Dear Dr. NerdLove:
The guy I’ve been seeing for the past three months is still very close with his ex; they ended things a year ago. They dated for 3 years after having a strong friendship prior to their relationship. The ex tells the person I’m seeing incessantly that she wants to be back together with him and guilts him if she feels he isn’t “supporting” her.
They recently went on an overnight trip together to one of his friend’s birthday parties a few hours away and are planning a weekend trip together to see one of his sick family members in October. Evidently, she became very close with his friends and family during their relationship (though half of it was during the pandemic so it’s all a bit confusing for me). I brought up that I felt going on a long weekend trip with his ex was crossing the line. He responded he could understand if there was even a hint that something could happen between them, but he knows nothing will and just wants her to return to being a good friend. However, if she’s around it doesn’t feel like I’m welcomed.
I don’t think there’s room for the relationship with him and me to grow if he’s constantly prioritizing his ex, and their relationship seems unhealthy and codependent to me. I’ve brought it up and he’s unwilling to budge, saying she’s very important to him and he’s trying to navigate a difficult situation. I feel like I’m being reasonable and not controlling, but he said he couldn’t imagine being with a partner who controls who he sees and who he doesn’t, even though what I actually said was that he needed boundaries that defined the relationship with his ex appropriately.
There are two very different problems here, EW, and they require different approaches.
First there’s your boyfriend’s ex. What she’s doing is not cool. It’s disrespectful to you, it’s disrespectful to your boyfriend and she’s clearly either missing or choosing to ignore any and everything your boyfriend’s doing to try to get her to back off. I can appreciate that he seems to be trying to thread a needle with her and avoid having a direct confrontation about this so as to preserve the friendship… well, some direct confrontations are unavoidable and need to happen. Especially if he wants to stay friends instead of needing to cut her off.
In this case, what your boyfriend needs to do is to lay down some pretty firm boundaries regarding her behavior. He needs to say “I’m glad we’re still friends, I value our friendship and I want it to continue, but we broke up. I’m not interested in getting back together with you, I don’t want to hear about you wanting me back and I don’t appreciate your trying to leverage our friendship in order to get me to do more with you. If you don’t stop acting like this with me, don’t stop disrespecting my relationship and don’t stop talking about wanting to get back together with me, we’re not going to be able to be friends going forward.”
And he needs to say that directly, clearly and without softening the language or giving her any sort of plausible wiggle room. There can’t be any euphemisms that could be misinterpreted, any vague language that doesn’t spell out exactly what he’s telling her to stop doing or any question that what he expects is for her to act like his friend and not some third tier stock character from a bad mid-90s boner jam. He needs to be very clear: their friendship continuing is entirely contingent on her changing her behavior.
If she says she’s not trying to guilt him or get him back then his response should be “Great! Then you shouldn’t have any problems continuing to NOT do that,” and be willing to call her out when she (inevitably) does. A quick “That? That thing you did? That is exactly what I want you to stop doing,” will drive home that he’s serious about this and isn’t interested in whatever weird games she’s playing. Even if she tries to weasel around it – “but that’s not doing X!” – then either he can add it to the list of things to stop doing or he can call her out for acting like a ten year old and treating him as though he’s so stupid as to believe that.
And to be clear: he needs to be doing this for himself. Not for you, not for the sanctity of his relationship with you but for him. This is behavior he should not be tolerating from people he’s allowing to be part of his life, regardless of their past or current relationship, and holding strong boundaries is how he prevents people from running roughshod over him.
Just as importantly, he needs to be willing to enforce those boundaries. If he lays down the law here and says “enough, stop it or else” and doesn’t followup on the “or else” part where he walks away? Then all he’s done is made it clear that those aren’t boundaries, they’re suggestions, and she doesn’t need to take it seriously. When someone doesn’t enforce the boundaries they establish, they make it that much harder to get people to respect any of their wishes, since clearly they’re not going to follow through.
Now that’s the first problem.
The second problem is, well… you and your relationship with your boyfriend (and by extension, his ex).
Here’s the thing: the issue with your boyfriend and his ex isn’t that he’s friends with his ex or that he still has a close relationship with her. The issue is her post-break-up behavior. She’s being shitty about things and being disrespectful in the way she’s acting, but that doesn’t make her a threat to your relationship. The fact that you don’t seem to trust your boyfriend, on the other hand, is a threat to your relationship. That’s going to be a much bigger issue than how she’s acting.
