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The Vine: February 15, 2012

Submitted by on February 15, 2012 – 10:54 AM18 Comments

Eight years ago, during college, I became very close friends with a co-worker. She had just graduated from high school and her boyfriend was at boot camp. A few months after we met, they became engaged while he was serving in Iraq.

We quickly became inseparable. We were young and both needed company, and I supported her throughout much of his deployment. When he returned, they decided to get married 6 weeks later (during his leave) and she rushed to plan the wedding. I picked out her invitations, my mom made the gifts for their guests…friend ended up dropping out of school with a staph infection in her kidneys and was basically a wreck (hence my doing all the work). I met said fiancé twice during this time. After said wedding (of which I was not a part, she asked me, an then un-asked me to be a bridesmaid) she and now-husband stopped by my house, she gave me a hug and said I'd hear from her.

I got four or five emails from her, which were all about her husband, and never heard from her again. I figured it was okay to not hear from her, she had a new husband, she moved a few states away, she was finding work…but I did feel hurt and confused. Why didn't she want to maintain our close friendship?

Well, husband got deployed again, and she moved back…without telling me. I ran into her a couple months after she moved back, and we resumed our friendship, although it was awkward. When husband returned home again, she left without ever saying goodbye to me or anyone. Although over time I gained perspective on the friendship and realized it was the kind that is created out of necessity and I wasn't sure how much she had been able to be a friend to me, I still missed her at times and wanted closure on the situation.

Six years later, she moved back to our town and I ran into her while I was buying dog food. We decide the past is the past and rekindle our friendship again. I don't have very many friends, especially not ones that I have very much in common with, so it was nice to have people to spend time with, as now her husband is out of the army so we are no longer just hanging out one-on-one.

Over time, she starts to become flaky about hanging out and acting erratic and strange. Her husband tries help her by getting her out of the house and sometimes makes plans for her to see me; otherwise I don't see her.

After a year and a half, Husband decides to leave her, and I do my best to support her because she's distraught and, as I said earlier, unstable…and potentially suicidal. I only hear her side of the story, which makes it seem like this is a big surprise. I let her stay at my house, and a few weeks later, discover she's stolen my prescription pills, and find out she has done the same to my friends, people I introduced her to. Friend is also starting to leave drunk irrational phone calls on my phone at 3 AM, gets into a car accident, drinks and takes so many pills her liver shuts down, and is becoming a wreck. She won't listen to me when I try to talk to her about it and it's clearly a safety issue, so I confront Husband, asking him if he knows about the pill problem. He tells me she's been stealing pills from everyone, for years, and he was only confronted by the people from whom she stole AFTER he left her. His reasons for leaving fall into place as soon as I find out about her behavior over the past few years.

My younger brother is a serious drug addict, and I have many family members who are alcoholics and drug addicts as well. I do not deal with addiction well, and begin to back away from my friendship with friend. She's requiring too much emotional support, she's dangerous, and it's starting to affect my happiness, my life, my job, etc. She has found other friends who are enabling her addictions and she makes it clear she's not interested in my friendship if I won't do the same.

I start trying to support Husband, because the only thing I know to do to help my friend is to get him to stop enabling her behavior. He left her, but still feels like he's required to help her and continually put her in situations to enable her use, including paying all her living expenses even though she (sort of) still has a job, which she is only sometimes capable of attending. My conversations with Husband at first only ever discuss Friend, but I find that over time we begin to become actual friends who talk about other things.

When she moves across country both of our ties with her are severed. It was always platonic, and we were always very open about the nature of our friendship. We got a few raised eyebrows a first, but eventually his friends and mine realized why we spoke/hang out and are okay. He is very much not the type of guy that I am attracted to and we flirted less than I do in other friendships.

Recently, he has admitted he has some serious feelings for me, and I think they might be deeper than he admits. I think I have some feelings for him, but I'm not sure how strong they are, and I don't know for sure how serious I am about them. I have had some rough experiences in my life, and am extremely untrusting of men. I have had two very emotionally abusive relationships and sought counseling for them.

