Burning loves

I'm with an old flame who is getting over his old flame, but I'm not sure I have the stamina to wait for him to stop pining.

By Cary Tennis

Published August 13, 2003 7:09PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been re-dating an old flame for the last four months. We had a fling three years ago, but we were both coming out of relationships and were not ready to pursue anything at that time. Fast-forward to now, and things are great. He is loving, attentive, great sexually speaking, intelligent -- the whole package. The problem is that he is just recently out of a long-term relationship with a woman, one whom I consider to be the big love of his life. He says he doesn't want to be with her, but I know he still pines for her. He's not necessarily dishonest about his feelings or situation with his ex, telling me he is still healing, but when he is with me he is so fantastic, caring and present. He and the ex have a small child, so she will not be going away ever.

My question is, should I wait him out and see if he'll get over her? I fear that if I decide to part ways I will be so miserable and miss him terribly, for he is a rare find in many ways. On the other hand, I remember it taking a full two years for me to be completely over my long-term ex. Do I have that stamina -- and what makes me think that once he is over her, he wouldn't dump me?


Dear Worried,

I don't see why you should deprive him of your company while he goes through this. He has to go through it whether you're there or not, so why not try to be there for him? Even though it's a nuisance to see him moping and being all distant and stuff, the alternative is to abandon him. Chances are, if you do, you will lose him for good.

The option of waiting around for him to get over it just doesn't seem realistic. It's not like you can set a timer and a bell goes off and you come running in with oven mitts to see if he's done. You'd never really know when he was over it. Meanwhile, things happen -- he'll get a job in Singapore and father a child, you'll break a leg skiing and fall in love with a helicopter pilot.

Rather, if you're interested in him as a long-term prospect, I would pay close attention to how he's dealing with his difficulties in the present. Try to distinguish between what he's experiencing -- the inevitable sadness, fear, lethargy and uncertainty of a loss -- and how he's coping with it. If he's able to report to you what's going on with him, if he's able to manage his life, maintain his work and social relationships, and admit when he's not emotionally available, great. On the other hand, if he's isolating, having periods of depression, using drugs or alcohol excessively, or having periods of uncontrolled anger and violence, he's likely to approach life's other inevitable setbacks in a similar way. Bad stuff happens to everybody. I would focus not so much on what he's going through as on how he's dealing with it. In other words, if you don't like the person he is today, don't make the mistake of thinking that once he's over this, he'll be a new man.

Something in your letter caught my notice. You said: "I remember it taking a full two years for me to be completely over my long-term ex. Do I have that stamina -- and what makes me think that once he is over her, he wouldn't dump me?" This troubled me for some reason, and while I don't wish to be harsh, I have to respond to what seems to lie underneath those words.

First, about those two years it took you to get over your ex: Were you hospitalized during those two years, unable to walk or speak? I assume you had relationships during that time; you had sex, you made and lost friends, you worked at school or at a job. You had happy moments and sad moments and moments of exhilaration and moments of despair. You functioned in the world. True, at odd, unbidden instants an apparition of your lover would erupt in the air and it would feel like a knife in your eye. A stray memory of a kiss would wander into consciousness; you'd remember a night sky and the taste of a broth in a country inn and start to weep. But the rest of the time you went on with your business, no? And you called upon the strength of others when you needed it. And how would you have felt if others had shunned you during that difficult time, had said, No, she's still getting over an ex, she's no fun right now, we'd better just leave her alone. Or what if you yourself, during your period of mourning, had fallen in love with someone but the object of your affections said, No, you're not over your ex yet, I'm going to wait until you're all squeaky clean and free of the emotional residue of any prior entanglements, until you are, in essence, like a virgin.

It doesn't happen that way. We are never cleansed completely of all that we have endured.

About your fear that he might leave you once he's over his ex: You seem to be feeling a kind of anticipatory loss, as if you fear that if you invest your time in a promising but struggling company, it may fire you before becoming profitable. But in the same way that you have to judge your lover's behavior in the here and now, you also have to judge your own satisfaction with the relationship in the here and now. Is it good now? That's the only question. Does being with him make sense now? Is it right? The kind of fear you're talking about is paralyzing to investors in all commodities, from love to pork bellies. Perhaps you have lost before and that sharpens your uncertainty. Perhaps you have been taken advantage of. Still, you have to base your determination on current conditions. And, by the way, it would be well not to dawdle once you decide, as conditions change all the time. (I lost out on those 5 percent mortgage rates because I was uncertain and I dawdled.)

Third, about this "stamina" you refer to: Being in a relationship is not like being in the Boston Marathon. In a good relationship, you can pull over and rest. There's not a throng of thousands that will pass you if you flag. You might have tough days, but you're forgiven. You get a good night's sleep and the next day he's still there, and you try again. You're not competing. That's what makes it a relationship and not a job.

So if you like who he is, and he's dealing with his loss as well as he can, stick with him.

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Cary Tennis

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