Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column that can definitively end the debate as to whether the Enterprise is faster than the Millenium Falcon.
This week, we’re talking about making tough choices and break-ups. Breaking up is hard enough, but how we handle it afterwards can make all the difference in our future relationships – both for ourselves and for the people around us.
So let’s talk a little about what it takes to make it through a break-up and come out the other side.
(It’s the Falcon, by the way. Crossing from the Outer Rim to Alderaan is crossing through half the galaxy in the span of a couple of days. It takes The Enterprise three days to get from Earth to Alpha Centauri, our closest star.)
Let’s do this.
Hey, Doc. I come to you not for my sake, but for my best friend. For the last few years, she had been in a seemingly close relationship, but about a year ago, he broke up with her and left. He found someone new fairly fast, but my friend has had a lot of trouble moving on, and that could be an understatement.
I feel that, even a year later, she might be expecting him to come back. She’s done everything in her power to take away his agency in making the decision to leave, by blaming others he had talked to before it happened. This could have been an influence, sure, but isn’t a little warped to feel like he didn’t make the decision for himself at all? Plus they’re still talking, which would be fine if they wanted to remain friends, but she still wants to be more than that. I can’t imagine it’s doing her any good to be talking to him.
After he left, she would not speak to anyone for a couple months, and has been off and on in severe bouts of depression since. She closes herself off to everyone and no one can get a hold of her. She’s almost not the same person I’ve been friends with for over a decade, and I’m about at my wits end. I’ve given her space and tried to be there for her but I don’t really know what I can do anymore, if there’s even anything I can do. I’ve never been through anything like this before so I’m not sure how to relate to how she’s feeling. Naturally, I’m on the outside, there could be more issues I don’t even know about, and is it outside of my boundaries to confront her about what she’s just not seeing? Will she hate me if I try?
I just don’t know what to do at this point. I don’t want to lose my best friend. Is there anything at all I can do to help her move on?
– Extremely Worried Friend
Your concern for your friend is admirable, EWF, but you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. You can’t make anyone move on. As frustrating as it may be, you pretty much have to let this play out on its own.
Now that being said, you can support her. But to be playing support, you have to understand what’s going on here.
First and foremost: your friend’s had a pretty serious shock to the system. The abrupt ending to a years long relationship can fuck a person up. Before a break-up, this person’s presence in your life (general “you”, not you EWF) has been part of your status-quo for several years now. Your daily life has become predicated on their presence. You get used to certain habits, certain patterns; you’ve been going to sleep to the sound of their breathing, planning your TV viewing around their presence and opinions, cooking with their preferences and restrictions in mind as well as yours.
Having them leave suddenly – especially without much warning – is a pretty good way to leave someone feeling lost and abandoned. As a result, it’s not really that uncommon to flail about and try to make sense of it all while you try to sort out who you are now and how things are going to move forward. In many ways, you’re having to develop new patterns and unlearn old habits. The longer you were with someone, the more ingrained those old habits can be and the harder it can be to shake them. Hell, there’ll be times when you think you’re doing just fine and then muscle memory kicks in and you realise you’ve done something on auto-pilot, expecting that your ex would still be there and the reminder is like kicking your soul in the nuts.
Now in your friend’s specific instance, her ex moved on fairly quickly and went from one relationship to another with barely a pause in the middle. This suggests that – as abrupt as the breakup may have been – that it’d been in the planning for a while. Whether he’d been planning on leaving her for someone specific or just that he’d wanted out for a while, knowing that your ex has been planning on leaving? That’s a pretty harsh blow to the ego. That’s the sort of thing that makes you go back and look over the last several months – even years of a relationship and question everything. How long had he been looking to get out? How many of the happy memories did she have of her relationship with him that’re now in question?
That’s a bitter pill under the best of circumstances. And if this is her first serious relationship – and to be honest, you all sound pretty darn young – then that’s going to make it even harder.
So right now, her throwing blame everywhere but on him for leaving… that’s not entirely unexpected. That’s some pretty basic ego protection. She doesn’t want to think that he’d been champing at the bit to get out because… well, fuck. So, a little deliberate self-delusion is understandable. We all do that, especially in the early days as we’re trying to process what happened and how we’re going to go forward. It’s part of how we work through everything; we have our little ego-defending emotional tantrum and our Kubler-Ross staging and then accept the reality of the situation and get to work work on the post-breakup healing process.
Now it’s whether she’s actually accepted the situation that puts the rest of her behaviour in question. One of the things I’m firm about in the aftermath of a breakup is what I call The Nuclear Option – cutting off all forms of communication with your ex. No calls, no texts, Kik, What’sApp, nothing. Delete their number, erase their contacts on Skype, block them on Facebook and Twitter, lock them out of your LiveJournal (the kids still use LiveJournal, right?) and make getting back in contact with them as inconvenient as possible. It can seem a little extreme at first – especially if you’re legitimately hoping to maintain a friendship after the breakup – but the fact is: you need to heal. You can’t get over somebody if you’re constantly reopening the wound. Even if your plan is to just passively see what they’re up to… well, bullshit, we all know it’s about seeing if they’re dating anyone yet.
(The Nuclear Option also means that you get to hold on to your dignity in the aftermath of the break up. No “accidental” drunk texts or 3 AM sobbing calls and they don’t get to see the maudlin status updates and woe-is-me tweetspasms and really unfortunate hashtags).
So right now it sounds like your friend has never gone through the healing phase. If you’re right and she is holding out hope that he’ll come back… that’s understandable, but it’s not healthy and — in all likelihood — not happening.
But — and I know this is frustrating — unless she’s actually starting to become a legitimate threat to her own well-being, then there’s really not much you can do. She’s going to have to work through all of this at her own pace and in her own time and you can’t force someone to speed through it.
The best thing you can do is support her and be her friend. One of the few cures for a broken heart is being so damn busy that you don’t have time for it. Help remind her of what life is like before she dated him by spending time with her. Encourage her to get reaquainted with the things she loves to do. If she’s having one of her depressive episodes and won’t leave her room, then bring the party to her; bring DVDs, beers, a Wii U and just have some best-friends time together.
What I would suggest you don’t do is bring up the subject of dating other people. She’s not going to be receptive to that and as much as I’m a fan of getting over someone by getting under someone else, having a friend pushing you to date when you’re still recovering is more likely to cause her to withdraw further.
Similarly, tread carefully around the subject of her ex. If she’s holding out hope to the extent that you believe she is, she’s not going to be willing to listen. She’ll be too busy looking for evidence that he’s starting to reconsider, no matter how completely absurd it may be. Push her too hard about things and rather than listen to reason, she’ll be more likely to just shut down and squeeze you out of her life at a time when she really needs the people who love and support her.
If you absolutely feel the need, sit her down and have a one-time only Come To Jesus meeting where you explain that you’re worried about her, that she’s been so different after the breakup and you think she’s holding out hope that he’s going to come back and he won’t. State your case from a position of love and concern for her and then drop it. Don’t bring it up again and change the subject if she does.
You’re a good friend, EWF, and she’s lucky to have you during a shitty time in her life. Be there for her, support her and keep her engaged and active. It may take an annoyingly long time, but odds are she’ll pull out of this.
Hey there, Doc! How are you doing? I hope this SOS shows up safely on your psychic paper.
I’ve always been a guy of commitment. Hell, I married my first longtime girlfriend when I was 21 and she was only 20. This relationship unfortunately did not go well, and she asked me for the divorce two years later.
A couple months since my divorce, I ended up with a girlfriend with whom I spent almost a whole year of my life. A couple weeks since this break up, I started dating another girl and, just a few months after that, we broke up and I began another relationship with another girl, but this didn’t work out either.
So now, after all this time being “encaged”, I finally came to the decision that I want to be free – or, to quote the great Freddie Mercury, “I want to break free”. Yes, I finally decided that sex and kisses and girls don’t necessarily need a fulltime commitment, nor a ring. And I’ve been happy since then. I have been with some people after my last breakup, sometimes even simultaneously – I mean that one day I was with one, the other day with another, the other day with the first again.
Well, I’ve been dating this girl, let’s call her Robin, for almost a month, and even though I’m not looking after other girls to date, I don’t exclude the possibility when it comes to me. One of my ex-girlfriends, for example, asked me out the other day, and we went full on to bed, and I know Robin wouldn’t care if she found out about it – we did not agree for an exclusive relationship yet.
My problem started when this student of mine – I’m a choir conductor – asked me on a date, let’s call her Lily. It was awesome: we talked, we kissed, we did it, and it even counted as a new experience for me, since she is a lot older than me.
Silly little me didn’t realise, however, that a while ago people did expect to get an exclusive relationship out of the first date. I even went out with Robin since I started dating Lily, but it was the first time I felt guilt doing that, since I actually had to lie to her.
