Three years ago, I met this guy. We got along really well and had a lot of fun together, but he was nine years older than me and much more settled in his life.
I was 20, and our first date was at a bar, so I told him I was 21. Stupidly, I didn’t tell him I was really only 20 for two months. Despite breaking his trust, things were alright for awhile, until a month or two later when he started to back away.
According to him, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to get seriously involved with someone who was so much less settled and at a different place in their life but he wanted me to be patient because he was trying to get over those issues. So, we continued seeing each other on and off for another six months or so. One night he would tell me how much he cared about me and how perfect we were for each other and then he would take a week to get back to me, only to give me the age difference speech again. Eventually I broke things off, because it was too emotionally exhausting.
I have been in more serious, committed, what should seem more impacting relationships, and dated people since him, but he has stuck in my mind and heart the most. I want to reach out to him, but I don’t know whether it’s the smart thing to do. Most all of my friends say it’d be a waste of my energy, and I’m not even sure what I am trying to accomplish.
I am in a much different place than when I was seeing him, our relationship wasn’t the most functional and there’s a strong likelihood he wouldn’t even respond since my last words with him were slightly-to-very bitter. And since I was so hurt and bitter for so long, I have no idea how it would feel to talk with him.
I try to tell myself that the relationship wasn’t meant to be, and that some people just take a long time to get over, but I still can’t get him out of my head. Do I accept that he’s just someone that will be in my thoughts indefinitely and carry on, or do I indulge my curiosity?
I get a version of this question a lot. And for good reason. Every one of us has someone from our past who we cannot let go of.
There are several iterations of this: there is the person we cannot let go of because he or she is the Long, Lost Love Of Our Lives. There is the person we can’t forget because we still want something from him or her. And there is the person who has become a constant, mid-range thought because we feel guilty about our behavior toward that person.
The worst is someone who is all three. You say that you’re not sure what you even want to accomplish by getting back in touch with this man, and I think it is important for you to know your own motivations, because understanding that will help you see if you can expect to get anything out of contacting him.
Perhaps you want to get back in touch with him as a sort of litmus test, determining whether you have been in love since or can be in love again based on whether or not you feel you were really in love with this man and how you feel about him now. Perhaps you do feel guilty about the bitterness with which you ended your relationship with this man, and you hope that getting back in touch with him will salve that guilt –that he will implicitly or overtly absolve you of your bad behavior. Or maybe you want to call him up because you think talking to him will satisfy your curiosity: he can, you believe, provide the answer to “what if?” (What if I had stuck it out? What if I had been at a different time in my life then, like I am now? What if?).
All of these desires are really a desire to know more about yourself, not the man from your past.
Often, when we go searching for someone we have lost, we are looking for some missing part of ourselves, something we feel like we misplaced in the past, to help us understand who we are now and how we came to be this way. But the questions we have about our past relationships are often questions only we can answer. And that kind of sucks. Because answering questions about ourselves is hard –we never feel like we have the requisite perspective to do so, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to think that no one else really does either.
But here’s what’s great about that:
We can spend a lifetime figuring out who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming. That is good work to do. If you are wondering about these things, it means you are a thoughtful, ethical person making your way through the world consciously. So don’t give that up. No one else gets to absolve you from your bad behavior in the past –but you do. We all act shitty sometimes. And we all get to suck it up, cut ourselves some slack, and move on. Similarly, no one else can tell you whether or not your life could have or should have gone differently –if you had stayed with this man, or never met him. But you do get to do this for yourself. You can decide how to feel about this old relationship and, to a large degree, tell yourself any story that wish about your life. You alone can decide what this man means to you now.
When your friends tell you that it’s not worth the effort to get back in touch with this man, they might be right. If you Google+ him, or Facemail him or whatever, you might not get a response. But that’s not really the point. In the age of the Internet it is almost impossible to really leave someone behind; everyone is always only a click away (unless they become a recluse or die, but I’m sure Zuckerberg will find a way to bridge those gaps shortly). And I think that’s too bad. Our memories are imperfect, so when we’re forced to rely on them instead of accessing something that looks like a fact, we learn something about ourselves, and we get to shape the world we live in, too. As the totally underrated movie Be Kind Rewind tells us, “the past belongs to us, we can change it if we want.” If that sounds a little too close to lying or denial for your comfort, think of it this way: the past may be what it always was, but we get to change, and that changes our understanding and perception of the past. But that won’t work if the past becomes nothing but a constant, ongoing present. In other words, I think there’s some value to letting things and people go sometimes, and holding on only to our (flawed and changeable) memories.
For all my thinking on this, though, I’ve fallen prey myself several times to the urge to look up an old flame.
I had a boyfriend for three months between my first and second years of college before he moved half a country away to open a pretzel shop or something. And for most of my adult life I considered this man the Long, Lost Love Of My Life. I searched for him all over, until finally I joined Facebook, way un-hiply late. And there he was. When I finally found him, we corresponded a bit and even exchanged phone numbers. But I couldn’t bring myself to call him, not least because his profile picture revealed that he sports a brand-new giant neck tattoo. I just decided that I want to always think of him as the Long, Lost Love Of My Life, without letting him interfere with my fantasy about that wonderful summer.
I also once wrote a long email to another guy I dated for a while in my early twenties. This guy and I were horrible to each other at the end of our relationship, and I felt unbearably guilty about the things I said and did to him. I also still smarted from all the hurt he inflicted on me when he left. So right before I got married, I sent off this letter apologizing for myself and wishing him well. I also included details about my life that were carefully chosen to show how easily I had moved on and what great success I had found since he left me.
I wasn’t self-aware enough at the time to fully understand my motivations for writing this missive.
I never got a response from him. And I only understood why years later, when my husband received a similarly-worded email from his ex-girlfriend, all about the fact that she was in the Peace Corps and had found love in her life and hoped so much that my husband was doing well. My husband and I looked at each other and laughed.
We very much did wish this woman well, but neither of us wanted to touch that with a ten-fucking-foot pole.
And you know what, one day I woke up and let that old boyfriend of mine out of my head. And I let my guilt go, too. It just happened. I had a dream that he was okay, and I decided to believe it. Because I was ready to let go.
It’s important to keep thinking about our past so we can learn from it and be the best people we are able to be. But we get to think about it on our own terms. And sometimes, that means letting shit lay. Accepting the past is one of the hardest things we have to do. But it’s also empowering and freeing.
So yes, this man may be someone who will always be in your thoughts, and right now, that idea is uncomfortable for you. But remember that while you may always think about him, the way in which you think about him is likely to change as you do, and that’s a good thing.
Got a question? Or a conundrum? Or maybe you just want to complain about the modern world or my column? Email smartpeopleonbaddays (at) gmail.com! I can’t wait to hear from you.