How to handle pushy former flame?
April 13, 2008 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Do I stay or do I go? A former flame wants to be a friend, and I'm honestly at wit's end about what to do. [long explanation]

Backstory: Two years ago, we met, clicked, started hanging out, and then went on a couple dates. At one point, I finally kiss him. He freaks out, tells me things are complicated with him, and then disappears for 2 years. We reconnect out of the blue last year. He apologizes for running and offers a good explanation (a year of hell before we met, including a broken engagement, health problems, family issues, etc.). We began dating, but I was dealing with some issues of my own at the time and got nervous as things progressed between us. He noticed my discomfort and suggested we stop dating so I could focus on getting better, telling me he wanted me in his life no matter what, and reassuring me that he wasn't going anywhere (he was very busy with work and noted he probably wasn't going to be actively dating because of it). He offered no guarantees, but if the timing worked out when I was feeling better, said maybe we could try again. He was pretty busy then so we continued to infrequently hang out as friends, though we were both still giving pretty clear signals of being into one and other.

Three months later, I said I was ready to try dating again and got an initial "I'm not sure," followed up with a "I care for you very much, but the age difference makes me too uncomfortable," [he's 34 to my 24 and yes, this is something that has actively bothered him in the past for reasons that he hasn't been able to explain], "I won't be able to open up to you until you've had more good relationship experience," [I am admittedly quite inexperienced in both dating and sex, all so far bad], "the timing for us is bad; not now, maybe later," and we should plan on seeing other people in the future. His delivery was poor and I was upset; I didn't speak to him for awhile. We patched things up a month later but kept things limited to email for another month (until the beginning of April). When I finally offhand mentioned buying him a drink for something, he was surprisingly eager to get together in a way that left me not knowing what to expect. Over drinks, he casually mentioned that he'd started seeing someone else two hours away away (whom I later found out was likely not much older than me, ie a year or two). I played off the "Are you going to slap me?" comment he threw out after that, but it hurt to hear, especially because he didn't think it might hurt my feelings.

Now this guy persistently wants us to be friends. But lately, talking him is just hearing all about the good stuff going on in his life, with very little prodding from him about what I'm up to. I've always been pretty supportive of his career pursuits (I'm bit further along in a similar field), but now I almost feel like he's cultivating me networking contact. He's definitely planning around having me there as a resource over the next few months, without offering much support in kind. In the meantime, while I have some fun seeing him, I also find myself missing the guy I used to really enjoy hanging out with: the one who lost track of time talking with me until 2 am, who walked me home at night just to make sure I got there safely, and was more supportive/inquisitive about my life. Since we've stopped dating, that filter that stopped him from saying careless things that I'm sensitive to (for instance: a health issue) just isn't there anymore, though to his credit, he apologizes when I neutrally bring up that he's hurt my feelings. Honestly, I can't tell if this means he's self-absorbed or if I'm being oversensitive. He hasn't always been this way when we weren't dating, but I think this is the first time we've been hanging out when he hasn't been romantically interested in me.

I care for him and admire him a lot, so it's hard to just cut the guy out of my life (and our particular career paths mean we're going to be bumping into one and other in the future anyway). But I can't keep hanging out with him without raising the issue of how one-sided our friendship feels to me these days, and I don't think he'll get it. I also can't stand the thought of being there to watch things working out with his new girlfriend - or the thought of becoming the "second runner up" if they stop seeing one and other. I know I deserve better than that. He periodically raises my mental question of "Just what the hell is going on in this guy's head?" and I'm finally starting to run low on patience.

If you've gotten to this point, thanks for reading. What do I do, hive mind? Give myself some space for now? Just cut him out completely? Or do I to suck it up and make this friendship work right now? I really do want the guy that I met as a friend and want to be supportive over the next few months, but it's honestly painful and exhausting right now - I have no idea what would make it better. Or maybe I just need a bunch of people to yell at me for being too patient with this guy after reading all of this; my advising friends are mostly biased, not knowing him personally and still stuck on the 2-years-gone part and steadfastly disliking him to begin with, even after his apology. And I'm just so inexperienced with this kind of stuff that I think it's clear that I'm unsure of myself and how to handle things.

throwaway email, by the way:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really do want the guy that I met as a friend

I really want a million dollars, but I'm not going to quit my job. This situation doesn't sound positive in any way; nothing but drama, drama, drama. What's fun about hanging aruond with this guy? If it's all in the hope that he's going to coming around, that's not worth basing a friendship on. The two of you need space ASAP. It doesn't have to be a big "break up", just become really busy for the next few months.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:12 AM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

