Is My Ex Using Me To Destroy His Marriage?

Hello Doc!

Long time lurker, first time writer( insert all gushing here). I really like how you give honest, occasionally painful but also necessary advice. I have a kinda awkward question for you and I hope you can help, because I am at a loss at the moment.

I have been very lucky in that I have managed to have mostly amenable break ups in my life and have stayed, if not friends at least cordial to a lot of my ex’s. It’s not unheard of for me to hang out with or casually chat with people from my past, and usually it’s a pleasant experience. Sometimes though, it gets weird.

A few months ago, an old lover from MANY years ago started a conversation with me about bars and the music scene in our city, looking for recommendations. I go out a reasonable amount, so this is not a strange thing. He is happily married with kids and travels a lot for work, so he has a lot of time to talk. We used to work in the same field, which is how we met and had an extremely brief fling at least 10 years before he met his wife., and we had remained peripherally friends.

Back to the story. I start chatting with Ryan (not his real name) and again it all starts easy enough. General life stuff, bar and restaurant recommendations, things to see while traveling, that sort of thing. But then the conversation turns to “hey, remember when we had a good time?”
And, sure, we did have a good time back in the day. But that was *back in the day*. I tell Ryan that while of course I remember our good time, it’s way in the past and I am cool with being friends, but that’s it. He agrees, and we keep chatting. During the day, it stays mellow and innocuous, but in the evenings it becomes way more sexual. Generally I just laugh it off and in the morning I get apologies. At this point, he had more than hinted that he would like to resume our earlier relations and that he really isn’t that satisfied in his marriage. I am starting to get uncomfortable with the whole situation. I feel like I am being used as an excuse.

How can I make it abundantly clear that I in no way want him to use me as an excuse to end his marriage? I like him as a person, but I am not about to restart any kind of relationship with him. I don’t really want to go nuclear option. But is there any other option?

Not a Home Wrecker

There are a couple things going on with your ex, NAHW, and unfortunately, he’s made the decision to bring you into his drama.

The first is the classic siren call of The Ex. There’re a lot of reasons why someone might want to get back with an ex, even years after the fact. For some, it’s about unfinished business; the break-up wasn’t their idea, they thought everything was going great and then they got blindsided by a break-up coming screaming out of the clear blue sky. To them, it’s about either getting some form of closure (that they will never get, because closure is something you give yourself), or setting right what went wrong. To them, the relationship never should’ve ended and has taken on an almost mythical status and they’re always trying to get back there.

For others, it’s the lure of (theoretically) easy sex; y’all hit it before, he knows what you’re into, surely he can use those same old moves to get back into your pants for some of the same ol’ moves. Still for others, it’s the way that nostalgia puts a golden haze over everything; everything is softer and fuzzier and simpler and all the harshness and rough edges are smoothed away. It represents a better time, a happier time… regardless of what that time was actually like. And if they’re going through some rough times, say, with their current partner… well, the siren call of the past is hard to resist. The past may be a country to which we can never return, but that’s never stopped folks from trying. It’s also the place that memory can turn into anything if you’re determined to remember it that way. So you might, for example, turn a brief fling into a torrid whirlwind romance full of drama and passion that only ended because of forces outside of your control, rather than a “that was pleasant, well… bye.”

I think, based on your description, it’s safe to say that your ex is having a bad case of that Golden Haze of Sexy Nostalgia. He remembers the fling, he wants to get back there (metaphorically and also in your pants) and go back to a time when things were better. The only question I have – and, admittedly, I’m a horribly cynical bastard with a lump of coal where my soul should be – is whether the problems with the wife actually exist… or if it’s just entirely one-sided. God knows that “my wife doesn’t understand me” has long been the excuse of many a philandering husband who’s trying to eke some sympathy sex (or at least, nudes) out of women.

That having been said, I think it’s safe to say that he is, at the very least, unhappy in his marriage. This, I suspect, is part of why the chats start getting sexual as the night falls. He’s at home, possibly going over old photos from back in the day or doing a little light browsing on PornHub while the fam is asleep and dickful thinking takes over. You’ve been receptive to at least talking, you’ve got history, he’s horny and he wants to try his luck. And since you haven’t told him to fuck right off, I’m willing to bet that he’s taking that in the spirit of “so you say there’s a chance.”

Now to be 100% clear: I’m not blaming you. This isn’t your fault for not saying the right words to make him go away. This is my (slightly educated) guess as to his mindset when he starts trying to getting you to sext with him. He isn’t getting anywhere with you, but he’s trying not to hear that, so until he gets an unambiguous “fuck off and die”, he’s going to assume he’s got tacit permission to continue.

But that brings us the second thing going on. If you’re a long-time reader, then I’m sure you’ve seen me ask someone “are you asking me for advice on what to do, or are you asking me for permission to do it?” Most of the time, the answer is the latter; they’ve already made up their mind, now they’re just looking for someone else to tell them that it’s ok.

