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How to be human: I'm married — how can I stop thinking about my ex?

What if... ?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com.

Hello Leah,

I read your most recent article on The Verge about getting over heartbreak, and it struck a chord with me, so I decided to email you seeking advice.

I'm a 29-year-old guy with a loving wife, and a father of one with one on the way. I've been with my wife for five years now and love her dearly. Still, I find myself constantly thinking about my high school sweetheart who I dated from 2004-2009. We graduated together and eventually moved in together, only to have it last six months under the same roof. We split up because I was more of an introvert when it came to doing outside activities, while she was more outgoing and liked to party. A few months after we split up, she called me back wanting move back in with me, but my heart wasn't ready. I specifically remember telling her, "We have better chances 10 years from now rather than 10 weeks from now."

Fast forward to today; as much as I love my wife and kids, I can't stop thinking about her and worrying that she's making bad choices in life based on what she learned from me growing up in high school. I feel guilty for "corrupting" her with pot, alcohol, and lord knows what else. A part of me wants to say goodbye and wish her well so I could get closure, while my other half wants to just forget about her and not risk anything with my family.

What should I do? I feel like I'm missing a piece of my heart that she has, and I have had my life on standby not knowing what to do.

Any help / advice is appreciated.

Regards,
D

Hey D,

I'm going to ask you a question, but I want you to know before I do that it's a question I ask you gently and without judgment, and it's one I need you to answer honestly:

Can you not stop thinking about your high school girlfriend because you're worried about her and want to say goodbye, or because you simply can't stop thinking about her and don't want to say goodbye for good?

D, based on this very short letter, you seem to me like a good dude. You're a lucky husband and a dad. You're a guy who didn't move back in with someone you love because you knew the time wasn't right and your heart wasn't ready. You even knew that you and your high school sweetheart were too close in your relationship and the patterns that defined it to try and make it work again, at least so soon. I'm telling you you're a good dude because I want you to know I trust you. I also say it because I think, deep down inside, you know what's going on, and you can handle being honest with yourself.

Who knows what that person's life would have been like had he ended up with this other woman

Your high school girlfriend represents a time in your life, an idea of what you thought you wanted, and a person you were. Namely, a person who didn't have a wife and kids. Who knows what that person's life would have been like had he ended up with this other woman. It's intriguing to think about, right? All of these memories and experiences with her make for a compelling package, especially when tied up in the bow of "what if" and sprinkled with a glittery dusting of nostalgic wistful heartache-y yearnings.

You say you feel bad about how you may or may not have influenced her, and you worry about her life choices. Sure, I think you're sincere in your concern for her, but I also think this is a way for you to think about her without also feeling totally guilty about your wife and kids. If somehow you can put yourself in the role of both bad influence and savior, you can tear yourself up thinking about her and give yourself an excuse to contact her that seems good and true and reasonable.

See why I needed you to answer it honestly? The answer isn't for me, it's for you.

The truth is, you know this. You told me so. You're worried about risking your family by being in contact with this person. I don't think I'm telling you anything you haven't already figured out, even if it's hard to admit it.

She is an adult making her own choices. So are you

I believe you care about your ex-girlfriend and about the choices she may or may not be making. Unless you pressured or forced her into doing things she didn't want to —and if that's the case, then this is a different story — whatever you guys got up to was part of being a couple of dumb teenagers together. Your ex-girlfriend is an adult making her own choices. And D, so are you. The choice you have to make now is one of being honest with yourself. Somewhere in between breaking up with your ex and now, you met and fell in love with your wife. You and your wife had a kid together, and now soon you'll have another one.

If you were just worried about your ex as a friend, I'd say, "Go talk to her." But you don't want to tell her how worried you are for her sake. You want to talk to her for yourself. For "closure." For something in you that feels pulled away from your present life and back to that time and that person.

In California we have a lot of fires, especially in a year like this one. Some years, the forest service might ignite some controlled burns to decrease the amount of fuel buildup in a forest. In a drought, that's a much more dangerous proposition. Sometimes, in a relationship, there's a real problem between two people, whether emotional or physical or both. Sometimes, it's not so much a problem as it is one partner feeling like he or she is overwhelmed by the loss of their own self. Like, say, by having a marriage and two kids before 30, and wondering what might have happened had he or she made other choices.

In either case, a controlled burn can end up as a blaze out of all control. A controlled burn like, say, contacting an old love under what appears to be totally innocent circumstances.

