A birthday greeting from a significant and estranged ex
July 18, 2014 6:18 AM   Subscribe

How should I have handled receiving a birthday greeting form an ex who completely broke my heart and whom I haven't contacted since?

I had a break up 6 months ago (I’ve written about it here before).
It was an on/off relationship with a woman who has ended it with me 3 times over a few years, mainly because she’s fickle and obviously doesn’t love me as much as she used to say she did.
I was very hurt by this, but I respected her wishes and went no contact from the moment of the break up and have stuck with it…until now.
A few days ago out of the blue she sent me an email simply saying ‘happy birthday’. I must admit it threw me…..mainly because it wasn’t my birthday... (that was a joke..it was). Secretly I’ve expected some form of contact eventually as she seems to operate like this. I mulled it over and the next day I decided to break my ‘NC’ and replied with a simple ‘thanks. I hope you had a nice birthday too’ (it was hers recently as well)
I haven’t heard from her since.
And now I have a strange combination of emotions that I can’t explain. On the one hand It’s put her back to the forefront of my mind and I’m eagerly checking my emails to see if she will reply, even though I know she’s no good for me and I shouldn’t ever hope to hear from her again.
And yet, on the other hand I feel like I can kind of move on a bit more now, as I know she still thinks of me and that she was the one that cracked first, and that seems to give me some satisfaction.
Now her missive could be significant or totally insignificant. However, knowing her as I do, and her scorched earth policy of dealing with people who displease her, it somehow seems like the former, and it may be a prelude to further contact?
My questions are
Was I right to respond and how should I proceed from here?
What if she sends a response?
Are the mix of feelings I have normal?
It all feels quite lame and angsty to still be feeling like this 6 months later, especially considering my age, but it is what it is.
posted by blokefromipanema to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to dodge your question a little bit because I spent around a year where you are now, and please, age doesn't have anything to do with this:

And yet, on the other hand I feel like I can kind of move on a bit more now, as I know she still thinks of me and that she was the one that cracked first, and that seems to give me some satisfaction.

If you're playing this game in your head then there was nothing to "crack" as you're still pining over her. She doesn't think of this as "cracking" because she's not pining over you this way. The reason I say this is not to be harsh but to tell you that what worked for me was practice. Just don't indulge in these thoughts. Put them out of your head and do something else. They will come, of course, but just don't wallow in them. I think there's a rubber band trick that some people will recommend but either way just work on it.
posted by ftm at 6:30 AM on July 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Ignore it, don't respond.
posted by jedrek at 6:34 AM on July 18, 2014 [13 favorites]

Was I right to respond and how should I proceed from here?

You just did a polite response, which was good. Anything more would have been excessive. And how you should proceed is - to continue to not contact her.

What if she sends a response?

Do nothing unless she's asking you for a kidney or something. And I will explain why next -

Are the mix of feelings I have normal?


She knocked you down, and you had JUST managed to unsteadily get back up on your feet again and - this gave you a big nudge, and you are at risk of falling back down again. You're trying to regain that footing it took you six months to get.

And THAT is why you should ignore it if she contacts you again - because you are not ready to re-found a friendship, because you're still very emotional. It just plain wouldn't go well.

Oh, and your age and the amount of time since the breakup have nothing to do with it. My last breakup took about three YEARS to get over, and I was 40. Some people just really do a number on us.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 AM on July 18, 2014 [16 favorites]

Was I right to respond and how should I proceed from here?

There is no right or wrong here, but I will say it would have been healthier if you hadn't responded. Move on, move on.

What if she sends a response?

Ignore it. She's got you strung out like political junkie at a Party convention with an iPhone in one hand, iPad in the other and you still think it's not enough info.

Ignore her crazy ass and let the poison drain out of your system. It'll take time, but you got plenty of that.

Are the mix of feelings I have normal?

Yep, don't sweat. This doesn't weird. That thing you do in the bathroom when no one is watching though? Yeah....

It all feels quite lame and angsty to still be feeling like this 6 months later, especially considering my age, but it is what it is.

