My brilliant but depressed ex-lover

How can I keep him at a distance but still be kind?

By Salon Staff
Published August 26, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a friend, a single father racked by depression.

For several years, we had a romantic relationship. But his marriage was so abusive -- his wife was an alcoholic, vicious and crazy, and then she died -- that, what with the post-traumatic stress of all this coupled with his depression, he found himself unable to really have a full, committed relationship with me. He couldn't trust that I wouldn't hurt him, embarrass him, humiliate him; he couldn't trust that he wouldn't somehow wreck it all. He was twitchy, flinching, edgy. What we had was a full, committed friendship, with romance on the sly.

This went on for three years, with lots of agonizing and drama. He exposed me to new ways of thinking -- no, that's an understatement. He tore open my head with unconventional ideas. Through him, I read Lacan and Deleuze and Kristeva and Bernanos and Foucault and Guardini and von Balthasar and Kant and Hannah Arendt and Castiglione. I felt liberated. His kids loved me. My kids were unnerved by him. I worked very hard to give everyone a lot of stability and comfort, but ultimately it became clear that I was squeezing square pegs into round holes, and this man and I decided to not be monogamous anymore, much to both of our relief.

During this final period of non-monogamy, I met another man. He is kind, he is adoring, he is my champion. My kids are crazy about him. He loves my body, he loves my mind, he can't get enough time with me. We read, we write, we ski and bike and rollerblade and ice skate. We cook and entertain. We're exhilaratingly compatible, and the kids are so happy with our relationship. I am in awe of the kindness with which he surrounds me, and it frightens me how deeply I have come to love him and want good things for him.

So my friend and I decided to end the romantic part of the relationship and remain friends. He's socialized a little bit with my boyfriend and says he is very glad I'm with a man who treats me the way I deserve to be treated.

The problem? Guilt. My friend's, and mine. Little comments -- "You're always out cavorting; you're never home," "My daughter is mad at me for letting you go" -- passive-aggressive remarks that are clearly designed to make me feel a twinge of guilt for not being content with the situation we had. Or remarks about how he was never going to introduce another woman to his kids again. He seems to want me to be always emotionally available for him, the way I used to be, but he really isn't capable of the kind of relationship that I have discovered I want. And on the surface he will say that he knows all of these things and he has no expectations, but underneath he is acting like a hurt little boy.

Of course, you say. Of course he is -- he is a hurt little boy. Stunted by depression and post-traumatic stress, nose pressed up against the glass of a good relationship but doomed never to have one. I tried to give him one. But he felt he was unable to take it. Now he is digging at me for ... not sticking around anyway?

And I understand this, I do. My question is, how do I respond to him with compassion and sympathy? And what to do if he says he knows what he's doing and understands it ... and yet keeps doing it? He wants things to go back to the way they were. He would never say this, because he knows it's not what I want. But how do I respond to this unrealistic behavior with grace and understanding? Because, frankly, I'm about to wring his neck.


Dear L,

I picture you and him as though you were visiting him in prison. You speak through the glass at each other; he holds his hand up and you place yours over his but there is no contact through the glass. I suppose I picture him in prison because I sense that for all his knowledge he is not a free man; he lives in a ward of his own compulsion as surely as if in his psyche sat a warden behind a desk.

The problem for you is that because the barrier between you isn't material, from time to time you allow yourself to believe it's not there. But you know it is there. You even gave me the image of him behind the glass. It seems to me what you need is to know it fully, ineradicably, in all its ineluctable and unchangeable certainty.

So how do you respond? The answers to your questions lie in the questions themselves. That is, you respond to him with compassion and sympathy by responding to him with compassion and sympathy. You respond to unrealistic behavior with grace and understanding by responding with grace and understanding. That does not mean that you stop wanting to wring his neck. You keep wanting to wring his neck. But you respond with grace and understanding because, after all, he's the one in prison.

Why else? Because you love this man, and because that's the kind of person you are. You must also tell him the truth, however. You must tell him that you understand why he is behaving this way and what it means.

While I think you know the answers to your own questions, there are questions underneath those questions that are harder to answer: How do you manage to feel OK about yourself as you respond to him with sympathy and compassion knowing that some part of him, the messed-up part, is trying to get back at you, is acting the hurt child or the imperious, spurned teacher or the wounded, needy lover? This is what so much of life boils down to: How do we bear what we know and go on doing what is right? How do we see right into the heart of man and not go mad? The answer is: We have our devices. We have religion and philosophy and speedboats. We sit on the back porch and whittle, or order escargot. We sing the blues or run for office. We just keep going.

But there's more to it than that. There are real questions of how exactly to respond to him with sympathy and compassion when he's in the wrong, because although you do the best you can, every now and then you make a mistake; you reach your limit of exasperation and say a hurtful word; you give in to an impulse of kindness that feeds his false hope. What to do then? You apologize and move on. What to do when he says he knows what he's doing and keeps on doing it anyway? You respond to him as you would respond to anyone you love who's doing something you consider wrong. You tell him he's in the wrong and leave it at that. Or perhaps you don't just leave it at that. You also tell him he should change his behavior. Perhaps you even urge him to seek professional help. But that's it.

I sense that you know these things and have written to me because you need someone to remind you of them in a way that will stick with you. So I'm reminding you. There he is across the glass, the incorrigible one, the recidivist, the one you can't really change although you wish to God you could because in so many ways he's a genius and one of a kind. Regard the mysterious lover on the other side of the bulletproof pane; place your palm on the glass and watch his lips move in silence.

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