Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love Them Enough To Leave Them Alone


Around this time last year, I was dating A Very Nice Guy Who Just Wasn't Right For Me.

I did all those things you do once you discover that someone's not your person.
I made it painfully clear to him that I wanted to 'take things slow'.
I only saw him once a week.
I instituted a 'no sleepovers' rule.

But, eventually, I realized that it wasn't particularly kind to string along a sweet guy who wanted to be my boyfriend when I was more interested in Dollywood and moonshine than my relationship status. I spent a month crying in restaurants to my girlfriends, practicing break up speeches, and googling things like "how to let someone down gently."

Also: eating carbs and cheese in various combinations.

I finally worked up the nerve to end things and closed the conversation with ye olde "but I'd like to be friends."
And then, dear readers, to the horror of us both, I actually tried to do that. 

After what I thought was a suitable amount of time, I sent him an email.  When I saw his hometown in the news, I texted him. I asked him out for breakfast.

Was I interested in getting him back? Not at all! Did I miss my friend? Yes. Was there a hip-hop-show-companion shaped hole in my social life? Yes. Did I worry that he hated me? Yes.

Now, if you're keeping track, exactly none of those concerns had anything to do with Very Nice Guy I Dumped. They had everything to do with me, my needs, and my ego. 


When we end things with someone - a romantic partner, a friend, even someone we've employed - we become a source of discomfort. As much as we'd like to stay in touch, stay friends, stay in the loop, we need to put the ball in their court.  When you've ended something, you no longer have a say in how that person spends their time or directs their feelings. And if you really, actually care about them you'll give them the space they need to decide how (or if) you'll be part of their life.

So what does this look like in real life?

If you know he's having a hard time getting over your break up, don't text him those inside jokes you used to share.
If you know she's still hanging on, despite the divorce papers, don't tell her that she looks great and you like that haircut.
If you know he's still holding out hope that you're ready for a serious relationship, stop it with the late night booty calls.
If you don't want the best friendship that she does, stop inviting her out for one-on-one drinks while you unload all your problems on her.

Sometimes love comes in the shape of space.
Quiet.
A tough but clean break.
Mentally wishing someone the best and then letting them go after it - without you.

How do you deal with exes?  Do you give yours space?  Do you wish yours would let you be so you could get on with your life?

Edited to add: You also have the right to be left alone.  If someone hurts you or ends things and then wants to be part of your life, you can tell them that you'd prefer not to be friends. You can to choose who's in your life!

photo by beureumbodas // cc

30 comments

  1. Wise words, my dear. Sometimes the things we think we are doing out of kindness are the things that hurt the people we care about the most.

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  2. Love this. And may I say it's so nice to see a blog post that is not bussiness-related (no offense, it's just that I don't have a career in that area so I apreciate more the personal development posts or the plain funny ones) :)

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  3. You make some excellent points in this post. Sometimes I think we focus too much on trying to keep them in our lives that we completely miss that fact that it's hurting them. Sometimes they just need to move on without us.

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  4. This was so profound. Let people go because we are holding them back for our egos. So very true!

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  5. My mom always told me to take at least half the length of the relationship to get over the relationship. It doesn't work so exactly... ever... but I like the sentiment.

    My one ex that is still a really good friend-- we dated for 22 months, didn't speak at all for almost the same time, and then we did reconnect we were both beyond it and could talk about the things we have in common again without the pain.

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  6. Very well-said. I had it in my mind for most of my twenties that remaining friends with exes was a sign of being a healthy person who can get beyond the past. Personally though, I couldn't really gain perspective on why exactly the relationship failed when I was trying to be friendly with the person - I needed the distance and ultimately, with sufficient distance I could safely realize that I didn't really have any desire to keep that person around at all. It just didn't need to be. I've realized that my drive to be friends has been more about needing to believe that there was something redeeming/good about the person, otherwise why would I have been with them?! By staying friends, I was forceably proving to myself that I wasn't utterly terrible at selecting intimate partners and that I hadn't wasted years of my life on lost causes. So it was TOTALLY about my own ego! Ugh. Once I was able to let go of that insistence, I was much more able to move on (and honestly I think most people breathe a sigh of relief when they know there aren't any exes lingering around).

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    1. Yes! I just wanted to show how emotionally mature I was (how mature we BOTH were).

