Q: Dear Meredith,
My girlfriend of 6 months is smart, kind, and sensitive, but is also "best friends" with her ex. They were together 13 years. He came out as gay 2-and-a-half years ago, they split, and he moved to another country. But they maintain a joint bank account (it's not her only bank account) and their joint belongings are still in storage. She has traveled to visit him 3 times since the breakup (for 3 weeks at a stint, most recently last fall) and slept with him each night (just cuddling, she says) during those visits. That was before she and I dated. When I asked why she slept with him, she said "it was a given." She concedes that since she was 21 (she is now in her mid-30s) she has slept with him whenever they have been in the same city. I recently learned that they Skype/IM almost every day and have done so since I've known her and before.
This month he moves to NYC, where we live. He assumed he would stay with her upon his return (though he knows about me). He actually said, "As soon as I get to your place from the airport I'll have to take a shower." She told him no and promises me that when he returns she will no longer sleep/cuddle with him. Though she says they do continue to "have an intimate emotional relationship" and she wants to hang out with him when he returns, alone, have him over her place, and even share ownership of her dog with him (they had the dog when they used to live together).
I will take her out for her birthday late this month, but the next day, a Saturday, she wants a birthday picnic with friends, including the ex. She said that it's OK if I don't want to go (I've told her I don't want to meet him), but she cannot exclude him (for my comfort) because without him the picnic would be "ruined" (as he is part of her established group of friends). I made a mental note, "OK without me; ruined without him. Check."
Yes, he's gay and I supply the physical part of the relationship, but I feel our relationship is behind the curve emotionally. I don't want him taking any part of that emotional role appropriate to a couple, and I believe that is exactly what is happening. She has not let go of him as the term "breakup" suggests, and so he is crowding the emotional space properly reserved to a romantic couple.
I think that she should stop her daily communications, shouldn't hang out with him when he moves to NYC, and that she really shouldn't even have him at her birthday picnic. If you have a romantic relationship with someone and cease only the sex, but maintain all the other emotional bonds, have you really broken up and moved on? And is that fair to the new boyfriend? What should I do?
– Hetero Joe
A: HJ, you summarized this problem like a pro. She's got a best friend/ex who's making it hard for you to feel like a real boyfriend. You want to be her go-to guy, not an extra.
But you have to know that her ex isn't going anywhere. He's her best friend. He's family. He's part of the package. That's your reality.
A great therapist guy once told me, "You can't control what other people do. You can only control how you respond to those people." That should be your mantra here.
This ex might become less important over time, but he's always going to be in the picture. That means you will have to meet him. It's unavoidable. And I think that you should get to know him. Perhaps seeing him interact with your girlfriend will make the whole thing seem less threatening. Or maybe it will make you so uncomfortable that it becomes easier to bail.
Do some fact-finding (meet him) and then adhere to the mantra. You can't change your girlfriend's behavior. You can only tell her how you feel, explain what you need to be happy, and then make decisions based on what she's willing to offer. It doesn't matter who's right or wrong. (For the record, I'm on your side about the intimacy and hers about the picnic.) What matters is that this man is your girlfriend's best friend. If you can't adjust to that, you have to let her go.
Readers? What role should the ex play in her life? Is the letter writer asking for too much here? Picnic thoughts? Shower thoughts? Discuss.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith at www.meredithgoldstein.netand on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.