I am admittedly quite inexperienced in both dating and sex, all so far bad

This isn't going to be that good experience you have been looking for, sorry. This guy is not good for you, try to get him out of your life.
posted by grouse at 6:16 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need to move on. There's many other guys much more worth your time and emotional energy, and you have many, many years ahead of you. I'm surprised this has been going on for years... I wonder if your life is stagnating; maybe you need to broaden your social network a bit or pursue some career/university aspirations.
posted by crapmatic at 6:18 AM on April 13, 2008

What you've heard from him for two years is a bunch of "flaws" that he has spun as justification for why you're not right for him---things many other guys would turn into reasons for being with you (you're younger, less jaded/experienced, a relief from work pressures, etc.). I predict that's what you'll continue to hear. He sounds like an insensitive clod who either doesn't know what he wants or is too self-centered to be honest with you. Oh, and it's painful and exhausting, and you're not even dating. Find someone who's excited to be with you and thankful you're in his life.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:30 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nthing what people have said above. It sucks to realize the person you once liked has become someone you don't like anymore. I have been in a similar situation (age difference, time spent, up/down feelings, etc) and it really does just take some distance. Be busy, give him an hour of your time maybe once a month or every other month to avoid discomfort down the professional path. You really should, because every time you hang out is going to be more and more disappointing, and you might grow to resent him, which is just unpleasant and unnecessary. Good luck.
posted by greta simone at 6:43 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Move on. Good friendships usually develop by being there for your friends through the hard times as well as the fun times. The two of you seem not to want to share the bad times.
posted by francesca too at 6:44 AM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

You've answered your own question and at the gut level you know it. He's dating someone your age so he wasn't straight about the reasons for the break-up and he handled it without class or tact, either. He is behaving selfishly, and giving credit to him for saying "I'm sorry" for it only makes sense if his apologies lead to a tangible change in his behavior. You feel as if you are being asked to assist him with professional advancement and generally be a sounding board and cheerleader without reward and that's because you are. Your friends don't like how he is treating you and you don't like how he is treating you. Choices don't usually get much clearer than this.

If you want to be absolutely sure he is not the insensitive user you have described above tell him that you've decided you need a period of separation to be sure you are ready to transition from girlfriend to friend. If he is your friend, he will respect that and leave you alone. If he's not, he will insist on keeping contact, or agree but get in touch before you are ready to seek professional favors or emotional support. However, you are under no obligation to give him even that chance. Do what is best for you and take care of yourself. I wish you well.
posted by melissa may at 6:51 AM on April 13, 2008

I don't see evidence that he's a jerk; it's more likely that you're insecure. You seem to be resentful of the things that are going well for him--I mean, does he have some obligation to you that should preclude him from dating, or is he just supposed to know that he should never mention it? I don't get what you're getting at there.

Anyways, you should obviously act to minimize unhappiness in your life--and you do seem to be unhappy--so the answer to your question is pretty clear. But the fact that you're asking this question with so much hedging makes me think that much of this is about you. If that's the case, you might want to work on that before ditching the friendship.
posted by mpls2 at 7:00 AM on April 13, 2008

You've mentioned your inexperienced a couple of times, and I'm going to assume that means you're not looking at this situation with the broadest range of reference points. Just so you know, it is entirely possible to have a drama-free relationship. If that is what you want, you're not going to get it from this guy.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:16 AM on April 13, 2008

I really do want the guy that I met as a friend

Sounds more to me like you want the guy you thought the guy you met was as a friend, and you're hurting now because the actual guy is not living up to your expectations of him.

Well, the guy you see now is the guy there is. If you can accept that, and you like him, then great! You can be friends.

If you can accept him as he is but you don't like him, then great! You can downgrade him to "acquaintance" and get on with your life.

If you can't accept him as he is, and you find yourself expending loads of mental energy trying to wish him different, then you have an internal problem that you should fix. Doing so will pay off in many more ways than getting you past your feelings around this guy.
posted by flabdablet at 7:29 AM on April 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'd vote "don't bother with this guy". You don't have to do some "goodbye forever" scene, just taper off contact and fill up your life with more worthwhile things to do and people to be with.

