can I write him out of my life?
July 8, 2022 7:24 PM   Subscribe

No clue how to understand what just happened in the "situationship breakup" I went through with someone who is both a lover and a collaborator. Help me understand if I was being the asshole, or if not, how I should interpret what just happened? And help me understand what is fair to do in the aftermath of our creative collaboration?

I'm going to try to be as generous as possible to all parties (though of course I can't know the other person's viewpoint). This is the briefest I can make a very complicated history... please bear with me!

This thing involves me, Person A, and a project we did together. I'm in my late twenties, queer, nonbinary / AFAB POC, been in a few relationships. A is in his mid-thirties, straight white cis male, been in quite a few relationships. A and I have known each other for at least 8 years as friends. A little more than through that (5 years ago) we became on-and-off lovers. 4 years ago we also became creative collaborators on a long-term project. A initiated the lovers' relationship, I initiated the creative project.

The first time we were lovers, after about a year, he abruptly dumped me for another woman. I understood, but I never got over him. We remained friends. He was not my first relationship, but a formative one for me. I was never acknowledged as a "romantic partner."

Around the same time, I was initiating the creative project with him. (He tried to say the project was not worth working on a few times, but I got some very trustworthy outside advisors' advice that the project had huge potential. Not hyperbole—"brilliant," "you must write a book about this," etc. I persuaded him to come back into the project. But when I tried to do it without him, he would also get offended about that...) The project reached an extremely promising point (thanks to my connections), and then went on hold for 2 years due to the pandemic. Then we happened to break up with the other romantic partners we had at the time and we also decided to meet in person for an extended trip.

So of course, the second time, we got back together as lovers and it felt very right and natural. At the same time, we also decided to re-initiate the project as collaborators. There was a lot of momentum, and we achieved some major milestones with the project over the last year.

Spending so much time together, working intensely together and also feeling a lot of physical chemistry, I would say that I fell in love with him. He clearly kept saying that we were friends, and I also said we were friends, that much was agreed on. However we were spending so much time together that my roommate and other friends thought we were in a relationship in all but name.

We put the project and the physical relationship on pause for 3 months for (fairly neutral) life reasons that we discussed and agreed to beforehand. We had gotten feedback about the project that might necessitate major changes to it. We were also living on separate coasts during that time. During that pause, I waited to see if I still had strong feelings for him in his absence, and I did. Halfway through that pause, I sent him a love letter, because I wanted to be clear about how I felt about him. He responded in a loose and ambiguous fashion and kept texting me as if we were quite close.

After that 3 months we briefly resumed our physical relationship and he said (verbally) that we could talk about our friendship and the way that we relate to each other a month later, after he was back in town. I also resumed driving the project forward (with his knowledge). A month later, he responded to my love letter email in a fairly loose and ambiguous fashion. He also slipped in a comment about how the project no longer felt important to him. And he slipped in a comment about how he was sleeping with a mutual friend of ours. I asked if we could move forward with submitting the project in its current (complete) state. He said no, we needed to be both happy with it.

At this point, I was getting frustrated because I felt like he was casually putting my life on hold in its two most substantive aspects—both romantically and creatively. With the advice of a mutual friend who read our email thread, I directly asked him if he would like to talk about our romantic prospects. He basically said no and asked me for introspection about why the question felt "urgent" to me and what he "symbolized" in my life. He hinted that I had pushed his boundaries. Responding in good faith to his question, I wrote a long response about where I was in my life, my need to move on, my very strong feelings for him, wanting to give him a chance, expressing my love for him as a whole person and not as a symbol. He responded saying he did not want to talk about it, he was not interested in me, I had pushed his boundaries (he did not say which boundaries), and that we should not talk for some time. I responded saying that I agreed that we should not talk for some time.

Ok, this is clearly some kind of breakup, which is fine, and is actually what I wanted in terms of moving on.

So... now I'm trying to figure out:

1) Did I do something wrong here?

