact is a reasonable default--just say you're not feeling up to it this weekend, and he'll probably get the message either this time or next.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:44 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Can you bring another friend along to the thing this weekend? That should send a signal and it gets you out of the awkward position of going to hang out with him in a date-like way. For future invites it sounds like you should dial it way back for now, or, if you can, just say you're going to be really busy for the next couple of months and keep a very low profile. He's just feeling you out because it's easy, and if you end up romantically enmeshed with him just because you're bored and don't have the energy to fight it, this situation is going to end badly.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:50 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Isn't the answer here to just not hang out with him, and fade out from communicating with him altogether? I mean, you clearly don't want to be platonic friends with him. Which is fine! But if you also don't want to bone him, well then what are you doing?

My guess, fwiw, is that he doesn't necessarily know whether he wants hanging out to be a date.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:12 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]


You owe him nothing. Be polite but bail. People do it. It's okay, even if it seems shitty.
posted by smeater44 at 1:44 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


This....does not sound like a great idea. You sound like you don't especially want to be friends with him, for one thing. You also sound like you're lonely enough that you might possibly get pulled into something with this guy out of inertia.

"Basically, the prospect of us dating doesn't utterly horrify me, but nor does it make me particularly happy -- the best way I can think to describe it is it's like this looming potential trap of an eventuality that may or may not happen to me." I totally get this. It reminds me of certain feelings from various points in my own life. I think that if you can identify this potential trap just looming away, and if you recognize that it may "happen to you", you should stay as far away from the location of the trap as possible, because that is the one thing you'll have the ability to do. I could totally see myself being in a similar situation with a particular relationship from a long time ago and really all I could manage to do was to stay physically far away.

I'd suggest not going. It doesn't sound fun or like it would be especially good for you, the more so because it seems like you have gotten into situations in the past with people who don't value your essential personhood and individuality. A guy who's a bit down and who sees you as "single girl in my social circle who might date me" isn't going to do you any good. And honestly, if you really have enough in common to be friends, you can be friends later in a couple of years when it isn't so fraught.
posted by Frowner at 3:26 AM on March 8 [9 favorites]


Does that knowledge asymmetry not bother you?
posted by travelwithcats at 3:30 AM on March 8


How do I maintain a platonic relationship with my ex when I'm not sure whether he's on that same page?

Not.

(Everything else will be either rude or shitty or both at some later point)
posted by Namlit at 5:02 AM on March 8


It's not clear to me whether you want to be friends with him or not. If you don't, then it's easy; don't hang out with him! If you do, I recommend making it clear that you're not interested in dating again by using words. Either casually, as suggested above ( "we're not right for each other, but you're great!") or by saying "I know this probably isn't what you were thinking, but I want to make it clear that while I do enjoy hanging out with you, I'm not interested in dating again.)

You seem frustrated with him because he's not following unwritten "rules of engagement," and I don't think that's fair. His perspective may be that you've had a tough time and he cares about you and wants to help you get out of the house. Or it may not, but there is no single way exes "should" comport themselves, and using words to say what you want is more effective than interpreting smoke signals.
posted by metasarah at 5:24 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]


If you like your ex as a friend, but are in NO way interested in dating him, when you meet up, as you're sitting down, just say, "OMG, I am SO over dating. I'm so glad you called because I am only interested in hanging out with friends right now. My vagina is closed for business. So, what's good here?"

If you're not interested in maintaining a friendship (and if it's this complex at this stage, I'm not sure that you should) just cancel politely and fade away.

I'm not friends with ANY of my exes. There are reasons they're in my past. I like to keep it that way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:59 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


A lot of the last paragraph seemed like an Ask vs. Guess thing, which might be true insofar as this would be a lot easier if he could just respect the fucking rules of engagement here. I mean, we're not special. There are rules that exes generally follow, you know? They exist because they make life less awkward and keep people from being hurt.

What? No there aren't. I have exes I am great friends with and we will hang out 1 on 1, and others that won't even talk to me (or I them.) There are no generalized rules for how exes are supposed to be after the relationship is done, and if there are with you, YOU need to be the one to communicate it.

It doesn't sound like you even want to be friends with this person, so cancel at the last minute and tell him that you aren't really comfortable being friends at this point in your life for personal reasons. You don't have to explain yourself any more than that. Email him if you have to and don't respond to future contact - the bonus of doing the "shitty" thing is that it'll be less motivation for him to continue to pursue any sort of contact with you.

