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‘My Ex Keeps Emailing Me and I Hate It!’

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Dear Polly,

My last relationship ended just before the world did. It was loving, sweet, and deeply wrong. Though we were smitten with one another, we were staunchly different people who loved differently: I was anxious and needy, while he was avoidant and aloof. It made for a terrible partnership, feelings notwithstanding. So, when he decided to relocate to a different state just as the global pandemic erupted, we ended on relatively amicable terms. Since then, however, I have struggled to deal — not with the sting of the breakup, mind you, but with, strangely, his innocuous and thoughtful check-ins. In the last six months, he has texted or emailed me no less than ten times. In some, he tells me he misses me and is thinking of me and my family (who, incidentally, did not like him because they found him flighty and “unlikely to stick around”). In others, he celebrates some life achievement of mine and says he’s proud of me. He has initiated all our contact. Except for one, I didn’t respond to any of them, in hope of conveying the message that I was not interested in friendship. That strategy has failed, obviously, as his messages continue. I haven’t told him explicitly to stop checking in, and maybe I should.

Regardless, what I am struggling with is my reaction to it all. Here is someone I care(d) about telling me that he cares about me, in a strange time where it has become vitally important to tell people how you feel about them. And yet, I so dislike his reaching out. It’s hard to describe, but the kindness, though seemingly genuine, leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps because I would have preferred that kindness emanate from the spot next to me on the couch rather than from 2,000 miles away. Perhaps because that goodness via email really does look cheap when it confirms my family’s concerns about him — that he is a good person, but not a reliable one. That he’s almost right for me, except for all the ways in which he isn’t. Perhaps because I’m used to extinguishing all exes from memory as soon as the relationship ends, in which case this particular one has tripped me up. I’m not sure what it is, honestly. But what I do know is that his reaching out, perplexingly, only makes me feel worse. What to do?

Confused With Kindness

Dear CWK,

Tell him directly that you don’t want him to contact you. Tell him that while you understand that his intention is to show you kindness, you’ll circle back when and if you’re interested in talking to him. Be concise and don’t explain. Don’t take care of his feelings too much. You spent enough time on that project and it didn’t yield very good results.

I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. This is about what you need right now.

Another thing you need right now is to understand where you are emotionally, and why. In order to discover new dimensions of who you are and what you’re attracted to and what you love enduringly and what crushes your spirit, you’re going to need to forgive yourself for being repulsed by your ex’s kindness. Have some compassion for yourself.

I use the word “repulsed” because I think that’s why you’re snagged on this. You have this person you loved like crazy, who was avoidant and evasive and shut down, and now he’s being all sweet and encouraging and it’s actually disgusting to you. It’s gross because he’s echoing what your family saw all along, and that makes you feel like a powerless child who can’t see the world clearly. It’s gross because here’s the loving, sensitive man you wanted all along, but it’s way too late now. It’s gross because he doesn’t know what he’s doing — yet another powerless child who can’t see the world clearly. It’s gross because he didn’t see himself clearly before, even though you kept trying to show him, over and over again. It’s gross because that means you were bad at showing him this stuff (at least that’s how it looks in your mind, inside your shame). And it’s gross because you usually cut off all contact with your exes, partially so you never have to look closely at what was happening in the relationship, partially so you never have to feel those things again, partially so you never have to do the kind of deep autopsy that might reveal that even though you wanted MORE love and he wanted LESS, that dynamic was a collaboration.

Behind every incredibly needy, affectionate, love-adoring person, an avoidant, cold person lies in wait. And behind every avoidant, cold person, a needy, affectionate, love-adoring person lies in wait. You probably don’t want to look more closely at that. Ask yourself why. You’re unsettled and disoriented by his affection. It’s not just that it’s too late, is it? It’s that he can only do this when you’re not accessible. And it’s also that you don’t really love this lovable person, who’s totally supportive and available, as passionately as you love the shutdown ghost you were with. This loving man is not who you fell in love with, is it? You fell in love with someone who was already foreshadowing inaccessibility.

It can be very hard to fall in love with someone who is fully present, if you didn’t grow up with fully present people. But you claim to want someone who’s fully present. So look more closely at that. Can you stay present for someone who is present to you?

I don’t think there’s one right answer there, by the way. The dominant story in our culture right now is that being soft and vulnerable is the only path toward love, and only people who can show up and stay present and listen endlessly are “good” and people who are sometimes shut down or who get distracted or who have almost impenetrable boundaries (or avoidant reactions in the moment) are “bad.” I’m not suggesting that a needy person and an avoidant person aren’t a bad match, or that the extremes of that don’t sometimes become abusive. I’m merely suggesting that until you understand your own complex mix of neediness and avoidance, it’s very hard not to resent other people for their complex mixes of neediness and avoidance, too.

Lately, I find that most people are pretty goddamn complex on this front. Someone whose winning stance is availability and openness sometimes turns out to be more avoidant than the most avoidant human being you could construct inside your imagination. Someone whose winning stance is toughness and strength and boundaries sometimes turns out to be the softest of the soft.

And what I’ve found is that I have a real appreciation and appetite for people who ricochet around in the extremes. Because I’m the same way. I’ve been telling myself for years that I am the most open, available, confrontational (okay, I am very direct), nurturing human, but the real truth is that I like boundaries a lot. I am not a perfectly loving earth mother who wants the world to crawl right into my arms. I am both a loving teddy bear who wants to give you everything and an evil queen who wants to be all by herself.

