The two-boyfriend problem

I miss the one I left, but I don't want the one I left him for!


Cary Tennis
January 12, 2009 4:21PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I started writing a version of this letter approximately three months ago, a time during which I was living with my boyfriend of a year, and a time that a most beloved ex-boyfriend of mine returned from a lengthy stay in China. At that time, I began to feel a rekindling of those old-time feelings, and I was filled with confusion, dread, doubt and a host of other related emotions.

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For expediency's sake, a summary of the main three characters in this triangle: I am a 25-year-old student, soon to be leaving my home state for a graduate program that has at its center a commitment to international service. I am highly intelligent, and I believe very strongly that people born with any gifts are obligated by the sheer luck of it all to use those gifts in service. I am not a "bleeding heart" or a dreamy liberal idealist, but rather intensely practical and focused on the various goals in my life.

My boyfriend is a 28-year-old graduate student in philosophy. Well, he was, anyway, or he could be, but somewhere along the way, he had decided he hated philosophy. Despite finishing his course work, he has dragged his feet for a year on writing a 20-page essay to get his Master's -- to the point of not even having a topic for the damn paper. During this year, he has worked as essentially an odd-jobs handyman for his mother and her friends.

My ex-boyfriend is younger than I am, and exceedingly brilliant, if eccentric and emotionally aloof. When we initially met, he had told me of his desire to become a physician specializing in infectious disease, specifically so that his skills could be used in those areas most prone to infectious disease, i.e., the underdeveloped world. However, after a trip to Burning Man, he rejected his previous goals as meaningless and bourgeois, and instead decided that a nomadic life of teaching English in the Chinese countryside was truly what he wanted to do. After several months of his becoming less interested in normal everyday life in favor of the novel, exotic zaniness of the Burning Man lifestyle, and by extension less interested in normal, everyday me, I could tolerate no more of his neglect, veiled put-downs and so on and broke things off with him. It must be said that I loved him very much, and considered him to be as close to a soul mate as I had ever known.

When the ex returned from China, my relationship was in a pleasant, but complacent, rut. My boyfriend and I got along on a lot of levels, and enjoyed many of the same activities. I assure you, it's much easier to overlook one's sweetheart's flaws under a cloudless, Milky Way-filled sky during autumn camping trips in the rural north. He is a very caring, devoted person, who is a tad more jealous than I tend to like in men, but it often felt like our love was contingent on things being perfect -- if I was down and aloof for more than two or three days, we would often be fighting by the week's end. I also felt that we relied increasingly heavily on filling our lives with things to do, which was sharply curtailed after I fractured my foot.

Left to enjoying only each other's company, we drifted into a boring, sexless tedium. I watched him sit on the couch, a beer perched on his stomach, watching "Simpsons" reruns for what felt like the millionth time, and I got depressed -- really? really? Is this my life at 25 already, some deadbeat guy who won't get his act together, wasting time and drifting through life? Needless to say, I was dissatisfied, and when my ex returned, I was already feeling ripe for change.

And, when my ex returned, he was reinvigorated. He had taught English in the Chinese countryside for a couple of months, decided it was not, in fact, what his fate was. He resumed preparation for medical school, very much determined to follow his previous path. At that time, three months ago, I did not believe him -- believe me, when you're surrounded on all sides by unambitious dudes, any such proclamations tend to be quite dubious. But perhaps more important, he apologized for his behavior during our relationship, and told me that letting me leave had been a tremendous mistake, and that he was shocked at how much he missed me. He told me he would be striving to prove over the next months that he had changed, and that he was still in love with me.

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At the time, Cary, let me tell you, this was heady stuff. Stuck like some Ibsen heroine in a bland, but loving, relationship, it felt nice to be wooed, to be tried for. The letter I wrote you then was a letter that asked whether one should stay with the dependable, devoted man, or take the chance that people can change. The letter I write now is sadder, less open to possibility, with fewer options, but basically a question that weighs on my soul.

