Ask Dr. NerdLove: Should I Be Afraid of His Ex?


By Harris O’Malley

Hi Dr. NerdLove,

I could really use some insight into whether I’m justified in feeling a bit worried about my partner’s ex escalating contact with him, especially since they’ve been broken up longer than they were together at this point (about four years). And I don’t mean that I’m worried he’s cheating on me or that she presents any threat at all to our relationship. I know how he feels about her, feel secure in our connection, and he tells me when it happens. I’m more concerned she may end up escalating her behavior to a point that causes a safety concern or generates trouble among family or friends. I’m hoping you’ll tell me I’m being a bit dramatic. I had a brief experience with someone stalking me in college and have my own ex with manipulative tendencies (together seven years total), and she’s setting off the same alarm bells I felt in those situations.

Some background (from what he’s told me and my own observations): they both went to school in a major Midwestern city, she for a career as a professional that requires a doctorate degree. She was placed in a program in a Western state with a mid-size city, and he moved out here with her. I moved to the same city a year prior with my ex. They broke up after living here a year, she took all their furniture (including the shower curtain) while he was at work without telling him, and he lived with his parents until he found an apartment of his own. So, not the most amicable breakup.

Around two years ago, she started popping up on his social media, requesting to follow his private profile and liking a bunch of photos on a public one for his side business he started that year. I’m a photographer, so most of his posts were taken by me and he tagged me in all of them. She left a comment on one of them that was a simple congratulations on doing his thing, and he didn’t respond or acknowledge it.

Some months after that, she emailed his personal email, saying she was starting her own part-time weekend practice and might have some work for him (he also works in a creative field). When he didn’t respond right away, she tracked down his work email and contacted him there. He asked what kind of work she might have, and she responded that they actually already had all their creative work taken care of, but mentioned she was doing well and asked how he was. His response was basically that he was fine, but that he wasn’t interested in talking unless there was actual work. I’m not sure what his exact words were.

I proposed to him in mid-summer last year, and he posted about it a couple months later. After that, she watched several of my Instagram stories over a few months (we’re in early 2019 at this point), although she wasn’t following me and we had never communicated before. I was having an issues related to my aforementioned ex related to social media, so it felt like the right choice to go completely private. Within an hour or two of me setting my profile to private, she requested to follow me. I have no idea if she knew that I knew who she was or not, but I blocked her mostly to do her a favor. There’s not much on my feeds that would help her figure out who I am or how good our relationship is (I mostly post professional photos). But it was also for my peace of mind: I’m not incredibly interested in knowing that she or anyone else related to her or my ex or anyone that I don’t ever talk to is going through my photos and judging me in some way.

She was quiet for a few months until a couple weekends ago.

She reached out to him on Facebook, under a second profile with a partial version of her actual last name, and said something like, “it really sucks having dreams about you from time to time”. I might mention here that she’s had a baby girl since they broke up and apparently got married, although I don’t know how that relationship is going and don’t care to know. He immediately blocked her, and ask some of his family members who still chatted with her occasionally to avoid responding to her or at least not mentioning anything to do with him. I’d also note here that I’m friends with my brother’s ex-wife, and didn’t feel threatened by her having maintained contact with some of his family. It’s a hard connection to sever when you feel like you’re part of someone’s family. My partner has made it clear to me that he’s grown a lot since they broke up, it was a toxic relationship and he has no interest in incorporating her into his own life.

After that last reach from her about having dreams about him, I asked my partner if he felt worried or if he expected her to keep trying to contact him. He said he didn’t know but that he hoped not.

A couple days ago, she texted him directly and said she was hurt that he and his family blocked her, that she wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to him or his fiancé, that she was so happy he is happy, that his mom reached out about her baby a few times and she found it very nice, and “sorry if I somehow offended you or your significant other”. He asked what I thought, and I said it couldn’t hurt to outright ask her to not contact him again. So he responded that the reason she was blocked was because of the Facebook message and other attempts to reach out, he wasn’t interested in participating in his dynamic, that he had moved on and he hoped she had to, and please respect his wish for no more contact.

As far as I know, he hasn’t heard anything since then, but mentioned he got a couple of “Unknown” calls the next morning. He’s also told me he found out she had text/online relationships with other guys while he was with her, so her trying to get his attention is probably not super surprising. But the last message strikes me as being clear that she feels entitled to a response from him, at the very least. And it makes me feel squeamish and concerned, much more so than the past points of contact. Maybe it’s because it feels like she feels entitled to access? Maybe because it felt weird to me that she felt like he needed to know a boundary he set hurt her feelings? Maybe it’s because she hasn’t exactly honored implicit boundaries (i.e, blocking) at all? Maybe it’s because all that could be signs of someone who will keep pushing?

I know others have dealt with more insidious invasions from exes, and I don’t pretend this is some nuclear situation just yet, if at all. But every time I’ve asked him if she would keep trying, she has indeed kept trying. And I’m feeling a bit on guard about it. Is my (mild, at the moment) anxiety understandable? Is she exhibiting any signs she might show up on my doorstep one day soon?

Ex Wrecks

Before we get to your question EW, let’s talk a little about what your fiancé’s ex is doing and why it can be so hard to let go of an ex.