I just feel horrible about the whole thing. He was a very formative friendship for me. I didn't want it to blow up like this, but I also have trouble imagining how it could have ended any other way. I can see that he might have been overwhelmed with work (he expressed that he had an all-consuming work life) and also overwhelmed by my email. Did I care too much for him in a way that was ... too honest and too much? Part of me actually thinks he would respect me more if I had a "fuckboy vibe" going on (stringing people along romantically, flaking on projects, etc. because that's more cool than communicating...).

2) Should I even try to keep him in my life as a friend?

I value him as a person, but maybe after this blowup it's impossible to maintain a friendship. I did confess some extremely strong feelings for him. I feel a lot of grief about this whole thing. Despite his flakiness, he has been an extremely good friend to me at times in the past. While I am going to criticize his ego a bit in #4, he has also been very supportive of my creative work.

While I sound blasé now after weeks of processing, I would actually credit him as being one of the most formative relationships in my life—the grief I feel about this 3-level "breakup" is actually more than I would feel if any member of my family died.

3) Did he do something wrong here?

Mutual friends have told me that what both of us did was within the bounds of social acceptability, and he's just behaving like a "standard dude" (with emphasis on the fact that "standard dudes" often act brusquely, don't respect emotional commitments, are always looking for something better, etc.) I don't think he's a bad person. At the same time, when it comes my friendship with him, I feel much like a used tissue that has been discarded when it's no longer useful to the user. Despite the continual verbal statements that we were "just friends," he seemed quite eager to sleep with me and then dump me when he found someone better. I felt like I was accommodating his terms in order to make things work, and when I wanted anything closer to my terms, he would balk.

4) Is it fair of me to take the project and move on with it as a solo project (maybe with his name in the acknowledgments only)?

I don't know how long we're not going to talk to each other, and if we do, this project is not going to be a priority. I've been waiting for SO long (4 years) that I would have the patience of a saint if I were to wait any longer. But I'm not a saint. I want to know what is OK for a normal person to do here.

I don't want to erase his contribution, nor do I want to submit something that he jointly made with me without his consent, so what I would do is rewrite the whole project on my own (and there are reasons that that is actually going to make the work stronger) and publish it under my name. I would include his name in the acknowledgments.

He did support me along the way, and I value supporting roles very much. But he acknowledges that I was the driving force behind it. I would say I did 80% or more of the work. I have trouble naming any substantive intellectual contribution he made to it. I've given him many chances to do as much work as he wants to on the project. Even so, if I move on without him, it may burn the friendship forever because (for some reason I can't understand) he still feels attached to the project, even though he can't (won't?) work on it because he is prioritizing his day job over it. I think it would just wound his male ego too much to see me doing "brilliant" work like this alone; he wants to believe he can contribute, and honestly, as a generous person, I want him to be able to contribute.

I know this is a very complicated question, in the way that relationships often are. Any advice on any aspect of it is very much appreciated!
posted by icosahedron to Human Relations (17 answers total)
1) no, unless maybe being too trusting and open? Which I hate to discourage, but people have to earn it.

2) idk, maybe/prob not. He's probably never going to be super committed to you on any project or friendship/relationship, but he may be nice to have around at times if you can tolerate his ways.

3)kinda seems that way, a little. He's letting you carry all this water and do all this work for the relationship/projects, but seems like he's never been fully present or treated you like an equal.

4)yes your work is yours and if he bails you can be nice and give him a (hopefully genuine) hearty acknowledgment for contribution/inspiration/whatever.

Overall, you seem to have pretty clear eyes on this, trust your gut. He is maybe not terrible but also certainly not that great.

As an older white stranger guy on the internet, I feel most strongly on 4). Lots of people have contributed to projects I've done but were not there for the hard parts. When I finish, they get some thanks, but not co-authorship, and they don't get to tell me what I can do just bc they offered input along the way.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:39 PM on July 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do whatever you're doing with the project on your own and too bad for him, seek out better partners who will acknowledge your relationship rather than having a de facto romantic relationship without the emotional or social commitments.

Unless there's some legal angle on the project that would give him the power to stop you from going ahead, you shouldn't let him waste all your effort. If the project makes you a global superstar, etc, you can make sure that he gets appropriate credit and opportunities.

I'm old, I'm a different generation than you. On the one hand, that means I'm not really in touch with the zeitgeist, but on the other, I've had many years to watch changes in romantic habits and mores.

I am extremely, extremely suspicious of cis straight men who will seek out, sleep with and develop emotional intimacy with women and nonbinary people while keeping it on the down low and denying that they have any responsibility. I feel like that's a way to weaponize cis male emotional stuntedness - like, of course you can't expect a guy to act differently, guys aren't good with feelings, just because he acted like he cared for you while also having sex with you didn't mean you had any kind of relationship because he didn't sign the relationship contract or whatever so he's off the hook. I tend to think that these men actually understand what they are doing and understand that they are getting de facto girlfriends/boyfriends/themfriends who will be loving and caring toward them while they don't need to reciprocate.

When I was young, it was pretty uncommon to sleep with someone regularly and be emotionally intimate and still maintain that it wasn't a relationship - that was the anomaly that required a lot of explaining but it seems to be the default now, and it works in favor of the person with the most social power.

Anyway. this guy does not sound like a prize as a partner. That doesn't mean that your relationship was not emotionally or creatively important; it doesn't mean that you didn't gain a lot from it. You can be formed as a scholar or artist or human by the good parts of your relationship and collaboration. The work is so often better than the artist, so to speak.

I've got to say, too, as an Old, that when I was in my late twenties (as he must have been when he started seeing you), I would have thought it potentially exploitative to date someone in their early twenties and would have been extremely scrupulous about power, communication, being aware of their expectations and level of romantic experience compared to mine, etc. Pretending that stuff doesn't exist or doesn't matter is something that unscrupulous and/or emotionally dishonest people do to make sure they're one up on the power ladder.
posted by Frowner at 7:59 PM on July 8, 2022 [71 favorites]

Best answer: Not to mention the racial aspect! I didn't parse that correctly at first. This only strengthens my sense that you can probably do better.
posted by Frowner at 8:03 PM on July 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: He does not sound nice. No you did nothing wrong. Yes you should absolutely move forward on your now solo project. P.S. You’re absolutely going to hear from this guy again, and he’s going to want to sleep with you again, a) as soon as he’s not sleeping with anyone else again and b) when the project is successful (but in that case he will also be mad, publicly try to take credit for it, gaslight you about your own leadership in it, and otherwise create allll the drama).
posted by shadygrove at 8:04 PM on July 8, 2022 [30 favorites]

Best answer: Some people like to really be all in ambiguity, never really committing or letting go. This is what this man is doing. This isn't about you. It's about his unwillingness to make a decision. He likes having you poking at him for love and friendship and creative projects and sex. It makes him feel good, and the entire relationship is on his terms because you are more invested. I don't doubt that he enjoys spending time with you and has been genuinely good company. I also doubt he is thinking about all this even a tiny bit as much as you are.

It's time to consider embracing various truths that might seem but aren't contradictory: you love him a lot; this has been an important and formative relationship for you; you will likely never finish this creative project if you wait for him to want to; you will never get more of a commitment creatively or romantically from him; there's no path forward for this relationship that will feel good and be sustainable; it's time to move on.

It's time to move on, while recognizing how important this person has been. The fact that he has been important doesn't mean it's not time to move on.

Go get this creative project done. It's your baby. Credit him appropriately, and share your creativity with the world. Let this be your way of healing from the emotional harm and upset he has brought to your life. And let him go, finally. Even if he comes back knocking, do not let him in.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:48 PM on July 8, 2022 [17 favorites]

I'm not a good source of advice. But, I'm currently designing a cross-disciplinary class and planning camping trips with the woman I'm divorcing. I remain hopeful that one can remain friends. It could be that nobody did anything wrong. Sympathy and best wishes.

