Ethical Dilemmas is a regular column where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. Hayley Glaholt is a pro at carefully examining two sides of a story and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality. If you have a difficult problem you’re currently dealing with and want some free advice, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am in a great relationship with someone I love, but I can’t stop thinking about someone from my past. He’s the one that got away, and my feelings for him are still so strong after all these years. We were together in undergrad, and we stay in touch on social media. My feelings for him are getting in the way of my current relationship, and I’m worried that means my current partner and I aren’t a good match.
(female, 27, Toronto)
Memories are generally good things, unless they get in the way of us living our lives. I am the kind of person that tends to always be in the past or the future but rarely in the present. I attribute that to having a fairly anxious mind and a low-key (i.e., deeply hidden) romantic flare.
We are always going to remember positive experiences and relationships fondly. That’s not a problem. But it sounds like you’ve gone past the point of remembering, towards fixating. This is a classic case of “the grass is always greener,” and one of the best ways to address this is to reality-test your memories in two ways: 1) Was that person and that relationship truly as perfect as you remember them to be? 2) If that same relationship took place now, with all of the stresses of adulthood casting shadows on it, would it survive?
I can think of two “ones that got away” in my life. I met one at eighteen and one at nineteen; one was a boyfriend, the other a friend. Currently, they are both married to seemingly perfect women, and they have seemingly perfect children, living in seemingly perfect homes, in seemingly perfect cities. I used “seemingly” an annoying amount of times there because who truly knows what is going on in their lives. A healthy dose of social media stalking can only tell me so much. But here’s the thing: they look HAPPY. Their lives turned out WELL. And I choose to see that as the universe telling me that they were not, in fact, ones that got away. They are ones that are exactly where they should be, with the partners they should be with.
Going back to the questions above—if I look back on those people and those relationships, if I reality- test them, I remember why they ended (or never started) in the first place. Both of these guys were life-of-the-party, charismatic, worship-able people. They were musical, so funny, and so, SO beautiful. But were they perfect? No. They were narcissistic and distracted. Was I a perfect match for either of them? No. I’m not good at worshipping and following other people’s dreams.
Experiences we have when we’re younger—especially romantic ones—are in part so special and “rose-coloured” because they happened before “real” (read: adult) life got in the way. That’s what makes them so precious. That’s why Bryan Adams says those were “the best days” of his life. In undergrad, we are fairly free to live like we want to live, to try new things, and to not worry about careers and other long-term cares. We can stay up all night with that awesome guy/girl and go to concerts and skip class because there are no serious consequences. If I did that with someone now, I would show up to work the next day exhausted and distracted and let my clients down. And that’s not what I want to do. Our priorities are different now, and therefore falling in love looks different when you’re in your late twenties or thirties—and NECESSARILY SO. That perfect little warm incubator of our youth is no longer around us, so memories with the heart-stopping qualities of those undergrad ones are harder to come by. The context for memory-making (and relationship-growing) has completely shifted.
That doesn’t mean that contemporary experiences are any less magical or special; it just means that we may filter them and store them differently in our minds.
Let’s say you were to meet your “one that got away” tomorrow, and he said, “Let’s quit our current lives and start a new one together,” and you said sure. Then what? Picture yourselves fourteen years down the road: you may have kids, you may have a mortgage, you or he may have just lost your jobs and you could be going into major debt. His looks are fading and so are yours. His parents are aging and he wants his mum to move in with you. When you get home after a long day, you don’t have the energy to tell him about your day, and he doesn’t ask about it. That scenario is REAL life. How do you think you two would fare? Would it be significantly better than how you and your current partner are faring?
My point is this: of COURSE you think about those beautiful memories. It is healthy and pleasurable to look back over our lives and remember good times we’ve had. But if you’re fixating on these memories, you should take stock of what that means. What are you getting from them that you are not getting from your current life or partner? What needs aren’t being met for you (in your job, your relationship, etc.) right now? When you think back on your time with this guy, what feelings and experiences were you having then that you feel are missing in your current relationship?
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You love the partner you have, and that compatibility and reality-tested truth is worth so much more than a “what if.” Please talk to your partner about what you feel you may be missing/wanting—be as specific and realistic as possible so that he isn’t forced to guess, and see if you two can come up with a way to have those needs met. But before you do that…unfollow this undergrad guy on social media.