Did I make a mistake? If not, then why does this feel so bad?
June 24, 2017 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I ended a complicated and messy friendship a few days ago, and now I'm a wreck. I'm having enormous trouble processing my feelings and understanding where all of it is coming from, accepting that I've made my decision, and moving on. Did I overreact? Did I make a mistake? What should I be learning from this? What questions should I be asking myself? What else am I missing?

I cut things off with my friend T a few days ago, the culmination of a complicated, messy friendship. We met about 5 years ago and over the course of a few years we grew from acquaintances to friends. As we got closer, we developed intense crushes on each other, but were both already in serious long-term relationships. I recognized at this point that I was unhappy with my boyfriend, for many reasons beyond this crush, and ended my relationship. T wasn't ready to leave his relationship, but he told me that he could easily see us being together if he ever wound up single. He said he had the same feelings I did, but didn't feel it would be fair to his girlfriend to act on those feelings.

That didn't stop him from heaping compliments and affection on me, telling me often how smart, successful, funny, cool, stylish, and attractive I was, everything a guy could ever want or hope for. Though my attraction to him had only begun once we became good friends, he told me that he'd always had a crush on me, since the moment we met.
He said he would be proud to have me as his girlfriend. When we went out and he noticed other guys checking me out, or if they made remarks about my appeal, he would excitedly tell me about it afterward. He said he loved walking into bars or clubs with me, because heads would turn and everyone must have wondered how he got so lucky.

Things snowballed into a full-blown emotional affair, which lasted for about a year. We talked or saw each other almost every day. We went through months of sleep deprivation because we talked so late into the nights. Any time we were apart for more than a few days, he would fret about missing me. One time he even drove to my place in the middle of the night just to get a hug... we had plans to hang out the next day, but he couldn't wait. We were so close and together so much that our mutual friends strongly suspected something was going on, but we kept the extent of it a secret. I kept waiting for him to deal with his feelings - for me and for his girlfriend, but every time I brought it up, he said he couldn't leave her. He gave me excuses such as his life was too entwined with hers, no relationship is perfect and his wasn't bad enough to leave, etc. I couldn't make sense of it.

I decided in December that I couldn't wait around for him any longer. I'd been doing some online dating, and met one guy who I really, really liked. A was the first one to make me forget about T for the entire date. And if T couldn't shit or get off the pot, then I needed to get on with my life. So I started dating A, T refocused on his relationship with his girlfriend, and T and I agreed that we would stay good friends. I missed the closeness I had with T, and sometimes still felt sad and wondered what might have been, but for the most part it was fine.

A few months later, T did break up with his girlfriend. But he never called. I heard about it from a mutual friend. T and I hung out a little while after that and talked about his breakup, but I didn't want to bring up the possibility of him and I getting together. I figured he should have some time to process the end of his relationship, and by then I was dating A exclusively and saw the potential for a serious relationship there. Besides, I wanted to see if T would take the initiative and bring it up. The last thing I wanted was to pressure him into a relationship. I wanted him to want it.

Then last week (a month after we talked about his breakup), I found out that T was already dating someone else, and had possibly left his girlfriend for the new love interest. A few days ago, he messaged me, and there was no mention of his new girlfriend. He was being flirty with me as if nothing had changed. Something inside of me snapped. I told him I knew he had a new girlfriend, and asked if she was the reason for him leaving his ex. I don't have proof, but there were some clues that clicked together from other conversations, the timing of everything, and a feeling in my gut. He swore that's not what happened, and blamed bad timing for the fact that we didn't end up together. I was done believing him or his excuses. I said it hurt too much to continue being friends, so goodbye.

I don't even know why I'm so upset. Things with A did develop into something serious and I'm very happy with him. I truly love him. And unlike T, he's reliable and trustworthy, he has never caused me to feel insecure or any less than his number one priority. I see a future with A that I could never quite picture with T. A and I are far more compatible in terms of our goals and lifestyles. But I think I also loved T, and to feel that he led me on and betrayed me and to have all those old wounds ripped open again was more than I could handle. I feel so stupid letting him into my heart, and letting him string me along for a whole year. During that last conversation, he tried to talk me down, but I told him that as long as we stayed friends I would keep getting hurt. He said, "I understand," and that was it. He didn't fight to save our friendship.

