Boyfriend's ex is seriously ill
May 27, 2014 9:13 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend's ex has leukemia. While she could recover if her bone marrow transplant is successful, there is a strong possibility that she could die. My boyfriend is very sad about her illness. This seems completely natural, and I want to be supportive. But at the same time, I am uncomfortable with what he has told me about his feelings. Are these feelings romantic? If not, how can I support him?

He has said, for instance, that he feels tenderness toward her, and that he likes to think he would have gone back overseas where she lives to take care of her in the fall before we met (not to be in a relationship with her) if she had asked for his help. He has also said that he is sad primarily for himself, not for her; I don't know how to fill in the blanks here in a way that doesn't involve her still being an important part of his internal life. He claims not to have romantic feelings for her or any desire to be with her. In fact, he says that the thought of seeing her fills him with dread--because her illness is so painful for him, which makes it sound romantic again. At an earlier point, he said that he primarily felt pity for her. But I don't understand how that can be given his other statements. I feel completely heartless, and I want to support him, but I feel really sad and jealous.

We fought about this yesterday, and he seemed really upset. He doesn't understand why I worry and thinks it may be a basic incompatibility between us that we deal differently with grief, or that I just don't get it because I haven't been there.

Background: We have been together since December. He broke up with his ex the summer of that year. They had been together for 2 and a half years, and had been in a distance relationship at the end. She cheated on him and went radio silent at the end, which left him with a lot of fears about being apart, which we have to be this summer.

Has anyone been in this situation? I would really like to be able to understand these feelings in a way I can accept, and to help him if I can.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
> He claims not to have romantic feelings for her or any desire to be with her.

You need to accept this and stop pushing him about it. It is perfectly natural to have such feelings about the likely death of someone he cared about intensely for a long time; would you really want him to be able to discard people easily? I know it's hard on you, but if you care about your boyfriend you will keep it to yourself and let him feel what he feels rather than making it even harder on him.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on May 27, 2014 [75 favorites]

He could be romanticizing her illness (fly over to take care of her) and forgetting all the shitty stuff that happened at the end (which is normal, especially since he sounds like the sensitive mushy type).

If he actually does go over to see her.... well I guess it would depend on how you feel in your relationships right now. I still love some of my exes (from afar...) and express concern over their lives whenever we run into each other. I have warm fuzzy caring feelings towards them. But I wouldn't want to be with them again.

Anyways he sounds like a sensitive caring type and I would prefer this over a "my ex is a crazy bitch!" kind of guy. These sound like normal feelings to me. It just depends on what he does with those feelings. (Calling her up to express concern would be ok in my book.)

Love isn't so black and white that it turns off or on at the change of a label like dating, not dating etc. If you have a good foundation and trust developing in your relationship then this all should be ok stuff for him to express.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:23 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's okay to have these feelings, you're not a monster. Jealousy is never really the most emotionally healthy response to it but it is absolutely okay. Just don't act on it, omg. Nothing good can come of you saying to him "I am jealous and angry about the feelings you have expressed about the possibility that your ex girlfriend will die amidst much pain and suffering and how that makes you feel," I promise you that.

Some people do not stop loving/caring about their exes. This does not mean they do not love and care about the people they are currently with. It is also okay if people ARE able to stop caring for someone who was once very important to them. I don't think it's a fundamental difference that cannot be overcome between you, but it is very unfortunate that this is the situation which brought about the realization of this difference.

Are you still friends with anyone you have dated in the past? Can you put yourself in his place? Also consider the way you addressed the situation yesterday when you say you "fought about it". Did you begin by accusing him of still harboring feelings for her? Or did you say "I'm feeling a little sad and uncomfortable about this and I would like some reassurance from you that our relationship is going to be okay" or something similar? I think the latter would be far more productive, personally.
posted by elizardbits at 9:27 AM on May 27, 2014 [21 favorites]

You absolutely can still care for an ex, still have feelings for them, without it being an impediment to other relationships. I think this is all pretty normal for someone who has someone from their recent past falling terminally ill so young.