Husband is one of the only men I've ever trusted or feel safe around. He's extremely supportive of me and is always watching out for my safety. I feel like he's one of the only men in my life I can completely be myself around, and would consider him to be one of my best friends. My best friend and another of my close friends both push me to date him because of the safety and security I feel when I'm with him. They both notice that around him I let go and be myself, that I'm more fun and outgoing…that I'm the person I was before the abusive relationships. I worry that he is not my type and is too nice — obviously given my history, guys who are bad for me are a pattern.

I can't get over the fact he was married to someone who, previously, I considered a best friend, even though she was a drain on me.

Do I date him or not?

He's said he will give me all the time I need, and he understands how I feel about the current situation, but I know he isn't going to wait around forever while I decide if I can see him outside the context of his previous marriage

His ex-wife and I are no longer friends, we don't speak, and I don't plan on ever having any sort of friendship with her again.

Is it okay to date a friend's ex-husband?!

He did have a rebound fling with someone a few months after leaving his wife, and I know his feelings for me are not rebound feelings. His friends all really like me and seem to be very supportive of us. I think I'm the only one who can't get past the fact that his ex-wife used to be one of my best friends. Since their divorce is final, he and ex-wife also do not have contact, although they do have distant mutual friends. Is it really wrong to do this in every situation?


Dear K,

Yes, it's okay, sometimes, and no, it's not wrong in every situation, but I think you're asking the wrong question — or asking it from the wrong place.

To my mind, there is a Friend Code that dictates that you stay out of friends' sandboxes, romance-wise. Sometimes it can't be helped, if it's a guy a friend dated for three weeks five years ago and she's now married it's probably kosher, blah blah…everyone has different guidelines. My rule of thumb is, don't, but if you do, hey, it happens; just know that this may end the friendship as you once knew it, and live with the decision, good or bad.

The friendship in question is already over, but what concerns me isn't the ethics of dating Friend's ex. It's how much those ethics concern you — and in a larger sense, how far over backwards you bent to keep knowing this cow after you organized her wedding, shanghaied your mother into doing work for said wedding, and then got disinvited from bridesmaid duty. That's the point at which most people would dry-wash their hands all, "Okay then — good luck to you." But you stay friends with her, and she…disappears on you. Comes back into your life; disappears on you again. Starts blowing up your phone and stealing and all this other shit. Yes, that's the addiction talking (I…guess; I think there's an underlying personality disorder, or she's…just a twunt), but still, again, you jump back into it: "I start trying to support Husband, because the only thing I know to do to help my friend is to get him to stop enabling her behavior."

This is the sentence that makes me think you shouldn't date Husband. The one where you admit that you aren't even sure you return his feelings is also telling, obvs, but this one speaks to bigger issues that I think you need to address before you date anyone, much less this guy, and here's why: 1) Friend was not your friend at that point, and likely never had been, but even if she were, 2) the best way to help her is to give her a bottom line and hold it. Coaching Husband on doing it is not giving her a bottom line; it's enmeshing yourself in Friend's drug drama. A part of you needed to be in this aggro, because it's familiar, or because it gives you the illusion of control over addict behavior, or something.

This is not a judgment. You mention a long history with addicted family members, and we all have our ways of coping with those situations to get us through. But I think this is why you put up with Friend's bullshit for so long, and I think it's why you embroiled yourself with Husband — not that he isn't a good, sweet man and not that his feelings for you aren't sincere, but this is not about him or Friend at the end of the day. This is about you, and how you relate to people around you along this addiction/enabling axis without being aware of it. As nice as Husband is, as much as he might love you, your take on the prospective relationship is almost entirely about what other people think about it; you mention that you don't feel that attracted to him — but, like, in passing, like that doesn't matter.

What do you want? Forget his friends, forget thinking you should go against your usual pattern with guys — forget Friend. Do you have the tingles for Husband? Do you think about him when you're…"in your bunk"? It doesn't sound like you do. It sounds to me like it's about more addict drama for you, and again, I do not judge you. It is extremely hard to get out of these patterns we develop to protect ourselves, and you don't repeat them because you're a bad person — just the opposite, and it's unconscious anyway. Don't beat yourself up about it. But do see a counselor (or, if you're already with a therapist, talk to her about these specific concerns) and untangle yourself — your self — from the addicts in your family, from the abusive exes, from all of it. Recognize the patterns and interrupt them. You will probably need some help with that, and that is okay, and you deserve it.