I suspect that this is the situation that your ex is in. He’s made up his mind that he’s going to leave his wife; now he’s just looking for the right self-destruct button to slam his hand down on. It may be that he’s hoping that this will also provide him with a landing pad (i.e. you) for when his marriage detonates messily and all over the place. Or it may be that he figures that it’s easier to hook up with an ex to start that ball rolling. As much as I don’t want to take away from the idea that you’re a desirable option in and of itself, I think that ten years of little to no contact followed by his being uncomfortably horny at you suggests that he may think you were a softer target. Which, let’s be real, is a bit insulting.

But that’s all his drama. You, on the other hand, are the innocent bystander he’s dragging into it. So the only thing for you to do is march yourself out of it.

Much as it sucks, I think you’re going to have to stop ignoring or laughing off his late night attempts to get you hornt up and tell him to knock it the fuck off. And it will likely need to be in direct, unambiguous words, because the odds are that either he’s going to pretend he doesn’t know what you mean (“oh no, I’m not trying to start an affair with you, perish the thought!”) or else he’s going to try to twist it in his head so that you didn’t really say what it sounded like you said. It’s easy to do that when someone’s just laughing it off. It’s a lot harder when that someone says “just to be clear, I am not now, nor will I ever be interested in sexting with you, sleeping with you or otherwise doing anything where parts of you enter parts of me and that includes emergency surgery”.

You don’t need to make it about his marriage or the divorce he seems to be trying to trigger; just that you have no interest whatsoever in talking about sex with him, nor do you want him bringing the topic up – whether it’s under the context of how things used to be or what you could get up to now. Draw that big, thick bright line and make it clear that his having any further contact with you is entirely contingent on his staying on the other side of it. If he sets a toe across… well, you warned him. Now he’s both missing a toe and also you, as he’s been cut off. And I do mean in that moment. Just a big “nope, told you, we’re done here” and then end the conversation. Possibly including blocking him if he doesn’t get the hint or thinks that a tearful apology in the cold, unforgiving light of sobriety the next morning is enough to excuse (and allow for more of) the habitual line-stepping.

I also want to be clear – not that you’ve indicated you feel this way, but it’s worth repeating – any problems in his marriage aren’t your concern. You’re not in any way obligated to coach him on how to stay married or help him fix his relationship, nor to help him find a less explosive way of ending it. He’s the one trying to make his mess your concern, which ain’t cool. He can make his own mistakes without your help or involvement and he can fix them the same way.

Good luck.


Doc,

Why is there a generally prevailing attitude that the cause of emotional issues can’t be the lack of romantic success? You see this all the time, such as telling a man that finding a girlfriend won’t fix his emotional issues.

Well, if the root cause of his emotional issues is not having a girlfriend, then yes, a healthy romantic relationship WOULD fix them. But no, it has to be something else. People can accept almost anything as a root cause of their depression or other issues, like financial issues, social isolation, or just general brain chemical stuff. But lack of romance? That can’t POSSIBLY be it.

Of all the billions of people who have ever existed, of all of them who have ever been depressed or have had any romantic issues, not a single one of them had lack of romantic relationships as the root cause? I find that hard to believe.

So my main question is, why is there such a pushback against the idea that the lack of romantic relationships could cause someone to get depressed?

Lost and Lonely

Funny thing, LaL: most of the examples you list as causing depression are existential ones. Severe debt or losing your job? That threatens damn near everything in your life, from your living situation to basic health and your ability to, y’know, eat. Social isolation? Well, we’re dealing with that now, especially among men, and it turns out that terminal loneliness and isolation is more dangerous for you than smoking.

Being single, being a virgin or going through a lengthy dry spell doesn’t have the same effects.

People get pushback on this, quite simply, because nine times out of ten, the people aren’t saying “being single gives me the blues”, they’re saying “my being single is a medical issue”. If we were to take this seriously, then what would the solution be that doesn’t involve mandating relationships for folks?

The one time out of ten, however, is very much a case of “cart before the horse”.

You know how I’m always saying “the problem you have isn’t the problem you think you have?” That’s the scenario you’re describing here, LaL. Why would getting a girlfriend not solve somebody’s issues? Because that’s not the problem they’re having. They’re lonely, sure, I get that. The loneliness seems all encompassing, right, totally with you. Been there, done that, built a career out of solving that issue.

But will getting a girlfriend change any of that? Almost certainly not. Not in the way that the folks who think this way believe it will.

There’re a lot of reasons for this. The most obvious is that they’re wrong about what the source of their problems are. This is actually incredibly common, because people as a rule are bad at understanding why they feel the way they feel. We feel the physical sensations and then look around for the cause and retroactively decide that this was the trigger. But just because something looks like it might be the answer doesn’t mean it actually is. If anything, what people assume is the cause is, in fact, a side effect, rather than the source. And that’s assuming that they’re even aware of the possibility of what the true source of their issues could be.

Folks who, for example, can’t figure out why their sexual attraction to their partners keeps fading after a certain amount of time often don’t realize that the problem isn’t that they don’t love their partners or that they picked the wrong person or that there’s a problem in their relationship. More often than not – especially if the loss of attraction is only happening in a committed relationship – the issue is that they need sexual novelty and they can’t get that from one person. They may be non-monogamous, they may be what’s known as “freysexual” (folks who experience loss of sexual desire for someone as they get to know them and develop an emotional bond with them), but at the end of the day, the issue is that they’re someone who just can’t stay attracted to an individual for long.