On top of that are feelings one has about their own mortality which can complicate things and cause someone to be more reflective.

So, try to relax and not put too much pressure on him. That can only hurt things going forward, especially with you being apart this summer.
posted by inturnaround at 9:27 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

She cheated on him and went radio silent at the end,

He's got some fears of abandonment, maybe - if she dies, it's permanent radio silence.

He may also be (sub)consciously realizing that if she dies, part of him dies, too. They had a history together that isn't shared or remembered by anyone else besides the two of them. It's sad, and it's scary. And in this context it's also quite easy (and understandable) to "forget" the bad stuff and remember only the good bits.
posted by rtha at 9:29 AM on May 27, 2014 [14 favorites]

Often, when a relationship is over--well and fully, truly over, with no residual romance at all--there is still tenderness. You spend a long time with someone, get to know them really well, and they know you really well; presumably there is some integration of the two lives, knowing the other's friends and family. You have memories not only of the person but of the events that happened in your own life during the time you were with them. Even without a terminal illness in the picture, an ex can very much be "an important part of [one's] internal life."

Think about all the people from your past who are part of your "internal life." Do you care for the well-being of anyone from your past? Why or why not?
posted by magdalemon at 9:29 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I get that wanting to help your fellow man is noble and stuff, this sounds like something more. So she broke it off with him and went no contact. He somehow found out that she's seriously ill. But he's having fantasies where he goes off to help her in her time of need.

I think that he probably didn't give himself enough time between the end of the old relationship and the start of yours.

I'd back off for awhile. I'd stop asking about her, or talking about her with him. He loved her, and may have unresolved feelings for her. But that doesn't mean that he may not be able to love you in time.

As for supporting him, actually, I wouldn't really want to hear too much more about it, to be honest.

"Gordon, I realize that you loved and cared for Susan, and that you want her to be well and healthy, but she's moved on from you, and I think you may have unresoved feelings about how your relationship ended. That said, I don't think I'm the person you should be talking to about this, because it makes me jealous. Perhaps you can discuss this with Bruce, since he knew you both."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:31 AM on May 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

My husband and I had been married 12 years when an ex of mine was committed to a psychiatric hospital for suicide attempts. He is the only ex I stay in touch with, and he's completely and totally the opposite of my husband, so fulfills very different needs of mine than my husband does.

When my ex was in the hospital, he and I spent hours on the phone together, going over our old relationship, our new relationships, roads not taken, you name it. Anyone listening to us would have thought we were still in love, or at least heading that way. And at no time was that ever true (at least for me, I am not sure I can speak for him) and at no time would I ever have considered going back to him.

But his mental illness, and the prospect that he would die from it, gave me the freedom to feel strongly, to think carefully and hard, to face my feelings and my behaviors and my history in a way that I have never been able to before or since. Your boyfriend has basically been invited, by this circumstance, to do the same. Death is a powerful force (just try finding a novel or a dramatic movie where no one dies — it's almost impossible) and your boyfriend is in the thick of it right now, made more powerful by the fact that she hasn't died.

He may well be having romantic feelings for her, and wallowing in them. This is life. You have to decide if this is a deal-breaker for you, and part of that will be reflecting on whether you might have similar reactions if someone you once loved was facing death. Part of it is whether you'd hope that he'd have similar feelings for you after your relationship was over. I know that for me, there are songs that bring back strong feelings of love for a man I once loved, and love no more, but I experience the love for who he was back then. I have zero desire to even see him now, but the feeling of love is there, and it is felt for who he was years and years ago. I think that I am a better wife, a better lover, for carrying those feelings with me. Can you see that in your boyfriend? Can you love that about him? That's your question, and whatever your answer is, that's okay.
posted by Capri at 9:34 AM on May 27, 2014 [31 favorites]

I've been in your boyfriend's position. My partner may not have been wild about the situation, but he drove me to and from the airport when I (more than once) went to visit. I am very grateful for that. When people start dying in your life, it is really a gift if you can be on good terms with them. Sometimes you can't for whatever reason-- and the point where the other person dies is just one point in the relationship-- but it is a blessing if you can remember the relationship in a good state.

