My ex-boyfriend keeps calling

Should I tell him I don't want to talk to him?

By Cary Tennis
Published November 13, 2004 1:27AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend whom I hadn't spoken to in probably seven years. Our relationship ended badly (he wanted to see someone else, I didn't want to let him go but eventually did) and I regretted the fact that he was the only ex that I didn't speak to at all. He wanted to get back in touch, talk over some things, "catch up."


I'm happily married to the man I started dating after this breakup, and my husband can't stand the old boyfriend. I had very little desire to catch up with him, but I did like the idea of "closure," for whatever that's worth, so I agreed to a phone conversation (I no longer live in the town where the ex-boyfriend lives) on a weekend afternoon when my husband wasn't around.

We talked for maybe three hours, a good conversation in which we got up-to-date on each other's lives, and he actually apologized to me for how our relationship ended. It was a nice talk and I was glad that we had set some things right. The conversation ended with him inviting me to "give him a call sometime," although I knew I wouldn't be likely to do that.

In the time since, he has called me three or four times, "just to say hello." I have gamely made conversation, although I'm not really interested. When we talk, I'm reminded of things I never really liked about him, and my husband's dislike of him means that I'm putting tension in my marriage over someone that I don't really want to be friends with anyway. He has thanked me several times for being willing to talk with him at all, so I sense that my willingness to be in touch is meaningful for him. But when I agreed to talk with him in the first place, I didn't realize that he wanted to rekindle a friendship. This is not what I bargained for.


How do I tell him that I don't want to maintain a relationship with him? There's not much animosity toward him anymore; I just don't really like talking to him all that much. And at the same time, he's had some hard times lately and I hate to be another person in his life turning him away. Plus, I'm just not the kind of person who tells somebody to go away -- although I don't like the idea of just avoiding his calls and hoping he'll get the message. I feel dishonest pretending that I'm enjoying our talks. Is there a fair, compassionate way to say "stop calling me"? Or did I open a door that I cannot now close?


Dear T,


If you don't want to talk to him you don't have to. It's perfectly acceptable to tell him that for you the relationship ended when he broke up with you, that while you appreciate the chance to "get closure," you don't wish to renew the friendship. That's fine. You can do that. That is probably what Dr. Laura would tell you to do, and I admire Dr. Laura. You don't have to let people into your life if you don't want them in your life. And if your husband doesn't want him to be part of your life, that's something to consider as well.

However, I can't help asking not just what should you do, but what kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world scrubbed clean of the sad poetry of personal history and human frailty? What kind of world is it where we routinely turn away the inconvenient souls of our past who show up needing money or a job or a clean suit of clothes? What kind of a world is it where we can insulate ourselves from our history as though we had moved into a gated community free of the evidence of our mistakes? While you're perfectly within your rights to choose your friends, you cannot choose your past. Rather, your past has chosen you, and it will continue to call on you. So at least it is worth considering these questions.


And I must be honest and say I like the idea that this guy is reaching out to you. I wonder what he has been through that is causing him to do this. I like the fact that years after a bad breakup a person will find himself trying to put the pieces together again, trying to salvage something of a bad past. And why do I like the idea? Because I've been that guy, OK? I've been that bad boyfriend who screwed up and hurt people and is knocking on the door trying to get something straight, trying to understand what happened. And sure, it's not your obligation to let him in. Maybe he's just a jerk you made a mistake with. But isn't it a little troubling to reduce someone from your past to the status of an annoyance?

Did he put you through hell? Sometimes people who've put us through hell seem to call out of the blue just to remind us of the hell we're putting ourselves through right now, and it gives us occasion to stop and say, gee, I'm doing the same thing I used to do seven years ago, and it's still not working! Maybe I can change!

Maybe it's not all that complicated. If you don't want to talk to him, you don't have to. I'm just saying that things are rarely that simple, and the more compassionate you are toward the people of your past, the richer your life will become.


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