— Q. I have recently gotten back in touch with a former boyfriend. We dated briefly in high school. Since then, I married and had children, divorced and remarried. He is in Europe and has been with his girlfriend for 20 years and is getting married soon.
On a whim, I found him on the Internet. He says he thinks of me often. It seems we still have unresolved feelings. I am in a loving relationship but realize it is possible to love two people and am being tortured with thoughts of him. Should I move on for good? Or should we keep in touch on the chance that “someday” we might be together again?
A. Yes, you should move on. No, you should not keep in touch with an eye toward a future together.
You don’t actually know this man or what he is like. It has been at least 20 years since you dated him briefly in high school.
Now you say you love him. I am not even sure what this means. It means you love the feelings you had for him from 20-odd years ago, and you love what he is saying now, and you love the fantasy that he is some great love of yours. But you have no idea whether you would be a good match if you were actually together.
A marriage, in real life, between grown-ups, has ups and downs. It cannot compete with the magical, sparkly feelings of a distant memory. Pursuing this is unfair to yourself, your husband and your old flame’s wife-to-be.
If you were both unattached and wanted to investigate whether you could be a successful couple, I would say that’s a wonderful idea. But you are talking about potentially destroying two partnerships for an unproven, untested fantasy.
By your logic, you should never have gotten married at all. If you were unattached, you would always be available for whatever romantic contingency might possibly come your way — whether it be someone new, someone better or someone resurfacing from years past.
That is not what marriage is about. A marriage is a partnership and commitment to one other person. It does not mean you continue the quest for an additional person.
If people feel so strongly that they must know what else is out there, then they shouldn’t get married.
I suggest you ask yourself why you decided to look up your old flame. This often happens when people are bored or disappointed. So they revisit their old fantasies and head on over to the Internet, which effortlessly yields its treasure.
If you had written me before you contacted this man, I would have advised you against doing so. This is not an old pal, a tennis buddy or a female friend whose company you enjoyed. You still harbored romantic feelings for this man, and specifically wondered whether he still has them for you.
So, once you found out this information, what were you going to do with it? Wreck your own marriage? Try to wreck his? Become the “other woman”?
Holding on to a fantasy of another man is sucking the air out of your marriage. It’s possible you have a problem with your husband that you haven’t acknowledged to yourself, or that you aren’t very interested in your marriage and secretly want it to break up.
You owe it to your spouse, who is in fact the man you married in real life, to give your marriage a fair shake. You cannot do that while playing footsie over the Internet with another man.
Keeping in touch is inadvisable, because that keeps the fantasy alive — a fantasy that potentially harms your marriage and his.
If you further your involvement with this other man, you could lose your marriage and increase your torture. From what you have written, this man’s feelings for you are unclear. He has told you he is getting married. It is impossible to know how much much of his life, if anything, he is willing to give up for you or how much he would resent you if you interfered with his relationship. If you got together and things fizzled, what then?
Once you figure out why you felt the need to wander into this man’s life and have dealt with that, feel free to contact him to say that further association isn’t good for either of you and you wish him well. Let him know that, if he ever finds himself unpartnered, he can call you. If you are also single, you will call him back. Then leave him alone.
If you located this man after 20-plus years, you will be able to locate him again some time in the future when either or both of you are widowed or divorced.
Attachment to the memory of an old flame is powerful and intoxicating. It is never a good idea for anyone who is married to look up an old love. It will almost certainly lead to heartache. A real relationship cannot easily compete with a starry-eyed high-school memory.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: It will undermine your marriage to keep in touch with an old flame on the off chance that your relationship will someday be rekindled.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.