what your therapist really thinks

‘Should I Cut Off Contact With My Crazily Compatible Ex?’

Photo: Photo-Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

I met my now-ex-boyfriend about six years ago, between my sophomore and junior years of college. Truthfully, I never really thought much of him from a romantic standpoint back then. He was an amazing guy — really friendly, super outgoing, and just an overall happy-go-lucky person. We knew each other in the social sense, but were never close.

Then, last September, I was visiting friends in New York (I live in Chicago) and one of my friends was having a party, and he happened to be there. We got to talking and he asked if I still lived in Chicago, as he was moving to Milwaukee for work that week. We exchanged numbers and I told him to let me know if he ever wanted to come down to Chicago and check out the city. About a month later, he did, and that was the first time I realized I was interested. He walked in and I saw him in an entirely different light. We ended up hooking up and then started dating a couple of months later, with him coming down to Chicago or me going up to Milwaukee on weekends.

His job, however, made it hard for us. He works for a large corporation in an executive-training program and so he moves around the world every four months, likely not knowing where he’ll be until two to three weeks before he leaves. He moved to Paris in early February for four months and by May, our relationship had gone downhill. I was gripped by anxiety about where he would be moving to next, how often we should be talking and FaceTiming, and when the next time we’d see each other would be.

We broke up a few weeks ago and I have absolutely no idea how to handle it. He initiated the conversation, but I agreed with everything he was saying.
We didn’t have enough of a foundation to build off of when he moved to Paris and were putting so much pressure on ourselves to make it work that it ultimately did not.

The thing is, we both acknowledged how absolutely fantastic we are together. When we are together, it is incredible. The best relationship I have ever had by far. We have a blast, we are always laughing, and we are so crazily compatible that it’s slightly scary for me. A main point he kept bringing up as we were breaking up was the possibility of us being together once this program is over — which could be in one year or in four years, he doesn’t know.

I want to keep that door open because of how much I care about him and how compatible we are, but also know and understand that I need to focus on moving forward at the same time. We were talking back and forth after we broke up, but I finally asked him to give me space as it was making it impossible for me to even begin to heal and move on. Now I don’t know if that’s the right choice.

I have no idea what to do and, truthfully, right now, I just feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

Do you have any advice?

— Rock and a Hard Place 

Dear Rock and a Hard Place,

Sometimes when a choice feels especially hard, we get tangled up in a false dichotomy. If I choose A, then X. But if I choose B, then Y. The choice feels impossible, because both X and Y are problematic. As you’ve presented the dilemma, if you stay in contact with your ex, then you may have trouble moving on. But if you cut off contact, then you might close a door, because he may move on.

But what if this logic is flawed? And what if by gaining an understanding of those flaws, the choice becomes clear?

I want to present a different version of the dilemma to you, RAHP. Let’s call your ex “Joe.” And let’s start with the main point — or, rather, Joe’s main point. It’s so important that I’m going to paste it here, for reference. You write:

“A main point he kept bringing up as we were breaking up was the possibility of us being together once this program is over — which could be in one year or in four years, he doesn’t know.”

It seems that your interpretation of Joe’s “main point” is that you two might get back together someday and live happily ever after. And that premise makes your choice about remaining in contact especially fraught.

As I read your letter, though, I took away a very different “main point.” To me, the main point is that Joe did not say, “I care deeply about you and don’t want to lose you. How can we make this work?” The main point is that he did not say, “Please hang in there with me because I believe we have something special here.” The main point is that Joe did not seem to be “gripped with anxiety about where he would be moving to next, how often we should be talking and FaceTiming, and when the next time we’d see each other would be.” The main point is that Joe broke up with you. The main point is that this “happy-go-lucky” guy is being happy-go-lucky with your romantic future — maybe we’ll get back together in some undetermined number of years — a sentiment in which your best interests are nowhere to be found.

My main point, RAHP, is that in refusing to see Joe’s actual main point, you stay stuck between the possibility of Joe and the possibility of somebody else. Unable to let go of Joe but unable to move on, you have nowhere to go. And the only way to get out of that anxiety-provoking Nowhere Land is to see that Joe was never a possibility, even when you were together. He was never a real contender for the kind of relationship you want.

From the start, I wonder how you saw this relationship developing, knowing that Joe was in an executive-training program that requires him to move around the world every four months. How did you imagine this working? What made this seem like it could be more than a temporary romance?