You see, two weeks ago, out of the blue, my boyfriend moved out of our home. We had been avoiding each other for weeks -- going to bed extra early, timing his mornings so that he was out the door before I even woke up, working extra shifts, and so on. During that time, I occasionally met with my ex, generally for a coffee or a beer, but always on the up-and-up. While I can say that I was not unfaithful to my boyfriend, I certainly did not avoid all appearances of impropriety (they were never group outings, for example), which in hindsight I think were provocative actions on my part to arouse his jealousy. Those actions backfired harshly when his jealousy became a gripping anxiety, a constant belief that I looked down on him and sought the affections of better men.

My ex, quite naturally, is happy that I am no longer spoken for, but now I have no interest in any romance, and I ignore his calls, and cut very short our one visit. Just as my ex was shocked by how much he missed me, I am baffled at how much I miss my happy-go-lucky, unmotivated, devoted boyfriend. That this broke my heart is almost appalling to me, because I just know that he and I are not right for one another. I moved to a different room in our house, and passing our old room makes me cry spontaneously. I can already tell that I did to him what my ex did to me, and I am plagued by the notion that a year from now, I will be filled with regret at my behavior, that I will still miss him terribly, that this wholly unexpected sting will still be tender.

I guess my question to you is not so much what is right to do. I think I just want someone to try to explain to me why we did this to ourselves. How have three intelligent, good-hearted people put themselves in a position where none of us are happy or even believe we've done the right thing? What can any one of us do?

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I'm sorry this letter is so long. Even if it never gets used, it felt good to write it.

Leaving the Triangles to Geometry

Dear Leaving the Triangles,

As you may know, I actually like the long letters. Our problems are stories. They are stories that have to be told ... and told out, if you will.

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But one thing is fairly simple and clear: You broke up with somebody and you miss him. That is not so strange. You broke up with somebody and now you are sad. That is normal. You broke up with somebody and you miss him and you are sad. That is understandable.

It is also understandable that in this period of sadness after your breakup you are not ready to immediately undertake another relationship. You have to heal.

These simple truths may come as a surprise to those who have had much early success, to whom prizes come quickly, whose ideals and hopes are high, who are accustomed to meeting challenges head-on and overcoming them. In most areas of life your high ideals and quick mind have served you well. But in this instance you tried hard to act according to your ideals and found yourself in this painful and confusing triangle.

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You ask how you three could have gotten yourselves into this mess. Well, we might as well just say it: Invisible forces are at work. Triangles have a logic of shifting allegiance and retribution that is hard to untangle from the inside. When you are in a triangle, it is hard to see what is going on, because you are a participant. And from outside, where I stand, it is hard to tell exactly what is driving each one of you without knowing more about you. But in all triangles patterns can be found. So look for them. What is your history with unambitious dudes? What is your history with abandonment? You may find, as you look over your life, that in this triangle there are reflections, or repetitions, of relationships with parents or siblings, and also of earlier boyfriends. There is also inner conflict to consider: a conflict between your desire for achievement and your desire for unconditional belonging.

I have a feeling that highly idealistic people who are motivated to do good things in the world will often feel a proportional pull away from the ideal and toward the earthy, sensuous, devil-may-care, the unambitious dude, the seeming opposite of what they profess to want. In your case, with your golden talent comes a burdensome duty that you do not even express the customary ambivalence about. You embrace it wholeheartedly! But it must weigh heavily at times, this duty to place your brilliance at the service of a world that, let's face it, will in all likelihood fail to fully express its gratitude! Service is a high and wonderful tradition, but most of us are not so good, high and wonderful all the time. We also have impulses toward the low and not-so wonderful, toward domination and excess and sloth; some mornings we wake up and say, "What the fuck about me, OK? What about me? Who's bringing me breakfast this morning?"

Also, remember that this situation is in motion. It is two weeks after a major emotional event. It would be normal to feel a little shaken up, a little sad and ungrounded. You will not feel immediately as you expected to feel, or wanted to feel, because this takes time. Your emotions take time. So I suggest you ask your ex-boyfriend to wait for you a little while. Take it slowly. Let your love come back if it's going to come back.

You can't push it. It would be like trying to push a string.

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Cary Tennis

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