My girlfriend's ex has cancer

I know he's sick, but shouldn't she tell him about us anyway?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 10, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been dating for eight months. Prior to dating me, she was dating someone ("Rick") for about the same length of time. It was long-distance -- she lives in New York and he lives in Ohio.

For the first several months of our relationship, my girlfriend and Rick spoke often. Often, when staying over at my girlfriend's, he would call ... and call ... and call. Eventually, things died down and, since November, the two have just IM'd every once in a while ... until now.

Recently, Rick was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It's pretty serious. My girlfriend has started to call and e-mail Rick every day to see how he's doing, and Rick's mom sent my girlfriend an e-mail, letting her know how wonderful she's being. I am totally in favor of my girlfriend helping Rick -- in fact, I even suggested that she fly out there for his surgery.

However, I'm not comfortable with the fact that Rick knows nothing about us. My girlfriend and I talk about marriage, and she won't tell her ex about us. I brought this up yesterday, and she said that she and Rick never talk about their personal lives with one another anymore -- just the progress of his cancer. She said that they were just acquaintances and wouldn't talk after his recovery; however, she's also repeatedly told me that she doesn't want to communicate with Rick too often because he might get the wrong signals. I replied that if they were just acquaintances, then why couldn't she mention me to him? Her conclusion: I am a "cruel and selfish" bastard who won't respect the feelings of a perhaps-dying man.

Am I being unreasonable? I feel awful that this guy has cancer and I want my girlfriend to be able to support him, but I also want the boundaries with him to be perfectly clear to everyone.


Dear Help,

It would be nice if your girlfriend told her friend about you, wouldn't it? But it's not necessary that she do so -- not yet, at least. Nor do I think you should make too big a fuss about it. At this stage of the relationship, there are other matters that are more important.

My guess is that if she were a little older, more thoughtful and more sure of herself, she would realize how it makes you feel not to be mentioned, and she would find a way to acknowledge your importance in her life. Also, if your relationship itself were a little older and more established, perhaps she would not be letting this important fact slide.

There is a chance that something more sinister is at work, but I doubt it. She may hope that their relationship might resume when he recovers; by keeping your presence a secret, she may be indulging in or reliving a certain feeling of intimacy that she enjoyed with him. But I doubt it. She probably just hasn't thought it through all that rigorously, prefers not to get into a potentially touchy subject area, and perhaps even feels that in preserving an aura of exclusivity, however minor, she is doing her friend a kind of emotional service. People do this all the time: They look at how delicate and potentially upsetting making a certain disclosure would be, and they decide to simply not disclose. This can lead to suspicion and hurt feelings. It is perhaps not rigorously honest. But it is common. It just "didn't come up." And why should it?

Well, the person whose presence simply "didn't come up" can end up feeling a little diminished, a little belittled, right? Aren't those words interesting? To be ignored is to be shrunk. To have our presence known is to be enlarged, magnified. It is only the ego that grows, though. It's only the external representation of who we are. Being known doesn't do anything for you in any deep, personal sense. Indeed, what difference does it make whether an image of you exists in his brain? Does it really matter to your well-being?

What's important to your happiness, it seems to me, is the symbolic transaction between you and your girlfriend: By telling him about you, she would be telling you about herself -- how she feels about you and her, where you fit in, how you stack up.

So why not try to cut to the chase? If you have discussed marriage, you must be fairly serious about each other. Why not recognize that your discomfort about this man is just a signal. What you really want to know is where you and she are going. That's what underlies your uneasiness. Should you stay together, there are a lot of things you will need to discuss and work out over time. Trying to talk about those things directly is probably the best approach. Concentrating on her friend may just muddy the waters.

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