Pretty much. Sometimes, people just get under out skin, driving us a bit crazy. It takes time to dull the pain.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:36 AM on July 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Set up a filter to block her email or have it filtered into the trash and marked as read. If you don't want to get back together with her, and you shouldn't, you shouldn't allow her to intrude and make you angsty. There are better things you could be doing!
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 6:36 AM on July 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

Hi, I am a woman who sends birthday messages to exes! This is what birthday messages to exes mean for me:

-You were a significant part of my life, and though our relationship didn't work, I am nonetheless fond of you as a human being
-If we had never dated and were instead only just friends, I'd tell you happy birthday
-Happy birthday

What it does not mean:

-I want to date you
-I miss dating you
-I have romantic feelings toward you

So, take it for exactly what it is: a birthday message. You responded appropriately; this is a pretty standard human interaction, nothing more. Stop keeping score. There is no score.
posted by phunniemee at 6:37 AM on July 18, 2014 [25 favorites]

I have been on both sides of this situation after a break-up -- the casual reach-out, usually with something innocuous like a birthday greeting. So, here's my 2 cents.

I think it's fine that you responded, and your feelings are normal. That being said, I would eat my hat if she responded again, so you should put that hope out of your head if you can. If she does respond (she won't), just let it be.

I don't think you should construe this as an invitation from her back into her life, because it is more likely evidence that she has moved on. Consider that this was likely just a way for her to casually say that she doesn't hate you, wishes you well in your life, and doesn't need to maintain a strict no-talking policy anymore because she's over it.

As ftm just said, I highly doubt that this email mattered much to her either way. I know it is hard to hear that, but you really should try to put it out of your head. Definitely do not initiate or expect further contact. You likely won't get it, and if you do, it will be extremely casual. Which it sounds like is not what YOU need right now, because it sounds like you are still processing the break-up.

Best of luck!
posted by likeatoaster at 6:38 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

She was bored and wanted attention. She knows that she can mess with you easily. Prove her wrong. Leave it at the thanks and never think of her again. If she were the one, it wouldn't hurt this much.
posted by myselfasme at 6:38 AM on July 18, 2014 [16 favorites]

I think you did fine. You were gracious and but did not advance the possibility of further conversation. Hopefully she won't contact you again and it will be easier to maintain the no contact. Resolve to maintain the no contact from this point forwards.
posted by mister_kaupungister at 6:39 AM on July 18, 2014

This is what blocking programs on your email are for. Don't keep this up, no good will come of it. You two wished each other happy birthday, and now you can stop corresponding.
posted by xingcat at 6:41 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

And now I have a strange combination of emotions that I can’t explain. On the one hand It’s put her back to the forefront of my mind and I’m eagerly checking my emails to see if she will reply, even though I know she’s no good for me and I shouldn’t ever hope to hear from her again.
And yet, on the other hand I feel like I can kind of move on a bit more now, as I know she still thinks of me and that she was the one that cracked first, and that seems to give me some satisfaction.

This is the most normal thing in the world, but more importantly, these are the exact reasons why people here recommend No Contact. You are teetering on a knife edge above a whirlpool of future anguish! If you had got an email and honestly felt nothing more than "gosh, how nice to hear from X" it would have been fine, but instead this stirred stuff up and you are on edge. You dealt with this fine now get back to NC.
posted by biffa at 6:45 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to block her, she was WAY out of line sending you anything.

If you responded, move on. But block her six different ways from Sunday going forward.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:58 AM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

These feelings are totally normal. And they'll pass, just give it a little time. Even in a week you'll have some perspective.

Whenever I'm confused by people, I pull out my Jane Austen rule book. Would this pass in Austen land? In Austen land, reputations matter, relationships are continuous things, people remember when they saw you last and what state your relationship was in, and people are deliberate and clear about the purpose of their actions.

She's clearly broken all those rules.

She ditched you. You went NC. Now she's sending you an ambiguous note months later? NO.

In Austen land, she would have known the purpose for emailing you. She would have acknowledged your recent distance. She would have made some sort of mention of her breaking up with you, some acknowledgement, or an apology. She would have inquired about the health of your family and wished you well on your joke birthday. THAT is the email of a person who treats people as real things, and relationships as living entities, things to be developed and nurtured.

Of course you're feeling blah and confused. You are playing by the rules of Austen land and she is flaky and unable to attach. She's like a bee, popping by for a bit of pollen and bumbling off when she's done.

