She's a shadow of my fiance's past

How do I deal with the presence of this woman? He says there's nothing to it but I feel suspicious

Cary Tennis
September 2, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

So this is kind of a silly thing, but it has been nagging at me for a couple of years so I thought I would toss it at your feet for a little advice. I am getting married in about a month to a man who I love very much. I am in no doubt about how much he loves me, given that he has stuck with me for a fairly long while now, through depression and my toxic relationship with my adoptive mom and a year of unemployment and plenty else. For the past couple of years, however, we, or maybe just I, have been dealing with this thing. It makes me feel sick and shaky just to write or talk about it.


I moved into his apartment in early 2009, and that summer we moved together into my adoptive mom's house while she stayed with my newly widowed grandmother. We were slow to unpack and sometimes while he was at work I would make my way through a box or two of our things. One evening I was working on a box of notebooks and sketchbooks, and, thinking that one was mine, began to flip through it. Obviously I realized pretty quickly that it was his, but as I'm sure you anticipate, I kept reading.

Most of it wasn't particularly notable, just doodles and maybe little notes here and there, plus some things I had written that I assume he copied from my online journal (a little weird, but not too upsetting). But toward the back there was a letter to a girl he had mentioned a few times before, "Kathy." They had "chemistry," he said, and everyone always thought they were dating and so on and so forth. He had, in the past, gone on a trip to a music festival with this girl, they were obviously good friends at the least. The letter in his notebook was about how much he loved her, how he regretted never saying as much, and it was dated the same week as our breakup. Of course I haven't mentioned it yet, but we met, dated for a few months, broke up, got back together and have been together since. So he had dumped me and then written this girl a love letter in the same week. I was really, really upset by this, and when we talked about it, he told me that it hadn't meant anything, that he had probably been drunk. Obviously he never sent it so I couldn't explain what had caused me so much distress. I tried to put it out of my head and mostly succeeded.

At the end of that year we moved into a new apartment in a trendy area of our city, and within a month or two I found out that "Kathy" worked about two blocks from our place. I didn't think he knew and I didn't say anything until I saw cups from the cafe where she worked in our car. I asked if he'd gone for breakfast somewhere that morning and he said that, yes, he'd gone to the bagel place near his work, an obvious lie. I didn't press the issue and I also didn't see any more cafe cups in his car. Again I convinced myself that this was not something I needed to be worried about, that I was overreacting and possibly letting this whole thing make me crazy.


So another year and another apartment and once again "Kathy" works within walking distance of our house, this time at a small grocery store that we used to go to fairly frequently. We walked in together one day to get something or other and as we came in the door this woman came out from behind the counter and excitedly greeted my fiancé by name. He ignored her and proceeded to act like a space alien until we left the store. In the car I asked who she was and he told me no one, just a girl he went to high school with, she thought they were better friends than they actually were, it was awkward. I was pretty certain at this point about who it was, but when I suggested that it might have been "Kathy" he immediately shut down, told me that I needed to get over all of that, that it definitely wasn't her, etc. I pretty much thought I was losing my mind. One part of me was positive that it was "Kathy" but another part believed my fiancé and just wanted to move on with the whole thing. But I couldn't let it rest for weeks.

And that's when I decided to snoop. I went by myself to the grocery store, where it turns out an acquaintance of mine from high school also works. We got to talking and I asked, just out of curiosity, if "Kathy" worked there, since my fiancé thought he had seen her when we came by the other day. And of course she did work there, he told me. Which opened the door on a world of shit.

I got home that evening and, because sometimes I'm just kind of a bitch, told my fiancé that I had been by the store for some beers and "Kathy" had said to tell him hi. I told him that I didn't really get what was going on but that I certainly didn't appreciate being lied to repeatedly and stupidly. (He has a habit of sticking to his story once he's told it, no matter how obvious it is that he's been caught.) Finally he broke down and told me that it was indeed "Kathy" but that they had never been that close and that he had only lied to protect my feelings. I don't know about anyone else but when my boyfriend starts acting inscrutable and strange about a woman it doesn't exactly put my feelings at ease. So we talked and I cried a lot and then we ate dinner and I think he assumed everything was fine.


Everything is not fine. I'm still really upset that he would lie to me like that, I'm upset that I keep finding their old letters around our apartment, and to be honest I was never really that satisfied by "I didn't mean it, I was drunk" as an excuse for the original letter.

So I guess what I'm asking is, where do I go from here? What do I do? This is not a deal breaker, I'm not afraid he's cheating on me, I'm just still really hurt and it hasn't helped that he hasn't seemed to understand why I would be upset by any of this. Should I be upset by this, I wonder? Should I be over it by now? Am I being crazy?


I guess what I need is just some guidance on how to resolve this for both of us. I plan on spending the rest of my life with this man and I really don't want this lurking around in our relationship for years and years.


Dear Mystified,


You know what I think? I think that many humans are incapable of living happily with only one deep connection, that they are naturally connected in a deep way to many people, and that this creates problems for our social arrangements. We don't really have a mainstream system of marriage that allows for this deep, multiple connectedness unless it is a large, close family. Some people look for this longed-for connectedness by being in roles such as therapist, counselor, minister or teacher. Others adopt practices such as polyamory. But if you are a person deeply connected to many others but not in an occupational or social role that supports your orientation, what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to conduct an intimate relationship that seems to preclude any such outside connection? Some hide. They lie. That makes it worse. But what are they supposed to do?

