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I dated the same guy all throughout high school (yes, all of high school-- as a summary: he's a year older and lived about 20 minutes away from me, it was pretty serious) and the relationship lasted through November of my freshman year in college. He broke up with me but it was pretty amicable, and we stayed in contact online but didn't see each other in person for about nine months. When we did see each other, he told me he still wasn't over me (which I'd guessed from other things he'd said) but took it well when I told him I didn't feel the same way.

It's now about a year and a half since we broke up (so about 6 months from him saying he wasn't over me) and I think he's over me. We still talk occasionally, and I'm definitely open to being friends with him, he's a super nice and cool guy. However, when I think we're just having a casual conversation he'll often drop really big/tough subjects (for example, when I ask how he's doing as a conversation starter he responded that he was hospitalized, I believe for mental health concerns). This has happened about three times in the past few months, and I have no idea how to respond. I don't feel that we're close enough for him to talk about these things with me, but I don't want to make it seem like I don't care. Ideally, I'd like to remain friends with him.

Usually what I've done in these situations is ignore the message and wait for him to pick the conversation back up, but this seems really rude to me. So, my question is, How can I ask my ex to stop sharing information that I feel is too personal for our current relationship without ending our friendship?

Edit: I'm pretty sure he has other, closer friends (but not sure). He's still in contact with our mutual friends from high school and he's got a club at his college that he really connects with. He might still not be over me, but it hasn't been as overt as it was before the summer. I've asked our mutual friends about it (probably not the best/most honest move, I'll admit) and they say he's over me, but it's possible they're just saying this to make me feel better.

Note: this is my first asked question, I'm sure I've made mistakes so please let me know if there's anything I should add/change/remove :) Thanks!!

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    Does he have many other friends? It's possible that you're his closest friend (even though you feel you're not particularly close), and he reaches out to you as a result. Also, you told him that you're over him and said that that he took it pretty well. Is it possible he's still not over you, despite his assurance that he is? In that I mean he's hiding it because he knows you don't feel the same way? – Anoplexian Mar 1 '18 at 18:03
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After being ins a serious relationship with each other for ~4 years, people will know a lot about somebody. Part of any strong relationship (romantic or platonic ) is being vulnerable to and open with the other person. Once a person has been vulnerable open and honest with another and it went well, it is easier to repeat and feels safer. While your ex may have other friends and close acquaintances, it is unlikely that they have found another person they can trust in this way and feel comfortable discussing hard topics with. Especially in the case of a 'soft-break' end of the relationship, it is plausible, whether they are 'over you' or not, that your ex has not built up another relationship in which they feel the same level of safety and trust they felt with you. If they have something difficult they need to talk about, they may immediately think of you as the right/easy person to talk to.

That being said:

You are not obligated to be that person for your ex (or anybody) if you do not want that.

So, setting some boundaries is your next step (as you tagged). When a hard topic comes up is not the time to start a boundary conversation, instead pick a time to reach out when you think you're both ready to have a clear and sensible conversation. Face to face is best, video-call or phone second best, I personally wouldn't try to have a serious conversation over text, but the medium of communication best for the two of you is something you know better than I.

The core of your conversation should be something along the lines of:

"[name], I don't feel comfortable or that I'm the right person to discuss heavy/personal issues with you."

The first statement broaching the subject should be an 'I statement' where the focus is on how you feel, avoiding having your statement misinterpreted as blaming you ex for overstepping.

This can also be followed with some examples:

"For example, when you brought up [personal issue], I didn't know how to respond and I froze up"

Also encourage them to develop new relationships with people they are closer to where they feel safe sharing and discussing sensitive topics like this. It is important to have somebody to talk to, but you don't need to be that person.

Source for first section: Any long conversation with an ex I'm on good terms with easily and quickly plunges into sensitive or personal areas because, having opened those channels and learned so much about each other, we are safe, easy and effective sounding boards for each other when discussing about new challenges and sensitive topics. This was sometimes uncomfortable and would stop as one of us felt out of our depth, or unhealthily emotionally entangled (especially when discussing new partners). As time has passed since the breakup, it has been easier and I now feel that they are a somewhat distant, but a person I can reach out to and discuss tough topics with.

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It's a sensitive topic so you're right to be cautious. Since you're still friends with him, it's also important to try to be sensitive (while this boundary is an issue for you, it's clearly not for him). If I were you, I'd try approaching the topic by saying something like the following the next time he oversteps a boundary:

Him: "I was hospitalized for a while a few months ago."

You: "I'm sorry to hear that. I'm really glad you're doing better now, but I don't feel very comfortable talking about things that are this personal, if that's okay with you."

This accomplishes several things:

  1. Acknowledges the hardships he is sharing with you, and express that you're glad he's made progress in a better direction

    For whatever reason (whether he isn't over you, or you're just his closest friend), he wants to share this with you. If you still value the friendship, as it seems you do - just not on the same level, it's important to still acknowledge that he went through a traumatic thing and he's sharing it with you. This is the type of response a good friend would share with another.

  2. You transition into telling him you don't feel comfortable talking about this serious of a personal topic

    He doesn't share your feelings that this content is too personal - that's why he's sharing it with you. It's important to acknowledge that that is on your side of the relationship. Own that. You are not comfortable talking about these topics, even if he is.

  3. You ask him to respect this comfort boundary you are setting

    Saying "if that's okay with you" is really just asking for him to acknowledge your feelings, and from this point on, to respect them. If he asks why, just be honest with him. "We broke up not too long ago", "while I am over you, I'm not ready to be that close of friends yet", etc.

Obviously if he doesn't respect your feelings, that's a whole other topic, but this should set the stage for him to understand that you don't feel comfortable being at this level right now, without showing disrespect for his experiences or hurting him greatly while he is trying to be vulnerable to you with this emotional expression.

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I don't see how A and B can be friends at any level if B is made to feel uncomfortable just by virtue of A telling B about a recent hospitalization.

Is it the fact that he was in the hospital that made you uncomfortable? Or is it the fact that he was in the hospital due to mental health concerns?

If it's the latter, perhaps it would help to phone your local Mental Health Association office. There is a lot of stigma in our society about mental health problems. The mental health association may be able to help you get over the stigma.

I wonder if the reason for your discomfort was that on some level, you were afraid that he might cling on to you more than you would like him to? In other words, did you get the feeling you were on a slippery slope?

In that case, it might be helpful to set up your encounters with each other in a more structured way, with a defined start and end time, defined frequency, and a carefully chosen activity, so that there won't be much of an opportunity for a tête-à-tête.

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