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‘My friend’s toxic ex is back and I can’t keep listening to her complain about him’

Ask Roe: She has started sleeping with him again and is back to answering his late-night calls, even as he’s told her he ‘can’t commit to her right now’

Dear Roe,

Last year, my best friend found out that her boyfriend of three years was cheating on her. It had been a rocky relationship but she was blindsided and was a wreck for months. I was her shoulder to (literally) cry on during that time. After months of obsessing, she finally started doing a bit better. But now, her ex has reappeared after breaking up with the woman he had cheated on her with. She’s started sleeping with him again and is back to answering his late-night calls even as he’s told her that he “doesn’t deserve her” and “can’t commit to her right now” because he’s “working on himself”. He doesn’t seem to be working on anything apart from stringing her along again and she’s falling for it, saying that he’s trying to change and maybe if they can “take it slow” (while sleeping together) they can “make it work”. I love my friend but I’ve also spent nearly four years comforting her after this guy treats her horribly. I’m so bored and frustrated, and don’t want to spend another year picking up the pieces when he leaves her again. But when I say that, I’m not being loyal or supportive, and I somehow become the bad guy? How do I keep sane and stop this guy from ruining our friendship, too?

I both hate this guy and am utterly exhausted for you. He has not only taken up so much of your friend’s time, but your time, and sounds like he has become a very unwelcome main feature in your friendship, hijacking your shared time and energy, even when he’s not there, just through the sheer force of his toxic seepage. I don’t blame you for wanting to shake him/her/both of them vigorously – or at the very least, try to reclaim some of your time from this mess.

It can be difficult to figure out the best thing to do in these situations because unfortunately, sometimes stopping people from complaining about their bad relationships can create a bit of a Romeo and Juliet-style “Nobody understands our love!” complex for the couple involved, pushing them closer together and making them shut down to outsider pleas for reason and sanity. For relationships that are, or have, the potential to become abusive, the danger of telling friends that we no longer want to hear them complaining is that we shut down their access to support, and enforce silence and shame when they need support, and they might not tell us if anything escalates or becomes dangerous.


It sounds like this man is selfish and manipulative and is playing on your poor friend’s insecurities, but is more of a run-of-the-mill cheater and liar rather than being outright abusive (though of course you’ll have a better idea of whether those Venn diagram sections overlap). In these instances, it can be helpful to be honest with your friend while focusing on the impact of the relationship on her as an individual and on your friendship, rather than judging her for her choices. But you do not have to pretend to be happy about this man’s reappearance.

One fallacy that your friend has apparently fallen for is the idea that being loyal and supportive means supporting every self-destructive decision she makes – and gently pointing that out to her might be a good place to start. A powerful question is “If I were telling you this story, what would you tell me?”, which could give her some perspective as she (hopefully) wouldn’t want anyone to treat you this way, which may lead her to wonder why she’s accepting this behaviour.

If she still protests the next time you eye-roll at the mention of his name or claims that you’re not supportive if you don’t want to discuss him for four hours, you can tell her: “I love you, and you’re my friend, which is why I’ve been here longer than he has, and I’ve seen you through four years of ups and downs with this guy. But I don’t know how to support you in this. He’s not treating you well and is making you unhappy. I know you have small, fun moments with him but overall you are confused and hurt and upset and putting your life on hold for him – after being deeply hurt by him and putting your life on hold getting over him last year. I understand you have strong feelings for him that you need to work through, but his treatment of you is not good or normal and I don’t want to pretend that it is. I will always be protective of you, and if I’m annoyed it’s because he’s not treating you right, not because I’m not treating you right.”

If that seems to go down okay, it might also be worth suggesting to her that as you have been talking about this guy for four years and she still seems unhappy, maybe she should find a therapist to help her work through what’s going on there – which will also hopefully help her address whatever esteem issues or dysfunctional ideas about love that keep drawing her back to this guy, and free up some of your time together to talk about other things.

If the topic of him and their latest drama continues to dominate your conversations, you can do two things. One is to gently respond by stating facts, not judgments, and asking some action-based questions to remind her that she has agency. This could be: “This really doesn’t seem to be making you happy. What do you think you’re going to do?” or “His behaviour doesn’t seem to be changing in the way you want. How long are you going to wait?”

You are also allowed to set boundaries around the amount of time you spend talking about him while stressing that you love her and want to spend time with her. If she starts obsessing, simply say: “Okay, you get 10 minutes to talk about him and then we’re changing the subject because he hijacks so much of our time and I miss talking to you about other things.” If she persists, that’s when you refer back to the therapist and say: “Us talking about him endlessly doesn’t seem to be helping, maybe your therapist can give you a different perspective? Now, do you want to go the cinema this weekend?” Try to plan things to do that are fun and interesting and that allow you both to hang out with or meet other people. I also wonder if you have any friends who are in nice, normal, loving relationships who you could hang out with, so your friend can see the difference between the scraps she’s settling for and what a nice, respectful relationship actually looks like? (Group settings may also give you some breathing room)

Also, take care of you, and don’t feel guilty for setting boundaries or needing to spend time with other friends. You’re her friend, not her therapist, and you need to also be having fun and feeling free to chat about your life and interests, not simply serving her emotional needs.

I wish you and her a beautiful, long-lasting friendship that is soon free of this man’s machinations.