Dear Auntie Sparknotes,
About a year ago, I had a short relationship with a guy, who we will call Frank. Frank was very, very, nice, and although he was quite a bit older than me, he helped me get through a rough breakup. At the time, I thought Frank was just the guy that I needed. So we ended up dating for a while... but then we went through a rough patch, and he broke up with me. I was upset at first, but got over him pretty quick, due to the fact (I saw this in hindsight) that he was a rebound.
I moved to another town quite a ways away for college, and went on to date other people, and have had several "almost boyfriends" in the past year, and have finally found a guy (who we will call Charlie) who I think I can finally have a serious relationship with. The problem is, throughout this past year, Frank has been on and off contacting me, talking to me, and although he claims he is okay with just being friends, he has admitted that he still loves me and regrets ending what we had.
Now, I'm doing my very best to make things work with Charlie, and I don't think that talking to Frank behind Charlie's back would be a good start for us, nor do I want to tell him that I still speak to Frank. So I told Frank that he and shouldn't talk anymore, because I had moved on and he should do the same. Then he pulled the "Depression Card", as I have come to call it. He told me that I'm the only one he can talk to, and that all he wants to do is be able to talk to me and work through the hard parts of his life, because he has a hard time dating, etc., and he feels that I am the only one who understands and knows him well enough to listen. I felt bad for him, and being a psychology major, I can't help but want to help him work through his issues, but I feel stuck. I want to start a new chapter of my life, but he keeps dragging me back into a life I left a long time ago, and I feel that he may hurt himself somehow if I ignore him and make him even unhappier. But I find him annoying and I wish he would just move on with his life too! So, Auntie SparkNotes, what do I do? Should I risk what may be the best relationship I have ever been in, and help someone, or should I tell him to suck it up, and hope that nothing bad happens to him?
Okay, you guys, listen up: before we go any further, we're going to have a quick, basic lesson in The Rules of Ethical Dumping. Which are as follows:
You have an obligation to end your relationships kindly, directly, and without causing unnecessary pain.
You are not, however, responsible for the other person's reactions—irrational, excessive, unhealthy, or otherwise—to a conscientious breakup.
Sparkler, your ex's issues are exactly that: his issues. You can't control them, you can't change them, and you especially can't make yourself a hostage to them. Which goes not just for him, but for any unstable person. Being depressed, being a cutter, being mentally ill, being a victim of tragic circumstances: these things are awful, but they don't give you permission to dump responsibility for your behavior in somebody else's lap. And a guy who uses his depression as an excuse to emotionally manipulate you and extort your friendship isn't a sad, sympathetic panda in need of some love and understanding; he's a jerk. A depressed jerk, yes, but a jerk nevertheless.
And that's something that you—all of you—need to be savvy about, lest you wind up seduced into the creepy codependent trap of being a broken person's sole support.
And man, is it ever seductive. In fact, that's probably why you, letter-writer, are having such a hard time disentangling yourself from Frank: as annoying as his attention might be, it also makes you feel powerful and desired in a way that's incredibly hard to resist. What keeps you in contact with him isn't just guilt over abandoning someone who's said so upfront that he needs you; it's that being needed like that, being "the only one he can talk to," is such a boost to the ego. And that mutually-beneficial dysfunction is the reason why unhealthy relationships like this tend to linger, fester, and, worst of all, ensure that the person in trouble never, ever gets the help he needs—because if he did, the entire foundation of the friendship would crumble.
What I'm wondering is this: how aware of this dynamic you already are, and how much that might have to do with your otherwise inexplicable decision to kick off your first promising relationship with a giant, ridiculous, completely unnecessary lie. Because seriously, what's that about? Plenty of people still talk to their exes, and almost none of them consider it something to hide. The fact that you do makes me think that maybe, just maybe, you realize that you and your ex are engaged in a skeezy symbiosis that's beyond the bounds of good taste. (Either that, or your new guy is a possessive, jealous butthead who can't stand that you have a past... but you'd never date such a troglodyte, right?)
So if you really want to help Frank—and help yourself into a healthier, more honest relationship with the guy you like so much—then the first thing to do is stop "helping" him. Recognize that you are part of the problem, not the solution. Realize that if he's going to work out his issues, it'll be with a professional therapist and no ulterior motives, not as a transparent pretense for maintaining ties with the ex-girlfriend he's still holding a hopeless torch for. And the next time he calls, have the courage and decency to tell him, firmly, that you're not qualified or able to give him the support he needs—and make it your final act, before cutting ties, to suggest that he seek someone who is.
Do you have a clingy ex who won't let go? Share your story in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
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