It's A Pleasure
I Have To Work With My Ex & I’m Still In Love With Her
I want to stay friends, but the situation is unbearable.
Q: How can I be normal around my ex? I recently got into my first-ever serious relationship. It was the kind that I thought — we both thought — would be long-term, but she broke up with me after a couple months. We met at work and both are still at the same job. The breakup took me by complete surprise, and the next couple of weeks I pretty much operated in silence at work (I won’t even get into the social dynamics of all our co-workers and mutual friends knowing!). Maybe worse than the breakup itself, though, was when she told me how severe her mental health issues had gotten when we broke up, because how could I not have noticed?
We have mutual friends and work together. I want to support her, and I want her to be in my life, so of course I said we should still be friends. But I can’t seem to act even a little normal around her. Part of it has to do with me entering a really bad period mentally, which feels disingenuous to say given her issues; part of it is just that I still love her and I don’t know how to stop. I don’t want her to think I hate her or am angry with her in any way, and I’ve told her that I’m not, but those conversations happened over text, and in real life I just cannot seem to get it together. What should I do?
A: I don’t want to be reductive here, but there is one word that keeps coming up when I think about your questions: time. That’s the key to all of this.
I’ll get into that in a bit, but first I want to acknowledge that you are living what is kind of everyone’s breakup nightmare: You have to see your ex every single day. Any difficult, gloopy feelings you have about this situation are beyond valid. It sounds like you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to behave unimpeachably in this no-win, uncomfortable scenario. Very rarely in life is putting more pressure on yourself the answer. But on top of this pressure you’ve heaped on yourself, you’re also dealing with your own declining mental health and a breakup. That’s like tying three separate cinder blocks on your brain and asking it to swim!
Regardless of anyone else’s mental health, your struggles are worth being addressed. A breakup is not a competition over who is doing the lousiest. You do not need to be doing markedly worse than your ex for your issues to “count” or be accommodated.
One thing that stood out to me in your letter, that made it feel uniquely sharp, is the blame you put on yourself for not noticing your partner’s mental health issues. That seems incredibly unfair to you. I’m not here to be the arbiter of who decides what information gets told to whom and when. I don’t have some magical formula where I can put in the Amount of Time You’ve Been Dating and What Your Mental Health Is Like and then out pops How You Should Talk About It. But to me, it’s critical that your serious romantic partners are aware if you are struggling with your mental health. Not because you need to warn people or anything like that! But because that person is, ideally, a source of support. (Fans at home: Notice “a” and not “the only.”) It’s important for a romantic partner to know this information on a basic health and safety level, but also on a “here’s how to love me” level. Additionally, if you’re thinking long-term with someone, these are the kind of things you have to open up about as you build a life.
Neither you nor your ex are at fault. Mental health is hard to talk about; it’s understandable if your ex didn’t communicate about this with the gentle ease of a laundry detergent commercial. Using words to describe what’s going on in our little baked potato brains is fraught! Also, people with mental illness get very good at masking symptoms and struggles. You are not a ding-dong for not noticing what someone else is going through internally. (Unless she came to you a ton of times and explicitly said, “I am dealing with mental health stuff,” and you just ignored it, which seems unlikely!) Give both your ex and yourself a break. Please, if you have the resources, I strongly suggest talking to a therapist or a counselor about this so that you don’t lug around boulders of self-recrimination like the rocks Annie and Hallie put in Meredith’s backpack in The Parent Trap.
Acknowledge that this tenderness is temporary.
Now, it’s “Time” Time! I told you we’d get here. You’ve probably heard at least 4,248 cliches about time being the great healer, and of course, they’re true. The thing is, humans tend to stubbornly believe the rules do not apply to them. I’m not saying you’re doing that consciously, I’m just lightly suggesting that if anyone else were in this situation, you would probably say, “Ahhh, you little sweetie, give yourself time!” Of course you aren’t swanning into work with the unflappable poise of Grace Kelly right away. Of course it’s awkward to be around people who know you two have broken up. You are more than welcome to be Mr. Darcy levels of taciturn for a bit. It’s fine! It’s not going to ruin things forever and ever if you withdraw from this friendship for a period of time.
We are not meant to magically be capable of switching off romantic feelings and shifting seamlessly into platonic friendship. Obviously, working together is difficult and unpleasant, but I think you can accept the discomfort of work time and muddle through with friendly-if-awkward quietness while on the job. Acknowledge that this tenderness is temporary — a new ease will eventually come about, and once you’re off the clock, you’re free. Outside of work, focus on other relationships, on your mental health, on knitting a sweater for your iguana or learning to figure skate. I think being distant and polite is totally acceptable here! Professionalism matters (unfortunately), but keep work interactions to what’s strictly necessary.
I think distance is going to help you both figure out what to do with the other-person-shaped-hole inside of you. Try not to think of this space as a lack of friendship or support, but rather as time to build up a stronger foundation of self so that those things are possible in the future. Get coffee with someone you’ve been wanting to be better friends with. Start journaling. Join an ice hockey league. Talk to a medical professional about your mental health if at all possible. Invest in people outside your shared friend group — not because you’re going to lose them, but because you’ll benefit from more support. As Miley Cyrus says, buy yourself flowers. But also, call your own friends!
Because you two are working together and seem to have quite a lot of social circle overlap, I think it’s fair to give your ex a casual little FYI about your plan. You can write a quick text that says something like:
Hey, I just wanted to give you the heads-up that I’m having a hard time balancing this breakup with being a friend right now, and it’s been made all the harder by the frequent contact. So I just wanted to let you know that I am going to give myself some time where I might seem a bit distant, but I don’t want you to think that it’s out of any lack of concern or care for you. I’m trying to make sure I can actually be a good friend when the time comes that it feels OK.
And then add in any notes about boundaries that you might have! This is a crowded concert, you have to put your elbows up and stake your claim. This is what I need. Feel free to tell a couple of close shared friends about your plan, too. Not because it’s gossip or anything, but so they can be there for you.
Because you will need people along the way. The goal of this distance from your ex is not to cost you friendships or permanently alter dynamics. It’s to give you time. Time to feel awkward and weird and sad about the breakup. And then, a little further down the road, grateful and open and curious about what comes next. But you have to give yourself time.
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