Now that I've had a few days to reflect, I don't know if breaking off our friendship was the right thing to do. Knowing him, he probably thinks I'll get over it and we'll be friends again after a little while, but I refuse to go crawling back. On one hand, he was pretty bad for me, and he hurt me a lot over the past couple years. On the other hand, we'd mutually agreed to be friends and I was already dating someone else so what did I expect from him? If his feelings for me faded and he fell for someone else, can I really be mad about it? The other issue is, we have many mutual friends who love to hang out in one big group, and I'll probably end up having to face him in the near future unless I stop seeing our friends, which I absolutely don't want to do.

I don't know how to feel. I'm sad, and angry at him and at myself. I go back and forth between being glad that I finally confronted him for the way he has treated me, and wondering if I should've just held my head high and not let him see how much he hurt me. I'm stressed out about seeing him the next time our friends have a get together. What would you have done in my shoes? Did I screw up? Did I blow things out of proportion? Was it fair to have expected him to come to me before pursuing someone else? What should I be learning from this? What questions should I be asking myself? What else am I missing in my confusion?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I told him that as long as we stayed friends I would keep getting hurt. He said, "I understand," and that was it.

This would seem to be a completely accurate assessment. There aren't any more questions to ask yourself. There's no way to change how he acts or how he feels, and no way to separate those two. There doesn't have to be any deeper lesson than that you don't need to put yourself into painful situations.
posted by RainyJay at 12:37 PM on June 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think you did the right thing, extracting yourself from a very unhealthy relationship.

One main lesson is to learn to deal with boundaries. It sounds like you guys spent a long time in a pseudo-romantic relationship, which likely would have been really hurtful to the couple SOs involved, and a lot of it was clearly hurtful to you as well.
posted by ktkt at 12:40 PM on June 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Some people just like the attention of being wanted and the thrill of the chase. I bet no matter who this man is with, he will cultivate female attention and flirt with no real motive. He probably never had any intention of following through, even if his girlfriend broke up with him. He just wasn't that interested. You did absolutely nothing wrong, except not get out sooner. In no way would I try and be friends with him, the whole thing is just unhealthy. Steer clear and enjoy your new relationship.
posted by Jubey at 12:43 PM on June 24, 2017 [19 favorites]

You did the right thing to end the friendship. He was never serious about you. He enjoyed the flirtation, that's all. And that hurts! The reason you're still thinking about it is that it stings to know that you were more excited about him than he was about you. Nobody likes feeling that way. But you need to get over it so it doesn't poison your new relationship.

The sting will fade into indifference as long as you don't hang out with him and let him poke at it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:48 PM on June 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

It might help to think of this as ending a longstanding, intermittent, messy emotional affair/entanglement, rather than a friendship. True friends have each other's backs and it sounds like this guy never did that for you--he was most interested in having his ego stroked and getting you to meet his emotional needs. Your sadness might be more about admitting that what you'd hoped for was never possible with this guy.

You're in a healthy relationship now and would probably not get involved in something like that if the opportunity presented itself today. Honour your sadness over what might have been if Nick hadn't had his head up his butt, and then congratulate yourself on getting the dregs of that toxic energy out of your life. Your world is better now, even if it doesn't feel that way right this moment.
posted by rpfields at 12:52 PM on June 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Let yourself get a little angry at his bullshit and you'll feel better sooner.

"Bad timing" is meaningless and he's not taking any responsibility here-- as if Time was preventing him from breaking up with his girlfriend, as if Time was responsible for his emotional affair, as if Time made him get a new girlfriend while still flirting with you. Unless Time is his nickname for his ego and/or libido this is a flimsy excuse.

This intensity was not romantic, it was selfish weasel behavior, and good for you for putting a stop to it. In a few months of no contact, you won't know what you were thinking.
posted by kapers at 1:58 PM on June 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

What a jackass. You're upset/angry/hurt because he lied to you. Not a clear, upfront lie but the murkey kind of half lies that are difficult to defend against. The kind of lie where he's lying to himself as well. He was cheating with you on his old girlfriend who he couldn't possibly leave (not physically but many people think the emotional kind is just as bad or worse). There is some saying that goes something like: If he was cheating when you met him he will cheat when you're married to him.
I'm sure the past couple of years seem like a waste of time but he did help your self esteem, letting you know that he was proud to be seen with you etc. You know what this emotional fantasy feels like now and how unsubtantial it will turn out to be so you won't fall for it again.
When you see him in groups, look happy and content. When he flirts/introduces you to new girlfriend/remarks on how happy and content you look say, thanks/nice to meet you/I am, excuse me, I was just about to go find the restroom.
Repeat to yourself: He's not real, he's just not real. It's a mirage and if I keep following it I will die of thirst.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:00 PM on June 24, 2017 [20 favorites]