Similarly, people dealing with depression often don’t realize that they’re depressed, nor that chronic depression doesn’t have an external cause. In fact, the thing that you most commonly hear from folks is “I don’t have any real reason to be depressed”, as though a diminished capacity for producing or processing serotonin requires a reason.

So while I have no doubt that not having a relationship may make someone have the blues, if we’re talking the “my life is worthless and meaningless and I’m nothing, this would all change if I had a girlfriend” type… yeah, a girlfriend isn’t going to solve this. At best, you’re going to be depressed… just with company. At worst, things are going to get worse, and in so many different ways.

To start with, girlfriends aren’t magic, nor are they medicine. Dating someone to “cure” your depression – and yes, that’s how your framing comes across – is pretty damn dehumanizing, my dude. It’s expecting one person to solve shit for you by… well, how, exactly? By providing validation? Cool… that’s a hole that’ll never be filled, because you’ll never actually believe it, nor will you feel secure in the relationship; there will always be the part of you that thinks that either she’s lying, that her reassurances don’t mean as much as they should or that at some point she’s going to wise up and leave. Validation from others will never stick if you don’t actually believe in your own value to start with.

Is it by having sex? Well, again, that tends to be about external validation; you’re worth something because this person’s having sex with you. If it were just about not having sex, then hey, there’re lots of ways to solve that, up to and including trips out to the legal brothels in Nevada. But most people would reject those options because they “don’t count”, which brings it right back to “well, it’s expecting someone to validate you by choosing you to have sex with” when, as I’ve said many times before, people will choose to have sex for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the person they’re fucking. Women aren’t Mjolnir, they don’t only bang The Worthy.

Is it by providing companionship? Well, what makes that different from friends or family? Emotional intimacy? Same question. Physical touch? Same question plus the fact that there are cuddle parties, massage, and a whole host of other ways of dealing with skin hunger and touch starvation – something that’s endemic in the culture, I might add, not just restricted to the Terminally Single and the Forever Alone.

And for that matter: what reason would a woman have to date you, the theoretically Depressed By Being Single? The way that you – and others who’ve made similar arguments – frame this makes it very much about what those theoretical girlfriends would do for you. I never hear what they would get out of this. If the only cause for their depression truly is being single, then dating someone quickly becomes a “Someone, Anyone, Everyone” problem; you’re not dating a person so much as trying to shove anyone into a hole marked “girlfriend” like you’re both stuck in a Junji Ito comic. And leaving aside the part where it seems to be less about the individual than the nebulous concept of Having A Girlfriend, and assuming good faith and best intentions by the people framing this argument, expecting someone – someone who likely has no medical training or experience in mental health care – to be your “cure” puts an insane amount of pressure on them. Shit, that’s an absurd level of pressure to put on someone you’ve had a relationship with for years; it’s mindboggling to expect that of someone you’ve maybe known for weeks or months.

But the truth is: most of the time, when someone is having serious mental health issues and is single, their being single is rarely the cause. More often than not, it’s a symptom. They often have other things going on that make it harder for them to find or maintain a relationship and until that underlying issue is treated, then at best they’re going to get incredibly temporary relief. What’s much more likely to happen is that they get a relationship and discover that, far from curing all their ills, they’re still the same person they were before, with the same problems they had before, just with company. This tends to actually make things worse; the magic cure failed, so what does that mean? Was it not the right person? Did they set their sights too low? Too high? Maybe the problem is they just don’t love their girlfriend hard enough. Maybe their girlfriend isn’t loving THEM hard enough. Or she’s not providing the right kind of validation. Or this isn’t the right relationship. What if this means that they’re actually worse than they thought?

This isn’t theoretical; this happens all the time when folks get hung up on the magic bullet that’s going to solve all their problems. Incels have famously paid the equivalent of down payments for a house on plastic surgery, only to discover that they’re the same person they were when the bandages come off. Their problems didn’t disappear with the adipose tissue that was removed, the implants that were added, the jawline that was enhanced or the nose that was sanded down. They’ve got all the same problems because the call was coming from inside the house, not because their lower-third was a few millimeters off or they were an inch below the height requirement to be GigaChad.

In my personal and professional life, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who thought that getting laid or having a relationship would solve their woes… only to discover that nothing had changed. If anything, things got worse for them because nothing changed. Doubly so when Miracle Maxine left them because they thought she was supposed to fix things and she didn’t. And nothing did get better for them until they went and actually dealt with their issues. Not with a date or a girlfriend but with a counselor or a therapist.

Women are great, my dude, but they aren’t magic. Relationships are awesome, but they’re not a chocolate coated miracle pill. And yes, being single when you don’t want to be can get you down. But if the problems are running deeper than a need to learn how to have an awesome life when you’re single, then adding women to it isn’t going to fix it for you.

 

 

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