This is a really jarring time for your boyfriend. They have not been broken up very long. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling jealous but I would encourage you to be as generous as possible, if it gets to that point.
posted by BibiRose at 9:35 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

People who have been in long relationships with each other often still feel good things about each other after they end. Those good things may be more mixed up with bad things -- the bad things that lead to the breakup, the bad feelings that result if the break-up itself went badly, etc, but no one you spend a lot of time thinking about for years is ever really going to leave your life or your thoughts. His continued goodwill towards her is a sign of emotional maturity and a caring person.

I can understand why you'd feel jealous, and I don't think that's wrong or ridiculous. It's natural to want him to feel those loving thoughts only about you and to not want him to feel them about someone whose relationship with him ended recently and not really by his choice.

In addition to all of that ordinary stuff, you have the illness and the likelihood that she's dying and opens up a whole boatload of issues for people. Having someone you care about die is awful, even if it's not romantic care. Having someone your age die can also be awful, just because it reminds you of your own mortality and makes you think about how you're living your own life. A friend of mine's brother died a couple of years ago, and I was really upset about it even though I had only met him once -- it was an overreaction based on our relationship, but my upset wasn't about him, it was about me, and what his death said about my life.

There's just a lot of emotional baggage around death and dying and expecting him to have any one reaction to it that would be acceptable to you is never going to work.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:36 AM on May 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't think this is a fundamental difference in how you deal with grief; I think it's a fundamental difference in how you deal with exes.

In my book: They were together for two and a half years. If he didn't feel tenderness towards her, if he wasn't sad about the possibility she might die, if he wasn't very sad, I'd think he wasn't a good guy to be honest. having said that, I maintain relationships with all of my exes. I wouldn't have dated them were they not excellent, entirely loveable people in the first place, and I still love them each even though i'm no longer in love with them. The difference is important.

Additionally, this is probably the first person or at least the closest person in your peer group to face mortality and that makes the feelings about it more acute. That doesn't have anything to do with her; it has to do with him being 25.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:42 AM on May 27, 2014 [16 favorites]

He's got a romantic idea in his head which is just a fantasy. It sounds like he's being totally honest and open with you about his feelings. Honestly, I would agree with language hat that you just work through this on your own time, don't confront him or give him a hard time about it. I do think your feelings of jealousy are normal and natural, but fighting about it isn't worth it - we're talking about a critically ill person who's not even in the same country as you are. In reality, she is human, she is his same lying and cheating ex who he loved and had some great times with, who hurt him and has flaws and who is now puking, skin and bones thin, who is likely to be living a situation that is in no way romantic if you are actually there with her. In his head, she's like a character in a movie who lies in a white dress on a deathbed with a rose, representing whatever she represents in his mind, there are no actual conversations or interactions or messy realities to intrude on the fantasy. There is no threat to you here. I do understand how you feel, but I don't understand why you would "worry". It might be worth thinking about what exactly you are worried might happen as a result of his thoughts and feelings about this. Are you worried that feeling the way he does makes him inherently unfaithful to you, even if he is never going to actually interact in person with the woman in question? What is it about her that threatens you? Do you worry that he is spending so much time fantasizing about caring for her, he isn't paying attention to you? That he wouldn't feel the same way if you were the one who was sick?
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:43 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

1. You don't just stop loving someone when your relationship with them changes. You can love your siblings, your parents, your friends, your partner, all at the same time and in different ways. Maybe he loves her not in a romantic way, but in a "we know each other very well and have history" kind of way or a "friend I used to date but who is now my good friend" kind of way. It is normal for him to care about her without necessarily having to have romantic feelings for her and you can't expect him not to.

2. A serious illness, death, or the prospect of death is when you remember all the very nice things about people. It is normal for him to be thinking fondly of her under these circumstances and you can't expect him not to care.

3. You find their closeness threatening, because his love for her is real and different from the love he has for you. That's normal too and you can't expect yourself not to feel some fear or threat.

