Firstly, I want to say I’m super excited for you that you are a guest agony aunt for the month. I love reading the Dear Donnas, I think it’s a great feature so how exciting is it that you get to be a part of it. I hope you may have time to write a response to my here problem, and if so please keep my message anonymous.
So…my boyfriend always makes me feel second best. He was in a long-term relationship before our relationship, but his then girlfriend passed away in a traffic accident. We began dating about 18 months after her passing and he told me from the get-go what had happened.
My boyfriend is wonderful, kind, funny and treats me well, but he speaks about his late ex so much that it makes me feel like I just can’t live up to her. It kills me to say it / type it, but it’s exactly how I feel.
I feel cruel in wishing that he might stop talking about her so much, but it feels like no matter what we do or what we talk about it is connected to her in some way. I honestly am pleased that he feels able to verbalise his grief and share memories without bottling it up, especially given how rife suffering in silence is amongst men suffering with mental illness. However, I can’t help but feel hurt every time he talks about her, because it makes me feel like I’m not enough.
In fairness to him, he never compares us and I can tell he’s not intending to make me feel this way, but if I’m putting my hand on my heart, I don’t know if I can be in this three-way relationship for much longer. I’m scared he’s never going to look to the future with just he and I as a couple, because she’ll always be there too.
It breaks my heart to write this (I’ve actually started blubbing!) because I love him and I think he loves me, so I don’t want to end this. But I feel at a loss as to what I can.
I hope you can help.
Thank you so much for your kind words, and I feel very privileged that I’m getting the opportunity to help with your problem.
I can tell from your letter how hard this was for you to write, so I’d like to start by saying that you are so brave in seeking some advice and it in no way makes you a bad person. Your feelings are completely valid, it can be awful to try and live up to an ex and even harder when it ended the way it did.
Also, I can tell you supportive you have been with him, allowing him to work through his grief in a healthy way by being able to talk about her. He probably respects you and is very grateful for how you have handled it. Especially as you said silent suffering amongst men is still a very big problem. He obviously feels safe with you and trusts you enough to verbalise it, so for that you should be proud.
When there is death involved in someone’s past relationship that’s always going to make a situation more complicated, as everyone deals with grief in different ways and there is no right or wrong in that respect. However, it is clear that you can’t carry on with the situation as it is, nor should you.
The fact that he doesn’t compare the two you is good and shows he doesn’t see you are a replacement to what he lost and values your relationship. Like I said before, he obviously feels safe talking about her with you and because you have made that safe space, he probably doesn’t realise the effect it’s having on you.
If they had separated in other circumstances then most people would agree it wouldn’t be acceptable for him to continue talking about an ex in everyday conversations, that would be a very normal opinion to have, so I believe it’s okay to have it in this situation too.
I would say first and foremost you need to talk to him about how you are feeling, because for any relationship to work then communication is key. As women we often think that when we feel something a man knows and chooses to ignore it, but this is very often not the case at all and the are oblivious to how we are feeling.
If I were you I would sit him down in a place you are both comfortable, maybe one evening on the couch after dinner, and tell him you need to talk about something. Say exactly what you said to me, that you are glad he feels her can verbalise his feelings with you and that he feels he can talk about her. But then tell him that in doing so as much as he does is having a negative effect on you and how you feel in your relationship. I’m sure he would much rather work on a relationship in the here and now than ponder over one that is no longer.
You don’t need to blame him for anything, and make that clear, but you need to tell him how this situation is making you feel. It will be a tricky conversation for you both, but until you have it negativity is only going to build further.
He doesn’t need to stop talking about her completely, as a sudden loss like that can affect you in ways you don’t even realise and his brain is probably still processing that loss, but if you make him aware of it you may notice it starts to happen less and less as time goes on. Whether it’s done on purpose or not, no one should be left feeling second best in their relationship and I’m sure if you verbalise that he would also agree.
However I would also make clear that you’re not asking him to stop talking about her completely, because you don’t want him to feel like he can’t confide in you if he’s having a rough day or needs to talk about something.
Past relationships are always going to be part of who someone is and that’s a fact, but I do think there is certainly a happier balance than the one you are experiencing now.
I really hope this helps.