Dear Emotional Hardbody,
My girlfriend and I broke up about a month ago. Krista and I dated since our junior year in college, and we parted on good enough terms. Our relationship was more or less fine all the way up to the end — we didn’t really fight much and no one cheated or anything like that. It’s just that she wanted to get married and I didn’t, and we both read the writing on the wall.
Krista is having a really hard time with the breakup, and I feel terrible about that. After four years together, she wasn’t just my girlfriend, she was my best friend, too. I’ve been trying to focus on the “friend” part of our relationship, and help her through this tough time like any good friend would. I make it a point to call and check on her once a day, and I try to schedule something non-date-ish like coffee or lunch once or twice a week. She doesn’t seem to be on the upswing yet, but I’m prepared to hang in there with her until she feels better. That’s what friends do.
My problem is I’d like to start dating other people, but I don’t know if I should tell this to Krista or not. It seems like keeping it from her would be dishonest. After all, she and I are just friends now. Why would I hide that from a friend, especially a close one? Part of me thinks that knowing this might help her along in processing our breakup. But on the other hand, it seems like telling her might be tantamount to kicking her while she’s down. And then there’s this wrinkle: If I do start dating, how should I explain my continued relationship with Krista to someone new?
What’s the best way for me to be a supportive friend to Krista and an honest new potential boyfriend to someone else?
Good (But Confused) Guy
Let’s play a game! Pretend you have a friend who is a problem drinker. (Hey, I never said the game was actually going to be fun.) Your friend needs to dry out, and this is going to be really difficult for her because it will require a major lifestyle change. This is a tough time for her — she’s bummed out about all of this. You want to be supportive friend and help cheer her up, so you make it a point to bring her a bottle of her favorite kind of tequila once or twice a week until she gets through this whole thing. On a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being awesome, how would you rate yourself as a friend? If you answered 2 or higher, you lose.
Tequila isn’t bad for everyone, of course. It’s just bad for people who need to quit drinking it. When it comes to Krista, you are a bottle of tequila. You aren’t inherently bad. You are just bad for Krista because she is trying to quit you.
The key to Krista’s ability to make the transition of living without you is the passage of time. I can tell from your letter that you get the “passage of time” part, but you’re overlooking the “living without you” part. As much as you care about Krista, you cannot be the friend who helps her get though this transition because the clock can’t start until you're gone. While that may seem to you like you're bailing on her, it is actually the more caring thing to do.
I’m not saying you have to act like John Lithgow in the goodbye scene from Harry and the Hendersons. I'm saying that while she is getting over you, you have to give her the time and space to do exactly that. But because you have been in daily contact with her since your breakup, you should definitely give her a head’s up before changing your approach. Then once you have that conversation, leave her the heck alone.
Because you won't be in contact with Krista anymore you don't need to worry about whether to tell her you're dating again, or how to explain to someone new why you hang out with your ex all the time.
Also know that this doesn’t mean you and Krista can never be friends again. Just as it's not unusual for a recovering alcoholic to get to the point where she can be around alcohol without it causing a risk of a relapse, Krista will likely get to a point where she can occasionally be around you without it causing her difficulty. If and when that day arrives, feel free to celebrate —with or without tequila. But until then, be a good guy and keep your distance.