The issue I have at hand is that other than the aforementioned open stating of her wanting him back – which I agree, is over the line and he needs to pull her up sharp over this – is that it doesn’t sound like there’s anything else going on. Not, at least, in what you’ve written. I don’t know if it’s that there isn’t much that you can point to directly, or if what seems clear to you isn’t coming through in the letter. But that lack of examples is making it difficult to judge that there’s anything going on besides vibes.
For example: nothing in your letter makes it sound like he has even the slightest interest in being with her again. While, as I said, he definitely needs to lay down some boundaries with her, it sounds like he’s currently trying to thread the needle of maintaining a friendship that clearly has value and meaning to him. That’s entirely understandable. The fact that they broke up doesn’t mean that he is now obligated to act as though the years of friendship and the years they dated no longer matter, nor does it mean that he needs to cut her out of his life. As a general rule of thumb: people who maintain good relationships with their exes – whether they’re just cordial and respectful or remain close friends – are folks who are demonstrating that they’re emotionally mature and intelligent and are generally sold individuals. If anything, it should tell you something about his character that he still has that affection and respect for her, even if his tolerance of her current behavior isn’t helping him or you, nor is it covering him in glory.
But that’s why my question to you is: what threat is she actually presenting to your relationship? What about his behavior is unusual or challenging that isn’t adequately explained by “close friends for years prior to dating, and are still close now”? Does he have a prior history of cheating, lying to you or otherwise acting shady, especially around her? Do you have reasons – beyond their previous relationship – to think he’s particularly vulnerable to her blandishments? Or do you trust that he’s perfectly willing and able to say “no, stop that” if she starts trying to get frisky with him, but the idea of him being alone with her is giving you the wiggins?
If there’s reason to believe that he’d hook up with her if given the chance, then yeah, that’s an issue and needs to be handled if there’s going to be a future for the two of you at all. But if you don’t trust your boyfriend to not refuse her advances while on a trip, especially without a stronger reason than “opposite gender people on a trip together”, that’s more of a you problem than a him problem.
Similarly, you haven’t really given me much to go on with his prioritizing her over you, beyond not being willing to cut her out of his life. If there’s something more than that – maybe he’s skipping dates with you to be with her, especially over trivial matters – then yeah, I would agree that this is a problem. But based solely on what you’ve written? I’m not seeing that.
The same applies to what “doesn’t make you feel welcomed” means in this case. Is it that they’re actively shutting you out or mocking you? Or is it that many years of friendship means that they have history and inside jokes and the like that you aren’t privy to?
The last thing I wonder is what “boundaries that define the relationship with his ex appropriately” means. That’s an incredibly vague way of phrasing things, and it doesn’t really say what you’re asking for. If you phrased it that way to your boyfriend… well, honestly, I couldn’t blame him for thinking that you were saying “cut her off” without actually saying the words.
So, absent that info, I can only say this: it’s entirely appropriate to ask him to tell his ex that she needs to knock off the “I want you back” talk. I fully agree: he absolutely needs to do this and it’s not good that he hasn’t. I don’t think he’s avoiding doing so for sus reasons so much as trying to navigate a treacherous path, but as I said: it still needs to happen. But for the rest? I think it’s important for you to examine just what is bothering you and to be able to communicate it clearly and directly. If you’re feeling like you need some more attention or reassurance of how he feels then by all means ask for that. If you’re worried that he still has feelings for his ex, then tell him that’s what you’re worried about. But if you have a specific ask for him about how he treats his ex or the time he spends with her, then you need to say that too, and not couch it in terms like “define the relationship with his ex appropriately” because what you think is appropriate and what he thinks is appropriate clearly vary. People often rely on “well everyone knows what that means”, when very obviously not everyone shares the same definitions of “appropriate relationship”.
This is especially true when you’re talking about a friendship of years – even prior to their dating.
However, if what you actually mean is “stop seeing her so often” or “stop seeing her alone”, but you don’t actually want to say the words out loud to him? Well, that puts you in the same boat as him for not telling his ex to knock her bullshit off.
