Can/should I be friends with someone I dated or can I end it gracefully?
January 20, 2014 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I've dated a man on and off for two years. I shouldn't have gotten involved with him again after the first breakup, but I did, and we eventually became friends with benefits. This was ok for a while because I was dealing with some serious family issues and didn't have much energy or time for a relationship, and we enjoy each others company. He recently decided he wanted a girlfriend and through online dating has found someone. I'm struggling with whether to walk away, or to try to maintain a friendship.

The relationship never had potential to be a good, healthy romantic one for me, so I always tried to keep some emotional distance. It was evident early on that he has many issues he hasn't dealt with and has never had a adult relationship that wasn't fraught with drama, much of his own making. But most of the time we had fun, made each other laugh, and enjoyed time together as good friends would. I know from what he's told me he doesn't have a good relationship with his mother, and it always bothered me to hear him talk about it because he spoke as if he doesn't respect her, and I've also come to learn I don't think he respects women in general. (Yes, one of a few red flags for me.)

In the past 8 or 9 months we've gotten to know each other much better and speak on the phone a few times a week, and get together every couple of weeks. He would open up to me, and told me I'm very grounded and that helps him. Looking back I gave him more support than he gave me most of the time.

He told me a couple months ago he wanted a girlfriend and we agreed we'd no longer be physically involved, but remain friends. He's recently started a relationship, and a few times has asked for advice about how he might change to become more what this woman wants. I've tried to not become involved or give an opinion although it seems like an impending disaster. He's very anxious about the new relationship, and admits he's infatuated even though this woman doesn't sound like she treats him well. He doesn't trust her. I've told him I don't feel it's my job to try to "fix" him, nor do I want to know the details about this current relationship. I didn't really feel rejected until he started expecting me to help him with this. I've told him I can't help him, and when he pressed me I told him I need some time away to sort my feelings out. He's waiting for me to get back to him and resume our friendship.

The current situation feels very awkward for me. I've struggled with abandonment issues in the past and felt like I'd made a lot of progress in that area, but apparently not enough to make this easy. I can't figure out how to handle this. I know I *can* just end the friendship and I'll get over it. But I've developed some good friendships after break ups in the past, and I think I truly care about him. I guess I'm having trouble knowing if this one is worth the effort. This guy is pretty self involved, and tends toward negativity - I don't expect him to change. But about 40% of the time he's funny, patient, sensitive and insightful.

If it's time to end this, I am not sure how to do it. My preference is to not allow this to turn into more unnecessary drama. We have a few mutual friends and are likely to run into each other socially. If it's worth sucking it up to stay friends knowing I'll get over my hurt feelings I'm wondering how to do that as quickly and painlessly as I can. We're both in our mid 40's.
posted by pinkbungalow to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I mean this in the best possible way, I felt a lot of red flag issues popping up for me. Especially when you said you've struggled with abandonment issues in the past and that this friendship is 60% of the time not good. Also, that you haven't gotten anything out of this friendship, especially after the FWB part of it ended. ....when I got to the point that you are both in your mid 40's is when I realized I needed to post and let you know that this is not acceptable behavior to accept in a friendship.

Please walk away from this as graciously if you can because you might see each other socially if you run in the same circles. You deserve better. You can make better friends that will treat you how you deserve to be treated. Once people reach a certain age and are unable to at least deal with some of the baggage they have accumulated throughout their lives, it doesn't bode well for future indicators that they ever will. And he doesn't seem like he wants to work through any of that, if anything, it sounds like he wants *you* to deal with his issues for him.


How to do so graciously? Hopefully you get some advice on this, I personally care for my emotional and mental well-being more than the possible hurt feelings of other people, but ymmv.
posted by lunastellasol at 9:50 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Fade out. Just do it. Get really busy. White lies. Don't make it dramatic. You need peace of mind. I'm exhausted for you just reading this. Big, deep breath and let it go. His drama is not your problem. You're not his mother.
posted by quincunx at 9:55 PM on January 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Gah. Decide for yourself if you want to date him or not. If you do, tell him that and ask him to break up with Ms. Terrible and be with you instead. If he says no, say, okay, you will then take a good long time to be away and move on emotionally. No contact it is, find a new friend. If you do not want to date him, wish him well in his relationship, and set boundaries around your time/efforts so you're getting out as much as you put in. What you do really depends on what you want with him.
posted by htid at 10:07 PM on January 20, 2014

