A few years ago, I got back together with an ex. We had dated years earlier, and I had broken things off. I saw her post about some job challenges, and I responded with some words of encouragement. She was and is brilliant, and I told her so. She responded and we got together to catch up. At the time, though I wasn’t fully aware of it, a long-term chronic illness of mine was flaring up and brought on an anxious reaction in short order. I wasn’t in a good place, and long story short, I decided that getting back with my ex was the stability I needed right then. She still had feelings for me, and I exploited them.
She rarely dates, but had just started seeing someone promising, and I pressured her to stop dating him so that we could be exclusive. In retrospect, I think I was scared of what my disease was doing to me, and I wanted the physical stability of a partner living with me. The guy she was with sounded like a good match for her, and I could see he encouraged her in some ways that I don’t. She wanted the freedom to see us both and let things play out, but I forced her hand. He was not happy when she told him what was happening.
Shortly after we got back together, her career challenge came to a head. I gave her what I now believe to be very bad advice. She was unjustly let go, and she could have fought it, but I advised her not to, and she didn’t. I didn’t fully realize how difficult it would be for her to find another job at her level. I thought at the time it was best for her to move on, but the work she’s doing now is a step down. It’s still in her field and there are parts of it she loves, sure, but it’s not commensurate to her abilities or training.
Not living alone was good for both of us in some ways, but our relationship suffered from the start. I knew almost immediately that I had screwed up, but it was almost two years before I had the courage to admit it to myself and try to extricate us with minimal damage. I hurt us both.
We’ve been broken up again for a few years, and we’re still friends. Close, even. I care about her deeply, but she’s still single, still struggling with her mental health, and her job doesn’t pay enough or give her an environment she needs to thrive. If not for me, she might be happily married with a kid or two and still doing the job she should be. Of course, I can’t know that, but it’s more than plausible.
If she ever blamed me for any of this, she’s forgiven me. But I still feel awful. Why can’t I forgive myself?
A Poison Pill
I’m fascinated by your decision to send me this question. I’ve written before (multiple times!) about how very uninterested I am in offering absolution to people who know they behaved badly. I have been quite clear about how there are certain choices in life we don’t get to forgive ourselves for but instead must simply live with. Maybe you haven’t read those? Or perhaps you have and you want me to yell at you since the person you actually hurt hasn’t done any yelling? Maybe you have a weird fetish for women calling you a thoughtless jerk and it has gone woefully unsatiated by your ex, I don’t know.
Frankly, I don’t really care either. You did a deeply shitty thing and you deserve to feel like shit about it and I’m not sure there’s any need to spin 800 words out of that very simple truth. What I am interested in is what you actually do with that information, since thus far it seems like the answer is “privately wallow.” And what I think you should do is leave this woman alone entirely.
I’m sure some people will find this advice too strident, or object that she is a grown woman who has entered freely into a post-relationship friendship with you and it would be infantilizing to assume you or I know what is best for her. I don’t care. There are certain relationships in which one person holds so much sway over the other that the obligation to do the right thing lies solely with that party. That party is you, for whatever reason.
And I say this having been on the other side of that kind of dynamic. “Having been” may even be too charitable, since I just live with the knowledge that there is one person walking the earth who could ruin my life at any time, and I would welcome it. I haven’t spoken to him in years and I know intellectually that if he got back in touch I should run in the other direction but I also know somewhere deeper and more chaotic that I would be thrilled. I hate knowing that, and I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out what it is about this person that untethers me entirely from reason. He is not my most attractive ex, nor the smartest person I’ve ever dated. He is not particularly remarkable in any way except for the deeply humiliating fact that I would walk wide-eyed into my own destruction if he asked. I am grateful that he knows this, and will not.
You know you have a habit of using this woman to comfort your own anxieties, and I cannot imagine the future will be less anxiety-inducing for any of us. There are so many ways we are made to suffer that we have no control over, but we all have a choice in what we think that gives us license to do. If you truly regret being a malign influence in this woman’s life, you can remove yourself from it.
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