I’m a 26-year-old female living in NYC who has been in a serious monogamous relationship with my boyfriend for over a year and a half now. He’s a supportive partner who fulfills all of my needs and I love him tremendously.
The only problem I have with our relationship is that he was previously married. I met him shortly after he left his ex, and was with him through the divorce. His marriage was an abusive one; she inflicted years of mental and emotional torment that he’s still recovering from. He also still lives in the same neighborhood as his ex (I’ve seen her on more than one occasion while out and about), and they still communicate because they share joint custody of their three dogs.
My main problem with her, aside from the fact that she’s a terrible human, is that I’m obsessed with her—with hating her, specifically—and am resentful, on behalf of my boyfriend who has made peace with their toxic relationship, that she hurt my partner and continues to be involved in his life.
She leads a very public life online (she’s one of those “lifestyle bloggers”) and it’s easy, and so much fun, to watch her make mistakes after their separation and subsequent divorce. She’s also older (by 5 years) and seemingly “has it together,” living alone and working in her dream field, while I’m quite the opposite. She’s contacted me online before, in a manner I found threatening, so she knows I exist and was devastated (and blogged about it extensively) when she learned her ex-husband was in a committed relationship with me. This brought me great joy, and I realize that that’s a very sick thing to feel.
But within the past few months my infatuation with her emotional shitshow (which has subsided over the past few months, unfortunately) has completely consumed me, and it’s beginning to affect my relationship. I logged into my boyfriend’s emails and read conversations between the two (I confessed and he was angry, but forgave me), and one night I drunkenly confessed to him every detail of my obsession with her. He was patient and understanding.
Most importantly, I feel like I can’t pursue a more serious relationship with my boyfriend because he’s already done all of “those things” (marriage, trying to have a family, etc.) with someone else and I haven’t. I hate being second.
I feel like there are so many things I want to say to her, and if I just said them, I would feel better. But I know it’s a bad idea for me to contact her. It would upset my boyfriend (he doesn’t want to have to deal with her any more than he has to) and part of their divorce agreement is that she cannot communicate with me.
What should I do?
Dwelling On His Past
So you’re living in someone else’s past, and you feel unresolved about it. And why wouldn’t you? You feel angry at someone you don’t know and never had a relationship with. You want to say things to her about the way she treated your boyfriend. You are feeling feelings on his behalf, and you want to express them as if they’re YOUR feelings. BUT YOU DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW HER.
You currently believe that you could get closure by telling her how you feel. You’re wrong about that. It would be utterly dissatisfying to tell her how you feel, because you don’t know her, and because your feelings about her are all wrapped up in your protective feelings for him, your doubts about him, your desire to be The First, and your hopes and dreams with him. She can’t possibly address her role as a symbol of intrigue and drama and trauma in your life.
Before we go deeper into that stuff, though, we need to talk about SHARING CUSTODY OF A DOG. Here’s a public service announcement to future divorcees of the world: Never, ever set up joint custody of a fucking dog, ever.
Yes, dogs are members of the family. Yes, they matter, and losing a dog (or three) to a divorce is sure to be painful. I am a dog person. That’s an understatement. My dog Potus is arguably more in touch with my feelings than my husband is. If my eyes so much as water slightly, Potus notices immediately and nudges me with her cold nose and stares at me with her big saucer eyes that say, ARE YOU OKAY? She doesn’t do this to comfort me so much as to say, “Please stop this, so I don’t have to worry about you.” (Echoes of my childhood there).
Yes, I would battle in a court of law over Potus.
That said, driving dogs back and forth between households, and seeing your ex-wife every fucking week when you don’t need to, is pretty deranged. You have no kids—you dodged a bullet—but you’re still going to get on the phone and talk about doggie medications a few times a month?
JUST DON’T DO IT. Either push for custody of your dogs or give your dogs up (if you trust your ex not to ruin their lives), but do not share them. AND NEWSFLASH: MOST DOGS DON’T LIKE TO BE SHARED. Dogs are not fond of being relocated every few days or weeks. Dogs like to sleep in the same bed every night.
I lived with a guy who shared custody of his dog with his ex-wife, and let me tell you what, it was totally fucked up. I loved that dog, too. I understood why they would want to share custody. But then it became increasingly obvious that the dog was their little way of keeping tabs on each other. She left him for another man. He got a lot of information about the new guy just from picking up the dog from her place. He would come home with the dog and talk about the guy, or talk about her new apartment, or her new furniture. She would come to our house and he wouldn’t want to see her face, so he’d hide in the back while she dropped the dog off. Hiding felt fucking stupid to me, so I started answering the door. That also felt stupid, and very awkward. It was ALL stupid and awkward.
