How to deal with a breakup where neither party will let go?
August 9, 2017 11:10 AM   Subscribe

My sister was recently abruptly dumped by her partner of a number of years. Prior to the breakup, the couple were living together. The breakup took the form of sister's partner abruptly leaving one day and requesting space. From what I gather, sister believed that her partner would return and partner has made many promises to do so, but has yet to appear. I believe the relationship is over and she needs to go no contact. Advice on how to lend support would be appreciated.

In the past month, I've seen my sister gradually lose hope her partner would return, and she has been extremely depressed as she has accepted the relationship is probably over for good.

As the "breakup" has seemed more and more final (he is still terming it needing space, but it has been going on for a month with no conversation over whether it is permanent), the two of them have settled into a pattern of behavior that I am not sure is healthy. Sister is still contacting partner, as if in denial that the break is real. He does not take her calls. He is still splitting rent and utilities and renting his own space. However, on an almost daily basis, once sister stops contacting him, he gets back in touch indicating that he still loves her and wants only the best for her and misses her very much. The cause of the breakup, as he puts it, is that he wants to focus on being single, though he still very much loves her and does not want to be without her.

She then redoubles her efforts to get back in touch, and he agrees to talk. Finally, he gives specific rendezvous dates (including saying he will come to spend time at the house) and rarely arrives. When prompted, he states he is coming later. Several hours later, he states he is still coming. Eventually, he simply states he has changed his mind. Frustratingly, the same cycle then starts again, with partner's remorseful calls and emails, indicating how difficult it is to live without her and how much he wishes he could return for good. Sister is constantly on the verge of expecting a reconciliation, but partner has only come back one night, with a promise to return the next day that predictably never materialized. She has yet to move or change her number, though I think both would benefit her.

I also am (was) friends with my sisters's partner, but find her behavior deeply unhealthy. She refuses to cut ties with him, convinced each time that the partnership can be saved or at least that some element of it can be worked upon. At the same time, I believe that the sooner she grieves the end of the relationship, the better.

How can I help her see that while her partner has not truly ended the relationship, she needs to go no contact yesterday? Am I right in thinking that she is being short sighted, and that his maintaining contact is a manipulative ploy while he figures out what he "really" wants? Will both of them just tire of this behavior eventually?
posted by benadryl to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How can I help her see that while her partner has not truly ended the relationship, she needs to go no contact yesterday? Am I right in thinking that she is being short sighted, and that his maintaining contact is a manipulative ploy while he figures out what he "really" wants? Will both of them just tire of this behavior eventually?

- Yes, he is being manipulative and his whole act is a ploy to string her along while he "figures out what he wants" (I bet this means "find a new partner"). This is classic manipulative bullshit.

- Somebody is going to tire of this behavior eventually; my money is on him when he finds someone new. Just don't count on it being anytime soon.

- There's really not a lot you can do to force a grown adult to see or do something they don't want to do. You can tell her, "Sister, I think your relationship is over and your partner is stringing you along. Best cut the cord ASAP." That doesn't mean she'll do it. Some people are heavy into denial and will say something like, "But it's different with Tom and me! He loves me, he's just a free spirit, he's an astronaut that's why he needs his space, blah blah blah. And besides, I LOOOOOOOOVE him!"

You can suggest counseling, and you can set boundaries on what you are prepared to listen to and do. "I will listen to you talk about Tom for ten minutes and then we're talking about the weather/those Giants/Game of Thrones/the cute things our pets have done." "I will help you find a new apartment but I can't be responsible for cosigning."

tl;dr: this guy sounds like a manipulative jerk, but Sister will have to come to that realization on her own. You can't make her realize it and you don't have to enable her.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

She seems to be getting over it gradually. I would not interfere.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:48 PM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have been in your sister's position except my un-ex still lived with me! Bad times. Nothing my sister could have done would have made me stop living in my fantasy before I was ready, because the fantasy was much stronger than an outsiders' criticisms. Outsiders' concerns felt like personal attacks, even if they were criticisms of him or the situation and not directly of me. And I had a lot of evidence he still loved me and wanted to be with me, because, well, he told me he still loved me, and he was kinda still with me, so that was more powerful that someone else's words.

What helped was general support, patience, long non-judgemental talks about love and men but nothing specifically pointing fingers, and distraction-- making sure I had fun, other people, other things to focus on so I could see slivers of my life without him.

I think there could have been a way for someone to get through to me, but it would have had to be from a place sympathy, with ZERO frustration, anger, or judgement toward me or him. I think if someone told me sincerely that they noticed I seemed sad, and they worried that I seemed like I was in limbo, I might have been able to see things in a more productive way. Even still, I don't think that would speed up the process much, but I would take it on board whereas criticism I would tune out.
posted by kapers at 1:32 PM on August 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

It's only been a month, and they were together for years before the breakup. It seems reasonable that there might still be some back and forth on both their parts, and that she is not quite ready to give up yet since he has not made a clean break of it.

It's probably over, although you can't really be sure since the dude is still declaring feelings, and your sister is not even wanting the break to happen at all. She's still bouncing in and out of the denial stage (his hot/cold behavior is of course not helping this) but you can't rush someone through their grieving process. She'll either get tired of being jerked around and eventually tell him to fuck off on her own; or possibly he'll abruptly pull his shit together and come back for real once he shakes loose of whatever wild hair possessed him to leave in the first place. A month is a little quick to be trying to force a clean break, maybe give them a little time to see where this thing settles.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:36 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

It can be really frustrating to see someone you care about in this situation. However I don't know that there's much you can do as far as getting her to see the light.