Sounds like you don't totally know what you want when it comes to relationships and might be a little bit of an isolator. Yes, it's possible to have abandonment issues over someone who is incompatible and throwing you red flags. So you return to them and start talking to strangers about the "percentage" of them that you like. You also readily buy into the story he tells of being the victim in the relationship he is currently in. Notice he has a similar story about his mother. This is called painting red flags green. Sounds like you might be a go-with-the-flow type of person, and that works for you, but that in this particular situation, you might have to figure out what's really important to you and disengage a little bit before you slide into something that is both familiar and will cause you a lot of pain. Humans have a really high threshold for pain, and really enjoy familiar situations. It takes effort to counteract this.

I'm a big fan of a concept called "disengaging without issuing a press release." I don't know if you've already experienced this but big talks (especially with codependent types) can be kind of fruitless. You can bungle a line or find yourself working things out when you really don't want to. Believe it or not, you actually don't owe anyone an explanation of your thoughts and feelings. And this idea of "helping" or "fixing" someone is an illusion. That's not how adults work. They'll run away soon enough. And he'll never be your equal if you harbor these thoughts. You really want to "date" someone who is less than you?

I should also mention I have yet to downgrade a "friends with benefits" relationship to "just friends." At least not without some separation both physically and in terms of time. Otherwise, he might innocently come over just to watch a movie and talk and next thing you know his hand is on your leg. And this is not about "creating impressions that are helpful" to people like your friend over here. This should be a red flag to you. It feeds your ego thinking you can fix someone. Are you the woman that's going to make him respect women? Have you ever found yourself in a similar position before, cleaning up messes? Have you ever asked yourself why does this have to be your responsibility?

I say try doing nothing and see if you survive. Let the mess be a mess. It's okay to be unsure and need a break - you have my permission to feel this way. If you want to set the table for disengagement, when he contacts you, take a couple of days before getting back to him. This guy can be or do whatever he wants with his life and it doesn't mean you have to reply in any particular way. If it's time to end this, then it is solely because you think it's a good idea, period. This is an appropriate basis for action. Not what you think is best for him. Make some space for some new experiences. Push yourself to meet new people. This will help improve your perspective.
posted by phaedon at 10:26 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Imagine you are a cistern with a finite amount of water. Or, if you like, a well, freshwater well.

The image that comes to my mind is that you are a cistern and this man is a siphon. At this particular juncture. Perhaps not previously, or not always, or not in all moments, but you get the idea. As you mentioned, sometimes the two of you get on well, and it's enjoyable. However, red flags here and there, too.

Freshwater is hard to come by. It's your freshwater.
You will eventually run dry.

In this finite universe, with infinite possibility and not to delimit the use of imagination, what do you reaching forward and backward most want for yourself in this scenario with this man?

I just try to figure out what will cause the least suffering. Remember, honoring yourself is to always honor the other person. This is not selfish.

I'd like if you could at the end of the day feel like you honored yourself. This will help replenish your finite cistern with water for yourself and for those with whom you choose to share it. Remember how long it takes to feel like you've returned to yourself, remembered who you are, after getting engaged with people in a way that depletes and takes, rather than a mutual back and forth.

This is important. It's like muscle memory, except emotional memory. You deserve more. You want more. Deserve is a funny word. You want more. It's possible.

This is not to say that in the process of the possible, it will not be painful to let go of what you thought was "the most" possible at first pass.

You are a cistern. He is a siphon. No, no, no. Imbalance and lack of symmetry are painful and poor foundations for inter-relating.

Forget the people who were foolish enough to truly glean only this from human relationship: "Maybe there is a god above, but all I've ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you."

So, let this be the end of that "logical conclusion" of someone (he) who acts in such a way that believes in the latter. It isn't you.

It's not okay for those whom you care about to hurt you, even in willful ignorance. Higher standards, please. And you are still healing.
posted by simulacra at 10:38 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, you should end this friendship. It sounds draining. People who expect the exes they reject to help them through their stuff with the new person… ugh, it's so common it's a trope.

How to end it? However is easiest for you. Want to avoid drama? Then just fade out, be busy. Want to indulge your outraged feelings? Tell him it's not your job to fix him and you're done allowing yourself to be drained. Either way. Good luck, you'll be glad it's done when it's done.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:46 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bye bye, no thank you.

It's over/done.
posted by jbenben at 1:53 AM on January 21, 2014

In addition to all the very legitimate and well articulated suggestions above... staying friends with exes is hard work, complicated and usually painful in one way or another in my limited experience of having been very committed to the idea, at points. Eventually someone gets jealous. If you can rise about that basic shit, I commend you. But maybe someone else credits the effort more (than the 40%er).
posted by tanktop at 2:52 AM on January 21, 2014

It just depends on what kind of pain you prefer, breakup pain or drama pain. If it were me, I would opt for the bandaid pull approach and take the breakup pain now.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:24 AM on January 21, 2014

if you have to ask yourself whether or not to be friends the answer is: no don't be friends. breakup pain hurts a little more at first but it's way briefer and less humiliating than getting caught up in "i'm trying to be friends with him although it hurts my feelings" drama.
posted by zdravo at 4:27 AM on January 21, 2014

quincunx: "You're not his mother."


To me it reads like he is seeking motherly guidance from you and might ask for your opinions and advice on many matters of life, not just his new relationship. This kind of friendship might be a bit unbalanced and it does not sound like you're getting enough out of it. In fact it is draining your energies to the point where you have to take "time away". Why continue?
posted by travelwithcats at 5:47 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

My guess is that, in his narrative to the current girlfriend, you will eventually become the official Woman At Fault for everything. Relationships as unstable as you describe his new one often need an outside enemy to function.

You could either cut and run now, or wait and realize with amazement that you just absolutely don't care any more when he tells you he can no longer have contact with you, for the sake of his relationship.

I would say "ask me how I know", but this is such blatant projection that I'll just say it's pretty great to no longer feel responsible for a jerk's emotional well being after 20 years of holding down one side of the see saw by myself. I mean "yourself."
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 5:47 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think either of you are going to be able to move forward and build healthy relationships with others until you spend some significant time apart. Maybe at some point in the future you two can be friends, but not for a long time, and definitely not right now.
posted by sam_harms at 6:32 AM on January 21, 2014

Okay, I'm kind of the Poster Child for Staying Friends With Your Exes in my crowd (two members of which are the aforementioned exes), so ordinarily I would be saying "oh, sure, it's a possible thing".

But in this sounds like there is a lot of drama that he has to work out on his own, and some distance you need yourself, before that is even possible.

The most I would do at this juncture is, if he's pestering you asking for an update on What You Feel, is to say that "listen, this is probably going to take me months, if ever. Please just let things go." And then...just let things go yourself as well. But I would only do that if he reaches out to you asking for a status update; otherwise I wouldn't say anything, and just be cordial when you do run into him and that's it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:43 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

He is using you as his own personal therapist. Understandably, you are not comfortable with this. And, as others above have noted, he's also putting you in a position where you're the "third point" in a vague love-triangle - oh so much potential drama when things start to go sideways between your friend and his girlfriend. From your description, I doubt he will stop attempting these conversations with you unless you dump the friendship.

How do you do it gracefully? The next time he starts asking advice in this vein, that you tell him up front that you are not well-qualified to give advice on this topic, and that he should seek a therapist / life coach / dating coach to help him with these issues. Add in that you don't want to be a source of advice that could potentially cause problems in his relationship; that he really needs a professional who can help him objectively. (Yes he may take this as an indication that you're still interested in him, or that you're mildly jealous; no biggie, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.) Perhaps even email him some suggestions for self-improvement books if you feel so inclined. Close your interaction by wishing him luck and happiness with his new realtionship.

THEN, do the "slow fade." Don't take his calls. Don't respond to his texts or emails. Block his feed on your Facebook or even delete him from your friends-list, whatever you're comfortable with. For you, get busy with your own life. Immerse yourself in work, pursue a new hobby or interest, get out there and look for a better dating partner. If you run across him at professional events, walk the "high road," and be cordial and friendly like your would with any other professional acquaintance; do not refer to any past romantic/sexual entanglement.
posted by Ardea alba at 6:44 AM on January 21, 2014

I would view it like this: you were two broken people who semi-supported each other when you needed some healing and very little investment, that time has passed so you both can graduate to doing other things and hopefully healing some more.

So let it dwindle and keep the happy memories.

Next challenge: healthy back & forth mutually supporting relationships! Let this be your goal, and don't let past attachments hold you back.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:57 AM on January 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thank you for the excellent insightful answers and perspective. So spot-on. Just what I needed, time to move on.
posted by pinkbungalow at 7:08 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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