I think your best path lies in accepting fully that he is telling the truth and that the above conditions are not mutually exclusive. Then think about what you are really afraid of--that he will leave you for her? That you are not important somehow? And then think about how realistic those fears really are.
posted by epanalepsis at 9:43 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

:/ I understand how you feel. But I also think your BF is being pretty straight forward here, as far as I can tell, it sounds like he is being pretty honest with you and nothing you have reported has made it sound like he actually want to leave you for her in any way.

Look, people are complicated. We can hold many emotions within ourselves at the same time, and sometimes that means we can love someone and be in a relationship with them and absolutely be happy and glad to be in that relationship with zero thoughts of being with anyone else... and still have tender thoughts about other people in our lives, even people we've been with prior. Your reaction to what he says will dictate how open he is with his thoughts and feeling on future issues.
posted by edgeways at 9:44 AM on May 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here is my take on loving one's former partners or former good friends. Quoting that comment: "I strongly feel that certain relationships become almost sacred, and one's ability to do right towards those people is a crucial part of one's sense of personal honor. Asking him to not feel that way or not help her in an emergency is like asking someone to curse their mother and spit on her grave, or something. If you love him, you have to grant him the space to behave in a way that honors this connection that is near-sacred to him. To me what this means is that he is an honorable person, and she was/is a valued person in his life."
posted by salvia at 9:48 AM on May 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

If you've been through a bunch of relationships, you know that the most scary part is what happens afterward. People you once loved - apparently good, nice people! - can turn belligerent, even criminal. After living and observing nightmare exes, it's easy to build up a reluctance to ever fully share, or to make one's vulnerabilities known. When (for whatever reason) a lover becomes an ex lover, a very scary roulette wheel is spun.

Your guy, you now know, is not one of them. He stays kind-hearted. That speaks well for his character.

That said, I understand your worries. But think of it this way. If he did have romantic feelings, he wouldn't be anywhere near as upfront with you about his concerns for her situation. He would hide them, he would draw distinctions, he would defend. It would turn into a managed situation.

But he's not managing, so he's not scheming. He cares because he's caring, and he's opening up to you about it because he trusts you and feels secure about your trust for him. This is all extremely good and rare stuff. I'm heterosexual, but even *I* want to go out with him!

You won't easily find someone like this. So I'd urge you to tightly restrain any latent jealous impulses from coloring this exhibition of his higher character as something ugly. Rise to this occasion by cultivating your own higher character. That would indicate that you deserve someone this cool. If you don't, and you give reign to your jealousy, that jealousy will be, as jealousy almost inevitably is, self-fulfilling.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:02 AM on May 27, 2014 [21 favorites]

You're equating strong feelings with romantic feelings. You're reading every statement that he cares about her as a statement that he has feelings for her that are somehow a threat to your relationship or disrespectful to it. I tend to agree with the position that I'd be more worried if he didn't care about her. Two and a half years together, and they broke up a year ago? If she were potentially dying and he weren't at all upset by it, that's what would bother me. Dreading seeing someone you have loved in a state of illness is not romantic by definition; it is compassionate.

Of course she's an important part of his internal life. He loved her -- not ten years ago, but this time last year. I think you are asking too much as far as total disengagement. That kind of cutoff is some people's bag, but it is not everybody's bag. I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to accept your own jealous feelings, understand how human and natural they are, and decide to set them aside. What you are describing is a caring and sympathetic man who retains feelings of kindness and tenderness even toward people who have made grievous mistakes. The best thing you can do is accept that this is not about you and not about your relationship, and for you to fight with him about it is pulling focus in a way that's not flattering.

