Hello, intertube horrormonkey swarms, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column coming to you live from Thimbleweed Park.
As we watch 2017 sail off toward the Viking funeral it deserves, we have a new column full of dating dilemmas and drama. And as we look into the coming future, it only makes sense to look at the past… specifically, some of our past relationships.
How close of a relationship with your ex is too close for comfort? When is a friendship with your ex a threat to your current relationship and when is your partner just being unreasonable? And for that matter: after more drama than a season of Riverdale and more inexplicable break-ups than Arrow, is it possible to rekindle a relationship with your ex?
Time to decide if the past is merely prologue, or if it’s time to let it die.
Let’s do this thing.
I would like to say that I appreciate the time that you are giving to read this. I’ve been following your articles for a while, but I’ve never thought I would be someone in need.
Let’s start: so the girl I was dating just broke up with me recently. We have been dating for 11 months, this was by far my shortest relationship but I loved her, still do.
First a little bit of background. I’m Brazilian, been living in US for 4 years, she is from the Middle East, also living in US for 1.5 years. Like most Latinos I like to mock people, joke around and I would consider myself a happy person besides everything. Sometimes I’m rude and blunt but never disrespectful.
She is an extremely sweet girl, gets hurt easily by words, but she would do anything to see you happy. I’ve never fell for someone like I did for her.
We were a passionate couple, but because of our differences, our relationship was deteriorating. We would discuss often and after every discussion I would think that I’m the responsible for hurting her, in other words she’s always the victim.
Another reason for our fights was the fact that I still talk to my ex, and I’ll briefly describe why. My ex helped me a lot with my professional career, helped me pay for a lot of my training, and for that I respect her and I’m paying her back. We would text once or twice a month but super short texts asking about the family and career. And every time that I bring up my ex, my actual girlfriend would flip and didn’t really understand, so eventually I gave up and decided to not tell her that I’m still in touch with my ex. Note: my phone is unlocked and I have no reasons to hide anything.
So final moment: 5 days ago I was taking a shower and my girlfriend for the first time decided to take my phone and go over my texts. She saw my ex’s texts and decided to end everything right there. Remember at the beginning when I said Latinos mock each other a lot? So she thought I was flirting with the girl and accused me of cheating on her. I’ve never thought about that and my ex also never tried anything.
After that my girlfriend decided to block me from her life. I mean it. Facebook, cell phone, social media. Not only her but also her sisters are doing the same. For the first time, I’m truly hurt because I love her to death and I think what she’s doing is childish and unfair. To be honest, I think she saw the relationship was going downhill and what she needed was an excuse.
Despite everything, I still love her. So I guess my question is, should I give up, or maybe give her some time, or maybe try harder? (Sorry for any mistakes. English isn’t my first language)
Cut Off And Confused
My dude, I will be honest with you: her breaking up with you was for the best for both of you. It was also, quite frankly, inevitable.
There are two key issues in play here. The first is that you and your girlfriend were simply not compatible with one another. When we think about what makes a successful relationship, we tend to think about things like mutual attraction, shared interests and maintaining that balance of emotional labor being put in.
But there’re other key components to making a relationship work, ones that we don’t often think of during the honeymoon period, when you’re busy bangin’ on every flat surface in existence and the oxytocin is flooding your brain.
One of them is understanding how your partner communicates. You, for example, have a very jocular, banter-y style of communication. For you and many of your friends, busting somebody’s balls is simply part of how you express affection and respect for one another. But to someone who doesn’t have that communication style… well, even knowing that you’re just fooling around, it can feel pretty hurtful.
This is a balancing act for couples; both have to learn how to communicate in a way that works for their partner, but also to learn to understand how their partner communicates. But when there’s a severe imbalance — in this case, when one partner is more easily wounded by what the other would seem as something harmless — then it’s on the less affected one to be more proactive in moderating how they speak.
That seems to have been what happened here.
Your girlfriend had a different, less antagonistic way of showing affection and — as you said — was easily hurt by words. If you didn’t adjust your way of talking with her to match a communication style she understood, then it’s small wonder that you and she were always fighting. You may have had the best of intentions, but digging at someone who’s clearly not appreciating your humor is going to hurt. This is especially true if you hit any areas where she’s particularly sensitive. Hitting that weak spot may make for an easy way to get a reaction out of someone, but it can also do great damage.
