How can you move into the future when you can’t let go of the past?
I’m a guy in my late 30s with a complicated situation. A couple of years ago, my wife and I divorced after several years of marriage. The divorce was ultimately my decision and it hurt her very much, although she did admit the marriage was reaching the end of its life expectancy. We’re still friends and always have lots to talk about. We meet or talk on the phone every couple of months or so, and afterwards I always feel kind of kicked in the gut. I still feel compelled to take care of her feelings—I want to help her not feel low.
Now, for several months I’ve been seeing a wonderful woman who I think I’m in love with. Yet I have a hard time emotionally connecting to this woman sometimes, and can’t really understand why—I think it’s me, nothing to do with her. I just shut down or close off. I’m sure this must have something to do with the emotional weight of the previous relationship. I want to give my new girlfriend the love and attention she deserves.
How I can start fresh? Do you think it’s good or bad that I keep seeing my ex-wife and maintain that friendship, after we’ve been through so much together?
Stuck in the Middle
This is a tough one, but it happens to more people than you may realize. You have a couple of issues here, and you may not like what I’m going to say.
It’s possible you may be internalizing whatever seeing your ex-wife triggers inside you, consciously or unconsciously. Failure, guilt, regret, spite…or any combination of the above. These feelings may be leaking out in ways you describe as “closing yourself off.” You may be fearful of a new relationship—fearful of hurting your new partner, or of losing her. Or you may not actually be able to give yourself 100% to this new relationship if part of you is stuck in the past, even though that relationship didn’t work out. Several years of marriage create a huge pull on the heart, and dealing with that can be emotionally exhausting. Even if it’s been a couple of years, seeing your ex-wife on a regular basis brings it all back. You may not necessarily be conscious of all the complex repercussions.
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So, for your own well-being and to move into new relationship without distraction, step decisively into the future and put away the past. Stop communicating with your ex-wife, at least for several months, just to see how that changes things. You may find the weight lifting unexpectedly as you’re able to focus on your new love without the pull of the past. Leap into this with both feet, not with one foot out the door, as is often the case when people maintain relationships with their exes who aren’t over the relationship. It will be hard to end or slow down that “friendship”—but how much of it is taking care of her feelings, and how much of it actually is taking care of yours? Break it to your ex gently that you have to concentrate on this, so you can’t really be there for her any more. This may help her move on as well, rather than maintaining a sense of hope that you might change your mind someday.
In dealing with any new commitment phobia stemming from a failure of something that was several years of your life, just take it slow and try to talk about your fears with your new girlfriend. (I know that’s hard—you’re a guy.) Often when the fears are brought to light they dissipate somewhat, and she can help you deal with them. Also know that it’s okay to pull back and isolate at times to assess how you’re doing or just have some downtime not working on the relationship. Try to stay in the present, and when you feel cold-hearted, maybe change the scenery a little: go someplace fun with her, do something new together, explore new ways to develop intimacy. If after all this, the feelings of inability to connect remain the same or increase, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help from a couples counselor. It sounds like your new relationship is great, so stick with it and begin taking care of yourself before you try to take care of others. The rest will follow.
Published on 12/4/08. Photo: Impossible Divorce by Lord Marmalade (Creative Commons).