I'm sorry you've gone through a rough period, but the only one who can set your boundaries in life is you. Expecting people to follow rules and to read your mind is going to lead to disappointment more often than not.
posted by rutabega at 6:00 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]


This is not actually a problem unless you actually do want to date him but are trying to avoid it. Otherwise, you hang with him and if he gets frisky, you shut it down. No big deal.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:19 AM on March 8


I... don't understand where the "you clearly don't want to be friends with him" is coming from? I never said that. Even if I didn't, it's irrelevant because I'm not really in a position where I get to choose my friends (beggars can't be choosers) and honestly, I've never been in that position and probably never will. What I don't want is for anything along different tracks to happen and then I don't get to leave the house anymore at all.

I really would rather prefer not to talk about anything related to dating with an ex at all. I don't think this is uncommon? I'm pretty sure that is standard practice. I'm also pretty sure that you can't be the first one to broach the subject, and I'm also pretty sure that goes double if you're the one broken up with.
posted by dekathelon at 8:35 AM on March 8


"Beggars can't be choosers" attitude when it comes to being friends will put you solidly in the position of being victimized. Don't do that. It is not healthy.
posted by rtha at 8:37 AM on March 8 [22 favorites]


You seem to be denying yourself any agency here. What could happen in this situation, without your say-so, that would result in you not being able to "leave the house anymore at all"? If you see this situation as some big potential trap, you CAN set boundaries to make sure you don't fall into it.

I really would rather prefer not to talk about anything related to dating with an ex at all.

I'd start with this, then. The next time he brings up anything dating related, tell him this. Explicitly. Even if he does kind of think this is a thing himself (and honestly, I wouldn't say it was necessarily standard practice - I think you'll be treating yourself a lot better if you don't expect him to follow rules about yourself that you won't tell him), it may be that he tries to push the boundaries anyway, with the assumption that if you REALLY didn't like it you would say something. So say something! You're allowed to, and you really can stand up for yourself.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:44 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


Even if I didn't, it's irrelevant because I'm not really in a position where I get to choose my friends (beggars can't be choosers) and honestly, I've never been in that position and probably never will.

Dekathelon, you are not a leaf tossed in the wind, subject to cruel fate. We cannot engineer everything in our own lives, but we're all more than capable of making choices that maximize the chance that a positive situation will occur. I'm harsh because all of your questions are infused with a heavy dollop of helplessness that seems to indicate you believe you have no control over any part of your life whatsoever, and are completely incapable of stepping off the tracks in the face of an oncoming train. You don't just "end up" dating someone. You choose to date them. You choose to attend a romantic meal, you choose to not pull away if he tries to kiss you, etc etc etc.

If you want to be friends with this guy and you want to send him the message you're not interested, there is an age-old method: talk to him about other guys you're interested in and dating. If you're not dating anyone, then hell, talk about people you're talking with on OKCupid (or Match.com or whatever). There is nothing that sends the message "I'm not interested" like discussing other romantic prospects around the person you're talking to.
posted by schroedinger at 8:48 AM on March 8 [12 favorites]


'Beggars can't be choosers'....

That's not how friendship works. That's not even friendship. Please don't do that.
posted by bearette at 8:48 AM on March 8 [10 favorites]


I... don't understand where the "you clearly don't want to be friends with him" is coming from? I never said that. Even if I didn't, it's irrelevant because I'm not really in a position where I get to choose my friends (beggars can't be choosers)

This sounds like a contradiction. If you'd say bcbc about this, then I'd take that to mean you don't really want to be friends with him very much. (I really wouldn't want to be the him you're being friends with in that light.)

But more importantly bcbc sounds like some level of depression speaking, with all it's cognitive distortions that are so wretchedly, stubbornly true-sounding when they're so pervasively woven into your own thoughts.
posted by spbmp at 9:52 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]


I think you are making this much more complicated and difficult than it has to be, and I don't understand why you're leaving yourself no options in an area you can control and catastrophizing a situation that hasn't actually occurred and for which there seems to be little evidence that it might occur.

What I would do is get out of my head and quit with the rules and standard practices and guessing. I also probably wouldn't go out with him in the first place because I am choosy about friendships.
posted by sm1tten at 10:04 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]


I would think that the best way to be on the same page is to tell him that.

"Just to be clear, this is not a date, but I am excited to connect with you as a friend and can't wait to meet up with you"

Also to make it not feel date like, then make sure to pay your half of the bill and don't let him pay anything. It may not be a date, but this is the best way in my opinion to make sure it is not. I am not the type who likes guessing of playing games to get the way you want just to avoid being straight forward.
posted by Jaelma24 at 11:00 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


I... don't understand where the "you clearly don't want to be friends with him" is coming from? I never said that.