I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying that break-ups are frequently one-sided, unpleasant affairs. While it’s always great if two people could have what’s been euphemistically termed a “conscious uncoupling”, a lot of break-ups aren’t a mutual decision where everyone involved says their peace, divide everything up cleanly and goes on their merry way. Most of the time, one person in the relationship decided that it was over and pulled the trigger on the break-up. This often leaves people with a lot of complicated emotions, with things left unsaid, questions left unanswered and a general sense of unresolved issues. As a general rule, we don’t deal well with those dangling threads; we want to have things tied up nice and neat so we don’t have all of those lingering questions left plaguing us in the middle of the night. This is part of why so many people talk about wanting “closure” from their exes — they want the narrative of their relationship to wrap things up in a clean and satisfying manner. Unfortunately, life rarely works like movies or television; sometimes we never get any conclusion other than “well, it’s over,” leaving us to have to make our own closure.

But while the desire for answers and closure can be powerful, it’s not the only thing folks feel in the aftermath of a break-up. Sometimes we also get hit with a wave of nostalgia for what we used to have with our exes. Time isn’t just the great healer, it’s also an astounding editor. Many times, it’s easy to forget just how bad things were, especially at the end of the relationship. Hell, sometimes those edits and retcons are so thorough we forget how bad we were and conveniently erase or mitigate our own sins. So it’s very easy to look back on a relationship, only see the good times bathed in the golden light of nostalgia and wish we could get back to that place. A place that, frankly, may never have actually existed except in our own minds.

This is why a surprising number of people who want to get back with their exes are the ones who initiated the break-up in the first place. Sometimes they’ve decided they’ve made a mistake. Other times they’ve taken a look around and decided that things were better when they were with their ex and want to try to reclaim that old glory. Or they may have seen that their ex stubbornly refused to abide by the contract of “once I dump you, you’re supposed to wither away and die” and instead, is looking pretty damn awesome.

And so we end up with folks we thought were well and truly out of our lives trying to sidle their way back in as though they hadn’t tried to burn our self-esteem to the ground.

Which brings me back to your question.

I don’t think you’re wrong to be concerned, EW, but I don’t think you need to worry about your safety just yet. Your fiancé’s ex is following a very familiar pattern; she’s trying to reinitiate contact with him slowly, with socially plausible reasons that have nothing to do with wanting him back. Liking his photos, followed by a “hey, I have a professional and TOTALLY NON-ROMANTIC reason to get in touch with you” are such incredibly common moves that I’m surprised they haven’t been featured in episodes of Sex and the City or the L-Word.

(Mental note: time to do an episode about how to reach out to an ex…)

Notice how there was no actual work to be had when she reached out. This was strictly her attempt to get him talking to her again. The fact that he didn’t bite — and made a public post about being engaged to you — prompted her next attempt at contact: a message that has vaguely sexual (yet still deniable) implications. This was intended to prompt a response, ideally a flirty one that would get him thinking of how good sex with an ex could be.

Make no mistake: that was always going to be the next step. If he had taken the bait earlier with the theoretical job offer, then the flirting would’ve ramped up sooner, but since it didn’t, she made the attempt anyway in hopes of getting a response. Obviously it failed, leading to his cutting her off entirely.

Since sex didn’t work, she decided to take a different tack: she tried to use guilt instead. How could he be so rude and unfeeling to block her like this when she hadn’t done anything wrong? How could he be so cold to someone who he used to care for and who was trying to make things right, etc. And when that didn’t work… well, maybe she was calling, maybe she wasn’t. If she didn’t leave voicemails, it’s impossible to be sure that those unknown numbers were her. Circumstances suggest they likely were, but we can’t say for sure.

Why do I think that you don’t don’t need to fear a dangerous escalation? Well, mostly it’s the in the tone and the way that she’s been behaving. Yes, she’s been ignoring his clearly stated boundaries, but the tone hasn’t been hostile or aggressive. Instead she’s been trying to bait him into responding or letting her back into his life. While it’s certainly distressing — not to mention confirming that he’s right to shut her out of his life — her tone hasn’t been angry or demanding. It’s been pleading and wheedling and more than a little passive-aggressive. I suspect that the less your fiancé responds, the quicker she’ll give up and move on.

This doesn’t mean that you and he shouldn’t implement some best practices, though. Documenting all of the ways she’s tried to get in touch — days, times, methods and accounts — is a very good idea. If you still have access to the texts and emails, then I’d suggest printing them out and keeping the hard copies somewhere secure. Having these on hand will make it much easier to establish a pattern of escalating behavior if things do get worse; that’ll make it easier to get a temporary restraining order or a no-contact order if it comes to that.

I would also suggest locking down your social media and front-facing web-presence. The less intel she can farm about you that she has access to, the less of a chance she has to actually show up unexpectedly. It may not be a bad idea to change your settings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so that people can’t tag you in posts or images; it doesn’t do you any good to lock things down if your friends accidentally give out information on you.

But while being cautious is warranted, I don’t think you need to worry that things will escalate to the point of being an actual threat. One of the harsh truths is that men rarely face a meaningful threat from their female exes. While women can and have stalked exes or presented a real and present physical danger, it’s far less likely than the threat women face from male exes.

So while being cautious and maintaining good security practices is a solid idea, I think the threat she presents is more emotional than physical. Keep a wary eye and document everything, but I don’t think you need to live in fear that things are going to go beyond texts and phone calls. Especially if your fiancé continues to follow the Nuclear Option with her.

Good luck.

Previously published on doctornerdlove.com and is republished here under permission.

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