Meanwhile, was the dog happy? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I thought the dog really felt happier at the ex-wife’s house. She moped a lot when she was with us. Maybe she was just a mopey dog.
But even if the dog LOVED visiting both houses, was the whole carnival worth it? Were the dog’s preferences adequate justification for constant fucking contact, despite bad feelings on both sides, despite a breakup that involved infidelity (on her part), despite massive amounts of rage and sadness (on his part) and a strange reluctance to move forward (on both of their parts)?
Because, like you, I became semi-obsessed with this woman who had already claimed my boyfriend, who had done the whole white-dress-big-wedding thing with him, and who was clearly still HIS WIFE in his mind, no matter how he felt about me. How could I not be obsessed? SHE HAD A KEY TO MY FUCKING HOUSE. She appeared in my living room once a week! When I was planting flowers on the front patio or washing the floor, I would think of her seeing it—because she WOULD see it. It was as if our relationship had this hostile third party witness, one who also happened to know a lot about my boyfriend. She knew all of his flaws and shortcomings, and she’d REJECTED him. In spite of my best efforts to rise above the whole thing, I found myself wanting to demonstrate to her that he had changed, that we were totally happy and in love, that we had something she’d never had with him. LIKE A CRAZY PERSON.
And you know what was really tough? I understood why someone would leave him. He was a really lovable, well-intentioned guy, but (at the time) he was really angry and troubled and really fucking hard to live with. And he was DEFINITELY not over his ex.
I always assumed his ex-wife was completely over him. But then we took the dog on a driving trip across the country, and she called every morning, sometimes at five in the fucking morning, to see if THE DOG HAD ARRIVED SAFELY AT OUR DESTINATION. And even though he supposedly thought this was crazy and controlling of her, he kept answering her calls. Even when she forgot about the time change and woke us up way too early before a long day of driving, he wouldn’t tell her to cut it the fuck out.
That’s when I realized: They were in this together. They were still working something out. I felt like a third wheel because I WAS a third wheel. I broke up with him a few weeks later.
That situation taught me a lot about sinking deep into a pre-existing drama that really had nothing to do with me. And look, if the ex-wife had kept a blog? And I could read all about her feelings about him, and me? If she’d ever contacted me directly? I would’ve fallen right into that wormhole, and it would’ve been irresistible and satisfying and terrible and awesome and then, she would have moved on and gotten over it and I WOULD’VE STILL BEEN OBSESSED. Why? Because it was all still a mystery to me. I never knew her and she never knew me and it was all conjecture. That’s what obsession is: wild, uncontrolled THINKING about things that are mysterious and unreal. Obsession is not about feeling, it’s about invention. And the more you obsess, the more it becomes about the act of creative overthinking, about circular thought patterns, about neuroticism, about trying desperately to control something that’s completely out of your control. In this kind of ex situation, it’s about filling in the gaps, trying to solve the mystery of someone else’s shitty relationship. I wanted the problems in my life to come from the ex-wife—her callousness, her control freak tendencies, her infidelity—but underneath that I knew that my boyfriend was incapable of meeting someone halfway. He talked a big game about compromise, about collaborating, but he was always dictating the terms of everything we did, every step of the way. If he wasn’t completely in charge, he was furious, or fearful.
Instead of trying to tackle the frustrations and disappointments of our relationship, I focused on the mystery of her, of them. I got caught up in feeling sorry for myself for not getting the fairy tale I deserved. I don’t think I ever cared about wedding dresses until I saw their wedding photos for the first time. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman alive, but she looked beautiful on their wedding day. All of a sudden, their little fairy tale felt like MY tragedy. They got to have something I would never have. I was lonely and powerless in that relationship, so I told an elaborate story about WHY I was lonely and powerless. It was ALL HER FAULT.
If you have a big, imaginative brain and you naturally think think think in circles anyway, obsession is like coming home to mama. Only mama is more like a vengeful, unforgiving god. Mama is the fucking Heat Miser.
So you’re in that crucible, due to circumstances beyond your control. I’m not going to blame you for your obsession, and tell you to grow the fuck up and get over it. Honestly, having been where you are now, I’d be more concerned if you WEREN’T remotely affected by the fucking joint dog custody and the lifestyle blog and the rest of it. I would be worried that you were a fucking robot if those things didn’t bore deep, deep, deep under your skin.
So I just want to tell you this, loud and clear: A lot of your current troubles are circumstantial. Anyone with a functioning heart and a functioning brain would land where you’ve landed.
