Relationship Connection: My ex wants me to comfort him after a family death

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Question

I may sound a bit cold-hearted with my question, but it’s a hard situation.

My ex-boyfriend and I dated for almost two years. We are both in our 50s and have grown children from previous marriages. Recently, he said he didn’t ever want to marry again. He thought I should know. I told him I appreciated his honesty, and I would need to think about it. 

It didn’t take much thinking to get angry and hurt. I did want to marry again, and I feel he could have told me much earlier. I gave him the best of me, my support, love and generosity. I decided to tell him I didn’t wish to see him again.

Then, before I could tell him, he called to tell me his brother had died in a horrible and violent way. He is reeling in pain and shock. I put aside our problems and tried my best to support him. I have helped him make travel and funeral arrangements and held him as he cried.

The problem is, I really don’t want this relationship anymore. I don’t want to make this situation all about me, but truthfully, I want to close the door and never see him again. Helping someone through loss is the privilege and responsibility of a loving committed relationship, which he told me he didn’t want … from me at least. How do I proceed? My support of him at this point is somewhat disingenuous.

Answer

I’m sorry to hear about all of the loss you’re both experiencing. Life can suddenly be so painful that it’s hard to know how to respond. I see your dilemma of wanting to respond in a compassionate way while at the same time protecting your wounded heart. While the timing of these two unfortunate developments is unfortunate, I do think it’s possible to respond in a way that honors both sides. 

First, it’s not helpful to compare or rank these two losses. They both cause shock, grief and loss. They both change the course of life for other people and bring up challenging questions. You’re both reeling from the pain and need comfort and security.

I simply don’t want you to determine that because one of these losses involved sudden death that you should automatically downplay the trauma of him breaking off your relationship. Yes, you both need support, but if you’re both in trauma and grief, it doesn’t mean you are the only one who can offer him comfort.

Even though we have a natural reflex to care for those who are suffering, we also have to be realistic about our limits and create space for times when we simply don’t have anything to give. Sometimes our hearts long to help out, but we simply don’t have anything to give. This truth is reinforced in the quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh that says, “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” 

Naturally, your heart is responding to his terrible grief and sadness for losing his brother. Of course, you want to offer him comfort. You care about this man and were ready and willing to be his wife. So it’s only natural that you would feel mixed about being there for him.

While I can’t speak to his mental state, it’s obvious he’s unable to recall that he barely broke up with you. Even though you needed time to process how you would respond to his dissolution of the relationship, remember that he was the one who turned away from building a life with you.

I agree with you that grieving privately with someone is an intimate experience based on trust and security. If he’s stripped you of the security and trust you need to be close to him, it’s okay for you to honor the trauma and loss you’re experiencing by letting him know you’re unavailable to be his primary support during this difficult time.

It’s okay to also expect him to care about the pain you’re experiencing. While he’s allowed to choose who he wants to spend his life with, he’s not allowed to expect you to be there for him after he’s ended your relationship. Even though you didn’t have a chance to tell him what you needed before his brother’s sudden passing, it’s still okay to honor what you need by letting him know you’re not available as a support to him. I hope he’ll be able to appreciate the fact that you don’t want to offer him pity and a disingenuous presence.

You’ve offered him a compassionate first response; however, staying in this relationship to offer him ongoing support while your heart is bleeding out isn’t sustainable. Communicate this to him swiftly and clearly and allow each of you to find the comfort and healing you both need during this difficult time. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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