This question intrigues me because it involves both private relationships and also the modes of intimacy and family structure the state allows.

Is he sleeping with her? You need to know the truth.


Now, I have some really crazy ideas. Important personal questions such as yours prompt me to think about larger and somewhat abstract things. Those who read this column regularly understand this and are prepared for it. But new readers may not be. So this is a warning: We are about to go off the cliff here.

So let us envision a larger kind of human, a person who could see the totality of another.

(Here we go. Bear with me now.)

Let us envision emeralds held in a cat's cradle of gold wire; let us envision the human spirit as many jewels each a separate mind, held in a net of golden ligaments that are avenues of consciousness; this prismatic array let's say is a self, looking out in four dimensions across space and time, radiating music recognizable across space and time. Let us stop all the wooing and cooing and oohing and aahing about the unknowability of consciousness and take a wild guess that it's something like that, and that its location in our bodies is almost an afterthought. Then we might imagine why we have so many attachments and so many deep loves that we cannot speak of, which we denigrate or deny, for which we are punished and shunned.


We might say that our spirits dwell in a region utterly foreign to our eyes, and that our spirits recognize each other instantly, whether at a basketball game or a concert or walking down the street: we recognize each other and are instantly in touch.

Maybe it is because it is a kind of truth that we don't have a language for, we ought to accept it but instead we pretend it doesn't exist.

To account for it, construct as you will models of the human personality or the human soul. We are irretrievably attached to people we hardly know, for reasons we cannot comprehend. We believe ourselves singularly devoted to one beloved, and yet our spirits are soaring and pierced and attracted and inhabited multiply, constantly; we are porous beings; we are fluid; we are part of the ever-changing universe of stars and earth and air.

Why can't we just observe that this is a human fact and accept it in ourselves? Why must we fight it and lie about it?


Why don't we tell the truth instead?

Maybe that would change the world.

There are a few good things in the world. Love is one of them. Love is a gem. Love is one of those rare things in the world that is pretty much good all around. It arises free of cost and does no harm in the feeling of it; it only elevates and brings joy.

I know it also threatens. But for a moment let us please look not at how it threatens but at how it brings spontaneous pleasure. For a moment, why not ask how this gift of human consciousness might serve as the true starting point for relationships? Why not take a risk and see if we can operate on the principle of universal love? What might that show us?


What if it were possible for this man to have an infinite amount of love? What if his love does, in fact, grow the more it is exhausted, the way a muscle grows the more it is exhausted? And what if it shrinks when held immobile, the way a muscle shrinks when held immobile?

And what if your arrangements about sex were a separate matter? What if you were to grant him the freedom to feel what he feels and express it to you as best he can, including the understanding that he tell the complete truth to you, including the truth of whether he has been having sex with this woman, or kissing this woman, or touching her at all? What if you were to abandon all thought of controlling what is to happen next and abandon yourself to the truth, to seek the truth like a thirsty traveler, to lap it up with no thought of what to do with it?

What if we were to use our short time on earth to learn as much as we can about each other by telling each other the truth and listening to the truth? What if truth is painful only because stripping away illusion is painful? What if relationships are a set of dance moves learned in elementary school? What if we have it mostly backward? What if it turns out that what we consider the most healthy relationship is the one that cleaves most fearfully to its model of illusion? What if a "troubled relationship" is merely one that has begun to admit a little truth into its choreography of fairy tales? What if "trouble" is the beginning of "health"?

Might we eventually reforge the vessel? Might we eventually come up with a model that fits us as we are?

This has gone a long way from your simple problem of how to deal with this man who seems to be lying to you. What I am suggesting about the lying is to abandon for now all thoughts of what he did wrong, and instead, despite your own misgivings, give him broad leeway to tell his emotional truth -- not just the truth of his deeds and alibis but the truth of who he is and what he is attached to and how many imaginary lovers live in his brain.

It seems clear that the human spirit is multiply attached and multiply attracted. Why not admit the truth -- that we do not understand nor can we explain or defend the multifarious ways our spirits become attached to others in this universe. Maybe if your man knows that he does not have to defend or logically explain this attachment but just describe it honestly, then maybe you both can let it simply be what it is. This is something we all could do, actually -- shake out our brains so all the horrors and secret pleasures fall out, so that we hear the rattle of all the hidden apples and candies stashed in drawers, open up all the attic doors and windows and let our lovers see everything that we've been hoarding. This would probably be good for everyone. Many fear that what they hold inside is wrong merely because we hold many things; we are multiple; we are various; we are hives of being and must accept that. So regardless of what he is actually doing, he is no doubt in possession of great and complicated feelings. These need not brand him as disloyal. He is simply human.

Maybe he has been visiting her, kissing her, having sex with her. Or maybe this is just a shadowy attachment, a blemish or scar visible on the skin with no clear cause or history, a mark on the spirit, the ghost of an old tattoo.

Either way, for now, abandon all fear and all preconception. First hear the truth.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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