“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
I spent the weekend with my new boyfriend and we had a lovely time. I took a photo of him being his cute self, and then asked his permission to post it to Instagram. I’d never posted a picture of him before, but we are really getting along, and it felt right and good. He said, “Yeah, sure,” so I went ahead and shared his cute face with the world.
And then, not two hours later, my ex-husband texts me: “Are we posting pictures of boys and girls we chill with now?” I didn’t respond, but I wanted to be like, “We can do whatever we want!” But I don’t know how to actually handle it. I’m so annoyed. I just want to live my life without him interjecting. And I want to block him, but I worry this will set off a whole other chain of unwanted harassment.
When I didn’t respond, he said, “I’ll take your silence as a yes.”
For now, I’ve decided I’m only going to respond to questions and comments about the kids (school, vacations, activities, playdates, etc.) and everything else will be met with stony silence. But I’m also super angry that he addressed this at all.
I don’t know what to do. Why can’t he leave me alone? I have never asked him about his personal life or the contents of his social media feed. We are both happier and better off without each other. The terms of our divorce clearly state that we will live separately and not interfere in each other’s lives. What does he want from me?!
Happier Without Him
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Dear Happier Without Him,
Congratulations! I don’t know exactly how long you’ve been divorced, but I think the fact that you are no longer in a partnership with this control freak is something to celebrate. So, even if it’s been years, before we dive in, I hope you will take a big deep breath and welcome in your freedom. Really, right now, take a moment to savor the fact that you are free. You are free to do whatever you want, with your Instagram, and with your life. And no one can take that from you. Not even your ex. Even though on some days, it feels like he might.
Here’s how I picture your interactions with your ex: He is at one end of a rope and you are at the other. You are both holding the rope, but he can sense that you are not very engaged. So, sometimes, he tugs on the rope. And what he wants is for you to tug back. Because if you tug back, he gets a little dose of validation. He gets a little wave, a sign that tells him he matters, even if it only reads, “Yep, bud, you can still ruin my day.”
But you didn’t give him that. You didn’t engage in the tug of war. His response to your silence, which understably irked you, is just another tug. And maybe there will be more down the road. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll get the hint and give up this war. But whether or not he keeps trying to pull your attention his way should not actually determine your boundaries. And I think that’s at the real heart of the frustration and anxiety you’re feeling right now. You don’t like that he’s attempting to control you, but when you try to gauge how he’ll respond to your behavior, you are also, in fact, attempting to control him. And the plain and simple truth is, you can’t.
I’m not saying you’ve made a mistake by trying to consider what you can do to make your interactions less volatile. I relate to that impulse, to take responsibility for your side of the street and to hope that if you do, everything will finally fall into place. But the trouble with that line of reasoning is that it can put us in a space where we are perpetually walking on eggshells. The fact is, no matter how carefully you craft your responses, no matter how expertly you state your case, your ex may always be difficult, reactive, and unreasonable. He may always tug his end of the rope. And that is why, I’m going to say that in this case, it’s not worth it to be so careful about how you respond or what you say. Because the returns on that emotional investment are likely going to be slim to none.
Here’s what you can do. You can let go of your end of the rope. You can put down the idea that you have to manage whatever emotions he might have about you, your new life, and your choices. Just set it down, gently on the ground.
You might be saying, “But I can’t do that! We have a kid! We have to interact!” And yes, to some degree, you have to communicate. But once you let go of the idea that the way you communicate has to look any specific way—that it has to be managed by you—I think you will be able to breathe again. His responses aren’t about you and in some way they never were. He is simply playing out his own anxieties, frustrations, and anger about whatever kind of love he thinks he is owed.
Right now you are holding your end of the rope firmly. You are not tugging back. But you are holding it in place and you are watching yourself carefully. You’re judging yourself. You’re considering what an excellent or terrible job you’re doing of responding or not responding to him. And then, when he tugs again, you’re taking that as a sign of how “well” you are managing this situation. And you’re angry. You’re furious that, in spite of your best efforts, your ex is not going to give you the response you would like. Can you see how, against all odds, you and your ex are actually very much in the same boat?
The simple truth is, this situation isn’t yours to manage. You can only take care of your side of the street. So, your real responsibility right now is to show up for yourself. Perhaps because you have a child, it’s easy to imagine that you have to bend or stretch your boundaries, that there’s a bigger moral arena in which this is all playing out. Maybe you fear that one misstep could lead to an explosion and that your child, the innocent bystander in all of this, will get caught in the wreckage.
But the truth is when you show up for yourself, you protect your child more than you ever could by trying to please your ex into being sweeter, kinder, or just plain easier to get along with. When you show up for yourself, you’re modeling an important kind of love for your child. You’re teaching your child that it is OK—necessary, even—to put yourself first. So, in my view, keeping the peace with your co-parent is not as important as you might think it is. I’m not saying you should go to war. Far from it. But I am saying you have a right to be unflinchingly self-interested right now. Because the stronger and fiercer you are in your ability to love and care for yourself, the better your child will learn how to set their own boundaries in life.
You can get angry. You can get sad. You can get frustrated. You can even fire off an imperfect text or two. You can do all of these things as long as they come from a place of authentically checking in and caring for yourself. Because that unwavering self-respect is the real game changer, here. It’s not about using brute force or being angelically gentle. It’s about shifting focus. And I suspect, based on the boundaries you’ve outlined in your letter, that you already have. I’m just here to give you a nudge a little deeper into that healthy, self-loving direction.
I also wonder, if this moment, even if it’s a frustrating one, isn’t an opportunity for you to know yourself more intimately as you enter a new and promising relationship. It is so lovely that you are in the early glow of a romance that is going so swimmingly. I hope you are soaking it in and enjoying every last drop of sunny, warm cozy goodness. But I also hope that you are able to enter into this new romance with your eyes open and clear. Can you see yourself and your own patterns more clearly? Do you see the moments where you might drop your own experience and needs and defer to a partner’s in the hopes of controlling them? Are there moments when you deny your authentic experience in the hope that if you do, everything will finally go smoothly?
In a way, your ex has given you a gift. A strange one, for sure. It may not be pretty and it may not be something you would have chosen for yourself, but it’s the gift of awareness. And I advise you to welcome it in. Take your time to really see yourself, your choices and your hopes and fears honestly. Because when your eyes are wide open, when you get in touch with your own experience more fully, well, that’s when you’re really ready to love and be loved.
You don’t owe him a thank-you card. But I hope you will take the time to experience feelings of gratitude for yourself, for your strengths, and for all the courage you’ve mustered in opening yourself up to new ways of being and feeling in love.
And when you do, go ahead and post another cute picture with your new boo. You are #blessed and anyone who can’t be happy for you can #suckit.