It's what you didn't say. You've never mentioned that you want to be friends with him, you don't discuss what it is about his personality you like, there's nothing in this about what is positive in a potential platonic relationship with this person. When someone writes out an essay about how much they don't want to accidentally date someone, and never brings up why it is so important to navigate that to be friends, it doesn't appear that they want to be friends all that much.

Friendship with this man is not mandatory. It is optional. Why do you want to be friends?

Even if I didn't, it's irrelevant because I'm not really in a position where I get to choose my friends (beggars can't be choosers) and honestly, I've never been in that position and probably never will.

Ok, if the only reason you want to be friends with him is because he reached out and you'll grab whatever comes your way, I can see why you're concerned he'll try to manoeuvre this into a sexual relationship. Can you list some reasons why he would be reaching out to someone who is only considering friendship with him to get out of the house? Is he likely to see an opportunity with someone vulnerable and take advantage of that, or is he coming from a place of warmth and helping?

People don't tend to react very well to being chosen simply because it's better than nothing. You'd find you have a better quality of friendships if you didn't view anyone who wanted to hang out with you as scraps for a beggar.
posted by Dynex at 12:39 PM on March 8 [3 favorites]


Say yes only when you want to see him. Also, you can say you need to get back to him and use the intervening time to see how you feel about getting together.

You guys have broken up, so nobody should be assuming anything about how should interact now. You make your own boundaries. If either of you has ideas about what friends are supposed to do, those don't necessarily apply in your situation.

If you feel it's too blunt to say "This is not a date" or "That sounds too much like a date," try something like, "I'm glad we can be see each other platonically now and then." "I like that I can be direct with you and you you're okay with that."

It's okay, when he asks to see you, to say "Not right now" or "Some other time," with no further explanation. If you're uncomfortable saying no, pause a second or two after he asks before you say, "I don't think so." This gives the other person an instant to realize that you're not going to say yes. I don't know why, but when I do this with people who often ask for things, it seems to make whatever follows seem easier for both of us.
posted by wryly at 2:21 PM on March 8


From my personal experience, anyway, I feel very strongly that as rough as it is, "no friends" is infinitely preferable to "friends who make you feel uncomfortable and/or take advantage of the fact that you aren't good at saying no". Because "no friends" tends to be temporary, whereas the friends who are taking advantage of you are much harder to get rid of once you've been hanging around them for awhile. That's why, in the absence of really WANTING to be friends, my recommendation is to avoid it. Poisonous friends and exes-trying-to-be-friends were a big problem of mine, at one point... I have fewer people to hang out with now but my life is way better for it. If that makes sense? I don't have people lifting me up, but I at least don't have people dragging me down. When you're kind of at a fragile point, it's much more important to be a little protective of your self.

But again, if you're actually having a really nice time and you just don't want to go back to being a couple, that's another story, and in that case I'd go with just saying so and getting it out of the way.
posted by Sequence at 4:31 PM on March 8 [4 favorites]


I'm not really in a position where I get to choose my friends (beggars can't be choosers) and honestly, I've never been in that position and probably never will.

Yep, I'm going to be the one to say it. I think you need therapy. This quote above is a super sad statement about yourself. Is your self esteem really this low?

You mentioned that you lost all your friends (which already sounds pretty dramatic) but then in your update you make these implications that you never will have friends again, like you're unable to make new friends. I can almost hear you saying "because no one likes me and I'm not worth it."

After your update, I've changed my mind about your situation. Don't see this guy at all. Not this weekend, and not in the future. The last thing you need in your current state of mind is someone who's most likely trying to take advantage of your vulnerability. Put self-preservation ahead of your concern about him being a little offended. Instead of making dates with someone you don't want to date, make some dates with someone you can talk to about what's going on in your life and why you believe that you're not worthy of friends.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:07 PM on March 8 [5 favorites]


It's too late -- I've already agreed to go and he's already on a long-ass subway ride or not. My plan is to cut it short if things start getting weird (I already hinted I might have to in anticipation of this.)

As for "Is he likely to see an opportunity with someone vulnerable and take advantage of that, or is he coming from a place of warmth and helping?" - well, that is the question, isn't it? I don't necessarily think he's being creepy, based on having known him, but I've also been wrong about that (part of the reason I lost all my friends was that I was wrong about that with someone else, someone popular, and then everyone sided with him.)
posted by dekathelon at 11:29 AM on March 9


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