To know whether someone is truly a good person, look at how they treat not just you, but others as well. The relationship you describe sounds like it would have been immensely hurtful to his girlfriend if she had an inkling of all its dynamics. Maybe she did. Maybe I'm wrong and he was being honest with her the entire time about the nature of his relationship with you, but I'm guessing not.

This is not to mention how he's treated you, which is also not great.

I don't think this guy was that great a person and I think you're better off for having cut it off. It's natural to feel bad right now, because you ended what was a significant relationship in your life with someone who you thought valued you. Give it some time, give it some space (don't talk to/hang out with him anymore), and eventually you'll start feeling better.
posted by knownfossils at 2:45 PM on June 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

It may also help to remember that every time he was being sweet and complimentary to you, he was totally betraying his girlfriend. It was awful selfish behaviour masquerading as affection, and you are absolutely better off cutting it out of your life.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:50 PM on June 24, 2017 [19 favorites]

You cut things off with him just a few days ago -- after a LONG time of being involved in one way or another. He made you/let you believe that he'd want to be with you once he broke up with his girlfriend. Then when he did separate from the girlfriend he didn't tell you, and that was virtually the same as a lie. He also hid the fact that he'd started seeing someone new. And on top of that, he wasn't straight with you when you told him you knew about his breakup and new girlfriend, saying something lame about timing.

I'm not going so far as to say he led you on -- maybe he used to actually believe the two of you belonged together. But his continuing the long-term relationship with his first girlfriend was a sign that he preferred her to you.

You may be partly angry with yourself for going along with all his hints and encouragement. That's normal and okay. But you very recently learned he'd been using you. That's very hurtful and will take time to get over.
posted by wryly at 2:53 PM on June 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

You totally did the right thing. This fellow did some pretty gross stuff:
  • He had an emotional affair with you and repeatedly led you to believe that he wanted more than that but was not willing to follow through.
  • He seemed to be using you for emotional labor and support, while he was in a long-term relationship.
  • When he reached back out to you, he was being flirty "like nothing had changed", while dating someone else. Again.
  • He was not fully forthcoming about his situation when he reached out to you, after all the noise about wanting to get together with you.
It totally makes sense to feel the way you feel, especially so soon after ending the relationship since tit has been a big part of your life for the past couple of years, and that's okay! T has acted rather shittily toward you. It's also totally okay to organize events to which T does not get invited.

If anyone asks, you can just say something along the lines of "I'm not comfortable hanging around T right now" or "I did not like the way T treated me, so I'm not going to be hanging around with him". If you do end up at an event with him, don't go out of your way to hang together, and if you do end up near each other, greet him politely, then find other people you'd rather spend your time with and energy on.

In the meantime, take some time to process your feelings and do some self-care. It sounds like you have something really cool going with A, too! Best of luck!
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 3:30 PM on June 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't think vilifying him helps, you were equally complicit in this mess. How would your current boyfriend feel if he what you've been going through over this other guy?
It's true though that you were right to cut him off. Maybe he didn't profess his love to you once he was single because, as far as he knew, you were in a happy relationship, or maybe it's because he decided he didn't want to pursue anything with you, either way, you need to move on.
posted by cakelite at 4:39 PM on June 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's really exciting and fun to feel wanted and attractive, for him and also for you. That's what makes emotional affairs so tempting. I think you're making a really good choice to focus your energy in the directions where it leads to what you want, and not just toward making a bunch of fireworks that are gone the next moment.

I've had a friend that I had a similar but way more one-sided emotional affair with, and it was a huge amount of effort to police going back from that to a normal friendship, just inside my own mind. How much more so if T's trying and trying to get back the electricity of your full attention that he had during the emotional affair! I think, from your description of your own feelings, that you would have to do a lot of that policing and keeping tight fences around things to have a friendship with T that didn't sabotage your current (way better and more promising) relationship with A. Think about what that normal, healthy friendship would look like, and all the behaviors of yours and his that you'd have to extinguish to get there: "no, it's too late in the evening, sorry, can't chat", not hugging/touching much, "it's not OK for you to talk about how I look that way" "we're not in a relationship and we're not going to be in one, so I need you to stop talking about it" - it's tiring even thinking about it...

