Is this a new friendship or a ticking timebomb?
September 26, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

My ex has sneaked back into my life during a difficult time. I'm appreciative of his support but I'm nervous about backsliding emotionally. How do I set the right boundaries? Or is this just the "being friends with your ex when you're ready" thing I've read so much about here on the green?

Years ago I was in a very passionate, unbelievably codependent relationship with my "best friend and soulmate". We were briefly engaged until I got dumped in spectacular fashion. After that I cut off contact completely for several years -- it was difficult but after about two years I really felt over it, like I had gained perspective, and was no longer mourning the loss of that potential future.

About a year ago the ex reached out to me with a nice email to ask how I was. I responded in kind, that was the end of it. A few months later he started casually texting me -- again, totally innocuous, friendly stuff. We kept up a sporadic, fairly impersonal correspondence and I was comfortable with that. It didn't upset the rest of my life and I didn't find myself feeling any unexpected emotions (like a "thrill" when I received his messages, etc).

Recently I've been going through a very hard time with a difficult diagnosis... conveniently my ex is a doctor. He's very interested in talking about what I'm going through, and, quite frankly, it's been a huge help for me to have a medical professional who is interested in talking about my illness, whenever, via text message, for free. We've been communicating a lot more lately, a lot more openly, and sometimes the conversation strays into more familiar/personal territory.

I've had a spidey sense over the past year or so that my ex might be trying to lay the groundwork for getting back together. I emphatically am not interested. I do appreciate his friendship and support. Is there a way to set that boundary without being narcissistic/needlessly harsh? And conversely, am I setting myself up for disaster by letting myself get close to him again? I know a repeat of our relationship would be wrong for me, but I'm concerned that continuing this friendship might lead me to a place where I would consider it and maybe even go through with it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't let him do it. People like having a "spare tire" to boost their confidence during times of anxiety or low self-esteem. Dont be his spare tire.
posted by discopolo at 7:12 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry that you're going through all this. This is really not an easy time to be figuring out someone else's motivations while you're dealing with your own illness.

I see two ways of going about this --

A. decide for yourself what the Rubicon is -- i.e., "he tries to kiss me" or "he starts talking about getting back together" -- and then if he does that, shut him down immediately and walk away entirely again. But until that point, assume the best and take the support. The danger is whether or not you are able to be firm about shutting him down, but this does alleviate you of worrying until you have to, and it doesn't cause an awkward scene if he actually was innocent about this all along.

B. Have a quick check-in that "look, I appreciate your support, but I just want to reiterate that we are and should be, platonic friends and that is all, and this situation does not change that." This would be more clear, but would potentially be awkward if he was innocent in intent, and he may indeed be innocent in intent if it's been several years since you were together.

Neither seem ideal, but it seems like they'd at least be viable options.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 AM on September 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

I emphatically am not interested.

This would be a thing to bring up, not jokingly, in conversation. It shouldn't be a huge deal if it's what either party wants.

It is only harsh if he has a shitty agenda; In which case harsh is fair.
posted by French Fry at 7:17 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Go on a few dates with other people and tell him about them. Then you'll see how much it's just friendship and how much it's him trying to rekindle the relationship.
posted by xingcat at 7:18 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

This totally happened to me, down to the spectacular dumping.

I backslid into a casual fuckbuddy situation that was super toxic for everyone involved.

Then I got re-dumped in even more spectacular fashion, which left me feeling even worse about myself.

I get that this guy is a doctor and wants to be there for you in regards to a medical condition, which sounds a little more noble. But tread lightly. Set strong boundaries. Say no. I like EmpressCallipygos' "Rubicon" model.
posted by Sara C. at 7:24 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had an ex do some sneaking*.
This ex, who has the capacity to be the most emotionally tone deaf person in the world, had the good sense to casually say "Hey, I hope us getting back in touch is not having any detrimental impacts to any aspect of your life these days...?"

I told him that what had transpired so far was fine, but that if he did x, y, or z that it would probably confuse me and become less acceptable.

Can you initiate this type of conversation with the ex?

*I invited him to my birthday party and he showed up.
posted by skrozidile at 7:26 AM on September 26, 2012

Also - is this ex geographically convenient? If no, I'd say there is less risk of you getting all twisted up because it would take serious effort to make a relationship re-happen.

If yes, run.
posted by skrozidile at 7:28 AM on September 26, 2012

I think this happens a lot, maybe because of a former partner's lingering guilt, loneliness, sense of regret after time has passed, or even the weird "back up / spare tire" person psychological phenomenon discopolo mentions (and that's definitely a thing... "whatever happens in my current life, I can probably go back to this other person...").

A few years ago, my ex out of the blue started trying to be chatty via email, many years after we'd been divorced (fwiw, her affair and stated desire to marry someone else when confronted with her infidelity had ended the marriage).

Getting the renewed contact so many years later -- after some false starts I'd gotten on with my life, career- and relationship-wise -- was weird and unsettling, and I told her so. She went away, to my relief. (I'll also mention in passing that my current partner had similar out-of-the-blue email contact from a former fiance whom she hadn't heard from in over a decade.)

I think the web's pervasive social media searching, along with the odd nostalgia for past times some people seem to get out of services like Facebook and Classmates (or bad popular movies), encourage people either to long for past emotions, or try to make past difficulties right.