Your feelings are human. His feelings are human. Everybody's okay here; your only misstep would be making a big deal out of it. Don't look for signs of his attachment to you in ambivalence toward her -- he could be totally indifferent to her and still not serious about you, or he could be caring toward her and very serious about you. This does not reliably tell you anything. Don't make it a test.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:10 AM on May 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

My ex husband never made me feel like I mattered to him more than his one and only previous girlfriend. When she dumped him, amidst lots of drama (pregnancy scare, which he planned to help her get an abortion for -- her period arrived, she couldn't dump him fast enough), he stopped eating. I was his best friend and I had to listen to him whinging about this girl and how it was his one true love and all this shit. I ended up sleeping with him and then, a few days later, he drove around for an hour with me in the car whining about her again. Oy. Many years later, I think after we had agreed to get divorced, I commented on the fact that in all the years we had been married, I never felt like I mattered as much to him as she had. His extremely insensitive dismissal of my feelings did not make me feel better.

My experience is that jealousy is not about what he is doing/feeling for her. It is about what he is failing to do for you. I have had relationships where I got my needs met in a way that helped me stop being insanely jealous. Yes, my ex married me, had two kids with me, etc. But he never expressed to me that he was crazy about me and I was extremely important to him and he couldn't live without me and that kind of thing like he expressed to me ABOUT HER when we were 17.

I don't know what would fix this but, if I were you, I would be asking myself "What am I wanting and needing from him that I am not getting?" Because my experience has been that is the real issue, not whether or not he has feelings or whatever for someone else. And if you can't a) figure out what you need from him and b) find a way to get that, this might be the beginning of the end for the relationship. Relationships that foster this kind of jealousy are generally not very healthy.

(I stayed as long as I did with my husband in part because, in most other ways, he was good at calming my insane jealousy and helping me get over it. Which is part of why I didn't bring up how I felt about his ex gf until we had been together many years: Because it was a relatively small thing, in the grand scheme of things, actually. I mean, 2 decades of that has left it a sore point but, still, by itself, it was not some relationship deal breaker. I left for unrelated reasons.)
posted by Michele in California at 10:17 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's one thing I think begs clarification. Did she call him to tell him about her illness? Or did he find out through friends? Or has he been stalking her Social Media?

It may be that she STILL doesn't want him in her life. And he should respect that, if that's the case.

Because if all of this is taking place in the absense of her actually being a part of it....big problem.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:19 AM on May 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are interpreting anything he says that indicates he still cares about her and finds her illness emotionally painful as a sign that he is still romantically interested in this woman. I can't see into his head to know what he really feels, but I don't think the inference you make is warranted. In my experience, it is possible to continue to care about an ex without having any desire to get back together with that person. He can feel tender about her, feel dread at the difficult sickness she is enduring, and even have a romantic vision of himself as the sort of person who would help out an ex who is in trouble without being romantically interested in her.

She was an important person in his life, they shared lots of experiences (many of them positive), and cheating aside he presumably has always liked her in a lot of ways. What sort of person would he be if he didn't feel tenderness toward her in this situation and find her illness painful?
posted by Area Man at 10:31 AM on May 27, 2014

My ex has a wonderful boyfriend, and I have a wonderful girlfriend. Her and I don't talk. But if she didn't have a boyfriend and became sick, I would feel compelled to offer her my support.

I guess it's hard to explain, but our having shared something--even if it didn't work out--will forever change who she is to me.

Take it easy on your boyfriend, but find a close friend to confide in, since it's healthy to talk about this. Of course you shouldn't be excited about this.
posted by jjmoney at 10:33 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think that any sort of confronting him on how he(presumptuously, imo) has "unresolved feelings" for her is really gross. Like, i would get super angry at someone i hadn't been dating that long who tried to backhandedly pat me on the back over my feelings about a situation my ex was in with some kind of "i get how you're feeling, but i think XYZ are your real feelings" kind of garbage. I bet several people on here would then advise you that was "defensive" and just meant they were right.

Do i think he's completely over her, honestly? no. Do i think that means you shouldn't be dating or he's somehow being intellectually/emotionally dishonest with you? Not necessarily.

He can be committed to you and hurt by this at the same time. He can be committed to you and want some kind of closure here, or feel this is really sudden and happening before he was totally over her when it still stings.

Pretty much, just because he still has some kind of hard to describe feelings for her and is hurt by this doesn't mean he's lying about his feelings for you. This was someone he was close to for a long time, is he supposed to just not give a fuck now to fit the mold of how the general tropes of immediately deleting all your feelings for someone are presented? Because that's not how real people work.

