Letters

I can’t stop thinking about her

Asked by: Anonymous, Bronx, NY, USA

Answered by: Kristin Prevallet

Anonymous, Bronx, NY, USA

I lead a stable and basically happy life, with a secure job and a partner whom I love. However I’m haunted by memories of someone I dated 18 years ago, and the thought that I should have stayed with her. We had an amazing year together but I had also just gotten out of a marriage and couldn’t handle a longer commitment–I was a bit of an ass to her, though we stayed friends for a few years. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about her. I’ve thought of her every day since we broke up. She leads a seemingly ideal life in the English countryside with a spouse who’s a fashion designer and a couple of kids. I know that had I stayed with her this relationship would have had its own problems, but when I think back to being with her our connection seems in some ways stronger and more dynamic than with my current partner. I feel a lot of shame about this with regard to my current partner, and it’s hard to talk about with anyone. Appreciate this project.

Anonymous


K:

Dear friend-

Oh, how I have been there! Taking guilty pleasure trips in imagination, believing that I can control the spillage of my obsessions and not have them taint my “real” life. How the past and the present intertwine and cause confusion as to what emotions are true, and whether or not we have them under control. A complex state of being which is very clearly communicated by these two back-to-back sentences in your letter: “Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about her. I’ve thought of her every day since we broke up.”

There is, of course, poetry in our memories of past lovers – these what-if reflections, when channeled into art or writing, can be productive and life-affirming. But without an outlet, you are playing with fire and it is best to quell this obsession lest you begin to believe that this ungraspable, unattainable figment of your memories somehow has something your current partner does not have; something that will make you complete. In your letter you write that your past lover “seems in some ways stronger and more dynamic” than your current partner. “Seems in some ways” is passive syntax which indicates you are grasping at false hope. Alas. So much of life is waking up to realize that the grass will indeed always be greener and that the past really does look better with 20/20 hindsight.

There is a fascinating word that has resurfaced out of a forgotten self-help book written by Dorothy Tennov in 1979: The word is limerance and it means “a state of involuntary obsession with another person.” According to an article in Psychology Today limerence is based on being uncertain if the person you desire also secretly desires you. “As the focus of limerence is whether or not the object of desire reciprocates the feelings, rather than actually falling in love with the person, it is almost always one-sided.” And because it is one-sided, unless it is fodder for your creative work, or helping you in some way, it’s time to let it go. 

Of course “let it go” is easier said than done. I worry about how this situation is causing you to feel shame. It could be that now is a good time to make peace with that part of yourself that you describe as being an “ass” to your past lover; as the wise one say, all parts of ourselves, no matter how unattractive and self-destructive, do have a story to tell. And not telling that story could result in the “ass” part of yourself destroying another perfectly good relationship – this time, with your current partner. You don’t want to do that.

When a similar lament happened to me many years ago, I was told to do an exercise: extract those qualities you desire so much in your past lover into a list. And then, instead of looking for these qualities in someone else–especially a fantasy– nourish and cultivate them in yourself.

This classic poem by James Merrill came to mind as I was thinking of you. The invitation might be to transform this “what if” fantasy into a break-up song; grieve this memory. Then, turn towards your current partner and find all the qualities you love most about her/him/them and start making new memories.

Warmest wishes,

K

The Mad Scene

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To see us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.

-James Merrill

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