In the short term, make it a solo project. Cite their contribution appropriately.
posted by eotvos at 9:19 PM on July 8, 2022

Best answer: What the others have said. ^

Just to add, it reads to me as if part of your pain is the cognitive dissonance between your idea of this person as you want him to be, and this person as he is, revealed by his actions and words.

How much of the good in him was conjured up in your imagination, projecting what you needed him to be? Seeing the good, ignoring the selfish, dismissive parts?

Does the person you love even exist?

In a way, it doesn't really matter. It's like this with all relationships. You keep learning more about the other person, and sometimes what you learn is out of step with the version of the person you have constructed in your head. Both of you keep changing. It's always happening.

I've been with my husband for more than 25 years and I'm still getting to know him. People are deeply mysterious. You are mysterious.

The fact that this person had revealed aspects of himself that you can't value, doesn't invalidate all the good things in the past. It's possible that you love a person who doesn't actually exist, but the inspiration and positive change that love created in you is very real.

Letting go of the version of your friend who was responsible for all those good things, doesn't invalidate the truth of those good things you were able to get out of this relationship.
posted by Zumbador at 9:32 PM on July 8, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with the general agreement above. The one caveat I’d offer is that, even though I can’t point to any horror stories off the top of my head, I have a deep feeling that I would talk to a lawyer and take all the steps necessary to document your work before going to print/gallery/the races etc. White cis men of this age can get fucking ugly, and a call with an arts NGO or similar might give some reassurance that he would have no standing to challenge your authorship/ownership of your work, *especially* if it’s going to blow up. Take any power he might try to wield against you and wrap it up beautifully in the palm of your hand.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 9:34 PM on July 8, 2022 [34 favorites]

Best answer: On some level he may see you as an intellectual rival. Unconsciously perhaps. Don't let him undermine you in any way.
posted by Coaticass at 11:49 PM on July 8, 2022 [12 favorites]

Do not let him hold this project (which you initiated and had to drag him into) hostage.
posted by wesleyac at 1:53 AM on July 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Go get this creative project done. It's your baby. Credit him appropriately, and share your creativity with the world. Let this be your way of healing from the emotional harm and upset he has brought to your life. And let him go, finally. Even if he comes back knocking, do not let him in.

1000% this. There is no reason that anyone has to be a villain in this story. Also:

Take any power he might try to wield against you and wrap it up beautifully in the palm of your hand.

People are complex. Your relationship was important in a variety of ways. That it is ending now does not make it wrong or a failure. Move on and invest your wisdom in this exciting project. That dude was holding it hostage; don't let him pull that shit again. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:25 AM on July 9, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Just because he's acting like a "standard dude" does not make what he's done ok, or somehow not hurtful. People act like "standard [member of group with societal power]" all the time, and it's generally not a good thing.

You don't need to blame yourself. You were clear about your feelings and needs. His framing that as a boundary violation was manipulative and immature. The entire story here reads like his wanting control over you and your work without having to have any actual responsibility.

Pursue the creative work on your own (and I agree about making sure you've got your legal ducks in a row). Find a partner who's mature enough to communicate their feelings and eager to be with you in public. Don't settle for "standard" partners.
posted by lapis at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Well for all his faults, I'm not sure not poor communication is one of them. It sounds like he communicated clearly and consistently throughout your entire relationship that he didn't want to date you, and he wasn't that invested in your project. Continuing to spend a lot of time with someone and sleeping with them when you know they want more is not a nice way to treat your friends, but it's also not that ambiguous. I think you were invested in viewing it ambiguously because you didn't want to accept what he was telling you. You can't communicate your way out of being rejected.