I would resent someone i dated who got really "my way or the highway" or generally offended/hurt by this type of situation. I'd also go out of my way to make sure they knew i cared about them and that they were the number one in my life now.
posted by emptythought at 10:33 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

He has also said that he is sad primarily for himself, not for her.

What? That sounds narcissistic. Maybe you should be thinking whether you even care to be with a guy who says something like that. Would you like him to say that if you were the one who was critically or terminally ill?
posted by Dansaman at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

His ex may be dying. He probably had complicated feelings about his ex before finding out that she may die soon. Now she may die soon and he has complicated feelings about her.

This is normal.

His feelings for her do not sound romantic. They may not sound consistent, but people are not always consistent. There's a lot for him to process here.

He's being up front about it with you. Give him room to have complicated feelings and don't make it about you. Remind yourself, periodically, "This isn't about me."
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:03 AM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

He can love her without it being romantic. I love my most serious ex the way I love a family member (familial love). I don't want to be with him but I care deeply for him and would be very upset if he were dying. Someone you date for 2+ years becomes a best friend. Support him the way you would as if one of his best friends (or a former best friend who he hasn't been in touch with as much lately) were dying. This person knows him and they had a deep connection. Those people are rare in life. It's a sign of his good character that he is upset.
posted by amaire at 11:10 AM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you told me how to grieve for someone's illness, then I'd be really pissed at you. It would feel incredibly controlling, especially if I was in the throes of sadness. He is deeply saddened to see someone he cares about gravely ill. Cancer treatment is no joke and he'd like to lessen that burden on her. That's compassion and empathy.

Whether his feelings are romantic isn't the issue. This is about your insecurities, not his feelings.
posted by 26.2 at 11:22 AM on May 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I found out my ex had a very serious illness, I was sad and wanted to see them again after many months of no-contact. I felt protective and wanted to volunteer my help. But I didn't want to get back together. The feeling I felt was brotherly love, not Eros, and I think it's normal to have platonic love left over at the end of a romantic relationship. Hard to know for 100% certain what's going on in your boyfriend's heart but from your description I suspect he is feeling protectiveness and brotherly love too. Hope you guys can work it out in a way which is gentle for you both.
posted by feets at 12:31 PM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a difficult feeling and one I would probably struggle with too. It's important to remember that his caring or feeling sad about an ex or friend doesn't take away from his feelings about you. To me, the idea that there is only one person we should care/think about about is harmful. Thinking more about particular persons or things at times like this doesn't negate his feelings or relationship with you. Good luck and be gentle with both of you.
posted by ichomp at 1:02 PM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Think of some public situations, say Charles after Diana died, or Cher after Sonny died. (Granted, these were marriages with children.)
posted by SemiSalt at 1:44 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

>>>He has also said that he is sad primarily for himself, not for her.

>What? That sounds narcissistic

If someone is pondering or trying to work out selfish impulses, that's a sign the person is not a narcissist. Narcissists don't do this (any more than fishes ponder water).

Only nice people worry about being too self-centered. Selfish people worry about being too nice.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:34 PM on May 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yea, not to mention i think that statement may have been a misguided and/or awkwardly phrased stab at putting her at ease wrt his feelings towards his ex. Like, "don't worry, it's not romantic. i'm concerned because i'm concerned, not because i'm like OH NOES MY LOVE"
posted by emptythought at 3:46 PM on May 27, 2014

My ex was a bit of a drama king because nothing dramatic ever happened to him and he actually never could really feel deeply about anything. He liked to involve himself in dramatic situations as a bystander, not quite having the courage to participate but having a romantic notion of himself that wasn't in sync with reality: that he didn't know how to genuinely care about other people or have real friends.

In retrospect, I find it difficult to respect that because it's feigning emotions, using someone's illness to throw yourself a pity party. It's gross to think,"Oh, I was her boyfriend, and I would have had this hero role in her illness." It's bizarre to make it about yourself. It would be one thing to feel enormous guilt for probably loathing her for cheating on him, but to revise the actual truth of the relationship so he can fantasize about nursing someone who clearly didn't respect him or want him on her deathbed.