I love all kinds of people. But I’m the most attracted and drawn to people who are like me, people who present as a fortress and turn out to be all squishy once you scale their walls. Sometimes I continue to like a fortress even after I scale their walls and I find a bunch of babies sucking on bottles where the soldiers should go. Sometimes the babies are too much for me. Sometimes I like it when a kind, compassionate hippie mommy leads me straight into her bedroom, where she keeps all of her sharp knives and her magic mirror that tells her she’s the most beautiful of them all. And sometimes I don’t like that and don’t trust it.

I mean, generally, if someone isn’t at peace with their knives and their mirrors, that can mean that they’re going to do harm with those things, or that they might make an enemy out of you, simply because you’re reasonably accepting of your own weaponry. And when a castle full of babies doesn’t really want anyone to know that they’re not really soldiers, well, they could blame you for mentioning the babies at all. It’s good to recognize this stuff as you go along. It’s smart to develop a nose for animals and people who aren’t at peace with themselves.

Repulsion comes up along the way. When you show people exactly who you are, and they show you who they are, you sometimes end up surprised by what you like and you don’t like. That’s just how it is, you can’t avoid it. It’s important not to draw hasty conclusions, though. Instead, you sit with it, and you try to be patient, and you see how your feelings shift and change. You’re patient with their neediness, if that’s what pops up, but you also make it clear that you have limits. You’re patient with their fortress, but you also hint that it’s okay to show more (if you think you won’t hate discovering that all of their soldiers are babies in disguise).

Knowing how you feel and who you are is so fucking important. Because the core of your tastes may not change over time. Self-acceptance requires MOVING CLOSER TO THE THINGS ABOUT YOU THAT UPSET YOU. You move closer, you keep your eyes open, and you try to love those things more and more — or at least forgive them more and more. You try to ease yourself out of rigid positions. You try to pry open your heart, and you also respect a heart that wants to stay closed at the moment.

Knowing yourself better keeps you from experiencing other people as incomplete, simply because they’re not like you. Forgiving yourself for your strange emotional reactions makes you more flexible and accepting when dealing with other people’s strange emotional reactions and unexpected boundaries. You don’t have to let people in when it doesn’t feel right. Instead, you notice how it feels, and you move forward based on those feelings. Nothing you feel is “wrong.” Every strange new feeling is informative.

I’ve learned a lot about my tolerance for present, loving people from my marriage and also from my friendships, new and old. One thing that often feels disorienting to me is HOW MUCH I LOVE A FEW HIGH WALLS. Even though I fulfill a kind of loving hippie mom role here (among other roles, like aggressively critical older sister and patient sage and talkative, possibly drunk cousin), that’s not the whole picture. I have high walls, too. I’m more private and less open than I sometimes appear. And it changes from day to day, week to week, month to month. It changes in relation to different people. Am I describing emotional instability? I am exceedingly happy in spite of big challenges in my current life, and I am good to my friends and my family without fail, so I honestly don’t give a fuck.

I could write thousands of more words on this subject, but maybe we should just end on this: Move closer to this disgust you feel. Consider how it might’ve felt for you, if your boyfriend had gone into therapy and had suddenly started coming home from that therapy with tears in his eyes, needing more hugs. There are people who would not be able to tolerate that, and it would feel utterly unnerving to discover that in themselves, to discover that behind their loving, needy exterior there was an unforgiving evil queen who hated weakness. And in any long-term, intimate relationship, you basically have to excavate a lot of different selves and you have to sit with a lot of different emotional reactions inside yourself as you go. It’s not really about staying present and loving all the time, either. Sometimes it’s just about being honest about your failings and forgiving yourself (and each other) for such failings.

What I’ve found is that the more forgiving and honest you are, the better you feel about yourself and about your partner or close friend in a relationship. I also think that most of us are castles with high walls filled with sad, needy babies and evil queens and soldiers and jesters and bossy sisters and drunk cousins and dismissive nuns. When someone is showing you their baby and you’re a little grossed out by that, chances are you’re failing to see their soldier and their evil queen. (Or, you just don’t happen to like their particular baby! And that’s okay, too! But be patient and see.) When someone is nothing but walls (Grotesquely walled off! So cold!), chances are they have a lot of babies to protect inside. Respecting your own needs and your own complexity teaches you to respect other people’s complexity, too, and to make more space for it.

It’s nice to love a wide range of people. That’s something our culture is so shitty at. We love limiting everyone to JUST ONE PERSON. (“He’s my person! I’m done now!”) We love shoving people into categories. (“Oh, you can’t love an INFP Leo with insecure attachments if you’re an ESTJ Taurus with secure attachments!”) Fuck that noise. Use what works, of course, but don’t always go to the category and the name and the math of it. GO TO THE MOTHERFUCKING FEELING. Are you still drawn to this dumpster fire? Is this dumpster fire actually an aurora or a fireworks display or a brilliant star or a cold, distant planet? Let it in. Feel it in your cells. Stay here and learn more.

We should all have space to have a rainbow of intimate friends, and to be rainbows underneath the polite fortress of our skin. Every confusing emotion and experience you have — like your disgust with your ex’s kindness — is a new opportunity to understand more about yourself and others. Every bewildering event makes you capable of seeing more colors in the rainbow.

Be patient and move closer to the things that disorient you, even when it kicks up your shame. This is how you turn up the saturation. This is how you grow. This is what brings you clear sight. This is what brings you both passion and peace.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘My Ex Keeps Emailing Me and I Hate It!’