‘My ex-girlfriend is my one social contact and it’s getting unhealthy’
Ask Roe: ‘I’m dependent on her for support and company and she’s aware of that’
‘If I lose her, I’ll have no social bubble. I don’t know what to do.’ Photograph: Getty
Last March, I started seeing a friend I had known casually for years through football. A couple of weeks in, I was involved in a serious road traffic accident, the day before lockdown. Due to lack of family support, she helped me through the initial recovery stages but then threw it back in my face.
We fought and then reconciled and dated for seven months before the issues that led to that first bust-up could no longer be ignored and I ended it in October.
I’ve been living alone through lockdown and have no support around, so we started meeting as friends. Most of the time it’s great and we enjoy each other’s company, but when we argue it gets so unhealthy.
I wonder if the problem is the power imbalance in that I’m dependent on her for support and company in many ways and she’s very aware of that. I often feel let down by her lack of understanding and empathy and I’ve started to think she still resents me for the break-up, even though she insists that’s not the case. If I lose her, I’ll have no social bubble. I don’t know what to do.
I’m glad you’re recovering from the accident, which I’m sure was a very distressing experience, both physically and emotionally – and not having a lot of support around you must have been scary and lonely.
Your letter is light on some important details, such as “the issues that led to the first bust-up”, the reasons for your seemingly frequent arguments and how this woman threw her support “back in your face”. But what stands out to me from your description is the sense of transaction and resentment that has come to define your relationship; dynamics that must be interrupted and mended if you two want any form of friendship.
There is the obvious question of why exactly you two want to remain in each other’s lives at all, but the likely answer feels tied up in the transactional nature of this relationship, so let’s examine that first.
Ask Roe McDermott a question
I wonder if a potential power dynamic that you’re not addressing is that you don’t seem to like her much, yet you keep asking her to show up for you
You say that you are “dependent on her for support and company in many ways” and that is a difficult position for you to be in. Covid-19 has left many of us isolated and it’s vital for our mental health that we do have some human contact, which this woman provides.
Hopefully the (slight) lift in restrictions this month will be helpful, but it feels vital for you to alleviate this sense of isolation. You could reach out to other acquaintances or neighbours who live close to you; stay in touch with family and friends over the phone and Zoom; connect with communities online; get a therapist to help you care for your emotional and mental health; and try dating online, if that’s of any interest to you right now.
Having limited options to see people in person is difficult, but this doesn’t mean you have to feel emotionally isolated from absolutely everyone. Focusing on strengthening other relationships, even while physically separated, might lessen some of your feelings of dependency on this woman.
And – please note that I’m saying “and”, not “but” – I’m also wondering about this woman’s experience of your relationship, and another power imbalance that could be at play. Everything about your description of this relationship implies that you value her primarily for her proximity and convenience. You knew her for years, then dated casually. After your accident, you didn’t have anyone else around to support you, so you became closer. You then ended the relationship, but still want her in your life, mainly because she is your only option.
You write, “If I lose her, I’ll have no social bubble.” The concern isn’t about losing her specifically as a friend, it’s about you not wanting to be alone. There’s a general sense of apathy about her as a person and a strong sense that you are friends with her – and possibly dated her seriously – because you didn’t have other options. You are lonely and need her, and that’s difficult, but I wonder if a potential power dynamic that you’re not addressing is that you don’t seem to like her much, yet you keep asking her to show up for you, knowing she will.
You say she is aware of your lack of extra support, which is why she helped you after your accident and why she continues to socialise with you after you broke up with her, even though socialising with an ex soon after a break-up would be difficult for most people. I wonder what that’s like for her, to spend so much time with you while knowing, at least on some level, that you spend time with her only because you have no other options. This could feel like power, or it could feel painful, or both.
That’s why I say this relationship feels based on transaction and resentment. She gets to feel needed, but is aware she is not truly valued and resents you for that; while you get what you need from her, yet resent her for being the person you need. Of course you two keep fighting. You’re not valuing each other as individuals, you’re valuing only what you get from each other – but what you’re getting from each other isn’t making either of you feel good.
Breaking the pattern
It is clear this relationship isn’t working. Time away from each other feels vital to break this pattern and evaluate whether this relationship is worth saving. Take a break from each other for a month, focus on your other relationships and think about if this relationship is worth it.
After some time apart, if you still want to try to maintain this friendship, you need to start openly addressing the recurring arguments you’re having and actively work to communicate more respectfully. This could involve discussing your previous interactions, truly listening to each other’s experience and apologising where necessary. Then you must agree to move forward. Have strategies in place, such as setting boundaries around certain topics or having plans to de-escalate arguments and ensure that you’re not lashing out at each other or making the other person feel insecure, invalidated or unwanted.
It also feels imperative that you discuss boundaries around expectations and behaviour. For example, you say you feel “let down” by her frequently. Have you made your needs and desires explicit to her, and has she said whether she is willing or able to meet those expectations? Having unspoken expectations of someone (especially an ex), then resenting her for not meeting them will never work. Neither is it healthy or sustainable to express your needs and have them repeatedly ignored. You both need to be clear on your expectations of each other, the boundaries of what you can offer each other and the deal-breakers you must walk away from.
It is a difficult, lonely time – but being around someone and having them be good for you are not the same thing. Think about what you actually need right now.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford
If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe