I am a 27-year-old man in a wonderful and committed relationship with a woman my own age. It's a special one -- all the right buttons, all the right highs -- and we have established great communication. The rub: I'm divorced, and she has never been in a long-term relationship with anyone. We live together and have even discussed family, career and life plans -- and they jibe. So what's the problem? I am having a hard time keeping the past at bay. The divorce was four years ago and very, very ugly. My girlfriend has no real idea of the hurt and heartache that attends such an event.
The result is that I'm as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof ... I'm spooked. Constantly worried about the relationship and fearful of love, as I don't want to be hurt again. We have moved in with each other and are trying to take it slow, but I have huge trust issues and have been trying to keep them relatively quiet with her, as I see the problem stemming from me, not her. Any advice?
I would suggest that you put down on paper exactly what happened in your marriage. Buy a notebook and find some private time, a few hours here and there, and record what happened: When you met and how, what first went wrong, what kinds of dishonesty and betrayal occurred, how you responded to the various situations that arose. Don't try to make yourself look good, but don't succumb to the impulse to impugn your motives either. Try to be objective and factual, accepting what happened.
You will probably find that making even a simple factual record of the events of your marriage is hard work, and it may leave you feeling emotionally drained. That's OK; it's quite taxing to work in that realm if you're not used to it.
When you have a fairly complete record of the events of your marriage from beginning to end, go over it with someone -- a therapist, a trusted friend, a clergyman. Try to identify what you did that you could have done differently, and look for correspondences between what you did in that marriage and what you are doing in your current relationship. Pay particular attention to your fears, as it seems to be largely fear that has come over you.
You need to understand the actions you took, why you took them, and the consequences they led to. For instance, if you got involved with your wife primarily because she was very beautiful, and you wanted to show her off, perhaps it was pride that was motivating you. You could then look at your current relationship and ask where pride is operating today. Perhaps you lied to your wife out of fear of what she would do if she knew the truth. Perhaps you are lying to your girlfriend today, or at least living in fear of what she would do if she knew the truth about your divorce. So you need to know that. You need to know all the specifics of what you did and why.
This could take some time, a few months, perhaps longer. After all, the breakup happened four years ago and it still has a powerful effect on your emotions. If you discuss it with your girlfriend, just tell her that you are working to come to grips with what happened. As you work, I think you will find that your fears about your current relationship will lessen. When you have broken the story down into workable pieces, you will be able to tell your girlfriend a little about what went wrong in your marriage, without making it a big nightmare. And you will be able to see what went wrong and correct it, so you needn't live in fear of repeating the past.
Relationships don't just blow up. They fail because of specific things people do. You cannot come to terms with what happened without first identifying the specifics of what happened. Otherwise, you're like a detective trying to solve a murder without consulting the facts. So I hope you will take my advice to heart and make a careful accounting. I think you'll be amazed at how much better you feel if you keep at it.
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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.