Dear Carolyn: I am concerned about my ex-boyfriend. He has a female co-worker we'll call Sarah who has been his friend with benefits on and off (three times) over the past 10 years or so. My ex never wanted anything serious with her. Several months before he and I met three years ago, he completely stopped being physically intimate with her and made clear his desire for a platonic friendship only.
She continued, throughout his and my relationship, wanting him to help her sort through her feelings about their previous relationship. She was upset that it never amounted to more and made it clear she wanted more from him. He would decline and tell her to stop but she wouldn’t.
She also physically threw herself at him on one occasion while he and I were together, and consistently threw out sexual invitations via email and notes at work, then would get upset when he “acted offended” (her words) that she’d taken things there.
I wrote her a letter telling her how disturbing and destructive her behavior is and that she was hurting herself, my boyfriend (who she claims to be in love with) and me. Before this my ex had told her he didn’t want to communicate with her anymore at all — which he has said before — except professionally, and to stop stomping around the office and making things unpleasant. She does that when he tells her he doesn’t want to communicate anymore.
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Obviously, my ex is partially responsible, for not sticking to boundaries and for responding to her calls and emails after he has repeatedly told her to stop. He is very conflict-avoidant and doesn’t really stand up for his own needs. But she’s harassing him and I don’t know if there is anything I or anyone else can do.
Stuck in a Loop
You’re “stuck in a loop,” as your signature claims, only if you would define said stuckness as:
▪ spotting a loop miles off in the distance;
▪ changing the course of your life to travel there;
▪ throwing yourself into it; and
▪ deciding not to use the bright red stepladder to climb back out.
This is about your ex-boyfriend! And his ex-non-girlfriend! Any place you had in their dysfunctional entanglement is ex as well. Ex plicitly ex pired.
Even when you were still together, your role was this: “Hey. You do realize your ex-friend-with-benefits is hanging around only because you’re being a complete pushover, don’t you? Which, if we’re keeping score at home, means you’ve served her poorly in two separate, yet equally important ways: passively (yes?) lapsing into noncommittal sex when she was plainly developing an emotional attachment, and afterward feeding her false hopes for years by not backing up your words with your actions.” In your own words, of course.
Yes, you can still care about him or any other ex. But properly placed concern here would be not for his victimhood at the hands of this awful, awful colleague, but instead for his conflict-avoidance, which is so advanced and unhealthy that he not only chooses dominant partners to date so they can assume the burden of running his life for him (and write his cease-and-desist letters to his exes!) but also chooses dominant partners to mess around with as his physical needs demand.
You don’t have the luxury of getting involved here, though, even on the minimal level of pointing out that he’s made his own bed. That’s because you have a problem of your own to think about, one you’d only exacerbate by remaining involved in his drama. That problem being, of course, your unexamined availability to play this role of dominant partner.
Step back and squint a bit so you can see it: For him to be the man who sets no boundaries, his partners need to be boundary crossers. It’s a yin-yang emotional pairing, each of you essential to the transaction, and reaping equally unhealthy returns.
When a hard-charger pairs contentedly with a hanger-back, then I’ll be the first to shake their hands in the receiving line, the richness of life being in its variety and all.
However, you’re clearly worked up about fighting others’ battles — a hard-charger minus the contentment.
And you’re trying to fix the problem by correcting not yourself, not your ex, but the ex’s ex – the person two rings of relevance out from the center. That makes no sense.
You are the center, so fix you. When you start to get annoyed by a current boyfriend’s pushy ex, start reminding yourself that it’s not healthy for you to date (or remain friends with post-breakup) people so conflict-avoidant that they aggravate your own tendency to assume control of other people’s circuses. Next time you see a tent, popcorn and clowns, use this experience as a reminder to walk the other way.
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