Splinters, Closure and Exes

My right thumb has a hole in it. It’s a small hole from a worse-than-typical splinter that was painful to the touch while it was inside me (and yes, I get that this is well beyond a first world problem). But that’s the thing about splinters: they get inside you, they cause some discomfort or pain, and if you’re lucky, you get them out. Sometimes they leave you with a tiny hole and maybe initially a little rough, tattered skin. But in a week or so, that hole normally closes up. Your skin heals. You get to move on without ever thinking about it again. It gets swallowed up like a pebble being dropped into a pond.

I’m hoping that will be true for me in the next few days. Unfortunately, though, it’s not always that way with exes.

Many years ago – in what seems to me like someone else’s life, it’s so unrecognizable to me – I dated someone for a very short while. It was such a short while that when I told him I didn’t want to be involved with him anymore, he said “So you’re breaking up with me?” and I said I was confused because I didn’t think two people could “break up” if they weren’t ever actually “together.” (As you can guess, he didn’t exactly welcome my insensitive, no matter how sincere, response. And I wouldn’t use those words now, to anyone, but I was young, naive and surprised and all that.)

There was a lot that happened between us and around us in that short time we dated, though. It was a tumultuous time in his life and I tried to help him through it, and he’s told me I did, but sometimes I’ve wondered. I haven’t wondered enough to stay in touch, though. In fact, I’ve done everything I can to not stay in touch. It was that painful.

It doesn’t matter though. Every year or two or three, he emails me. Sometimes it’s to ask a question that he could just as easily ask someone else. Other times, it’s to send a kind note of gratitude or to share a song with me.

The thing is: I want our brief involvement to be like a splinter that’s been taken out and has closed up, leaving no trace. [Note: I don't think he is a splinter, I'm only saying that time was a hard one for me.] The truth is that he’s one of the kindest people I ever dated who has, I’m sure, a wonderful life that he’s created for himself and a rich life ahead of him. He’s smart, he’s honest, he’s got great taste in music and is good at keeping friends around.

So it’s not about him. It’s that dating him was a fleeting experience for me, and a very painful one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I felt traumatized by some of what we went through together. It was a significant growing up for me. I learned to honor the impact one has on those around them. And while I don’t wish him anything but the best, he’s also not someone I want to stay in touch with or hear from, no matter how good the songs he sends to me may be.

His recent emails/music have made me wonder what to say in response – whether I should ask if he writes me to get closure or because he’s wondering about the past or because he’s wondering about a future. Or whether, as those closest to me suggest, I should even respond at all. I don’t know if he reads here and I don’t know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing for him to find this if he does. I don’t know anything about him anymore.

What I do know is that I’ve long ago moved on. There are people one stays in touch with and people one doesn’t. I don’t think we were close enough, connected enough, or that we dated long enough, to stay in touch. I don’t think poorly of him; I just don’t think of him. And in that sense, that time is a splinter that’s been pulled out, with the skin closing around it. I guess I just need him to see it that way too.

And it’s not just me, of course. I get questions on this topic all the time. My friends go through it. People often wonder if it’s okay to reach out to an ex (it often is, but it’s not always a good idea). Or to friend an ex on Facebook. Or to housesit or cat sit or dog sit for them. One woman I know, who was one half of a high profile (for some circles), couple said that it was a blessing and a curse that her ex would dog sit for her post-breakup. The blessing was that she felt he loved the dogs as much as he did. The curse was that it meant they had to stay connected to some degree. This issue of connection, of moving on, and of being curious about each others’ lives isn’t neat. It’s messy. And I do appreciate messy. But I also like the neatness of things being swallowed up whole and closed.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.