In similar situations, I try to mirror what my friends are telling me about the relationship and ask them questions in a neutral tone. I know they have what it takes to sort it out, but if I attack their partner or the relationship they might become defensive of a situation they actually feel ambivalent about. My neutrality makes it more likely that they'll express their ambivalence. And it never hurts to let people know that they're loved and they deserve good things.

It's helpful to create a mental barrier between her emotions and yours, where you can accept that she's having a hard time and know that she'll pull through eventually, with or without your help.
posted by bunderful at 7:07 PM on August 9, 2017

Set good boundaries for yourself so you are not too annoyed or feel as though you're giving too much.

Then, when she is going on and on about him, and her grief, and the current situation, if I were you, I would empathize with her emotions, and reaffirm your support of her. Something like this, "That must be very hard/painful/difficult/stressful. But I have faith in your judgment. You'll know what the right next steps are for yourself."

That always worked really well for me. I would be feeling low and down and not at all sure of myself, and words like that reminded me that yes, I was a competent adult, and could make good decisions, and this painful, difficult situation that felt all-consuming wasn't the sum total of my life.
posted by dancing_angel at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Denial is also a stage of grief. It has only been a month, I don't think this is "deeply unhealthy" territory yet. She may also need to feel that she has tried whatever she can to repair this relationship and not just walk away when the going gets tough. You may know how it is going to end (or you may not) but your sister needs to get there in her way.

I liken what your sister is doing to riding on a roller coast - she goes up and down and it feels like things are moving and then she ends up back where she started. I think the most you can do is to gently reflect the facts of what happened already and then ask her what she wants to do. "last time he bailed on you. Do you want to give him another chance?" then "last two times he bailed on you. what do you think? is it worth it to give him another chance?" but only if you can convey a sense of real respect for the fact that is her choice and whatever she chooses, you will be there for her. If that is too much to ask of you (and you are totally allowed to feel that you can't just go along with choices that feel wrong to you), then don't go there - just give her space to do her own thing, listen as best you can and change the conversation when it is too painful to bite your tongue any more.
posted by metahawk at 10:17 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a horrible situation, because he is feeding her just the right amount of attention to get her hooked on this charade he's playing. It's such a intermittent-reinforcement situation, and it's so manipulative, and ultimately damaging to her. He will quit it when he's lined up someone 'better' but by the time that happens she will be the worse for it. Bleh.

I think the only real thing you can do is distract her, as much as you can-- for as long as you can. Keep your conversations about him to a minimum. Plan activities where she won't be able to constantly check her phone. If she won't keep her mind busy, then just try your best to do so. The point is to get her some distance from this tiny little world she's built with him at her center. Just, if you have the time, constant distractions. Activities, events, hobbies.

I've said this on here before, but, for me-- I was gaga over a guy who was filling my mind with false promises. I wasn't ready to end it, either, because 'I loved him' and 'he got me, like no one else would.' This was my mind was playing tricks on me. But heartbroken, I forced myself to go out one night and met a guy-- a cute guy, who was so sweet and caring and tolerant, and it was like a revelation: This complete stranger is treating me with more worth that the guy that purported to love me and want me! It was an epiphany, and it helped me a lot. Nothing really happened with that guy but it did push me out of my funk. Your sister isn't ready for this yet, but if she can just entertain the idea of someone else, someone great-- even just as a potential concept, a 'one day'-- it may help her. So go meet new people, even men. Not to date, but just to make new friends. This personally helped me tremendously to get over that guy, and it's worth a try.

I'm sorry, this sucks for her, and you. I hope things get better for her soon.
posted by Dimes at 11:00 PM on August 9, 2017

This may fit what Captain Awkward calls the "Darth Vader Boyfriends" { Darth Vader because Luke persisted in believing his father was good at heart and kept trying to connect with him despite all of the really horrible things}. Her advice is usually excellent and you might find it helpful.
posted by metahawk at 9:10 AM on August 10, 2017

It is a very difficult situation for your sister and I believe for her boyfriend, also. It seems to me they are both confused and in emotional turmoil. What's going on in his head no one knows for sure. However, his behaviour indicates on an emotionally immature person.
No amount of coaxing will change her mind at this stage. She needs to come up that this agony doesn't lead anywhere, by herself. All she needs now is understanding, validating her emotions and no-judgements at all. By doing that she'll feel safe, understood and appreciated. She's doing the best she can in the situation she's currently in. What you can do is, help her to get the insight what she really wants and what situation she is in, with questions like:
Was your relationship with your boyfriend kind of the relationship you envisioned or desire for yourself in a long term?
Can you see yourself in the relationship with him for the next 30 years?
What behaviour do you expect from someone who truly loves you? Does your boyfriend meet those expectations?
What is the worst thing that can happen if you two break up?
What is your the biggest fear?
Questions like above can lead her to insights about the true nature of their relationship. I believe that she will sooner or later recognize that their relationship was not satisfying at all and that she'll be better off without him. But for that she needs time. It's too painful for her at the moment to acknowledge that and she needs time to grieve and to express her anger, sorrow, hurt, and sadness. This is the process that needs a lot of time. Give her time and be very patient with her, but do not let her dwell on self-pity and victim mindset.
Hope this helps.
posted by Romana S at 2:03 PM on August 10, 2017

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