As you get more experienced, you'll learn that men who honestly want to be with you will do whatever it takes to be with you, and that men who make you miserable are best avoided. When you're 80 years old you'll wonder why you ever bothered with him, providing you even remember him by that time.
posted by orange swan at 7:30 AM on April 13, 2008

You care for and admire him a lot, but if you were spending time seeing or making friends with someone else-- someone with whom you don't share frequent and torturous communication breakdowns-- then you'd probably care for or admire those other people even more.

Friendship isn't one of those things where you must always consider the investments you or the other party have put into it before deciding whether to continue. You don't owe him anything, but you do owe yourself opportunities for friendships and relationships with healthy, emotionally available people. The effort and time you're spending on this guy may not be entirely wasted, but someone else would certainly know how to appreciate it better than he does.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 7:40 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can do better than this. You deserve better than this. If it's too complicated, then it's probably not worth it.
posted by b33j at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2008

He periodically raises my mental question of "Just what the hell is going on in this guy's head?" and I'm finally starting to run low on patience.

His actions make perfect sense to me. I think you should ask yourself what's going on in your head.

I mean, he's treating you differently than he did when he did when he was romantically interested in you. He's talking about his girlfriend. It seems to me he's sending a clear message, "Remember how I used to treat you when I was romantically interested in you? See how I'm not doing that? I guess that means I'm not romantically interested in you. Need more proof? I have a girlfriend now. I am going to mention her often." I mean, maybe he's going a bit far (or maybe not), but if he acted exactly the same as he did when he was romantically interested in you, would you think "What exactly does this guy want? I think he wants to get back together." I think he's just trying to establish that when he says he wants to be friends, that he really doesn't mean anything beyond that.

I think you fell for the way the guy acts when he's chasing someone. He's not going to be that same guy around you anymore.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:18 AM on April 13, 2008

Hmm, Anitanita boyfriend made the point that part of the problem here is with integrity.

For example, we had an friend , a lovely Asian woman, who dated a sweet Jewish man who decided to end the relationship because he really wanted to marry a Jewish woman. Now if he had shown up the next week with another Asian woman, and then told our friend - wow, I hope we can still be friends - I think it would be entirely reasonable for her to go the 'Oh, no you didn't' route.

Because he's lying to someone: either he's lying to her about why he broke up with her, or he's possibly lying to the other woman about his desire to really be with a Jewish woman. That lack of integrity would foster an underlying malaise in any relationship, be it a friendship or a romantic one.

Perhaps the reason why your relationship has hit this awkwardness isn't because of the fact that sometimes relationships don't work out, or because you're obviously hurt - it's because you feel - if it really isn't the age 'you're young' issue- he isn't acknowledging a certain truth or treating you with enough respect to just say he doesn't want a long term relationship with you. No particular reason. He wants it with someone else. Because I admit, if I was 24 and my 34 year old love interest said he needed an older, more experienced woman, I would be surprised to see something under 30 by his side. Anything younger, and I might start to suspect that he was just pissing on me and telling me it was raining.

And someone who does that is hard to respect. And it might be hard to square that behavior with with the person who you've respected and loved.

So, I think friends call each other on their bull****. And it doesn't seem like you feel like you can even do that, couching your conversations in the fact that 'you're hurt', for which he apologizes.

Since you asked, I say give yourself 60 days to just live your life. [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] is right - you don't have to be dramatic, and if he asks if you seem to be pulling back from him, just say you appreciate his friendship but you're taking a little bit of time for yourself. In public, be polite. Wish him well in his professional and personal life, and see how you feel about it come summer. Cause you feel how you feel, but you should have to feel that you need to fake those feeling for a friend.

my $0.01, and anitanita boyfriend $0.01 making exactly 2 cents.
posted by anitanita at 8:39 AM on April 13, 2008

I had a male friend who acted like he wanted to date me, then revealed he was dating someone who lived a few hours away. I was supposed to be the local pseudo-date, someone to have dinner with and do pretend date things without endangering his primary relationship. He didn't have much real interest in me.

This kind of situation could be good for a woman who wants datelike events without any expectation of romance, but if you want romance, stop spending time and energy on this guy and make yourself available to others for real dates. Be friendly but "busy" when he contacts you, and put your energy into expanding your social circle.
posted by PatoPata at 8:49 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

That should be:

"Cause you feel how you feel, but you shouldn't have to feel that you need to fake those feelings for a friend."

$^&%&@! typing-fu is not strong today.
posted by anitanita at 9:02 AM on April 13, 2008

I once asked a therapist: "Why am I staying with/putting up with this person's behavior?"

She said: "because you have hope that they will change. I'm sorry to tell you this, but this person is never going to change."