But…I gotta tell you, I think Husband is a part of a larger co-dependent pattern for you, and as such: bad call. I mean…yeah, as far as Friend goes, she gave up her claim, in my opinion, so that's fine. But making decisions about your own emotional life based on what others think you think about her…yeah, no. Life's too short, lady. Find a counselor or take in a few Al-Anon meetings, and see how you feel in a few weeks' time.

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  • Miss Lucy says:

    Damn Sars, you are so good, seeing past the surface and digging out the real stuff. How do you do that?

  • Kara says:

    I knew from the gate that the question would be about dating the ex. And I have a really strong policy about not dating anyone my friends have dated and I have yet to break it, but in my opinion this woman was never your friend. Plus, the corollary to "don't date your friends' exes is "unless you can live without the friend," which in this case isn't a problem – you're not friends with her anymore and don't plan to be, and she doesn't deserve your friendship in the second place.

    But. It doesn't read like you actually want this guy in particular. It reads like you're co-dependent. You mention a whole host of past other drama in your life (to say nothing of the drama this woman dumped on you) – and none of this is your fault, and I am not judging you, but it does seem like drama is what you're used to and familiar with. I think part of what's appealing about Ex-Husband is the drama attached to him. You talk about the potential relationship entirely in terms of what others do or might think about it, and when you do mention your feelings about him, it comes across as tepid – "I think," "not sure how strong," "not the type of guy I'm attracted to." I think you should tell Ex-Husband you need some time (a defined amount, like a month), cut off contact with him for that time, and spend it really figuring this out, preferably with the help of a pro. If you decide after that time that it's him specifically you want, go for it.

  • LSail says:

    Oh K, what a mess you've been through! I would definitely look into Al-Anon, not only for this situation, but just for the fact that you have been surrounded by alcoholics and addicts your entire life. This situation is only a piece of that.

    Spending your life around alcoholics and addicts has a profound effect on you, even if you're not any sort of substance abuser yourself. Giving Al-Anon, or even Nar-Anon a chance could be the best thing you every do for yourself.

    Good luck!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    An old saying seems pretty appropriate here: Why do you keep going to the hardware store for butter?

    I'm guessing it's because your past has pretty much trained you to do exactly that–you learned that love equaled drama. That you "earned" affection by how much work/emotion/time you were willing to put towards it. It was something you were owed, and sometimes it was granted to you and sometimes capriciously withheld.

    Husband, and the possible dating thereof, isn't the problem. You refer to him throughout the letter as Husband, not Guy I Might Like or anything else that says you see him as an individual, standing apart from the hurricaine that your so-called "freind" constantly generated.

    Just because he's the opposite of the emotionally abusive guys you dated in the past DOES NOT MEAN you are a)obligated to feel things for him, or b)have a relationship with someone you are not attracted to. It's not fair to you, it's not fair to him.

    Al-Anon and counseling are really the best way to go here. Not because you are hopelessly broken and unfixable, but because you need to redraw the mental map of your neighborhood, know when to go to the hardware store and when to go to the grocery store. No man, no matter how sweet or kind, can do that for you. Everybody has to draw their own map, find thier own ways of not getting lost.

  • Anlyn says:

    I was a bit thrown by the "do I date the husband" part, because she was so focused on friend. I figured it was a "friendship has outlasted it's course" type of question.

    You're trying so hard to justify dating husband, by explaining in detail everything that went on with friend, that it makes me think you're trying to talk yourself into it. And if you're trying to talk yourself into it, then you don't really want to do it.

