I'm a 20-something person who's been in a relationship with a great 20-something guy for about 16 months; it's a good bond, we are there for each other, we have plans for our future together, we can say we love each other, and in general I can honestly say, at least on my end, that I'm really happy with him and that I think he feels the same way about me.
But there is a "third wheel on our bike": his first real significant other, a girl he dated in high school for two years. Their relationship, from what he has told me, was the typical sort of young, immature love that led to broken hearts, and they haven't even spoken in more than three years. But, Cary, it seems that he can't let this girl go (or at least the memory of her). He dreams about her, tries to send her messages, he talks about her in a way I've never heard a man talk about an ex-girlfriend; I've come upon him talking fondly about her to other people, and during our worst fights he has said that the desirable traits that I lack were ones that she had. I try and try to just drop her from my mind, but she keeps coming up between us. If I ask him why he thinks she is such a fixture in his mind, he says it's only because she was the first person he loved. When I ask him if I'll ever be like that for him, he can only say "in time."
I am so confused about this; on one hand, he calls me the love of his life and the person he wants to marry, and then on the other hand he is still thinking of this other girl in a way that makes me feel so profoundly hurt. I want this relationship to work, but it cuts so deep knowing that he still must have feelings for this other person. Do memories like the ones he has for her really ever disappear, or are we going to be dealing with her for the rest of our relationship? Is being in a relationship with someone like this even worth it?
Afraid to Be Second Best
Dear Afraid to Be Second Best,
Sometimes we are so deeply affected by an early emotional experience that it is hard to move forward in life. She may be the first person he loved, but more important, she is also the first person he lost.
When one person in a romantic relationship has such an attachment it is painful to the other because he is withholding his true gold from you. He is not committing to you in the deepest way humanly possible. It may be that some sacred dream of authentic actualization was attached to her; he crossed some river with her; he shared some formative experience with her that can never be repeated. He must accept that it cannot be repeated and move on to new experiences that are as deep and all-consuming as that one was.
But he can only do this when he is ready. He may have to actually grieve the loss. To grieve it he must admit that it is over. Remaining fixated on her is a way of staying safe and stuck. But it is also a way of slowly decaying. It is a way of not living.
I suggest that you and he talk in a broad way about the future, about what is the next challenge for each of you. What are you seeing in the future and how is it frightening? How would each of you like to return to an earlier time? Are there times when you also feel stuck in the past or attached to times that will never return? Maybe you can find some commonality there. If you can move the conversation away from her specifically to the more general area of being stuck in the past and afraid of the future, perhaps you and he can see that you have some common ground. You are probably both afraid to face certain parts of an uncertain future. You need to share your fears together so you can go forward together.
Talk with him about your deepest fears and deepest longings. Ask him about his. Then, when you understand his general feelings about the future and the past, feel around like a blind woman and locate her in his cosmos of fears and sadness. Find the area where she dwells and become familiar with it. It is probably a tender area. It may be tender all his life. It may be an area of sadness for lost childhood and lost dreams. It also may be an area of erotic awakening. Intuition tells me that his big challenge is to move into adult acceptance of the finality of loss.
You want him to move forward with you. But if he cannot do that then you may need to move on without him. That would be sad but sadness is a part of life. It isn't about whether he loves you or not. It is about whether he will remain stuck. You can't move forward with someone who is stuck. You have your own necessary and particular journey. You have your own rivers to cross.