The other side of the "ex on the shelf" problem

My girlfriend is jealous of my relationship with my ex. Do I have to choose between them?

Published April 28, 2005 7:59PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm in a relationship with the "one." She is beautiful, strong-willed, funny, smart and, most important, happy on the inside. We are very happy together, live well together, work problems out openly and disagree about movies we want to see (I want action, she wants drama). The problem is she is very jealous of my ex-girlfriend who I have not seen in two years and have been out of a relationship with for three. I'll admit we talk on the phone every couple months to see how life is, but it is over, I have moved on and I know that she has let me go as well. The "one," however, will not -- despite the fact that she doesn't know the ex's name, nor has she seen a picture of her (to my knowledge).

In the one's last relationship (also her first serious) she was hurt badly by a very manipulating person who lied, cheated and had an utter disregard for women in general. At one point, he was dating an ex on the sly and the one found out and resorted to spying and confronting him with explosive results. So, now she is hypersensitive to the woman in my past.

I must admit that when I first pursued the one, we talked about the exes a lot. She would tell me how awful he was and I would share the problems I had with my ex (who was also a manipulator). I feel like I've sown the seeds of my own problems, and as I'm getting closer to popping the question I'm worried that being engaged won't diminish the jealousy.

Should I just cut off relations with the ex altogether, something very difficult for me as she is a good friend, which I feel you find few of in life, or do I continue to try to convince the one that the ex is not a threat and has never been one?

Almost Perfect

Dear Almost Perfect,

Since the subject line of your letter made reference to a recent column in which a young man's photos of his ex sitting on a shelf gave pause to the woman he was going out with, I should tell you that I got a very nice, heartwarming letter from the woman in that column who said that, independently of my advice, before the letter was published, she had done pretty much as I suggested -- had a frank and open talk with the man in question about her sensitivities in the matter. And I'm happy to say things worked out fine. They talked about the ex in her boyfriend's life, she felt reassured, and even though she didn't ask him to take down the photos, the next time she visited, she noticed they were gone. Very tactful, very kind of him.

In your case, I would say it's fairly simple: We give things up for those we love. That's the nature of sacrifice. What they want us to give up may seem unreasonable. But if it were easy to give up, or if giving it up made sense, or if you were going to give it up anyway and just hadn't gotten around to it, then it wouldn't be a sacrifice. You'd be doing it for yourself, not for somebody else. Giving something up for someone else means exactly that. We give things up for those we love. We don't hold back. We don't hedge. We go all out. The more dear these things are to us, the better; the greater the sacrifice, the greater our love.

Or so the hypothesis goes.

This may sound old-fashioned and quaint. I prefer to think of it as ancient and heroic. There's a reasonable basis for an ethic of self-sacrifice as well, rooted in a critique of contemporary society as narcissistic, shallow and lacking in realism. You could say that our culture has been conditioned against self-sacrifice because self-sacrifice does not produce the ideal consumer. The ideal consumer believes he deserves everything, because only if we believe we deserve everything will we consent to try and purchase everything. Or that's an argument you could make. Perhaps it goes a little far afield of your particular personal dilemma. But I find it easier to argue for seemingly anachronistic values when they can be seen as a critique of contemporary society!

Besides, doing things for other people is just a good habit to get into in a relationship -- the habit of letting go, the habit of thinking of the other. So are you willing to let go of this relationship for her sake? Even if it doesn't make sense to do so? Even if her fears are groundless? It's not a question of is it right or does it make sense; it's a question of are you willing to do something you don't want to in order to please her and make her life more comfortable?

I would think this is the kind of thing that makes the difference between a relationship that's truly heroic, full of difficult but admirable gestures, and one that's constantly being negotiated, full of little holding-backs and selfish hedges. If you want to start off on a good footing, I would suggest that you go ahead and let this friendship go -- for now, at least. Show her that you are willing to let it go.

Of course it should work both ways. You shouldn't have to be the only hero. She should be willing to sacrifice things for you, too. Nor am I suggesting that you never, ever talk to your ex again. Relationships change. Right now, your ex seems a threat. In five years everything may seem different. What I'm suggesting is just that each of you be willing to make sacrifices for the other, and that you make the first move, as an example.

It's not a matter of contractual linkage, but of establishing the spirit of the relationship.

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