Dear Dr NerdLove,
I’m writing as a young, attractive I’m told, woman who isn’t at all opposed to dating nerds. Here’s how my last first date went. He had confirmed twice that he wanted to visit an unusual art gallery that I was quite excited about. He had declined twice to suggest something else for us to do, which I would have been happy to go along with (20th century Aboriginal Art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea). From the moment we set foot in the place, he appeared bored and made immature jokes, along with uncalled-for disparaging remarks about famous women (some of who I admire). He seemed to see our date as a hoop for him to jump through on the way to my bedroom. I felt fooled and objectified. Shockingly, he didn’t seem to understand that I won’t see him again. He is also the fourth guy something like this has happened with. First, could you please let your readers who need it know that this behaviour is really unattractive? Second, since I’m the common denominator here, do you have any hints for me?
Honestly, I don’t have much more to say about telling my readers that this behavior is shitty or counterproductive, Freedom, because you lay it out incredibly well. That dude sounds like a classic Crouching Nice Guy, Hidden Douche Canoe and a tediously dull waste of time besides and you’re well rid of him. The fact that he doesn’t seem to realize that acting shitty and dismissive about things his date is clearly excited about is, at the very least, incredibly goddamn rude says that this is a him issue, not a you issue. But again: you’re well rid of him, and it’s mostly a shame that this necessitated a waste of time you won’t get back before he got the old heave ho.
And to be clear: treating dates like having to touch bases before heading to home plate, rather than, y’know, an enjoyable activity to share with someone and get to know them better is a very good way to ensure that no sex will be happening at all.
Now as for tips for you? Well… honestly, I’m kinda right back to “this is mostly a them problem”, since there’s not much else to go on. I mean, assholes are gonna ass, hidden douche canoes are gonna hide and I presume that you’re not choosing people who advertise their shittiness or disinterest in you as a person. Depending on how and where you’re meeting these dudes, you may want to examine just what drew you to them prior to their revealing their hidden watercraft side and see if there’re things they have in common that you find attractive that you could also find in dudes who are less shit.
If you’re meeting them on dating apps? Well, this is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of the pre-date date. Call it the pre-date, call it the due-diligence date or even the vibe-check date, but getting together for a short (between 15-20 minutes) meet up some place is helpful. Meeting up at a neutral location for coffee, ice cream, boba tea, whatever, is useful for everyone as it helps you both decide if you want to actually go on a proper date. As a species, we’re built for face to face communication, and there are many factors that affect who we are or aren’t attracted to that can only be discerned in person. Even a video chat can’t convey how they smell or the exact pitch and timbre of their voice or, for that matter, how they treat service staff or how they behave when they know they aren’t going to be skipping straight to sex. So getting together for a limited amount of time (and it should be a hard limit) means you get to see if they’re who they say they are and if you have as much chemistry in person as you do over text or chat. This also gives you more of a chance to get an overall vibe check and whether they’re actually enthusiastic to see you and go on a date, or if they’re treating OKCupid as a sex ATM and you’re just the latest attempt at a withdrawal.
Another thing to keep in mind: dating is a numbers game, no matter who you are. As much as the whole “kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince” thing is a cliche, it’s also not entirely wrong. The odds are good that you’re going to have false starts and bad dates before you find someone worth dating just because it’s difficult to discern who’s a great match purely by looks or a brief conversation. Dating apps in particular increase the odds of some false positives, both because of the lack of physical cues (the aforementioned smell, etc) but also because you’re putting yourself out there more than if you’re just meeting people in person. So, do as much as you can to tilt the odds in your favor of meeting Mr. Right, but recognize that even if you’re rolling with advantage, you can still miss or roll a critical fumble. That’s not on you; that’s not even necessarily on them. That’s just how it goes sometimes, and dating means learning to roll with it.
But the last thing I would suggest? If it’s a bad date, don’t stick it out until the end. You can always leave, and it’s quite likely better to do so than to waste the rest of an afternoon or evening on a shitty date. Make an excuse, set an alarm that sounds like a phone call or just say “hey, I’m not enjoying this, you’re not enjoying this, peace out cub scout” and bounce. Your time’s too valuable and hey, you’re freeing them up to go find someone who’s more their speed.
If your date’s being a big ol’ bag of dicks, acting rude or entitled, as though he has to put up with things you enjoy in order to get the reward of getting in your pants? To quote Da ShareZ0ne: if it sucks, hit da bricks.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on Medium.
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