I don't know, but I wouldn't invest too much in this guy. It's immature, you're rightfully frustrated because you're hoping he'd expend some emotion on your relationship rather than making someone's illness all about him. Maybe suggest he see a therapist and see what happens.
posted by discopolo at 10:50 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like he is grieving the permanent loss of his ex, which is complicated by the fact that he is still working through his feelings about what happened at the end of their relationship, so to me this is a double loss situation. He is simply imagining what his life would be like right now if they were still together - he has an impulse to take care of her. I can see how this is hurtful to you, but I don't think it means he is a drama king or a narcissist or still in love with her. I think when he said he feels sorry for himself, he may have been referring to the fact that her friends told him not to come and see her - I would be really hurt by this too, because he's being treated like an outsider and just a short while ago they were together. Unless she told her friends specifically that she didn't want to see him again that's pretty cold.

In your shoes, I would try to give him time/space to grieve and do what he needs to do. You don't have to be the one listening all the time though, I like the suggestion of opening space for him to talk to friends who knew them together. And from experience, it is really important to some people that they feel like their partner is really with them through a loss, so try to balance that if you really do what to be with this guy for a long time. He may feel betrayed if you tell him you have no interest in discussing these issues.
posted by lafemma at 6:23 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

As an illustration, I'd add that my dad died last year. My mother bawled down the phone when it happened and then came to the funeral and cried her eyes out. This, despite the fact they'd been divorced for uh, 40 years and my mom and stepfather have been together for 38 years.

Was she nursing romantic feelings for him for four decades? No; he was an alcoholic and a dilettante and a world-class gobshite. She spent years apologising for having foisted him on me, but that doesn't change the fact that they had history and she loved him and felt his loss deeply.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:06 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

If he has never had anyone die in his peer group/age range before, this could also be wrapped in all those fears.
posted by Vaike at 10:47 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I will add this:

My son once made the observation that I got closure in my marriage and then filed for divorce but that most people seem to do it the other way around: They leave first and then get closure. He felt this is part of why my divorce was not a shitshow. I had already resolved my feelings on the issue, so the divorce was a practical, logistical thing.

If your bf still has unresolved emotional stuff going on, the prospect that she could die may be bringing up all those unresolved feelings and those fantasies of what he thought he might say to her, someday, or whatever. When someone dies and we never got tell them something or never got to resolve something, welp, we can't do it now. And that may be part of what is weirding him out, especially if no one close to him has ever died before.
posted by Michele in California at 10:51 AM on May 28, 2014

I'm going to give you the magical answer to all of your problems ever.


You can discuss the specifications of a person's neurosis and their particular fears and weird things but at the end of the day, the correct response to literally every situation with that person ever was empathy. No judging or blaming.

Empathy and acceptance (which are Love with a capital L) is one of the most powerful and base needs that we as social creatures have. That feeling you get with your boyfriend when he's not judging you or blaming you for anything is acceptance- it's the message that there is nothing wrong with you. And the truth is, there isn't. And there isn't anything wrong with him.

Every single thing he says to you is an attempt at some level of consciousness to gain acceptance and empathy from you. That is what is driving him- it's what's driving all of us. It's what drove you to edit your post in the ways you did- to gain acceptance from us, in the hope we would empathize with you and help you. And we do. Emotions are never wrong- they are simply effective or ineffective at actualizing empathy in others.

He wants this from you earnestly, deeply- and you want it from him. Give it to him, accept everything about him- even the things that make you uncomfortable. Even if silently, just look at him and say "Nothing you're doing is wrong- I know what you're trying to get. You don't need to suffer anymore- I'll give it to you."

That is what we colloquially call "true love", and you will see that it's the answer to every problem- since every problem is ultimately the result of a tragically ineffective strategy for gaining acceptance and love from others.

Good luck with everything!
posted by drd at 12:13 PM on May 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

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