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  7. wise words.
    i struggle with "letting my ex go".
    we broke up 5 years ago - but have communicated, fallen back into old patterns, etc over the last 5 years.
    we stopped talking again about a month ago - we just become so toxic for each other.
    my heart still hurts.
    i still miss him.
    i liked feeling DESIRABLE....especially from him.
    break ups can be so easy for some, but others...sometimes you connect your heart with a person too deeply and when it ends, it just...resonates pain.

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  8. I've always wondered if this was a cultural thing. I grew up on the east coast and remained friends with none of my exs and don't know anyone who has. However now that I live on the west coast I find that it is a common practice. There is only one instance where I saw someone who couldn't make a friendship out of a past relationship and it was because she was hurt by the guy way too much and he didn't give her any space to heal from their relationship to be friends.

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  9. As someone who has received 14 texts from her exboyfriend today, mostly along the lines of "call me, it's urgent" (Because he knows I block his number and he can't really call me without my phone hanging up in his face.) I would like to give you a hearty, "hear hear!" It is extremely painful for me that is still so selfish, after a month of being broken up, to the point where he does not give a damn that I want space. It's absolutely unfair. And then I feel guilty since I was the one who broke up with him, and I know he's hurt, so in my guilt I'm like "ugh, maybe I should call him..." but that always turns out to be a terrible, terrible idea.... it's the worst.

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    1. Ugh! I'm so sorry you have to deal with that <3

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    2. oh my goodness! I have been in a similar situation. #1 - DO NOT FEEL GUILTY! It is not selfish to tell someone you're not into them. You're actually doing yourself AND the guy a FAVOR by being honest!

      #2 - DO NOT CALL HIM! He is still hung up on you and it is DISRESPECTFUL OF HIM to continue contacting you in the way he is (its borderline harrassment). The only way he will get over you is if you guys just do not make contact. AT ALL. For a long time. Do not give in! DO NOT GIVE IN! Respect his feelings, his pain and realize what the solution is --- and its not a pity-call-to-maybe-make-him-feel-better-and-increase-his-false-hope-of-getting-back-with-you ...

      Maybe after 3 months. Maybe 6. Maybe even a whole year should go by. And you'll know its okay when the conversation does not "end terribly" and BOTH OF YOU can be totally honest!

      Ok I'm done.

      I just know exactly what you're going through and I hate seeing actually feel bad because someone else is having trouble maturing a little bit.

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  10. I usually remain friends with my exes. I never break it off with "but we can still be friends". I just break it off. There is no "gentle" way to do it. It hurts and we're big boys and girls. We get over it. I don't say "lets stay friends" because it's their decision if they like me deeply enough to stay in touch or not. And we usually do, anyway. If someone is ACTUALLY YOUR FRIEND, you don't have to let them know that you still are friends. It will happen naturally, IMO.

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  11. I went through a pretty tough best friend "break up" and this was something I really struggled with. Though he was the one who broke my heart, I was the one who screwed it up. Trying to give him space and let him go was the hardest thing - I never quite mastered it as I never gave up trying to get him back and, eventually, I did.

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  12. Excellent post. When my ex and I divorced, I briefly considered whether we would remain friends, but I ultimately, I realized that if we could be friends, we wouldn't be getting divorced. If we enjoyed each other's company, respected each other, shared similar interests/perspectives, and cared for one another--like friends do--we wouldn't have split up. I frankly don't know anybody who is truly friends with an ex who doesn't harbor uncomfortable thoughts about that.

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  13. I totally agree with all of this. I would actually go a step farther: it's not just about leaving the ball in their court. Most of the time when I've broken up with someone, I actively wish to not have them in my life anymore in any capacity. It's still painful, but if I was initially attracted to him as a boyfriend, that's very different than a friend. If the boyfriend thing doesn't work, I can't just move them over to a different type of relationship and see if that works any better. I've already got enough friends! Maybe that sounds callous, but it has worked really well for me.

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  14. Damn you're good. And the timing of this article is absolutely the strength and reinforcement I need right now. I am just about to head out to diner tonight to dump a super great, amazing guy. But I need to tell him this Oscar Wilde quote "Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

    Also - FYI Sarah - You are never ordinary!

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    1. You! <3 Best of luck on your break up.

