Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I’ve got a bit of a conundrum. TL;DR: How do I, a person with no interest in or experience with dating, support someone else who is going through a horrendous break-up? FYI, since this isn’t about my own relationship drama, I’m going to try keeping the nitty-gritty details to a minimum. I realize that could make your job harder – apologies in advance. I’d rather not air someone else’s drama at all, but I’m at my wit’s end, and I’d really like an expert opinion. You certainly have experience talking to people about their bad break-ups, so I’m hoping you might be able to help.
About me: I’m asexual/aromantic. I have no personal experience with relationships, and outside of a couple mild crushes, I’ve never been particularly interested in romance or sex. To me, it’s like a bucket list thing – maybe one day I’ll try sky-diving, and maybe one day I’ll go on a date or try having sex. That said, I do enjoy reading/watching fiction centered around romance/sex, and I like learning about the wide variety of romantic and/or sexual relationships people can have – hence why I read your column! Now, onto the problem.
My sibling, let’s call them A, is on the tail-end of a very messy break-up. (How can someone be on the tail-end of a break-up, you ask? We’ll get there…) They started dating someone (we’ll call them B) years ago. Things seemed to be going well, but there were some red flags – the two of them moved to a new city for B’s high paying job, but A never made any new friends there. A also had a lower paying job, and was very financially reliant on B. Regardless, they seemed happy; they bought a house together and got engaged. Then the pandemic hit. This is where things get bad.
As far as I can tell, the pandemic stress-tested their relationship…and their relationship failed. They called off the engagement, but instead of actually breaking up, they took a break and then got back together. Things still weren’t working, so eventually A moved out. But A couldn’t afford an apartment by themself, and didn’t have any friends/family nearby to move in with…so B agreed to help pay A’s rent. Yes, you read that right. As far as I’m aware, there was some half-assed negotiation of whether they were still partners, but no discussion of what that actually meant. As far as I can tell, it seems like A was far more invested in keeping the relationship afloat than B was – for example, A tried to plan special dates for B, but B didn’t return the effort. Eventually B started a relationship with someone else online without telling A. When B decided to pursue it in person as well, they finally bit the bullet and told A things were over because they wanted to see someone else. A tried to convince B to change their mind; B did not change their mind. So, well over a year after the engagement was called off, the break-up has actually, fully happened.
My sibling is absolutely miserable. They’ve moved back home, and are having a really, really hard time with depression (diagnosed long before this whole mess). I’m trying to be supportive, but every time I talk to A, I hear the exact same refrain: A still wants to be with B, B was The One, A blames themself for the relationship failing, A is never going to be happy without B and the life they had together, and A is convinced that if they try hard enough they can get B back. It’s been over a year since the relationship started spiraling and over a month since things finally, properly imploded, but it seems like A is making zero headway in processing what’s happened and has no intentions of moving on.
Since I have zero relationship experience, I feel like I can’t give any good advice or offer any real sympathy/understanding. I kind of get it, intellectually…but I’ve never felt that way about another person, and I just don’t know what to say. If that weren’t bad enough, A doesn’t have a wide social circle and doesn’t have many other people to talk to. And if THAT weren’t bad enough, I also have depression, and I’m starting to reach a breaking point with my own mental health and this whole situation.
I’ve tried pointing out that A is doing a lot of irrational self-blame. I’ve tried asking how long A is going to keep putting their life on hold to try to get B back – another month? Another year? The next five years, ten? (And yes, I borrowed that phrasing from your column – thank you!) I’ve tried to say that sometimes, relationships just don’t work out – A firmly disagrees. Today, I tried suggesting that A delete B’s number. The response? “I can’t.” Why? “Because I love them.”
What am I supposed to do or say??? Do I keep repeating the same things until they finally get through, no matter how long it takes? Do I back off from trying to talk things out and leave that to A’s therapist? If so, what do I say when A keeps bringing up how they ruined the relationship and how they have to get B back? Honestly, I’m starting to get worried that A keeps reaching out to B, especially when A says that B won’t respond – at what point do I introduce A to the chair leg of truth, and say that B is not GOING to respond to you because B is your EX, and the relationship is goddamn OVER, and this is turning into HARASSMENT?!
So, in summary – I’m trying to fulfill the role of emotional support after a sibling’s terrible break-up, despite having no experience with the subject at hand. I’m having a hard time figuring out how best to do this, and at what point I should consider drawing boundaries instead.
Since a lot of this may come down to mental health issues, and Dr. Nerdlove is not, in fact, a real doctor, I realize the advice you have might be limited – but in any case, thank you for reading, and for letting me get all of this off my chest.