Experience will come with time and being young is not a bad thing, it should be a time to enjoy life. There is nothing wrong with dating older guys; your measure should be whether or not you are happy most of the time while being with the person. You don't sound happy, you sound sad and upset and unsure. I would question the excuse of not wanting to date someone my age and then him turning around and dating someone my age as well.

Another wise person once said to me: "I figure if two people aren't getting along and happy together, they should just recognize it and move on quietly."

If it's painful and exhausting, why do you want to keep making yourself more pained and exhausted? Do what's best for you! Move on quietly, be short and polite when and if you do run into him, give yourself time to heal, and then look elsewhere for romance. When you find it, your meter should be: "does this person act like he has my happiness as his #1 priority?" If, after the initial 3 months of dating, he does not act that way, quietly move on again. I say 3 months because that's when people start to loosen up and act like their real selves instead of the best selves they put forth when they first start dating someone.

Also, do not ever give up yourself to someone, friend or boyfriend, so much that it pains you. Take care of yourself and your needs first and you will gain confidence from knowing that you are as healthy and whole as you can possibly be -- that is the best thing you can bring to a relationship: confidence. Trust your intuition on this one, if it feels wrong, it probably is. Walk away and gain some perspective.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:18 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's not boyfriend material for you.
He's not friend material for you.
He's not good networking material for you either - your career is further along and he needs you more than you need him in that respect.

If you bump into him in industry events, a neutral hello will do, then keep walking. He may be reaching out to you as a 'friend' but what does he bring to the table?

Don't respond to his calls or emails.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:20 AM on April 13, 2008

I don't know that you have to be cold to him and stiffarm him out of your life - I think that will pluck at your heartstrings if you try because you clearly had/have deep feelings aroused by him. A big dramatic kiss-off would probably just inject drama and you don't need that.

But yeah, you probably should taper this one off and let it exit your life. You wanted a relationship with him from the start and it sounds like you were consistent about that. He was very inconsistent throughout, which sent you on a roller-coaster, and you arguably kept the back porchlight on for him way too long. Now that he's insisted on friendship you're finding the connection unsatisfying. I'm guessing that in your heart the only reason you haven't let go of this friendship is that you're holding out the possibility there will be another flip-flop and a relationship will come back onto the table.

He's right about one thing. You need more positive relationship experience. It's not healthy or dignified for you to wait this long or through this much crap for a man to decide he wants to date you. As much as it will hurt, I think you need to walk on from this one and pocket the learnings.
posted by scarabic at 9:37 AM on April 13, 2008

But lately, talking him is just hearing all about the good stuff going on in his life, with very little prodding from him about what I'm up to.

He doesn't care about you; he's excited about himself.

but now I almost feel like he's cultivating me [as a] networking contact.

Yes, that's exactly right.

He's definitely planning around having me there as a resource

Someone who wants to have you around "as a resource" doesn't care about you, he cares about how you will benefit him professionally. Ugh.

I also find myself missing the guy I used to really enjoy hanging out with

Yes, that guy is long gone.

I can't tell if this means he's self-absorbed or if I'm being oversensitive.

He's self-absorbed.
posted by jayder at 10:24 AM on April 13, 2008

nth-ing the advice to cut the bugger out of your life.
also b33j's comment that it if it is this hard to get something started, then it isn't worth it.

I think he is keeping you as a back-burner friend. Just in case things don't work out with him and the current flame, like an emotional security blanket. But more than willing to put you away once the need for you is no longer there.

I had a love interest who was just like this - she knew how to play me perfectly. But the truth was that the love interest was one-way.

Cut the bugger and run!

Just look out - he might try to lure you back in, playing the "Oh, I'm so confused and lonely and scared and blah blah blah!" Don't fall for it! It sounds like he is an expert at this. DON'T FALL FOR IT!

You deserve better:

You deserve someone who's heart stops beating every time he sees you, not someone who says "I think I can only open up to you once I get better relationship experience" (what the hell does that mean anyway?)

You deserve someone who wants to be with you and only you. Who wants to be a better person because of you.

One final comment: when you do meet that person (and you will!), you should realize that it won't always be violins and butterflies and crimson sunsets and 4 hour conversations talking about everything until the sun comes up. But it will be replaced with something more solid, something secure. And you will be fine with it. And you will be happy with it, because it feels right.

