Out of the past

Now that I'm in a committed relationship, my ex-boyfriends are coming out of the woodwork. Do I have to turn them away?

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 29-year-old woman who's been dating a great guy for nearly a year. I
love him and think he may be The One though he's two years younger than I and I've been around the block a few times more than he has. We seem quite compatible, and we've started
talking about a future together. My problem is that in the last few months,
my ex-boyfriends seem to be crawling out of the woodwork: e-mails, invitations to lunch and coffee, casual phone calls to say hello, from four or five men I dated in my 20s. I'm not sure what to do. I've always been on friendly terms with ex-boyfriends, and I don't want to shut these guys out of my life altogether, but I know it bothers my boyfriend at some level to know I maintain these friendships. He asks how I'd feel if the tables were turned and I don't think I'd like it! So do I stop talking to these decent guys? Is there a
place for friendly ex-boyfriends in a committed, future-bound relationship?


Dear eX-phile,

Yes, there is a place for them. A small place. Maybe the second desk drawer, or between the pages of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Sometimes a place at your dinner table. But exes are provisional friends. They know this. They know there's a time to disappear. If they're really good friends, they'll understand if they get the cue to disappear. Concentrate on this fascinating new guy and let them go fascinate somebody else. And then in a year or two, if you wish, you can introduce one or two of the more presentable ones to your boyfriend. You don't need to shut them out, just set them over to the side. One thing at a time.

Dear Mr. Blue,

What is your opinion on forgiveness?

I am a college student who has not spoken to my father for several months
now and has hated him since I can remember. He was an alcoholic and gambler who threw away his life savings and who beat my mother often and severely and in front of us children, and sometimes beat us up too when we tried to stick up for her. My mother finally divorced him one year ago, and I immediately changed our locks, hoping to never see him again. Well, it's never that neat and easy, right? He has been arrested yet again, and now he
is begging us for the bail money and emotional support in general. He seems pitiful and penitent, as he always does when he needs something from us.

My mother has no savings, so it'll be my or my older sister's money. We both
said no, but she's trying to persuade us to give it to him. I don't profess to know the workings of my mother's heart, but I think he should be held
responsible for whatever crime he committed. My mother thinks I am being heartless. I know with clarity that I will never, ever forgive this man. It doesn't mean that I don't feel sorry for him and his pathetic life. I do. And I believe he is worthy of someone's compassion -- it's just not going to
be mine. What do you think I should do? What do I tell my mother? Father?


Dear Independent,

What you should do, of course, is forgive him someday, which you start to do when you say you feel sorry for him and his pathetic life and feel he is worthy of compassion. Probably this is enough for now. Someday if he straightens out and comes and asks forgiveness for its own sake, not as a strategy, and wants to make restitution, you can find it in your heart to go the rest of the way. But not now. Now you seem to believe he is still in denial and is penitent for a craven purpose. Probably you're right. And it's not heartless for you to deny him help and support. A man can't A) kick people around and then B) ask them for money: There must be several steps in between. Maybe jail can help this man to think, and you shouldn't interrupt a man while he's thinking. Use your money to get through college and let the Almighty deal with your father for a while.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm 26 and have been living in Los Angeles for three years. My girlfriend and I moved here together to become famous actors. We got into the world of acting classes and auditions and the scramble for an agent and hanging around with other hopefuls, swapping industry tidbits and sharing big dreams. It became a lifestyle, and it was a lot of fun. Sleep late, go to the gym, run lines with a scene partner, wait tables for a few hours or go to class, then stay out late whooping it up with friends or stay home and work on that screenplay. All it takes is an audition a week, a couple of good comments from the acting coach, to keep the engine running. Then, the unexpected happened: My girlfriend got a part on a soap opera. It's not the biggest part on the show, but it has legs and potential for growing into something. She's making a lot of money, doing interviews with magazines, being recognized in the grocery store. Well, you hear over and over how when one member of a couple finds success, the relationship is doomed. I'm not the jealous type, but I know she is fresh meat on this show full of handsome guys, never mind in the industry. She claims that this isn't going to change us, that we're just going to live a little better; she says she has faith I will find work, too. I wish I could believe that. How can I prevent what seems so inevitable to me? I really don't want to lose this girl; we have a lot of years invested together and I love her so much.

Tormented in Tinseltown

Dear Tormented,

You're definitely the jealous type, first of all, and I don't know where you get this stuff about doomed relationships. Nobody ever told me about the inevitability of a romance being doomed by the success of one partner. And I'm a lot older than you. It seems to me just as likely that her success can give you some inside information and perspective and give you hope of breaking into the business yourself. Don't insist on being gloomy about it. You're only making her feel guilty about getting the part, and if you continue, she ought to drop you. It's your resentment that can break up the relationship, not her success. And it strikes me as highly arrogant that you assumed you'd be the first to get a part. Well, you weren't, so get over it. Be happy for her. If you're not, pretend to be. And good luck on your next audition. Walk through the door all shiny and bright and give them a winsome smile and be a champ.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I broke up with my boyfriend last July after a dreary two-and-a-half year relationship. Every once in a while, he calls me up at 2 a.m., drunk, wanting to talk. He says things like "I love you, I miss you, don't you miss all the things we used to do together?" I've moved on. I don't exactly enjoy hearing from him in these circumstances. We have stopped conversing at all except for his random, drunken calls. I have tried telling him he needs to call at a more reasonable hour. Still I hear from him. Why does he do this, and how can I get him to stop it?


Dear Laura,

Get an answering machine, attach it to your phone and turn off the ringer. Let him talk to a tape. If you want to remonstrate with him, write him a letter and tell him to stop with the boozy reminiscences, they're boring and pitiful. If you stop picking up the phone at night, he'll stop calling.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For three years, my wife has been telling me that she never loved me and doesn't want to be married. I wanted to stay together for the sake of our two boys (5 and 9), but I moved out a month ago as she wished. I'm trying to get on with my life, and I may even go on a date soon, but whenever I'm in a social setting without my children I feel guilty -- as if I shouldn't be enjoying myself without them. I am a loving father, and I do see my boys every single day; they spend six nights out of 14 at my house. And yet. Any suggestions as to how I might teach myself to get beyond this guilt?

Afraid to be Happy

Dear Afraid,

You're in pain over the thought of what these little guys are going through. Though you weren't the instigator of the split, you still suffer over it and the grief it causes your children. There isn't a way to dispel this quickly, though you tell yourself that you're doing all you can do and that this is enough. You are showing your children you love them and will care for them; but you can't get them out of your thoughts, and when you think of them, it's with remorse. This will change. Give it time. They do not need your constant presence in order to thrive, but they are sensitive to your well-being and it would hurt them to have a despondent dad. Go dance and have a good time and be happy and it'll be better for them.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Gay male, in early 30s here. Last May, I broke up with my partner of
three years. I've had a couple of crushes and flings since, but now I find
I am letting a lot of really nice guys go by. My heart feels muffled
and still, and I don't think I like that. I have seen you tell others to embrace their loneliness, but I am not enjoying the experience. Where do I find the desire to tear this deadening rind away from my heart?

Albuquerque Bill

Dear A.B.,

A year is long enough to mourn the loss of such a brief love, and if your heart has not unmuffled, perhaps there's another problem. Not many people enjoy the experience of loneliness, but it's good discipline and it's also a fact of life that mature people need to cope with. Consider the sheer human misery caused by people fleeing from loneliness. One way to endure loneliness is to train yourself to be an observer, a passive witness to the world. This is not easy or simple. To occupy your bench in the park and to observe, really observe, the passing parade and read the faces and grasp the snatches of conversation. This is the great privilege of loneliness, a sort of selflessness to the point of invisibility, a keenness of eye and ear, an appreciation of the human comedy. And then it is the pleasures of observation that lead one back into the social mill.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 33-year-old man involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman I first met when we were both in the seventh grade. Four years ago, we became reacquainted and fell in love. She is reluctant to leave her hometown and family, and I am bound to a contract that dictates where I live. I know I can overcome this, but what troubles me is that she has been cushioned by relative wealth most of her life, and doesn't understand what it means to earn a living. I've had to work damn hard for everything, and am concerned about committing to a woman who would be lost if her fortune faded. I need a partner, but I'm worried I might inherit a burden. What is your advice?