Picture her in your mind, picture you together, saying goodbye, wish her well, let the karma that once held you together evaporate like morning mist because this is the end of that story... and then enjoy a beautiful Friday. Take yourself out for coffee. Sit on the patio. Is it sunny where you are? I hope so.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:14 AM on July 18, 2014 [18 favorites]

This is called "dipping your toe in the water". This is very, very common and should be ignored, viewed as a juvenile way to get your attention. This is a typical behavior of ex who frequently breaks up to reach out to see to see if they can get a response and then retreat if they do. If you are totally over her you wouldn't reply and if you are not then you shouldn't reply.
posted by waving at 7:44 AM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's okay to grieve. You suffered a loss and you're not past it yet. After a years-long relationship, six months might be enough time, or it might not. Be kind to yourself.

I know it's hard to do, but stop thinking about her motivations. Was she trying to develop hurt and confusion in you? Was she sincere in her email and does she really miss you? Did she start an email, stare at the screen for two hours, then change her mind and try to cancel but accidentally hit send instead and then went through her own moment of panic when she realized what she did?

WHO GIVES A SHIT. Answer: not you. Because worrying about her intent, her thought process, her grand plan in life does nothing to help you. Let's say you figure it out. You know her next move! She's going to x, then feint at y before switching to alpha. How does that help you move on? How does that help you in your next relationship? How does that help you to be your own person? How does that help the person you'll be in another six months?

I think you know that it won't, but sometimes these goddamned intrusive thoughts are just, like, intrusive.

It's okay to grieve. Grief is messy and complicated and nonlinear. One month per year of relationship may be sufficient, or you may be knocked completely out of orbit for years. It may not just be the relationship you're grieving either; you may realize you're mourning the loss of the person you were before you met her and gave yourself up, and now you don't know how to get back to that person, and it may be years before you realize one day that you're finally comfortable and happy with who you've become. But recognize that this is all about you and what you want, not what you think she wants.

I'm so sorry for your loss and I wish you all the best.
posted by disconnect at 7:47 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I made the mistake of replying briefly and civilly to a couple of out-of-nowhere emails from my ex-wife (who had cheated on me, and then left me for the other man, years before). Unfortunately, this opened the door to longer and even chattier emails from her (about her job; old mutual friends; her parents and siblings, whom I'd been very friendly with; her pets, one of which was an older cat that had been mine too once and which I still missed).

What I think is that she may have been looking for a sort of implicit forgive-and-forget that casual chatting might suggest. After a lot of clear-cold-light-of-day soul searching, I straightforwardly told her I didn't feel comfortable getting email from her anymore, and asked her not to email me again, and that was that, she never has -- and I'm happy I did so.
posted by aught at 8:08 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Btw this has totally happened to me. It was a short relationship but still. These people are mastery of connection but they don't have the emotional cajones (ovarias?) to keep it up.

After 4 mths NC, dude calls me up at work (!!) and is all "hey how's it going?"

I chatted for a bit to suss him out and give him the opportunity to start explaining himself. He didnt.

So I said, "What the hell do you want from me? You disappear, didn't return my calls, I find out you were seeing other people on the side, and now you call me out of the blue like nothing's happened? What the hell?"

That solved my problem, he never bothered me again!

And I felt good about it. Not that I don't have good memories and all, but fuck that guy!

The idea here is feel free to call people on their shit, feel free to dump your confusion, hurt and frustration on her since she's the source. You are probably reluctant to do so because she'll cut and run and you know it, and that would set off a cascade of deep pain. But that pain usually stems from something else (ie abandonment issues) and not her. She's not a balm for that kind of pain. So feel free to put the facts back in her face. If you're not ignoring her paltry emails, then put up a mirror and see what she does.

The self confidence it brings is amazing!

(In this case if you're going NC, then leave it alone but if anyone ever pulls this crap with you again, feel free to give them shit about it.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:18 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Was I right to respond and how should I proceed from here?
What if she sends a response?
Are the mix of feelings I have normal?

There is no right or wrong here in terms of what you are going to do.

Cross the response bridge if you come to it.

