The best medicine
Talking will bring out the truth about a mate’s preoccupation with a past love
I’ve been dating Derek for 10 months. Despite the strong and immediate chemistry, we tried to take things slowly. The attraction is serious, though, and we’ve already started merging our lives. I think my dog loves Derek almost as much as he loves me, and I’ve grown attached to Derek’s family. He now wants to move in together.
Derek was previously married for three years; his ex initiated what turned into a painful breakup and divorce two years ago. He insists that he’s over her and glad the relationship ended, and yet he has been almost brought to tears on several occasions when he shares memories about his married life. While I’m glad he’s honest and trusts me enough to be open with his feelings, I wonder if he’s still grieving. Sometimes his ex will come up in conversations and I know they still text and talk on the phone. A few weeks ago, he and his cousin responded to a request she made for help with moving something.
I don’t want to be a rebound relationship, nor do I want to be controlling, but I worry about his need to have that much contact with her. When we’re together, we’re very happy and I know he’s starting to truly love me and willing to start a new life. Everybody has a past and I don’t want to be unfair. Since they’re divorced, is it wrong to want him to move on from her?
Getting over an ex you once truly loved — as well as the married life you created together — can be extremely difficult. Even if, for the most part, Derek is over his past relationship, healing not only occurs in stages, but is also susceptible to emotional triggers that cause sadness, especially when he has someone like you to whom he can confide his deepest emotions. In itself, having those feelings doesn’t mean Derek is still in love with his ex-wife and unable to start a life with you; although he has moved on, he still cares about her well-being and wants to keep things warm and friendly. The painful flashbacks he shares will diminish over time and eventually disappear. In the meantime, I appreciate that you understand he may have unfinished feelings to process and are willing to be patient, supportive, reasonable and fair.
Since your relationship with him has progressed to a serious level, maybe it’s time to have a heart-to-heart talk about your concerns. He’s opened up to you about what’s he’s been through. Return the intimacy. Explain to him how much you love and respect him and that it’s not your intention to tell him how to run his relationships. Discuss how he visualizes his ex being in your future life together. Does he see her as being one of his dear friends — or perhaps even one of yours — for the long-term? Does he see that relationship fading as you settle in together? Has he expressed to her that his loyalty now lies with you and that he may not always be available to help her? How protective does he get concerning her feelings? Is he more concerned about yours? As your relationship grows, how does he feel about letting her find someone else to help her?
Explain to him that if you’re investing your life in his, it’s important to know that yours is the relationship that must come first and that it may not be in that relationship’s best interest to maintain an active friendship with her. While you don’t want him to turn his back on someone he once cared for (and perhaps still does but in a different way), too much contact of a personal nature with his ex when he’s newly involved with someone else could undermine the development of a trusting environment.
If this is just a short-term problem that can be quickly worked through and diffused, your support and candid discussion will probably bring you even closer and demonstrate that you’re only trying to be protective of your future together. If you’re open and honest with each other and have each other’s interests at heart, you’ll get through this and be able to move forward.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.