Dear Wary,

Indeed one does inherit a burden in marriage, and more than one, and perhaps she is worried about taking you on. But your letter makes me feel as if I walked in at the end of an argument -- you thundering, "I've had to work damn hard for everything!" makes me wonder what she said that led to that? Did she suggest a big wedding with an orchestra and a honeymoon at the Crillon in Paris? Did you take her out to dinner and she ordered the lobster? This seems to be a class conflict, a working stiff and a bourgeois lady, and one can only guess at what triggers your irritation. Maybe a touch of self-pity? Of course you work damn hard and maybe she didn't, but work is a privilege and leisure can be its own punishment, and anyway it's not particularly relevant to this romance. If you cherish her, hold onto her, even at a distance, and if you are falling out of love, then let her go, but don't abuse the woman over this phantom issue.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been divorced for nearly three years and have only been mildly excited by one woman I have gone out with. I am over 50 and it appears that most women in this age bracket either have lost a husband and cannot forget him or are divorced and have ambivalent feelings about men. What worries me is the phrase "mieux d'etre seul que mal accompagner." I am beginning to find my own company the best. Help, I do not want to become a misogynist!


Dear Misogynist,

I would translate that phrase as "what reason has my cat to keep bad company" and I don't know what this has to do with misogyny or with women over 50. There are plenty of those and many of them seem quite eager to meet men -- at least, that's what they keep telling me. But if you enjoy your own company, good for you. That's not the same as misogyny at all.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 24-year-old woman living in New York and working in the publishing
industry. Life here has been difficult at times, but not miserable. Work is not as satisfying as I'd like it to be and the hours are long, but I can't think of anything I'd rather do. I've been dating someone for four months; we're not soul mates, but I like him a lot and we generally have good times together. Last Christmas, I found out some stuff about my family -- a garden-variety infidelity -- that threw me for a loop for a while.
My question to you is: Because of a vague sense of unease I've had of
late, a feeling that something inside me is closing up, sealing itself off,
I've thought about talking to a therapist. Part of me feels like this impulse is a ridiculous example of New York consumerism. Part of me feels grossed out by being such a clichi (young, single, in therapy). Part of me feels like my problems are not problems so much as inevitabilities of life and so I should just deal with them and get over it, because everyone else does. But then I think it would be nice to talk to someone who could give me a little perspective. Do you think this is a legitimate reason to go into therapy? Or should I just buck up and get over it?


Dear Troubled,

Therapy could be comforting, I'm sure, assuming you find the right person, but aren't you really talking about hiring someone to be your friend? A "vague sense of unease" doesn't seem like strong motivation to see a therapist and if you see one, you might feel obliged to think up more interesting symptoms of distress -- hallucinations about Albert Knopf, an obsession with umlauts, a feeling that copy editors are trying to poison you -- or you might be so disgusted with yourself for having gone to a therapist, you might need to find another therapist to help you with that. If you want to do it, kid, it's OK by me. I think it's the sort of thing you and your two best friends can hash out in a couple of evenings over beer and pretzels. But go ahead. Except, if you write a book someday about this, please don't describe it as a "journey," OK, or use the words "journey," "quest," "walk" or "pilgrim" in the title, OK?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am in a wonderful relationship that I believe will eventually become a lifelong relationship. We share the same passion and adventure for life and do love each other dearly. He has asked me to marry him and I have accepted his proposal. We have known each other for 18 months. Our problem lies with our individual children. I am divorced six years with two boys, ages 17 and 12. He is widowed over three years and has five children, four are grown and out of the nest, with a 10-year-old boy still at home. Our problems center on his 23-year-old daughter and my 17-year-old. Both object strongly to our relationship. He would like to wait until they both "come around" to accepting us as a couple. I would like to marry this summer as we had originally discussed. I am 50 and he is 55. How insistent should I be that we marry? Should I be more sensitive to the loss of a mother involved here, and wait it out. (He is worth waiting for.)


Dear Frustrated,

This is such a delicate matter, one hesitates to put in an oar. So much depends on the 17-year-old son and the 23-year-old daughter, their temperaments, their stability, their situation in life. I don't see why a woman of 23 should be allowed to hold her father hostage, or a boy of 17 for that matter, but if you and your husband-to-be are happy and in love and secure about each other, and if he favors waiting, then I think you should wait a year or so in deference to their feelings. They simply are shocked, I suppose, by the prospect of this dramatic change. Time is on your side.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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