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  15. This is so great, and I'm kind of mind-blown at your realization that the wanting-to-stay-friends bit is mostly about ourselves, not about the ex-partners.

    I had a boyfriend who claimed he didn't understand why people couldn't remain friends, and he ALWAYS stayed friends with his exes ("just because you're not sleeping together, why should anything change?"). I eventually figured out that this was because none of these past relationships had actually been serious; he hadn't had the kind of emotional commitment that causes the agonizing break-ups that aren't friend-able. Needless to say, when we ended things after 2.5 years, we did not remain friends... (hah).

    On the other hand, though the love of my life and I couldn't speak for 2 years after we broke up, we now are friends and I value him as one of the people in my life who knows me best. Not to say it's not a TAD weird, but it's worth it.

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  16. It's very true. My ex and I don't live in the same city anymore so I don't run across him or anything, which is a good thing I guess. We are in good terms, and I'm glad for that. I really value the relationship we had, and I'm glad we are not one of those people always throwing venom at their exes. I do think this came with the boundaries we have, we have let the other person free to be.

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  17. I just recently (circa 1 hour ago) ended up on the other side of this scenario. He broke up with me, wanted to remain friends, I said sure but left for a different bar to get some beer and space simultaneously, and magically he showed up there demanding closure and friendship. I had to put my foot down and say no. I needed the space very definitely.
    So basically, I told him the title of this post and left, because it's hella true.

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  18. Totally agree with this! My ex broke up with me and was at first good enough to give me space but then he was texting and calling me and if I didn't reply he'd be all antsy! In the end he wanted to get back together but I didn't want that, I do want to be friends though. But for him to get over it like I did I'm giving him the space he needs :) xx

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  19. Giving someone space is definitely important, but I do want to say it's not impossible nor is it always a selfish thing to stay friends with your exes. I've tended to do that at different times of my life and to varying degrees. There's definitely a right and a wrong way to go about it, and like Sarah says, it's really about the person who's been broken up with (the dumped) and how they feel. Most of the relationships I've been in spawned from friendships- whether or not this is the "right" way this is how it's been for me.

    Most recently, I was the "dumped" but in a weird little twist, I had to give him space. So we didn't talk, for about 6 months, and I felt like my heart got ripped out. He was going through some heavy stuff and was in an "or flight" kind of place with everyone who loved him, and it was painful. Eventually he got back in touch with me, and at that point I wasn't sure I was ready to have any kind of relationship with him, but he was also cautious and gave me space.

    The weird and happy ending to this is that we are back together, the relationship is stronger than it ever was before, and we are both incredibly happy. We learned to talk more openly and be more respectful of each other, and we learned that we didn't really want to be apart, ever. But NONE of that would have happened if we didn't respect each other's need for space and understand where we'd both hurt one another, so I think you're dead on about that.

    When someone gets hurt, no matter how pure your intentions were in the first place, you need to let them have time to let the wound heal. Then you need to see where it takes you. Sometimes, you may still have that buddy to get a beer with now and again. Sometimes, you'll part ways and memories will be all you have. And at least in one case, sometimes it'll work out in weird ways you can't understand and you'll feel really lucky.

    Just thought I'd share.

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  20. Can I just ask what happened once you tried to be friends? Did it work for awhile? Was it then 10,000x worse when you did have to stop talking? Just curious, in that just-curious-cuz-that's-what-happened-to-me kinda way. :)

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  22. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this post. I think it has given me a little insight into what my recent ex-boyfriend has been going through. He dumped me without fully telling me why, and the closest thing he gave to an explanation was that he "wasn't 100% there for me". He also said that he wasn't sure what he wanted, but based on his actions, it is clear that it isn't me that he wants, not romantically at least and expressed that he didn't want to lose touch with me but it's tricky because of residual feelings. So far, we have not been in contact and I'm giving him as much space as he needs to figure out what it is that's going on. He said that he isn't sure what happened, whether that is true or not, I don't know - it could be that he's decided to put me down gently without telling me the real reason to avoid hurting my feelings. (That he was never in love with me, etc.) Basically, he's not opened up to me. I am hoping that he will somewhere down the line. I have a few questions for you, though, if you don't mind.

    How long were you dating this guy before you realised he wasn't the right one for you? What made you realise he wasn't the one for you and what did you say to him to let him go?

    Hope this doesn't revive any touchy memories.

    X

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