Good luck!
posted by bitteroldman at 10:30 AM on April 13, 2008

This guy is not your friend, and he was never all that into you. I wouldn't even speak with him any more other than being polite at work events. He's not worth squat.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:18 AM on April 13, 2008

You have the power in this relationship because he wants something you can give and you don't really need anything from him in return. He is hoping you will not realize that you have the upper hand, though. His current behavior toward you is intended to foster your desire to please him so that he can get what he wants.

If you had no professional connection, it would be easy to just walk away. However since your careers are likely to cross paths in a highly networked discipline, you might benefit in the long run by dealing with him on a professional level while letting go of any desire for a lasting personal connection. He's asking you for a favor, such as an introduction or reference? If you think his work would reflect well on you and it's not hard for you to do so, then go ahead and do it. But don't do it with the mentality of "I'm doing this for you to further our friendship". Do it because networking reflects well on you in your broader professional community. If you're the kind of person who will assist and mentor others, there are often people who will be willing to do the same for you.

And if you feel that he's abusing your professional trust or that his work is not reflecting well on you, you can stop doing favors for him. Once he realizes that you're holding him accountable, I bet his behavior toward you will become more respectful and less annoying.
posted by rhiannon at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2008

I too can relate to having someone like this in (and out) of my life. Everyone is telling you what I think you already know, which is that he's not willing to give you what you want, and you're not willing to settle for the shreds of himself he offers from time to time. And yet, sometimes it's so tempting to let these guys back in because we continue to hope. And while hoping sounds like a brave, romantic, noble thing to do, it can work against us. Hope can even push us to a place where we see this other person in terms of possibility and the few scattered moments when they lived up to our ideal vision of them rather than in terms of how they generally treat us. It hurts to think about those few times when everything felt perfect with this person, when all the celestial bodies aligned as perfectly as our own two physical ones. But what about the excuses, the lack of regard and respect, the sickening feeling that most of the time, he's using you (and that only when it's desirable to him)?

I hope you'll find enough strength to focus your energies elsewhere, but if you don't, when it's all finally over remember to take this lesson with you into the future. I am just now starting to do that after years and years of a situation that sounds similar to yours (in my case, the excuse wasn't age, but race - not to mention dozens of others; and yes, there were girlfriends I didn't know about until later (or sometimes not at all), etc.).

The main point I want to make (other than reiterating that he doesn't love you) is that his behavior toward you has been manipulative. This is recently how I've come to think of my own situation, and I think it applies here, too. Whether or not he realizes or intends to be manipulative is beside the point. The fact is that he comes and goes as he pleases, makes excuses, all the while using your emotions toward him (care, admiration, and all the rest) as leverage. It doesn't matter how adorable, intelligent, or high-minded he is; when it comes to you and him, the basis for a healthy relationship (of whatever kind) is simply not there.

One person has commented this guy is "not a jerk," and that you're "insecure." That sounds exactly what your "friend" (not to mention my "friend") would say. And on the face of it, maaaaybe that could look like a logical perspective on the whole thing. But that's a stretch. And a foolish one to make, at that. Personally I would ignore the advice of anyone who shares this opinion; it's probably not going to be helpful for you.

Don't stick around to listen to him talk about his new gf, or anything else. Does he ask about your life? Didn't think so. Definitely don't wait around in the hopes of being the runner up. That's not going to end happily, anyhow. It might be hard, but live your life and try to stop thinking about his as much as you can. As someone else said, there's no need for drama in all of this; in fact, there's a chance he'll barely notice (or, if he does, care). (Please don't ask me how I know this.)

You're farther in your career and he's now trying to use you in order to advance his. Quite possibly he's not thinking of what he's doing as simply using you in a callous way, but putting a veneer of temporary friendship on it doesn't change who he is TO YOU and how he has treated you. He's been consistent in his inconsistency toward YOU, and that's not going to change. It sounds harsh, and when people point the same things out to me I always argue against them.

I think of my best (totally and utterly platonic friend) and how she's shown me, over the years, what a true friend is. She does this without realizing she's doing it, and we've had our ups and downs and separations of 3000 miles. Yet she continues to demonstrate friendship - not by telling me she's my friend, but by BEING my friend. I realize now that any guy I am in a romantic relationship with will also have to provide the same kind of basic, essential friendship, and treat me with the same kind of care and respect as she does. Take away the romantic layers, and even the "networking" stuff, and what are you left with? Can you honestly say he's still a real friend after you subtract all the complications from this relationship? Or is there nothing left once that facade of involvement is gone?
posted by splendid animal at 4:53 PM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

No. Go.
posted by electroboy at 7:10 AM on April 14, 2008

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