-Confused and Exhausted
First and foremost CaE: you don’t need to have relationship experience or have an interest in sex in order to comfort another person going through a hard time after a break up. A relationship ending is often a sad thing, something that to be mourned. What most people want or need after a break up isn’t necessarily a guide about what to do – most of the time, they already know that the only answer is “give it time and get some distance”. More often than not, what they’re looking for is comfort and consolation, a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear to hear them out as they cry and a willingness to discretely look the other direction and not notice the torrents of snot or the horrific state of their living space after a couple weeks of isolation and feeling their feels.
As a person with shoulders, ears and a sense of empathy and compassion, you’re perfectly positioned to be that person. A lot of “yeah, that really sucks”, a certain amount of “this too shall pass”, and some strategically timed distractions – “hey, you’ve been cooped up in here too long, let’s go see a movie/go bowling/ throw axes and you can pretend the target’s your jerk ex” – is going to help a lot more than telling them what they should do next. You can even do some things that’ll help them jumpstart their lives again, like helping them clean up or open diplomatic relations with the new and fascinating colony of fungus that evolved off the dishes in the sink. But most of the time, the dumped doesn’t want or need much beyond momentary comfort, a reminder that life goes on and reassurance that this pain will fade and that they’ll find love again.
Hell, even if you do give advice, the only qualification you really need to give it is that someone asked you. Advice really is just a suggestion about what one person thinks another should or could do; if your sibling wants your thoughts, there’s nothing wrong with sharing them. But as I said: that’s not what folks need, most of the time.
Now in the case of your sibling… well, I mean, there’s really not much to be said besides “that’s rough, buddy.” As frustrating as it may be for you to watch, there really isn’t anything else that you can reasonably do, here. To start with, A is a grown-ass adult, capable of making their own decisions. They may be dumb decisions, or decisions you actively disagree with, but it’s their perogative to make them. And while they’re miserable… to a certain extent, that’s misery that they’re choosing. Much as we may all wish it were otherwise, we can’t make them make different choices. The only thing we can do is gently nudge them in directions that we think would help. If they ultimately decide that’s not how they want to do things, then that’s their decision. It’s a decision that may make them more upset in the short run and delay their getting over their ex… but it’s still the decision that they made.
I’m not necessarily going to pathologize their still being a mess after a year post-breakup. To start with, it sounds like this relationship died long before it actually ended, which is painful enough. To make things worse, circumstances have made it harder for your sibling to get a clean break, which might’ve helped. After all, the clean break heals the fastest and with the least pain. The fact that B was still at least somewhat directly involved in A’s life undoubtedly made it more difficult for A to get over them. Then we can add the sense of failure from having to move back with their family. It doesn’t matter (emotionally, that is) that tens of thousands of folks have had to do this over the last decade or that more than half of Millennials are living in multi-generational households; that’s still a pretty solid blow to the ego.
Then there’s the fact that many, many people are operating at reduced emotional capacity since 2020, with good reason. The lockdown and the pandemic were bad enough, but even a couple years later, COVID’s still affecting us all, the election season’s especially vicious and existential, the economy’s on a roller coaster and the world is on fire in all sorts of ways. These are all going to mean that folks have lower emotional bandwidth than they might otherwise, and that means that things hit harder, hurt more and make it harder to heal and move on as quickly or effectively. So I sympathize with what they’re going through.
But that doesn’t mean that you need to break yourself to pieces over their pain. You’re not a trained therapist – and if A is already seeing a therapist, then much of this is their job. Your job is to be a loving and supportive sibling, but not to the point of damaging yourself in the process. There’re reasons why we’re told to make sure our own oxygen masks are secured before helping someone else with theirs. If your involvement in their relationship is starting to harm you, then it’s time for you to draw a line and say “ok, I’m done.” You have every right to say “hey, I love you, but I can’t be your only sounding board about this. You’ve heard what I have to say, but I can’t keep going in circles on this topic with you. I want to support you and help you, but I’m tapping out on discussing the topic with you for now. When you’re ready to move on, I’ll be happy to help and I’ll talk with you about literally everything else, but I’m going to have to be done talking about B and your break up.”
And then you have to let them be. It sucks, especially when A is insisting on making bad decisions, but it’s A’s right to make them and then to deal with the consequences. A’s going to therapy, then let the therapist do their job. You can support A in ways that don’t drain your mental bandwidth and don’t make you responsible for their emotions. And as much as it may suck seeing them like this… well, it’s like what we tell folks dealing with the pain of the break up: this, too, shall pass.
