If it's really over, why does he keep her photo on his shelf?

I just went through hell with a man who couldn't commit. I don't want to be another rebound girlfriend.

Published April 13, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A year ago, I was in a two-year relationship with "S," a man much older than me (I was 22, he was 36). He became my world, my best friend, my first experience with sexual satisfaction -- everything. I fell madly in love (or what I thought was love). He fell madly in like, but never really fully let me into his life. Strange as it sounds, in those two years of dating, I never felt like his girlfriend, although we spent almost every night together. When we met, he was eight months out of a four-year relationship. Over the next few months, as our relationship progressed, he told me that he just couldn't handle another very serious relationship at the moment. The "moment" turned into two years, and I was eventually faced with the cold, hard fact that the only thing he wouldn't ever be "ready" for was me. I broke up with him, but it felt as though my heart had been trampled on.

After a full year of picking up the pieces from that mess, I dated a series of people who I never felt any sparks with. I realize that in my process of dating other men, I was also "healing." About three weeks ago I met a very special guy. He is a 26-year-old law student at the top of his class. I have that giddy feeling again. He is smart, he can keep up with my mind, we laugh at each other's jokes, I've been introduced to his friends, and the physical aspects of our relationship have been amazing and open (although we have not yet slept together, we've done everything but). I was able to be very upfront with him about what I was looking for at this point in my dating path: An actual relationship. A boyfriend. Someone who will let me into his life, and someone who I could share my life with. He agreed wholeheartedly that he feels ready for something serious too. He let me know how much he enjoys being with me, and that he is so happy he met me.

We spent the entire weekend together this past weekend, and it was amazing. On Sunday morning, before he was going to drive me home, I noticed he had some framed pictures on a shelf in his living room. Most of them were group shots of family, but there were two framed of him with a girl. I asked if it was his sister, and he said no, they were of him and his ex-girlfriend, a girl whom he dated for four years and who he broke up with eight months ago. The red flags went up. I felt I had been hit by the déjà vu Mack truck. I didn't say anything to him about it right then, but the more I think about these pictures, the more scared I become. Why does he still have the pictures on display? Is he truly over the relationship? Is it "normal" to keep pictures framed of an ex after a breakup? Is our relationship too premature at this point to even bring up how uneasy these pictures make me?

I'm afraid that I am dooming myself to another unfulfilled "healing" relationship with a man I have strong feelings for. I can't handle being the "transitional" girl anymore. I'm wondering if my feelings about the pictures are more a symptom of my fears, and less about his problem getting over a girl he dated. Should I confront him now, or hold out for another month or so and see what happens? What's so darn powerful about old pictures anyhow?

Tired of Being Rebounded

Dear Tired,

Old pictures are powerful, aren't they? Like music or perfume, they seem to act directly on our emotions, bypassing whatever truths we may coolly harbor in our heads. That they act so strongly on us does not mean that their truth is any more profound, however, any more than the truth in a bottle of whisky is more profound than the truth in a good Merlot. Liquor is just quicker.

It's fairly common for people to have pictures on their shelves. It doesn't mean he's living in the past or hasn't gotten over his girlfriend. After all, he probably has a picture of his mom on the shelf too, but that doesn't mean he hasn't gotten over her. So I wouldn't put too much stock in the intensity of your reaction as a guide to what's going on with him. I would chalk that up more to your own recent experience.

I also doubt that this is a sign that you're now going to attract a whole series of men on the rebound. Sometimes you'll meet three men in a row who are great in bed but can't count past seven. It happens, but more in the way that butterflies cluster, the way all the clouds sometimes look like horses and on certain days you see three sets of redheaded twins. Life can be kind of random.

I think if you tell him briefly what you're concerned about, you can get some sense of what kind of a person he is by how he responds to your concerns. It might also prompt him to tell you a little about what he's gone through. Listen closely to what he says. Ask yourself how it feels. Does it feel like he's hiding something or is still attached? If so, then maybe he is. But you'll have to base your judgment on what he says and how he says it, not on whether he keeps pictures of his ex on his shelf.

Most every attractive, available man you date will have some recent romance in his past. Wouldn't it be more of a red flag if he didn't? So spend some time with this guy and get to know him. You obviously like him. You might be just a little nervous. Don't let that stop you.

He's got to have some understanding. After all, he's at the top of his class!

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