Sure, you felt “crazily compatible,” but infatuation has nothing to do with compatibility. In fact, there’s no way that the two of you could have a real sense of your compatibility at this point. If you hooked up in September, started dating in November, and he left for Paris in February, you were in an in-person relationship for a mere three months — weekends only. You spent approximately 12 weekends or 24 days together. That’s less than one consecutive month. You two know what it’s like to have romantic weekends together, to laugh and have sex and miss each other when you’re apart. You know what it’s like to talk and text and FaceTime, but that’s not a relationship. That’s a pen pal with benefits.

You learn about compatibility, on the other hand, through shared dailiness, and you two haven’t experienced the dailiness of each other. It’s like the difference between color and black and white, or three dimensions and two. Long-distance is “always laughing together.” It’s not, “who’s doing the dishes and picking up towels from the bathroom floor.” It’s not, “I need my space” — or, “I need a smile when I walk in the door at the end of the day, even if you just had a fight with your mom.” It’s not experiencing bad days, bad moods, or annoying habits that you can hide to a degree in a weekends-only situation. It’s not about the richness and texture of logging regular hours together. Compatibility is all of that, and it’s also knowing what it’s like to integrate your lives into your larger worlds — friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues. You and Joe didn’t have a community around you as you communed. You were an island of two in your blissed-out universe during the 48 hours you had together.

A relationship may seem like it’s just about two people, but it’s about the confluence of your respective worlds as well. How do your larger worlds mesh? How do they add context to the person you see only through your own lens? The long-distance romance is a rarefied experience, and I can see why it felt like “the best relationship by far.” Despite its loneliness, it protects you from the messier parts of courtship and dating. It’s not surprising that you and Joe are “fantastic” together, because though all new relationships are rooted partly in “fantasy,” a relationship that exists only on weekends is rooted even more deeply in illusion. (It’s possible that you and Joe didn’t have a substantive conversation about the reality of your logistics until Joe broke up with you because neither one of you wanted to puncture the illusion.)

Compatibility has a lot to do with whether you want the same things in life. In my practice, I see many people in their 20s who turn a blind eye to true compatibility, and find themselves heartbroken or alone time and again.
They say: “He’s a 30-year-old in a band that nobody’s heard of and he travels all the time and lives like a college student. But, yeah, I went on another date with him. Eventually I want a stable two-income household so that we can raise kids, but his band could take off, you know.” They say: “He told me he’s not looking for anything serious, but I think he’s just scared — yeah, I’ll keep sleeping with him.” They say: “He says it’s important to him to marry somebody who shares his religion, but he could change his mind. He really loves me.” A year later they say: “I don’t understand how he can love me so much but still not change his mind. How can I leave someone who loves me so much? We’re so compatible.”

You, too, may end up spinning your wheels  with Joe, relishing in the thrill of connection and reeling in the emptiness when the iPad goes dark. I wonder how you might feel when Joe has his phone off at 10 p.m. because he’s with someone else. I imagine the two of you having stilted conversations because you can’t talk about your weekends or who you really saw a movie with, for fear it might upset the other person. I don’t know how you plan to “keep the door open” without keeping it closed off to other people. The thing about monogamous relationships, if that’s what you want, is that you can’t keep multiple doors open. But like my patients, I know that you know all of this … and yet.

The psychologist Meg Jay calls the 20-something years “the defining decade,” and in her book and TED Talk, she advocates for “being as intentional with love as you are with work.” What she means — and what I mean when I talk to patients about the choices they’re making — is that the 20s are a time to get your ducks in a row, because many of the decisions you make (or fail to make) in your 20s will affect the choices available to you in your 30s and beyond. In your 20s, you need to ask: Who is family? Where is home? What are my personal and career goals — and what steps am I taking right now to reach them?

Happy-go-lucky is fun in college. It’s less so in a partner with whom you want to build a life. Maybe one day, after dating other people and landing in the same city, you and Joe will end up together. But it’s also likely that you’ll waste a lot of time and emotional energy on a person you barely know. And because you barely know him, it may be tempting to idealize Joe and devalue the next guy you meet, because the next guy can’t possibly compete with the phantom guy who didn’t have the opportunity to do all the things real-life lovers eventually do — irritate you, disappoint you, misunderstand you, hurt you. It’s easy to pine after a relationship you never got to have. And if you continue to think this is a choice about contact or no contact, the next guy won’t have a chance.

So let’s reexamine your dilemma, which is really about your fear that you won’t find a compatible partner. Solving it will involve figuring out what didn’t work in your earlier relationships and understanding why the one that was logistically doomed from the start turned out to be your best. Rewrite the problem without the A’s and B’s and X’s and Y’s, without the either/or setup. When you do, you’ll find that Joe isn’t even in the equation — and that you’re not between a rock and a hard place after all.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapy@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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Dear Therapist: ‘Should I Cut Off Contact with My Ex?’