What's in a name?

My date keeps calling me Maggie, but my name isn't Maggie.

Published July 30, 2004 7:33PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been dating a wonderful man for about five months. I'm 56, he's 61; he was married for 30-plus years to a woman who died of breast cancer about four years ago. In the interim, he met and married Maggie, with whom he spent a total of six months in two separate periods -- he says he knew immediately he'd made a terrible mistake and has regretted it ever since. The first three months we were together, he called me her name three different times -- once introducing me to someone in public by her name -- and I kept asking him if he was sure everything was resolved between them. One day I got a phone call at work from Maggie, who informed me that they'd never been divorced; she said she was looking for him because she wanted a divorce and he wouldn't return her calls or e-mails.

Long story short: He and I broke up until he 1) filed the divorce (I saw the papers); 2) put me in contact with two people who'd known him before I met him; and 3) went with me to see a counselor (who said we seemed to be fine and just needed to work out the trust issue over time). So, back together a month and yesterday he calls me Maggie again in conversation.

I am devastated, and I'm really afraid that, even though I believe he finds her completely aversive and sincerely is thrilled to be out of that relationship, that somehow he's confusing us. Is there any way for me to be OK with this, or is he just a complete idiot?

M but Not Maggie

Dear M but Not Maggie,

If I were you, I would figure that he's just a 61-year-old guy who keeps screwing up. Your real name does begin with M, so I note. I've known lots of people who keep screwing up like that. It doesn't mean that deep down inside he wishes anything, necessarily. It just means that when he opens his mouth the wrong name comes out. I'm sure he's got to be just horrified, but at the same time it might not make that much difference to him because he knows it doesn't mean squat.

I don't think that he's confusing you. I mean, he knows who you are and who Maggie is, I'm sure. What's happening is that some of the same feelings, perhaps, or the same impulses, are arising, and they're getting linked up with her name.

I really think you have to give people the opportunity to demonstrate what they feel by their conscious actions. If you require everyone to be perfect neurologically, not hiccup or burp or say the wrong name, you're going to rule out some truly wonderful people. Some of us just screw up all the time. We're not perfect. Perhaps because it's early in the relationship you're really wondering if you can trust this man. But looking for clues in these neurological hiccups is not the best way to find out if you can trust him. It sounds like you did the right thing by asking for references and going to counseling. I would base your judgments more on what he does when he has the time to consciously think it through, and less on these inadvertent slips of the tongue.

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