  • Bria says:

    This paragraph is troubling to me:

    "Husband is one of the only men I've ever trusted or feel safe around. He's extremely supportive of me and is always watching out for my safety. I feel like he's one of the only men in my life I can completely be myself around, and would consider him to be one of my best friends. My best friend and another of my close friends both push me to date him because of the safety and security I feel when I'm with him. They both notice that around him I let go and be myself, that I'm more fun and outgoing…that I'm the person I was before the abusive relationships. I worry that he is not my type and is too nice — obviously given my history, guys who are bad for me are a pattern."

    In listing the positive aspects of your relationship/interaction with him, you mention your safety three times – more than any other detail. That…shouldn't lead the list, IMBO. It should be a given that you feel safe with a dude you want to date. I understand where this is coming from given your history with both abusive relationships and addict family members, really I do, but I think that's a strong sign that you aren't in a good place to date Husband or anyone else until you can work through some of those issues a bit more.

    I'm also really troubled that your friends are pushing you to date him, and that one of their reasons (aside from the safety stuff) is that you're a more likeable you when you're around him? Eek. I can't tell if they're giving you reasonable but hamfisted encouragement or if they're also part of a pattern of crummy people in your life, but that's also a shitty reason to date someone. Date a guy because you like being around him, not because being around him makes you likeable. That has to come from you, not someone else, lest you end up feeling like you can't break up with him because he makes you into a more fun, relaxed person, you know?

    Sars hit the nail on the head here. Give it some time and space and possibly some sessions on the therapy couch. Once you can tune out all the other noise and get clearer on what *you* want and feel, this will seem less complicated.

  • JenV says:

    Sars, you are awesome. And I am SO stealing "twunt."

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Miss Lucy, your check is in the mail.

    …Heh. Thank you. I'm not sure I DO always do that (see: all the letters where the Nation is like, "Sars could be right…but we think he's married," and I'm like, "Ohhhh, of COURSE he's married, derp"), but my theory is that the things that jump out at me when I first read the letter are things I should pay attention to, even if it's not what I'm being asked.

    Someone once commented to me that the question every letter to an advice column is REALLY asking is, "Do I deserve to be loved?" Or "Am I okay?" Variations thereon. Keeping that in mind helps. Doing this for a dozen years (…!) helps too. Not to mention a pretty tightly woven commenter safety net.

  • Jacq says:

    Well, I have nothing useful to add here, but I just wanted to wish the letter-writer all the luck in the world: it sounds like you've had all sorts of drama in your life, and I sincerely hope that you can continue to move beyond it and be happy.

  • Amy says:

    Dear Abby has nothing on Sars. Also, "twunt" is an awesome word I have never heard before today but plan on using in the future. So thank you for that!

  • Kara says:

    @Jen S1.0: I am stealing that expression. I say "If you want an apple, you don't buy a tomato and hope it'll change" in situations like this, but yours is more concise.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    (re: "twunt" — it was in the regular rotation for a while but got dropped; then I saw it again yesterday on STFU Parents and was like, "How YOU doin'?")

  • Elisa says:

    I also got the sense of some sort of co-dependance here. As though the drama of it is more the alluring aspect than any feelings of love. The same goes for him, by the way. I mean, he married her – he must be drawn to drama also. Even those who claim "not to have known" usually do know deep inside what was going on. Otherwise he would not have left her. It is easier to deal with a difficult relationship when you are on the other side of the world (Iraq!) than when you are there dealing with the madness every day.

    I get the hint that maybe there is some part of you that would feel good about ex-friend finding out about this relationship, that maybe this would make her pay attention to you where in the past she hasn't? I am not sure I'm wording things right, but I really am trying!

  • Deanna says:

    I was going to say something about never having heard "twunt" before today and then reading it twice, but of course you're a STFU Parents follower. In any case, immediate addition to my vocabulary: check.

    And co-sign to what everyone else is saying; K has to get her head right before she dates anyone, let alone deal with the appropriateness of dating this particular man. Good luck to you, hon–you're worth it! You don't have to settle for safe when you can have real sparks.

