No Boyfriend Left Behind; Say (What?) with Flowers.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I recently broke up with a guy after we lived together for three years. He is somewhat younger than I am, and during our time together I paid some of his bills because his work didn’t pay as well as mine. We have both moved on—or so I thought. I recently received a letter from him with his cellphone bill attached. He is expecting me to pay that phone bill the same way I did when we were together. Really? I’m taken aback and not quite sure what to do.
Dr. Hurd replies,
Think of a little child. Or even a puppy. They test boundaries and limits all the time. When it’s a child or a puppy, you don’t think much of it. It seems reasonable, expected, and perhaps even cute.
It’s not quite so cute when an adult plays that game. A person reaches emotional maturity when the need to test such boundaries goes away. Some people are more emotionally mature than others, and it has nothing to do with age or experience.
I understand why you’re surprised by his behavior. But I’m surprised at your reaction. You say that you’re not sure what to do, but isn’t it obvious? In what universe would such a request be considered anything but outrageous?
Of course I don’t know all the history. And I can’t claim to know what’s going on in your ex’s mind. But my guess is that his request springs from a sense of entitlement. For whatever reasons, he feels he deserves more from you. Maybe he’s like this with everyone. Maybe he didn’t get what he needed in his childhood, and now projects that onto you. Maybe he feels you wronged him somehow, and this is how he seeks restitution.
But these are only explanations; not justifications. Even if you wronged him, he should have that conversation with you face-to-face; not by mailing you his phone bill, for heaven’s sake.
There’s a saying that goes, “I didn’t take you to raise.” It sounds like your ex believes you took him to raise. Of course, that’s your prerogative if you want to do so, but if you don’t, you’re certainly not obliged. Maybe you gave him that impression when you were with him, and now he’s inviting you back into that role.
I don’t think you should greet his request with hostility. Just ignore it. To respond gives it power it doesn’t deserve. If you want to respond, the most I would say is something like, “Is there something you want to discuss?” I doubt, however, if that dialogue would be very productive for either of you. Some things are best left in the past. Move on, and maybe he will too.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My former partner and I have been apart for about a year after a rather ugly breakup. I just found out that her mother died. I want to send some sort of condolence, but I really don’t want her to think that I’m trying to re-establish communication. That is, in fact, the last thing I want to do. We have several friends in common who have sent cards or flowers. On the one hand, I don’t want to stir things up, but on the other I don’t want to appear callous to our friends by ignoring the event.
Dr. Hurd replies,
You’re taking too much responsibility here. If your ex reads something into your polite gesture that isn’t there, it’s her responsibility; not yours.
Perhaps you agree, but you still don’t want to deal with what you expect her reaction will be. But why not? It’s her reaction, and she’s entitled to it. Don’t try to forestall, prevent or control it on her behalf—or yours.
In cognitive psychotherapy, we talk about logical fallacies or distortions. These are statements or ideas spun out from our minds, automatically, that unnecessarily frighten or paralyze us. The antidote to such fallacies is logical thinking.
The cognitive distortion I see here is called fortune-telling. Fortune-telling means predicting the outcome of events that we really cannot predict. Another related fallacy I see here is mind-reading. You’re anticipating her emotional reaction based on what you knew a year ago, but her emotions might very well have changed since then. Haven’t yours? Given the fact you haven’t been close to her for a while, you can’t really make an educated decision about what her reaction will be.
Maybe your fear of interacting with her is that it will stir up your own emotions. You can address your own emotions alone, privately. You are responsible for managing your own feelings. But nobody will know your real feelings except for you and anyone you choose to tell. You’re not transparent. So my suggestion is to do the right thing. And it sounds to me that, in your judgment, the right thing is, at the minimum, to send flowers. Much of what we fear isn’t even worth fearing. Just stand back and give it a little thought.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office may be reached at 302-227-2829. Email Dr Hurd