The mix of feelings you have are quite normal. Focus on acknowledging them and then letting them go and getting on with things.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:20 AM on July 18, 2014

OP here:
You know there were so many times I felt like sending her a message to tell her how shabbily she had treated me when I didn't deserve it. I never did call her out on her actions when she dumped me as I thought I'd just try to be cool and walk away...which is what I did.
But inside I was in turmoil and I chewed it over for so long, and regretted not telling her a few home truths at the time it happened.
I felt like she should be accountable for her actions.
Anyway, those feelings diminished and I never acted upon them, but I always thought I might if she ever got in touch with me.
Well now she has and I didn't. Probably because the nature of her contact was a simple birthday greeting and it seemed inappropriate to give her a hard time in response.
But maybe I had a chance there to put this whole thing to bed and perhaps I should have told her where to stick her 'happy birthday' and never to have contacted me again?
It may have at least stopped me feeling angsty now in case she does.
Have I missed the chance to do that or should I send her an email letting her know how I feel about it, as st Peepsburg suggested upthread?
posted by blokefromipanema at 8:44 AM on July 18, 2014

But maybe I had a chance there to put this whole thing to bed and perhaps I should have told her where to stick her 'happy birthday' and never to have contacted me again?

Speaking as someone who just yesterday got an out-of-the-blue email from my very most disliked ex, I feel like there's no long-term sense in doing this.

Almost two years ago, I sent my most-disliked ex almost exactly that message, and nonetheless once a year he writes me a blithe ridiculous email like we are old chums. The first time, I speculated on his thinking (does he want absolution? does he think this counts as "apology"? what is his deal??) This year, no dice. Some people are just idiots, it's best to ignore them.

(I should clarify: I sent my ex the "stuff it and never contact me again" email when we initially broke up.)
posted by like_a_friend at 8:52 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's probably wiser to write all those come-to-Jesus truths down on a piece of paper to her and then burn it/shred it/etc.

Reaching out to her in person will just perpetuate the contact, and may even make things worse because you have no idea whether she might deny everything, start a big fight, tell you you're crazy, come back at you with a whole lot of attacks on you, etc. I would just block her going forward, or respond to any future contact with a polite "It's kind of you to contact me, but I really must insist you not do so again. Thank you."

As for the things you want to say to her about how she treated you - put all of that in a letter, then burn the letter. You'll feel better even though she never got it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:53 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

No no no, do NOT send her an email letting her know how you feel about it. The polite response was Perfect. If you contact her again you will only be opening up the wounds for yourself. She will not magically feel bad, tell you her regrets, and make your pain go away. Only you can make your pain go away.

You gotta take care of yourself. The way you do that is to put this behind you and not engage should she respond. You can't fix her, you can only help yourself.
posted by ldthomps at 8:53 AM on July 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Agree with the above - you call people on their shit like that when you can handle their response, without it sending you into a further tailspin.

If you want some kind of recognition or discussion or acknowledgement from them about it, it ain't gonna happen.

FWIW when I called dude out on his shit, he was all blustery "hey, what's the big deal, jeez you're such an angry person, I just called to share XYZ news with you" because that's what these people do (the alternative is to acknowledge they've been dicks, which is too painful for their minds to bear).

For me this further confirmed he was an idiot and I dodged a bullet. So I was happy all around. There was no come to jesus talk, there was no resolution. His idiot behaviour was the closure.

In your case, you can stick with the polite response and ignore her further emails about it. Don't open up old wounds. I know you feel weird and all, and regretting answering, but how you handled it was ok. It was really ok.

If she emails you again in 6 months, you don't have to write a phD thesis. Either ignore it or say "look wtf do you want from me? you drop by when you're bored or whatever and its hurtful and selfish." At which point she may go "oh no, i'm not bored I really care" and then you ignore her protests because you know it's bullshit.

And the next time you meet someone amazing... but they're juuuuust kinda flaky and unavailable in that same way she kinda was.... drop them immediately without a 2nd thought, and feel good and decisive about it. That will be your confidence.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:19 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Walk away and get on with your life. Seriously. There are no points to score, no satisfaction in "truths" that won't be understood by someone else. Take the high ground. The you of five years in the future will thank you for it.
posted by aught at 10:37 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was dating a woman who left me because I was a complete mess of a human being, and due to the fact that she had found someone else.

It hurt so incredibly bad, even knowing I played a large part in it, and it seemed as if there would be no way the tight little ball of pain in my chest would ever dull away completely.

This was compounded by the fact that every once in a while (every three months... like clockwork... over the next couple of years) she would text me:


Despite every ounce of self-awareness and will-power I possessed to try to ignore it, I felt as if I was powerless to not respond.

It felt so incredibly good, to seem to have some kind of opening, or chance, to reconcile.