I hope this doesn't come across as too harsh, because I have a lot of sympathy. The number one lesson I learned from dating in my 20s was "don't waste your time with people who aren't enthusiastic about having the sort of relationship you want", but most people have to learn that one the hard way. I wouldn't waste too much time trying to quantify the exact harms caused. He was kind of a dick, and he hurt your feelings a lot, and you don't want to be friends right now, and going forward you're going to listen to what people are saying with both their words and their actions. That's enough of a takeaway.
posted by umwelt at 6:09 PM on July 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’d send him a professional email telling him that you’ve been told the project needs major changes which you’ll now be doing it alone and as it has evolved substantially you no longer consider it to be the same project that you worked on together. Given that he no longer wants to be involved and it’s a different project, you’ll be taking him off it as requested and you’ll legally be the sole contributor. You wish him the best with his future endeavours.

This tells him he’s not getting credit because his contribution has been erased and he can no longer waft in and out when he pleases. Expect pushback especially if this ever becomes a success because honestly this guy is not a good guy but who cares. Go out, pour your energy into this and smash it. And remove anything he ever did on this so legally he can’t try and claw back any recognition or money out of it. I would also rename it if possible.

And if it’s not clear, don’t leave the door open for any future romantic stuff with him either because guaranteed when he wants a random hookup, he’ll be back. I’m getting orange flags from him on all accounts.
posted by Jubey at 6:34 PM on July 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: minor pop-in to say: Thank you very much everyone! Still processing, but on the creative front, my question now is actually:

Do I professionally tell him that I'm continuing it as a solo project (after checking in with a lawyer), or just do it as a solo project and don't tell him until way later down the line (also valid & respecting his wishes as we are currently no-contact)?
posted by icosahedron at 8:45 PM on July 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do I professionally tell him that I'm continuing it as a solo project (after checking in with a lawyer), or just do it as a solo project and don't tell him until way later down the line (also valid & respecting his wishes as we are currently no-contact)?

So I'd be inclined to suggest, as gently as possibly, that reaching out to him for any reason is a bid for connection. There's this rubber band thing that can happen in push-pull relationships like yours, where the further you are away, the more you feel pulled back. Sometimes we look for any seemingly-legitimate excuse to reach out to someone in this situation.

You do not owe him anything at this point. Not only that, but reaching out to him seems like it both violates an agreed-upon boundary and would leave you in a situation of waiting yet again for a response from him, and hoping (deep down) that he would finally say he wanted back in with you and this project.

So, no, don't reach out. Move on move on move on move on. It's you now, babe. This is your baby.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:23 PM on July 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Taking the opportunity of your asking the last question to weigh in on the whole thing, all these days later. Cis white guy, 52, in case important.

I'm not clear what his specific contributions to the project were, but I'd reach out and tell him just what you proposed to in your question. Your position, if I understand your account right, is that you conceived of it, drove it, and now plan to rewrite it. Unless he had some more significant contribution than I'm getting here (e.g., if this were fiction, he had some good plot suggestions, and you're just talking about rewriting prose and dialog), you have every right to keep going with it. If he doesn't want to keep working on it, or says he does but that he can't hook it up, you're in the right. Telling him lets him respond, which if nothing else might let you see what his argument is going to be down the road for any interference he attempts and to connect with a lawyer about it now, as appropriate.

Romantically, it sounds like he was clear the whole time, at least verbally, that this was essentially FWB for him. You heard him, but your own desires and your collective actions made it confusing for you. So I don't think you did anything 'wrong,' though if you're unhappy how it went, it still might be something to learn from. And I don't think he did anything 'wrong,' though it seems like others think it was thoughtless of him or worse. Not clear what his 'boundaries' were, but that doesn't have to have been some transgression; maybe he tried to communicate something obliquely, and you understood the words he chose to be saying or implying something different.

Don't think this will work as a friendship. Would tell him your plans on the project and then stop contacting him. Wishing you the best of luck.
posted by troywestfield at 11:57 AM on July 14, 2022

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