I recently decided to take a step back from my relationship of two years as I felt I had been neglecting my mental health. Due to miscommunication, my partner took this as a break-up.
I still love him. He claims to be confused about his feelings now after we spent a fortnight apart. During that time, I sought comfort in a close work friend. We ended up having sex (with consent) and I enjoyed it. I know that I don’t want to take it further. My friend does, but I want to maintain our close friendship. How do I communicate this to him?
I do hope to reconnect with my (ex) partner when he returns from a three-month solo trip. While he’s gone, I want to take this time to check in with myself as I have felt personally neglected for quite some time.
Do you have any advice for me?
Clear But Confused
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Dear Clear But Confused,
I’m writing this to you on a plane home from Mallorca, and after reading your concerns, my mind keeps returning to the many beautiful old stone houses that line the cliffs on the northwest side of the island I just visited. They remain sturdy and rooted into the earth, even while holding centuries’ worth of stories within their walls. Each has been built with certain specifications for certain reasons — thick walls to keep the interiors cool, open terraces to take advantage of the breeze and the blue horizon, shutters painted green to keep visual harmony between villages.
For the renovated structures, stories are shared of finding new ceilings, new rooms, and new surprises. New inhabitants either covering up or uncovering what the previous ones had done, years layering over walls and paintings, new stone covering the old. The foundational outlines are all visible, but to truly discover what’s beneath, it takes work.
I am reminded of these old houses because I think of the multiple layers of living, daily rituals exerted onto cool limestone. I think of each generation working to keep the stone clean; a window with years of dirt and windblown soot blocking the light is no longer a window, a passageway blocked off by a wall no longer serves as an entry. Maintenance is always required, even if the foundations are strong.
From what you share with me, it seems you are in need of some housekeeping — some clearing out, as well as some fresh sunlight to splash on your walls. The work required is more than just switching up the tenants or changing terms on a lease — replacing one with another won’t truly shift anything. What’s required is a deep cleaning into the interiors and exteriors of your mental and emotional home.
Due to miscommunication, you and your former partner now have an updated relationship status: “It’s complicated”. Yet, why the miscommunication in the first place? Look at it — what was there, and why has it lingered? If you both were leaving the conversation without really understanding the other or feeling heard, why did you leave it there? Why wasn’t there an effort to align? Whatever the current dynamics of this relationship, it is now living in a space of disconnect.
It’s hard to feel rooted or safe in something when all parties are on a different page. You left that encounter feeling raw, vulnerable, and unheard, so you sought comfort in a friend. This new intimacy turned sexual, which is normal, but now you’re finding yourself in the same spot as you are with your ex because communication isn’t clear. You’re both on different pages, moving toward different things, and there are feelings to be sensitive to. So far, you’re not doing any mental cleaning, just switching up the tenants.
It’s time to focus on your foundations before inviting anyone else in — isn’t that why you had the conversation with your ex in the first place? Take stock of what’s going on with you, why you felt you needed this break, and why you’ve neglected your own needs for so long.
What immediate supports do you need? Is it more time alone, a therapist, a need for community separate from any romantic or sexual dynamics? Are you already clear on what’s going on with your mental health, or is part of this process for you to figure out what’s going on?
What do you need right now?
Make a list and write it down. Commit to each need that you mark as a priority. Are you realizing it’s important for you to seek professional support from someone who can help you process? Create a deadline for yourself to reach out to local therapists. Are you noticing that you’re spread too thin and need to build in space to your schedule? Block off the evenings during the week for yourself.
You already took the first step in checking in on your relationship and realizing you haven’t been prioritizing what you need. Now take the next steps to ensure that you’re using this time to truly give yourself the love and support you feel you’ve been missing.
Once you find yourself meeting your immediate needs, it’s time to think about implementing practices to fulfill your long-term needs. What happened that you went so long neglecting your mental health? What needs to happen so that you don’t get to a place of burn out again? Perhaps it’s a long-term continuation of your immediate needs. Perhaps it’s really looking at your life and reassessing the structures in place — your work, your community, your living situation. Look at the choices you’ve made and the decisions you have control over. Is there anything there that you want to shift?
What in all of that are you grateful for? What wonderfully empowered decisions have you made for yourself that you can look to and be reminded of times when you put yourself first?
It seems that taking a step back in your relationship was one of those moments. Be proud of yourself for doing your best and speaking up for what you need — this isn’t easy, especially when you’re not someone who’s used to putting your mental health first. You did a very positive thing by communicating to your partner what’s been going on, even if it seems that the way it was communicated wasn’t the clearest.
The miscommunication in the conversation you had was big enough that your ex is now taking the space he needs as well. He’s doing the work of stepping into himself to see what’s there. He won’t be the same after this trip, and that’s a good thing. He’ll be living and experiencing things that have nothing to do with you, and that’s great. He’s confused about his feelings towards your relationship and hopefully by the end of his trip, he’ll have clarity. You have no control over what he feels or what he decides. The three months that he’s gone are a gift he’s giving to himself, and now it seems, to you, since you want to use the time that he’s away for your own self-reflection. It’s really important to note that this three-month timeline wasn’t self-imposed, even though you were the one needing space in the first place. You’re still basing your need for space on the time that he’s chosen, rather than what your own mind and body are telling you, and it’s time you start doing this for yourself.
Forget him for a second, and while you’re at it, forget your coworker as well. Thinking too much about everyone else is probably what got you here in the first place, and not taking the time to be clear on what you want and what you need has not only had consequences that have affected you, but to the people closest to you as well.
You can’t control if your coworker has feelings for you or not, but you can be clear about your boundaries and what you want for your friendship. He doesn’t have to accept, and you can’t control whether he does or not, but you can control where you stand.
You can’t control if your ex wants to get back together or not, but you can be clear about what you want and what you need out of the relationship. He doesn’t have to accept, and you can’t control whether he does or not, but you can control where you stand.
Notice the pattern?
You need to know what you need first before you can truly figure out how to incorporate these intimate relationships into your life. It seems that you’re clear on what you want with your coworker. Share that with him. It also seems that you’re rather clear on wanting to get back with your ex. After you take the time you need for yourself, reassess what you want. Communicate what that is clearly to him, and take the time to wade through any new miscommunications that may arise. It’s not worth it for everyone to stay confused. It’s not fair.
Recap and repeat back to each other what the other has said. “If I’m understanding you correctly, you feel X, Y, and Z, is this correct?” Don’t leave the conversation until both of you are clear on where you stand, and what the next steps are, and until then — take this time to be truly selfish. Not selfish in the way you’ve been before, thinking you’re doing everyone a favor by sharing feelings but not caring if the other person understands or not. Truly selfish, as in putting you first, which will ultimately allow you to show up and be a better partner and a better friend.
Do your beautiful home a favor and get to know it. Spend time with it, clear it out, throw out the things that are no longer useful. Maybe you find it’s time for some new furniture or a colorful coat of paint. Before you invite anyone over, let alone allow someone else to share the space with you, make it yours. Remember it’s your home and only you can protect it and do what’s best for it. Only you can open the windows to let the sea breeze right in.
Have questions about sex and love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org