And now I have the current scenario: I want to spend time with Lily, but that would mean that I have to break up with Robin; and I want to spend time with Robin, but that would mean that I have to break up with Lily. I even trying measuring the pros and cons of the two of them, but I couldn’t make a decision. Even though Lily appears to me as a better option, dating Robin would mean I’d stay being free. But what if Robin asks me for a commitment? What if I end up going out with someone else – hell, even just kiss someone else – and Lily finds out?
I hope you can help me out on this one, Doc. And if you can’t, at least show me how to think about this situation.
I love your blog and I love your section on Kotaku. Your comments on other people’s stories have always helped me in a way or another.
More later. Best wishes,
Nobody gets everything they want, CD. You want fuck-buddies and no-strings relationships with people? Awesome, you do you… but the price of that lifestyle means that some people are just going to be off the table. And from the sounds of it, Lily is one of them.
Now, from a personal stance, I’d say that expecting exclusivity after the first date is absurd and a deal-breaker. Someone getting angry at you because you’re seeing other people when you haven’t had the defining the relationship talk is a dating hazard that you can’t always avoid. Someone getting angry that you’re dating someone else when you’ve only gone out a handful of times, period? That’s not just absurd, that’s a pretty good red flag. So I’m not necessarily inclined to say that Lily is a better choice here.
But let’s put that aside for a second and deal with the real issue: you’re trying to avoid responsibility here. Let’s be honest: you’re surfing the ambiguity and hoping to get by without actually saying anything.
And that’s not going to work. All that’s going to happen is that people’re going to get hurt, and that’s not cool.
Hooking up with people is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that you’re going to have to take ownership of your choices and deal with the consequences. You don’t get to be free to follow your dick wherever it leads and not have to have some awkward and painful conversations with folks. It sounds to me like neither Robin nor Lily know that you’re not down for a committed relationship and I suspect that part of this is because you know they’d be less interested in hooking up if they knew for sure that this wasn’t leading anywhere.
And that’s a shitty thing to do to people. If you want NSA sex, more power to you, but your partners have the right to know that a relationship with you isn’t going to go anywhere before they get invested. Trying to play on the “Well we didn’t say this was going somewhere” is a dickish thing to do to somebody who may be assuming that yeah you’re casual now, but a more serious relationship isn’t off the table…
As a general rule, your best bet is to be up front with the people you’re dating from the beginning. Make it clear what you expect the relationship to be, what you are and aren’t able to give and what you won’t do. There’ll be plenty of women who’ll check out when you have this conversation and that’s fine; these are people who aren’t on the same page as you and it’s better to find this out early.
(And this is without getting into the potential of ethically non-monogamous committed relationships, which is a different topic entirely… )
But even if you do have those conversations early on, you’re still going to have to confront the possibility that someone is going to want to talk commitment with you. No matter how much you try to insulate yourself against it, there will be times when people are going to want to talk about where things are going between the two of you. There’s no getting around that unless you’re just churning through people like Kleenex and ditching them (or getting ditched) before they decide that you’re a cool person and maybe they’d like something more serious with you.
It doesn’t matter how many times you have the “this is just a sex thing” conversation or the “I’m not looking for anything serious” conversation with your hook-ups; eventually one of them is going to want to broach the subject about the two of you. Maybe it will be that they’re just checking in and want to make sure you’re both on the same page. Maybe it will be that they want something more and if you don’t, then they’re going to go. Maybe it will be that they’re worried that you are catching feelings and they’re going to give you the heave-ho. But it’s going to happen. And that’s when you’re going to have to decide which means more to you: your relationship with that person, or the idea of being “free”.
Which is where you are now. Cold hard truth time, CD: you know damn good and well that your behaviour would hurt Lily. This is why you’re actively lying to her and feeling guilty about it. So as good of a partner you think she may be (I question this but anyway…), she clearly isn’t since she’s expecting something you’re not willing to give.
Awkward conversations and breaking up with women you’d otherwise want to see are all part of the price you pay for being free, CD. You can see Lily or you can see other people. Not both. You’re going to have to decide which means more to you. And if/when Robin asks for commitment from you, you’re going to have to make that same decision.
So it’s all down to that question, CD: which do you want more? Robin? Lily? Or your “freedom”?
Have you helped a friend through a tough breakup? Have you ever had to choose between one of the two people you were dating? Share your experiences and tips in the comments section, and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your questions.
Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write [email protected] and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.
Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.