  • Up too late says:

    Agree with everyone who says that therapy and Al-Anon is a good idea — LW has a very skewed idea about how friendship is supposed to work. That this "friend" and her feelings is offered up as an excuse for hesitating — back away. Ditto the poster who thinks it strange that LW refers to him as Husband. As a devoted reader of advice columns in which there is an ex of a friend involved (or someone still married) the one seeking advice on whether to get on board a relationship usually does everything she can to establish that "he doesn't love her anymore, he loves me and why can't that be ok, we can't help how we feeeeel" and certainly would never refer to a guy who is divorced as Husband.

    Stripping away the addiction, the crazy friend, the co-dependency, the past bad relationships, at base level, LW, you are trying to talk yourself INTO a relationship. This is never a good idea. Sometimes for our physical and emotional health we have to put aside our feelings and run an objective pro/con on whether to STAY in a relationship, but this cold analysis shouldn't happen going in.

    Your friends have already said pish-posh to your resistance out of 'loyalty' to your ex-best-friend. They are right, she was never a friend to you, and she's out of the picture, and she'll likely be too high to care if she ever learns of this. That you're basically writing in asking for someone to justify your concern for HER feelings says pretty much everything you need to know about how much you do. not. want. to get involved with Husband other than as a friend.

    If you really wanted to be with him, and there were legititmate concerns about collateral damage (which based on ex-friend's actions, there isn't any here, by the way) you'd be writing to ask Sars to either give you permission or talk you OUT of a relationship — the "we may hurt someone and I know this isn't a good idea but OMG our connection is soooo powerful, why can't we be together" letter.

    After what you've been through, of course you want loyalty, security, comfort. He can offer those things, but something's clearly missing. By your own account, attraction and flirting aren't there — and he's too "nice," which I read as more than just "not abusive" but that he's fresh-scrubbed, straight-laced upstanding citizen with a complete lack of snark, which would be some women's dream but a deal-breaker for a lot of people. I would find a relentlessly "nice" guy exhausting, and guess what? You can get someone laid back and un-"nice" without a helping of abuse on the side, but you seem to think that refusing him, or holding out for even more would just be, what? Impolite? Focus on learning that you deserve that as a baseline, and all the good stuff that gives you the tingles too. You've been a doormat for ex-friend, don't be a doormat (again) to Husband and friends by entering into a relationship with him because THEY think it's a good idea. Not fair to you, not fair to him.

  • K says:

    So I'm the original letter writer! Sars hit the nail square on the head (as always!)…And thank you, in the comments, for all the kind words :)

    I did end up deciding to date Husband…and we dated for a couple of months and then got into a horrible breakup, which made me realize that I had, in fact, entered the relationship for ALL of the wrong reasons…I also learned that he had more than his fair share of fault in his divorce (Friend's drug use aside, which is entirely her fault, and not his). I had thought that safety, security, comfort, knowing he wasn't lying to me, and "eh, I guess he's cute" were enough for a relationship. Which, obviously, they aren't (as I am beginning to work my way into realizing). I love him as a best friend, but I do not love him as someone I would want for my own husband.

    Also, I have gone to therapy, but am in the process of finding a new therapist, who can more adequately help me with some of these co-dependency issues. The first go-round definitely showed me that I do a piss-poor job of selecting the majority of my friends (although not the friend that convinced me to write this letter!).

    I also want to say SO MUCH WORD to Up Too Late…that's pretty much everything I've come to realize about the entire situation, down to the last detail. And the other commentor with the analogy about the hardware store and the butter, that is too true as well.

    Oh, lastly, "twunt" is my new favorite word!

  • Maria says:

    Unless you are absolutely hot for this guy, no. That's the only reason to deal with any of the baggage, IMO. It doesn't sound like that's the case here. I think you should hold out for hot. It's out there and it's worth it.

  • Anodyne says:

    I'm also really troubled that your friends are pushing you to date him, and that one of their reasons (aside from the safety stuff) is that you're a more likeable you when you're around him? Eek. I can't tell if they're giving you reasonable but hamfisted encouragement or if they're also part of a pattern of crummy people in your life, but that's also a shitty reason to date someone. Date a guy because you like being around him, not because being around him makes you likeable.

    It sounded to me like her friends were pushing her to date the guy because she seemed happier around him. Or at least, less uptight and stressed (which can amount to the same thing if it's been going on for a long period of time).

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