The other issue is that your girlfriend didn’t trust you, nor was she particularly willing to take the time to try to understand you and your past.
One common cause of strife in relationships is understanding that many people have very different relationships with their exes. For some, the concept of being friends after breaking up is anathema. You broke up, now they’re functionally dead to you. For them, seeing somebody still in touch with their ex is a sign that somebody is trying to get back together.
For others, the fact that you didn’t work as lovers doesn’t mean that you no longer care for them. Those common interests and shared experiences don’t disappear just because you aren’t bumping uglies any more. In fact, many people have found that they work far better as friends, rather than as a couple.
Now personally, I’m of the opinion that someone who’s on good terms with their exes — or good friends, for that matter — is someone with excellent emotional intelligence and a caring partner. That tends to be a sign that they’re someone who’s able to hold on to the respect and affection they had while letting the conflicts go.
Clearly, you and your ex were on good terms, which is commendable. But your girlfriend had a very different — and unreasonable — view of things. In an ideal world, she would’ve been able to sit down with you and the two of you could’ve had a discussion about your relationship with your ex where you explain that you respect her and you owe her, but you aren’t interested in her any more. Your girlfriend could ask you for a little reassurance when she’s feeling those pangs of insecurity.
Instead, the differences in your communication styles got in the way and left the two of you frustrated with one another. And then she went and violated your privacy and had herself an ugly freak-out over what was an otherwise innocent conversation. And thus your relationship comes to a screeching halt and your girlfriend has initiated the nuclear option and locked you out of her life.
I agree with you: I think this isn’t terribly fair. But, honestly? If it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else, and it would likely have been just as dramatic and messy. Because, at the core, the two of you just were never going to work. You didn’t mesh together in ways that are critical for a relationship to work. It’s a shame that this relationship had to end, but ultimately, it’s for the best for both of of you.
The best thing you can do, COaC? Learn from this. Focus on finding someone whose sense of humor and values match yours. Learn to speak their particular love language and teach them how to speak yours. Find someone who can understand your relationship with your past lovers and can respect your friendship with them. And who, critically, isn’t going to invade your privacy like that.
Hey-o Dr. N,
I feel like opening this by telling you how big a fan I am of your work is about as creative as ‘Once upon a time’ at this point, but I am not George Orwell, and openings aren’t my forte. I love your articles, guy. They’re a bastion in a world that is making less and less sense to me as time goes on.
I’m 25, female and married. I got married young to a guy with some pretty serious mental health issues - a heady concoction made up of anxiety and bi-polar disorder. My relationship with my family is Schrödinger’s cat at the best of times, and a box with a dead cat inside at the worst. His family has a lot of their own problems and aren’t heroes in a crisis. Suffice it to say that we were on our own.
We stuck it out for seven years, and things got very unhealthy. I went from a happy-go-lucky, holds-up-spork kind of girl to a bitter, socially awkward shut-in with some serious self-image problems. My husband’s issues got incrementally worse, seemingly in cahoots with the mental health budget in the UK, and eventually I took the coward’s way out and fled to Denmark with a guy I met whilst I was playing an MMO about dinosaurs.
I wasn’t swept off my feet by the romance movie moment, felt cheated, and came back after about three weeks of great sex and Netflix binges. About a week after I got home and found myself an apartment, I fell into a relationship with a guy who worked at the board game café I frequent. I was in a vulnerable spot and looking for a way to feel good about myself – and I don’t make good choices. It was only meant to be a one-night stand, but somehow, we stuck things out for a year – I moved in because he was struggling with the rent and I wanted to help. He has a daughter, and she is the coolest kid in the world.
Anyway, when we met, he knew I was planning on moving out to Tokyo for a semester and promised to support me in doing it despite it putting a massive stopper in our plans, which had snowballed into a lifescape somewhere along the way. He supported me in getting here – helped me with the paperwork and the stress of planning my trip and even packed my things for me. I broke things off with him last week. The distance gave me clarity, I guess. I realised my feelings weren’t as strong as I’d thought they were, and I ended things for both of us.
