The Hook Up: Dealing with a soft breakup and toxic people

Dear Anna, my partner and I have been together three and a half years. Recently some tumultuous things have happened in both of our lives: I’ve been having some problems with anxiety, I decided not to continue my PhD program, and my partner was moving to the east coast for a year to do research for her PhD. To de-stress from school and recover from anxiety, I went home to the west coast while she went out east, something she encouraged me to do. Before we left, she told me she had been having doubts about being in a long-term relationship and about how good of a partner she could be. We left our relationship when we separated with the idea that we would both take some “me” time and be more independent, but still be a couple.

I’ve been frustrated with her not communicating enough or very well since we’ve been apart, and with her emotional distance when we do talk. I voiced my anger with her and now she is suggesting that she wants to ‘set me free’ since I am being hurt and she thinks that she had deceived herself about what kind of partner she could be for me. She says she needs to work on herself right now and it is selfish of her to continue our relationship and that we got together at the wrong time in her life (six months after her six year relationship ended so that she didn’t have time to figure out some individual issues, like wanting to feel self-reliant). We fit so well together in so many ways and I love her, and while I’m angry, I still want to be her partner. What do you think I should tell her? — Don’t Want to Be Set Free

Anna says: I hate to break this to you, sugar shoes, but it sounds like your partner wants out, and that she doesn’t know quite how to do it, so she’s botching the job with a “soft breakup.” An unfortunately common staple among girl-loving girls, the soft breakup is one that goes on and on, teetering ever so precariously between breaking up and making up, sometimes for YEARS. There is fighting. There is crying. There is much Feelings Poetry written. But ending the relationship never seems to happen.

My first serious girlfriend and I were embroiled in one of these breakups. We were also together about three years, and we didn’t want to let go of each other, even though neither of us was particularly happy. We baby-stepped our way out of the relationship, even going to the point where we moved from our one bedroom place into separate apartments (a block away from each other), but still couldn’t pull the plug. A few months after that, finally, mercifully, we managed to break up for good. The whole thing took 6-8 months, I’d wager. In fact, it’s become something of a lesbian joke — it takes two days to move in together and 12 years to break up.

This isn’t to sugarcoat or belittle your relationship, Don’t Want To Be Set Free. I’m sure you both love the shit out of each other. But when your partner says things like she “wants to work on herself” and that she wants to “set you free,” you have to listen to her. People don’t say those things lightly. It takes a lot of courage and determination, and apparently it also took 3,000 miles of distance, to say things like that to those we love. It could be that she was so supportive of your decision to move out west because she knew the distance would make it that much easier to break things off with you, though I can’t say for sure.

I will say, though, that if the long-distance situation is wearing you down more than it’s building you up, it may be time for a change. You’ve gone through some big life transitions recently — the move, deciding not to pursue your PhD program — and I’m sure adding a breakup to this list sounds about as fun as lighting yourself on fire, putting it on YouTube, and then reading the horrible comments from Internet trolls about it, it may be just what you need to start fresh.

Your life is ripe for transformation. As the great poet Rumi (who wrote much Feelings Poetry, I might add) once said, “Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” I suggest you start shaking the sorrow from your heart, my friend, by having a frank conversation with your emotionally distant lover. When she says she can’t be a good partner to you, believe her. When she says she needs to figure herself out, believe that too.

I would also suggest you do as you promised and use the distance to take some “me” time. Do the things you love and enjoy, spend time with good people, and get outside (two hours in nature are just as good as Prozac, studies say). The west coast is the best coast, after all.

I’m 23 and my (very new) girlfriend is 27. I’m her first same-sex partner. When I asked her whether she’d felt closeted before, she said yes, because she had been dating a married man 20 years older than her for nine years. He was her teacher when the affair started, in a state where their relationship was illegal. She is still in contact with this man and says she always wants to be because she is attached to his son. However, he sounds like a manipulative creep (not least for using her as a babysitter and making her attached to his son in the first place). She has come to realize (by herself) that the relationship, such as it was, was very bad for her and wants to talk about it. Whenever she does though, I get distressed by what to me are obvious examples of manipulation and abuse, but which she excuses, usually using his own words.

I can’t tell her this, but her behaviour is almost exactly the same as my last girlfriend’s, whose father raped her as a teenager. I don’t know if I can stay with her if she stays in contact with him; not only is it too distressing, but I don’t trust him and she runs everything by him. This sounds selfish, but I don’t want a man like that in my love life.

I don’t want to issue an ultimatum or just take off, especially because I don’t want to push her back into a closet again. But I also know I can’t just stay with someone “on principle” and I know from experience not to try and be her counselor — I don’t think it’s good for either of us. What are my options?

Anna says: While this teacher guy sure sounds like a manipulative jerknozzle — hopefully he inhales a lot of solvents in his free time — there is, unfortunately, not a lot you can do about him. (Aren’t I a Lezzie Letdown this week?) And I think you already know that. You’re smart enough to know that you can’t fight your girlfriend’s battles. It’s she who has to decide that this person is toxic and to end it on her own. The reason he’s still in her life is because she’s letting him be in her life.

But! I don’t think y’all have to break up over this. I’m certainly heartened by the fact that she realized on her own that the relationship was bad for her. And, I mean, they were together for nine years! That is a long time, longer than any relationship I’ve had, including the one I’ve had with my breasts. In other words, she grew up with this guy. It’s not shocking that she wants to maintain contact with him, especially because children are involved. It’s damn hard to date a parent for nine years and not form an attachment to their kid(s).

You are still the “very new girlfriend,” remember. It takes time to build new lives with new people, even ones we’re crazy about. Also, this is her first gay relationship and that can be scary for some people. She might be holding onto her past a little harder than necessary because it’s familiar to her and what she’s always known. That said, if this person is as toxic as you say he is, I think your girl will come around to figuring it out on her own.

In the meantime, here are some things you can do to make the situation better for yourself. Set (reasonable) boundaries. You can’t ask your girlfriend to cease all contact with her ex, but you can ask that she start making decisions on her own (I’m not exactly sure what “running everything by him” entails but it sounds worrisome). If he’s calling or texting all the time, you can ask her to limit the number of times it happens. You can ask that she not discuss your relationship with him. You can tell your girlfriend that you don’t want to hang out with him. You can share your concerns about the past abuse red flags and your own ex-girlfriend’s trauma — just stop short of diagnosing her. What happened is her life. And, as with her ex, if she comes to the decision that she wants to talk to a therapist in order to work through her past, then she’ll do that on her own. Your job is to be supportive, not controlling.

If, however, the mutually agreed upon boundaries aren’t respected or if it seems like nothing is changing, then you might have to move on. It sorta seems like your foot is half out the door as it is. And that’s your choice, of course. But we all have to deal with our partners’ exes, sometimes even the mean ones, because a great many of us are still friends with our exes. Don’t kick a rad lady to the curb simply because she’s still in contact with a douchey ex.

Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at annapulley.com and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at askthehookup@gmail.com.

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