But I also believe that you may have displaced your frustration and your anger, and made her a target for feelings that don’t have anything to do with her. He might have reasons to hate her, and maybe you dislike her on his behalf. But no matter how much you’ve read her words or heard about their life together, you don’t fucking know her. You can’t work this out with her because she’s not your lover or your friend or even your loose acquaintance. You have no relationship with her.
So it’s not really about her. It’s also not about the fact that he was married before. My husband was married for 12 years to someone else. When I met him, he’d only been single for about 9 months. We share custody of a child with his ex. Not a dog, a human being! But his ex-wife doesn’t loom large in my life; she’s just a person I hardly know. I understand his feelings about his marriage and his divorce, but I don’t feel emotionally invested in that story, nor do I see her as some kind of an intruder or hostile witness in our lives. When we were planning our wedding, it often slipped my mind that he’d done it all before. He never acted like ours was a second marriage. He said he felt like it was his first “REAL” marriage, however you want to interpret that.
So honestly, I think there’s something in the mix here that’s bothering you, and blaming it on being “second” makes little sense and frankly obscures the source of your troubles. Maybe you’re a little bit haunted by your boyfriend’s ex because her perspective on him bugs you. Maybe she disrespected him and you’re worried that you will, too, eventually. Maybe you have doubts about him that you don’t want to address with him or anyone else. Maybe you think he’ll never want to marry you or have kids with you, even though he wanted those things with her. Or maybe you’re worried that you don’t REALLY want to marry HIM.
I don’t get the sense that last one is true, I only mention it for the readers out there who are obsessed with someone and they think it means they want to be with that person forever, when in fact it could mean that they’re hung up on the person because he/she makes them feel confused and conflicted, because he/she is intriguing but WRONG SOMEHOW. Obsession often indicates ambivalence.
Your case is a little different, though. My guess is that your boyfriend’s ex looms large because she has an engaging career and you don’t. She makes a living doing something she loves and you want that for yourself. You’re also insecure because you’re young and you’re not entirely sure what you want from your life yet. You wonder if your boyfriend could ever love you as much as he loved her, because you’re not that much like his ex. Even though she’s a fucking nightmare, you wonder if you’ll ever capture his heart and imagination and passion the way she did.
You’re not feeling fragile about this because she’s somehow better than you. You’re feeling fragile because, instead of believing in your own dreams and working towards what you want from your life, you’re distracting yourself with her. You’re all wrapped up in their past, their drama, their weirdness, long after they themselves (officially) left it behind. You are procrastinating. You are distracting yourself from something you don’t want to deal with. You’ve found a distraction big and colorful enough to provide an extended escape from the hard work you still have to do on yourself.
You need a therapist if you don’t have one already. You also need to work on talking to your boyfriend—regularly, openly, honestly—about what you want from this relationship, and from him. Do you sometimes feel that he’s a pushover with other people? Do you feel that he’s honest with you, or do you suspect that he placates you when you’re upset? What will the next few years of your lives look like? What happens when one of the dogs gets old and sick? Would he consider giving her the dogs, or splitting them up? Does he have a problem cutting off all contact with her?
Again, your situation is TOTALLY understandable. Your feelings are understandable. Even your OBSESSION is understandable. Honestly. But it’s a sign that things aren’t quite right in your life. Obsession only goes in the warm, moist Petri dish of confusion. You are looking for a distraction from your own challenges.
You need to have another long, heartfelt talk about this woman, about what she SYMBOLIZES in your life—with both your therapist and your boyfriend. After that, though, you need to forget that she exists. Don’t talk about her, don’t think about her, don’t write about her, don’t picture her. When you’re tempted to think about her, you need to say these words. I DON’T KNOW HER. SHE IS NOT IN MY LIFE. SHE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.
Then you need to take a long, hard look at your life, and figure out what you really want, and you need to GO OUT AND GET IT. Because, look, do you want to spend the next five years thinking about someone who you don’t even know? Do you want to destroy the love you have with these obsessions and fixations and this illusory desire for “closure”?
What started as a funny little gossipy thing has turned into something dangerous to you. The stakes are very high now. You have to stop concerning yourself with her, because it’s hurting you. You have to do the very hard work of concerning yourself with yourself instead. You will find your passion, and your confidence, and you’ll never worry about her again once you do that. But can’t skip that step. You have to find yourself. Don’t hide behind your relationship. Spend some time on your own, and with friends, nurturing your independence, and figuring out exactly what you want your life to look like. You are avoiding this right now. But you can’t let someone else decide what you want. You have to decide for yourself. If you aren’t careful, you will end up with a life you don’t want at all. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted like this. Don’t follow the path of least resistance. Don’t tell stories that belong to other people. It’s time for YOUR story to begin now.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Dog photo by Timothy J Carroll.