Cut to now. Me and my husband have always stayed in touch, which is surprising given my propensity for burning bridges and what I did to him and his family by leaving so spectacularly. I may not be great at introductions, but my exits are second to none.
We started talking more again, playing games together, stuff like that. Naturally, he talks about what he’s getting up to a lot and he has filled me in on his life, post us.
I am so conflicted, Dr. N. When I left, he tried to take his life but it finally made the mental health services take his condition seriously. They gave him a proper diagnosis, support and medication. Now he’s started going outside, working at a stable once a week and is doing normal things he couldn’t manage when we were together.
I am doing better, too. I finally got to play out the dream I’ve been having since I was ten years old and really living again for the first time in years. He’s never hidden the fact that he still loves me, and I have never been connected to anyone like I am connected to him. We went through so much together, but it nearly destroyed us both.
I’ve tried to find something to equal that bond with two very different, very lovely guys since, unsuccessfully. I’m scared that I may never find what I have with my husband, again, and that he might move on now that he’s doing so much better, and that we might never get a chance like this again.
I guess my question for you is this: Am I wrong to be considering starting over with him?
Jesus, when you blow up a relationship, you don’t do it small, do you BB?
So, let’s address the big question first. When someone asks me about whether they should get back together with their ex, I have three questions for them.
First: How long ago did you break up?
Third: What’s changed since then and now?
I’ve found that these questions help people confront a lot of the reasons why they want to get back together with an ex, and determine whether that’s a good idea. It’s understandable to look back on an old relationship and wonder “what if,” especially if things ended suddenly or dramatically. Time can be a critical factor. When the end of the relationship is still fairly fresh, it’s difficult to get the distance and perspective you need to really get a handle on what happened.
At the same time, however, you want to be careful to not fall into the nostalgia trap. Time also has a way of blurring the memories of our relationships, blunting the sharp edges of conflict and highlighting the positive memories with that warm glow. When you’re feeling lonely, or looking back on happier times, it’s very easy to forget all the ways you and your ex drove each other crazy.
Understanding why you broke up is also critical. Not all break ups are equal, after all. Some relationships end because of circumstance. Sometimes it was a case of the right person and the wrong time. You weren’t in a place in life where you could maintain a relationship. Your work/life balance was out of whack. You were trying to make long-distance work and it was just too much.
In your case: your relationship went downhill and you decided to bail in as dramatic and unhealthy a way as you possibly could.
But understanding why your relationship ended isn’t enough. You also have to ask what’s different now. If the circumstances that broke you up haven’t changed, all you’re doing is dooming the two of you to live through the 10 minute extended dance remix of your previous break up. You’ll be doubling down on the pain and heartbreak.
So I ask you, BB: what’s different now? It’s good that your husband is finally getting help; I can’t imagine that his mental health issues made your relationship easy. The fact that he’s getting his life under control again is a vital step.
But what about you? What work have you been doing to be a better partner as well? You’ve left quite the trail of drama behind you with the way you’ve been diving into and out of relationships. You haven’t just burned bridges; in some cases, you did the dating equivalent of Sherman’s march into Atlanta.
It’s good that you’ve gotten to live out your dream, but have you addressed the reasons why you make these poor, impulsive choices? Are you healthier, emotionally? Or are you still prone to overestimating your feelings and leaping into relationships without thinking things through?
It’s incredibly important that you address those issues, BB. It’s great that you and your husband — I guess you never officially got divorced? — still love and care for one another. But to quote the song: love just ain’t enough. If you haven’t solved the issues on your end, all that’s going to happen is a repeat of old, painful history and that’s a cruel thing to do to someone you care about.
Do your work, BB. Make sure that you’re actually different, instead of just wanting to be different.
If — and that’s a mighty big “if” — you have been doing your part to sort out your issues, then take it slow. Like, getting passed by geriatric snails slow. It’s very easy to fall back into old patterns with a former partner. You two may have history, but you’re presumably both new people. You want to take the time to get to know who you both are now, instead of falling back to who you were. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before you burn another bridge — and possibly get caught in the flames yourself.
Did you get back together with an ex after a dramatic break-up? How do you handle different communication styles in your relationship? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
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@example.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.
Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blogPaging 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.