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Haunted by Ghosts

It's always hard to hear your partner talk about their exes, but what happens when that ex passed away. The 4-way panel gives one reader some advice on handling this discussion with empathy and tact.

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Dear 4-Way,
I’ve been dating a wonderful man for about eight months. Things are going great in every possible way—he’s kind, honest, smart, funny, a fantastic communicator, and he treats me like gold. He was married before, but his wife was killed in a car accident about three years ago. The only problem we have is that he still talks about his wife—a lot. Nothing heavy, just a lot of dropping her name: “Halloween was J’s favorite holiday,” or “J used to love these little chocolates.” I’ve tried to be patient, because I have no idea how difficult it must’ve been and probably still is. But I’m wondering if he’ll ever truly be over her. (I’m not the first relationship he’s had since her death.) He saw a therapist for a long time, but has told me that he feels ready to move on with his life. If we stay together, I know that she’ll always be a presence in our life to some degree, and I’m fine with that because they truly loved each other. I just wonder if I’m being selfish to wish that her presence would be less. Any advice on this entire situation is much appreciated.—KK, Seattle, Washington

The straight man’s perspective: Chris Kennedy
This is a rock and a hard place situation … and this hard place is the gravestone of his dead wife.  On one hand, it is proper that he has genuine feelings for the woman he loved and was married to. On the other hand, he needs to be able to set those feelings aside and move on and make you feel like you’re number one in his life now. That can’t be easy to do, but that’s really his only choice if he does want to progress with you.

I feel for both you. You’re not being selfish. No one wants to date someone who’s still hung up on an ex, especially in your case where the relationship wasn’t ended by anyone’s choice. Plus you probably feel like you’d rather have not fallen for someone who’s in this situation. But you chose to and knew what you were getting into, so this is what you’ll have to work through.  You say he treats you like gold—that’s a good sign. He’s been through therapy, which means he’s making efforts to move on. I wouldn’t expect it to happen abruptly.  He probably will never stop talking about her, but his mentions of her, over time, should decrease. So I’d say the future looks promising.

You’re going to have to help him through this process and that means mentioning that while you understand how hard it is for him, it’s also hard for you. That awareness should help him realize when he should just keep those thoughts to himself and be good to you. (Just a thought: you might suggest that you honor her once a year on her death and then try not to mention it again the rest of the year.)  His dead wife is the woman of his past; you are the woman of his present. And if you two can work through this, you’ll be the woman of his future.

The gay woman’s perspective: Jody Fischer
Selfish is not always a dirty word, and in your case, I don’t even see your wish as a selfish one. Looking at this situation together will actually strengthen your relationship as a couple.

He may have had therapy for his loss, but it sounds like couple’s therapy may be in order. I can’t say if he’s talking about his ex-wife too much, but it’s clearly too much for you. And if you hold onto this feeling for too long, it will affect your relationship.  If he really is as wonderful as you say he is, and as good a communicator, it’s time to communicate. I know this is a tough subject, which is why I suggest involving a relationship counselor or therapist.  I’m wondering what, if anything, you say now when he brings up his former wife? Are you silent? Do you just say, “Hmmmm?” Do you give him a hug? I don’t know what kind of support he wants from you around this, but it’s worth asking him what he needs. Perhaps he’s seeking some sort of comfort from you and once he gets that, he can lessen the frequency of his remarks.

You’re not the first person to be in this situation. I’m reminded of a similar story line involving one of our vice-presidential nominees, Senator Joe Biden, who lost his wife and child in a car accident. I don’t know the details of what ensued, but I do see a happily married man today. Find out his and others’ stories and learn from their wisdom.  Don’t stay silent, KK, and let your feelings fester. He sounds like a great guy. Do some reading, and then start the conversation with him. Be compassionate and honest.

The gay man’s perspective: Darren Maddox
I’m sure that’s a tough situation to be in. You say that your boyfriend is a great communicator … but are you? Have you ever broached the subject of how this makes you feel? If you don’t know how to discuss this, seek the advice of a grief counselor. They can probably tell you much better than I can how to respond to someone who has lost a loved one and break down the process of what they go through and how they deal with letting go. The can also offer suggestions on how to discuss your feelings without offending the other person.

I think this is a necessary step for you at this point in your relationship and will likely draw the two of you even closer and help you discuss the topic without avoiding the way certain aspects of her presence make you feel. You aren’t a bad person for feeling this way; it’s human nature to feel some sort of selfishness when the person you love has feelings for someone else. Just know that she was taken away from him when he was not ready to let go. Find out if he’s ready to let go now.

The straight woman’s perspective: Rebecca Brown
You’re not selfish, you’re honest. And that’s good, because that’s where you need to be to help make peace with this.

Three years may sound like a long time to you (and to me, too), but three years really isn’t that long when you’re trying to get past losing someone you loved that you’d banked on spending forever with. It’s hard—really hard. I still miss and occasionally get sad about all the people I’ve lost, and the most recent death I’ve experienced was nine years ago. I remember thinking I was “over it” a few months later, but looking back, I realize now that I wasn’t actually in the normal state of mind I thought I was until much later.

But it sounds like your guy is back in his normal state of mind; he’s dating you (and has dated others), which is a good sign, and he’s seen a therapist, which is also good. But I think you should continue to be patient with him for just a little bit longer. Since things are going well and this is your only concern, give it just a tiny bit longer to see how his healing progresses. If he’s still talking too much about her for your comfort at your one-year mark, you can have a conversation, but I’d suggest making it about your one-year milestone. During that conversation, it would be completely fair to ask him if he thinks his wife’s death is affecting the progress of your relationship. He’ll probably want to know why you’re asking that, which gives you a nice segue way into telling him that he mentions her quite a bit—he may not even be aware that he’s doing it. Definitely let him know that you want to help him keep her memory alive, but that you also want to make sure that your relationship continues to grow. You want him to know what your favorite holidays and chocolates are, too. He’ll get it. It might be hard for him to hear, but he’ll get it. If the problem persists, maybe the two of you should see a therapist together. It sounds like you need some guidance just as much as he does.

 

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