The closure you seek with your ex isn't something she can give you. It's something you have to give yourself. Maybe you need to talk to someone outside your marriage about how you feel about having a family, about having a second child before you're 30. Do you feel like your youth has totally slipped away before you were ready? Do you want to reach back to that ex because you feel that somehow you can hold onto that time? Does the piece of your heart you feel is missing look something like the life you had between 2004 and 2009 when you were with your first love and you didn't have this whole life?

Do you feel like your youth has totally slipped away before you were ready?

Honestly, if the answer to even one of these questions is yes, that would seem pretty reasonable to me. You know why? Because it's okay to be scared or worried or freaked out by the life you've created. Maybe your wife is even feeling some of it herself. Maybe you can talk to her as well as talking to someone else, not about your ex but about your fears and your wish to have a life together that's as much about yourselves and each other as it is about your children.

D, you're a human being. A thing about human beings is we have memories and hindsight. Sometimes we have bad judgment and sometimes we have good. We tell ourselves stories that seem really true at the time, but later we figure out we were fooling ourselves or trying to make a bad situation seem better. We also have a tendency to become dissatisfied with our lives, even when we recognize we're lucky. We get bored, worried, curious about what would have happened if we'd taken a different path. We think something out there will fix something in here.

One day you can talk to your ex, tell her you're worried about her and you want her to always be happy and safe. But this year the fire hazard is high. Give yourself a rainy season or two before you reach out.

Lx

Hello Leah,

I've recently moved to college and have become more sexually active, but I have found that when I'm with a guy and it's time to put on the condom I go flaccid. I know it's a mental barrier and if I could get over it once I would be okay, but I'm having trouble. Help?

Anxious

Hey Anxious,

This is so great! Congrats on starting college, and congrats on finding all sorts of new people to be excited about. Congrats too on being dedicated to practicing safe sex. I know it can be tempting to want to fling the condom across the room when it gives you trouble — or even when it doesn't — so I truly want to commend you for not doing that.

You're new at college! You're getting it on like never before!

Here's what I'm wondering, Anxious: what specifically is it that's creating this mental barrier? I imagine it's a combination of things, like all the big changes in your life and maybe wanting to live up to them. You're new at college! You're getting it on like never before! You want to impress and cast off whoever you were back home and in high school! You're becoming this new person and oh man, what if that new person just can't hack it? Ah, classic performance anxiety that has befallen many a man (and woman, to be fair!). That could definitely make you overwhelmed and unable to perform.

You know what it could be too? Some of us are better at casual sex than others. Some of us are good at it at different times in our lives than in others. Some of us are never good at it, and some of us are almost always good at it. Most of us will feel some weird sort of unexpected emotion around casual sex at least once in our lives. That emotion can run the gamut from loneliness to nervousness to "wait oh god I like this person."

Some of us are better at casual sex than others

And the secret is that casual sex can be tough for men too. Sure, you hear a lot of talk about how men can be so much more casual with sex than women can, whether because it's easier for them hormonally or socially or whatever it may be. Guys have feelings too. I'm talking gay, straight, bisexual, and trans men. All men! The truth is that casual sex — while totally fun and great — can include just as many feelings as sex in a relationship, and sometimes you're not as prepared for them because, you know, it's supposed to be casual!

The other thing about casual sex, and especially one-night stands, is you don't get a chance to get comfortable with a partner. For some, this is exactly the appeal. "Comfort," they might say, "has no place in hot intense sex. Comfort is boring." Indeed, sometimes comfort can get a little too comfortable. But getting to know a partner does have the benefit of allowing you to relax a little bit, to get to know them and yourself, and start to feel like there's not as much pressure to perform and a lot more space to laugh and let sex be as weird and awkward and ridiculous as it is.

Get comfortable

I'm not telling you that you need to be monogamous or find a boyfriend. I'm suggesting only that it might help you get over this barrier if you find someone whose company you enjoy, at least in bed, where you can fool around and relax, rather than worry whether you're performing well or even at all. Someone who can be kind if you go flaccid when it comes time for the condom, and who will wait around for you to get hard again (which shouldn't be too long, let's be honest).

Get comfortable — not in a boring, farting-in-sweatpants way — but with yourself and the happily sexual being you are very quickly blossoming into. Give yourself time and space to explore who that is with someone you feel safe around, and then start to expand your horizons.

Lx