But I also want to say that I think you're underestimating your power and your strength when you talk about "going crawling back". You are your own person, with a core of what you really want from your life, your relationships, and your friendships. If you can picture those things and hold to them, then - in time, when you've built a stronger relationship with A or another promising relationship prospect, when you have other friends in your life who you can lean on, when you can sit with discomfort a while and bring yourself back to a stable place - you could talk to him and try to be friends as two stable individuals. You might find that he's just not someone you want to be friends with anymore if it's not sparkly and entangled, and if you're not in a place of dependency on him; or you might not. But if you're confident in what you want and not in a place of desperation and need, you can do whatever you want to do and feel good about your own choices.

Getting there from here is the project, though, and you are right that you will find that project easier if you aren't being distracted and pulled back in by T's desire for attention and validation and by your own reflexes of reaching out to him.
posted by Lady Li at 4:56 PM on June 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

If A is truly the right guy - and relationship - for you, then T matters not a whit and your behavior will show it. If you're wondering if you should hide how much he hurt you or are trying to game how to act when you run into him, I think you have to ask yourself what it is that you truly want from T. Once you can clarify your goal in this, the way forward should be very clear whatever it turns out to be. No matter what, though, someone is going to be hurt.
posted by DrGail at 5:06 PM on June 24, 2017

I wonder if it might be helpful to recategorize this: You had a romantic relationship with T, even though you were not sleeping together. T was not honest with you about his commitment to this relationship or his goals for it, and you put a lot into that relationship on the assumption that it was serious. T wanted to continue this romantic relationship on his terms while both you and he dated other people, but you were unwilling to do this and broke it off. You had a break-up, which is why you feel bad, and what you did was healthy since you are not looking to conduct multiple romantic relationships at once, especially on these terms.

This is textbook "why an emotional affair counts as an affair" territory. You were propping up your failing relationship through your relationship with T, as you recognize. T was just...wanting to have two relationships without being honest about it or putting them on an equal footing. It's really unfortunate that he behaved in such an immature way, and that he stuck to his immaturity while you identified what you were feeling and moved toward having better relationships.

Why not just treat it like a break-up? Don't hang out in big groups with him, tell your friends you're on the outs right now (even if you don't give them the whole story) and work on strengthening your relationship with A. You spent a lot of time having strong feelings about T, and you'll need time to let those go, just like if you'd officially been dating.

I'm friends with exes - good friends, in some cases. We broke up, we got back together as friends later, it's great. I'm friends with one "emotional affair" person, and that took a lot of work for both of us, and our friendship is still a little fraught. And I haven't had a messy emotional entanglement like that in a decade - it's just that those unacknowledged, unprocessed relationships and break-ups can be super ugly and painful and hard to come back from. Treat T like an ex, and only get back to being friends with him when it feels healthy. T basically is an ex.

Basically, I don't think it was "fair" to expect him to come to you first, in the sense that relationship stuff like that isn't "fair". I think it was unfair of him to treat you as, basically, a girlfriend and then not acknowledge that or deal with it. He wanted you to be a girlfriend, to have a "break up" but never, ever to talk about it or make him uncomfortable, and that's not fair.
posted by Frowner at 5:47 PM on June 24, 2017 [19 favorites]

He's a Lying Liar Who Lies, and it hurts to be lied to.

Ohhhhh boy, was your story familiar. He's got more than one like you in his address book. If you don't block his number, he will still be calling you after he eventually marries someone else.

Ask me how I know.
posted by jbenben at 9:43 PM on June 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

I see also that you asked why it feels so bad if it's not the wrong choice. I would suggest that relationships like this are addictive - when someone gives you flattery, attention, and a flash of chemistry it feels good. When you have a familiar source for that, you get in a habit of turning to that source when you want to feel that way, which can mean any time you're lonely, anxious, uncertain, etc. Intermittent reinforcement can make this effect even stronger (because your subconscious learns that if you just seek him out *enough* you'll get the rush of good feelings).
posted by Lady Li at 12:53 AM on June 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

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