However, every single one of these text conversations would dwindle into silence after a few exchanges, and leave me just as broken hearted as I was the day she left. I would usually go into an emotional tail spin immediately after, though after a year they began to fade in intensity and duration. They started at a week's long clusterfuck, and finished up somewhere around a day or two, before fading pretty much entirely.

I changed her to "DO NOT RESPOND" in my phone book... didn't help.
I deleted her number entirely... But I ended up accidentally responding to her not knowing who she was. THAT was crazy, as the slow, creeping realization of who I was conversing with crashed down.

Still... every three months...


After about two years, the emotions had faded pretty much to nothing, and I was the one letting the conversations dwindle.

Still... every three months....


Then I got engaged, and at the advice of my friends and therapist, the next time she contacted me, I told her that I no longer wished to maintain any communication, out of respect for my engagement and my fiance... and...

Poof... gone.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

I had an ex who did this. She delivered a cheery "happy holidays" card to my mailbox in person while I was home, a month after she dumped me unexpectedly. We had been dating for several years prior to the breakup. I was completely devastated by the breakup and she knew it.

She tried to get in contact with me for two reasons:

1) She felt guilty about breaking up with me. She was looking for absolution.
2) She had somehow gotten it into her head that we could still be friends, if she only apologized.

She was being selfish. Neither reason showed any concern with my well-being. Just hers.

I have no idea if your ex is motivated by the same reasons. But you acknowledge that this woman is not good for you. Lots of people endure utterly toxic relationships and never come to that crucially-important realization. You know you shouldn't be in touch with her again.

Don't respond again. Block her. Walk away. Be thankful you got out when you did.

Find someone else, who puts you first. You deserve better.
posted by zarq at 1:05 PM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I once handled an ex contacting me by deleting that (seldom used) email address, taking down the webpage it had been available on, and blocking his address. When there's someone you have terrible history with, it's worth it to go to extremes. Her contacting you shook you up; if you can block her it can only help your mental health.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:40 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you did fine. Your reply was so polite and bland, it could actually be read as being a tacit, subtle "fuck you". There is a certain way of dissing the shit out of someone by being juuuust cordial enough, but not overly personal or solicitous. I think your response hits that note. And the fact that you didn't ask her how she's doing, or otherwise try to keep the convo going, closes that door nicely behind you. Chin up, eyes forward, your dignity is intact.
posted by nacho fries at 10:38 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Agreeing that you should write down what you want to say to her and either burn it or send it off for publication (jk). Come to Jesus moments tend to happen to people who are hurting so bad they have no choice but to take a good long hard look at themselves. It does not sound like this is the case with her or she wouldn't have sent you that cryptic email whose only purpose was to get you to think about her, which you are doing. If she has no profound reason to become a better person then an emotionally charged letter from you won't change that.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 2:11 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

OP here:
Thank you all very much for what appears to be the unanimous advice of ceasing further contact.
That is exactly what I will try to do. It's been a week since my acknowledgemnt of her birthday greetings and I've heard nothing from her, which ultimately for the sake of my own mental health is a good thing.
It's all very difficult because I still have a lot of residual feelings for this woman in spite of everything and I know I'm not over her yet, which was why that contact from her stirred up all sorts of feelings.
There is so much good advice that I will need to re-read to decide on the best replies.
A tough task indeed.
Thank you kind people.
posted by blokefromipanema at 2:42 AM on July 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

OP here again:
I don't know if it's the done thing, but I just thought I'd explain why I selected my best answer. There was some great advice and wisdom on this thread.....advice and wisdom which really gave me perspective and insight into the situation I posted about. And it also comforted me that all of it was unanimous....don't contact her again.
But the reason I chose st peepsburg's advice was because it really lit a lightbulb above my head about why I have struggled with this woman and the way she has handled things with me, such as the birthday wishes and the dumpings by text. And that is precisely because I look at human interactions and relationships as they would be carried out in Austen land.
I needed a bit more then 'happy (age inserted here) birthday'. It's not even like I needed an apology on her first email, but a 'hello'...'how are you'....'sorry it's been a while'..'I hope you're well' would have have been nice...and human. Even the use of my name 'Happy birthday blokefromipanema (not my real name obviously)'.
I didn't get any of that, let alone a response to my response.
And St Peepsburg's 'Austen Land' analogy perfectly explained why I feel the way I do about it.
posted by blokefromipanema at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

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