Bottom line: If you're not happy with the contact, tell him and don't let yourself take the bait in the future.
posted by aught at 7:30 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had a spidey sense over the past year or so that my ex might be trying to lay the groundwork for getting back together. I emphatically am not interested. I do appreciate his friendship and support.

Keep this in mind: there is nothing friendly or supportive about someone using their position/knowledge to "lay the groundwork for getting back together." If your spidey sense is correct and that's what he's doing, his goal is not to empower you but to exploit your weakness to make you beholden to him. People who have ulterior motives are not your friends.

Is there a way to set that boundary without being narcissistic/needlessly harsh?

Be unfailingly honest and clear. "I'm glad we've been able to get past our history and become friendly again, I enjoy talking with you from time to time." "Thank you but I'd rather do it myself." "I appreciate your professional opinion." Don't go down the rabbit-hole of trying to second-guess him or his motives; take him at his word and call him on it when something seems off: "That's sweet but I don't feel the same way, I enjoy talking with you but I only want to be friends."

And you know, there's absolutely nothing narcissistic about putting your own needs/preferences first. As long as you are honest with the other person, you're not doing anything wrong. "I feel like I'm using you for your medical expertise! I'm sorry, but that's all I have energy for these days, let me know if I'm overstepping or taking advantage." And then you've said it and it's his choice to continue in that vein or not.
posted by headnsouth at 7:50 AM on September 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

From the other side of the equation: I "snuck" back into an exes life, because I missed her as a person. As soon as I realized that she was getting her hopes up I hightailed right it out of there, out of respect for her. I've heard she's married and has a child now.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:55 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why are you so sure it would be wrong for you? He was your "best friend and soulmate" and now he is here with friendship and support.
posted by kellybird at 8:08 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't assume the ex is a villain here. Even if he does want to get back together, that doesn't make him a bad guy. (Though, of course, it may be bad for you, and you want o have that "no" close at hand.) I mean, even if he does think "I want to get back together with her, but I'll take it slow, and right now, I'll just be supportive and offer my expertise if it can help," I don't see how that makes him manipulative. For that matter, if the ex had come here, and asked for advice, I think that's what he might have been told. So, I suggest the same to you: tread carefully, and watch out that you don't give your heart away because he's offering comfort when you're down, but for now, just walk slowly along the path and see where it heads.
posted by tyllwin at 8:17 AM on September 26, 2012

...I was in a very passionate, unbelievably codependent relationship ...

Frankly, given that you know the relationship was unbelievably codependent prior, the fact that you are again leaning on him for some very personal support in your illness does not bode well.

I'm sure it's hard to relinquish support, but you need to establish a good rapport with your doctor, not your ex.

I fear you're the one setting yourself up to be codependent again.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2012

I am gonna give you some tough love right now.

Your ex didn't sneak back into your life: you let him in by answering his emails and his texts. Take responsibility for that. Suggesting that he somehow just reappeared in your life is really immature and it's not healthy.

Your ex dumped you. You were in a codependent relationship. He is contacting you under the pretense of caring about you. This is likely self-serving on his part -- do not doubt for a second that he does not feel guilty about dumping you and is using your diagnosis as an opportunity to assuage his guilt and feel like the nice guy again... And you're letting him! Don't! You deserve better. I promise.

This is an opportunity from the universe to act on your own agency and cut this off before it goes too far. Call him out on all of this. "I am still sort of surprised that you contacted me x months ago. I want to make sure we're both on the same page -- I am happy that we've been able to contact each other on good terms but I am not interested in rekindling our relationship. You dumped me. I got over it. That ship has sailed. Tell me the truth: why did you initiate contact?"
And then trust your gut. I think the fact that you're even asking this shows you're working hard to be prudent. Go with that.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:00 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

"I've had a spidey sense over the past year or so that my ex might be trying to lay the groundwork for getting back together."


If something about someone else's behavior tips off your spidey sense, it probably should. In this case your question seems like its dripping with a fear that he is trying to push you back into co-dependence with him, AND THAT IS A REALLY RATIONAL FEAR. He has found a wedge into your life where he thinks he can make you feel like you need him regardless of the shit you already know he is about to pull because he has done it before. There are better ways of getting medical care, and that is especially if his advice somehow ends up geared towards you continuing to need him because your current doctors are all shit for $Reasons and he is the only one with insight into your condition. This dude's bullshit tipped off your spidey sense, and you've gotten a lot of excellent advice to this question from folks who have had their spidey senses tipped off before. Really I hope we can convince you to not only re-DTMFA, but also to trust your instincts.

Women in particular are generally socialized to not trust their instincts, to devalue them, and to consider them irrational. This only serves one purpose, to make women more vulnerable and manipulate-able. Fuck that, it is no way to live, and you deserve better.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:14 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your ex didn't sneak back into your life: you let him in by answering his emails and his texts.

I agree that you take responsibility for this. You're a participant in this dynamic. Own it and set the terms of how you want things to be. If you want to just be friends, make that clear and set some boundaries. It's up to you to figure out what is going to be the definition of the relationship you want.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:07 AM on September 26, 2012

I just want to add that unless your ex is a specialist in the disease you're experiencing, him being a doctor is really probably not all useful to you, and is probably just looking things up on WebMD to talk things through with you and may just be using this as his in. Sure, he may be helpful on really general questions- but just because he's a doctor, you shouldn't be implicitly trusting his opinion more than, say, your actual doctor.

Not saying this is definitely the case, but definitely be aware.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 11:41 AM on September 26, 2012

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