Last night, after I had class, I went to a Garba dance festival put on by my school’s student union & had a lot of fun. In case you aren’t aware, Garba is a type of folk dance from the state of Gujarat in Northwest India. My sense of rhythm was not great (lol!) but that can be improved on with time & practice.
Anyway my school is home to a huge South Asian foreign student population. If I were to take a guess (notwithstanding my own cognitive biases) I would guess that at least 40-50% of the student population is directly from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh, & Sri Lanka. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if I were to join a club or start my own club many of my fellow club members (including many female members) would be of South Asian background.
South Asia is a mega-diverse subcontinent home to many languages, cultures, & religions (more than 740 languages are spoken in India alone) so I don’t really want to stereotype here but it’s safe to say that the cultures of South Asia are vastly different from the bland white English speaking Canadian culture I grew up in. I would like to form intercultural friendships & romantic relationships with some of the South Asian students at my school but I’m not sure where to start. The cultures of South Asia are extremely fascinating to me but I worry about the potential for cultural miscommunication & misunderstanding since I’m not very well traveled & am not fluent in languages like Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil etc. I listen to Bollywood music at home sometimes but that’s not the same thing as traveling & being immersed in the local culture. I wouldn’t want to ruin a potential friendship/romantic relationship with someone because of a cultural misunderstanding.
I would like to know your thoughts on what to do in this situation.
The Confused Bland White Guy
I think you’re drastically overthinking things, CBWG. While it’s admirable that you want to respect the culture and social mores of your potential future friends or lovers, you seem to have set yourself an impossibly high bar that you feel like you need to clear before you even start. That’s going to set you up for failure right from the jump for a number of reasons, not the least of which being how widely diverse South Asia is.
It seems to me that you’re missing something important in your consideration: the foreign students are in your country right now. While I have no doubt that they’re still observing their own mores, customs and rules to an extent, they’re also learning about and living in your culture right now and speaking your language. Unless they’ve completely segregated themselves and are only hanging out with their fellow countrymen, I think it’s safe to say that they’re operating under the “when in Rome” philosophy. So meeting them now, connecting with them now and making friends with them – or more – isn’t going to be that much of a problem. If anything, they may well appreciate friendly faces when they’re this far from home. The culture shock of living across the world from what you’ve known can be profound; a friendly, understanding and approachable local can be a real help to many.
And even if they’re pretty conversant in Canadian cultural norms already – let’s hear it for cultural hegemony via pop culture exports! – the fact that you’re interested and open to learning means that you and they have an opportunity to meet each other half way. The local norms are obviously going to be more immediately relevant. But if you become friends with them and you’re clearly someone who’s open-minded and willing to learn and try new things, then odds are good that you may have your own organic cultural exchange. If your newfound friends are doing something for Diwali or Eid or other holiday, for example, then you may well be invited to join them. You may have questions or not know what to expect, but listening and going with the flow goes a long way towards helping ease any misunderstandings or confusion. Plus, the vast majority of people are pretty understanding about accidental flubs born out of ignorance vs. active disrespect. Think of it as the difference between someone not knowing the right response to certain parts of a Catholic mass or a Shabat service at the local synogogue and deliberately mocking or insulting the ceremony.
As for how to proceed meeting people and learning more about their cultures? Well, I think you already made the right first step: you went to a festival and had a good time. You’re at university, which means that there’s likely going to be any number of opportunities, festivals or even “Hey, want to know more about X?” gatherings, classes and clubs, both for foreign students who want some taste of home and for people like you who’d like to expand their horizons and know more about their fellow students’ cultures. Take advantage of those. Attending these will help broaden your knowledge, introduce you to new experiences and perspectives and, in the process, help you meet cool new potential friends and even potential lovers.
The biggest concerns I’d say you should watch out for is to avoid fetishizing someone’s race or culture – and it seems like you’re avoiding that pitfall – and to not treat your future friends as cultural ambassadors who’re there to explain everything to you. But in terms of making friends from foreign countries and learning more about them? Yeah, hanging out with them in their spaces (when appropriate and/or invited) will go a long way. And hey, someone who wants to know more and participate, instead of treating it like some exotic curiosity is likely going to be a refreshing change of pace.
TL;DR: you don’t need to be fluent in a language or have encyclopedic knowledge of a person’s culture before you can be friends with them; you just need to be willing to listen, to pay attention and to be adaptable.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on Medium.
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|Compliments Men Want to Hear More Often||Relationships Aren’t Easy, But They’re Worth It||The One Thing Men Want More Than Sex||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock