To the esteemed Dr. NerdLove:
Should I get rid of a treasured memento of a past romantic (and currently platonic) relationship before pursuing a new one?
I’ve only been in one serious relationship. It started as an online, long-distance relationship shortly after high school. After a couple years, she moved in with me. While we had our ups and downs, of course, I think it was mostly a pretty solid and healthy relationship overall. Of course, we were young; we were therefore experiencing a whirlwind of change both within ourselves, and outside of ourselves.
To summarize, we’ll fast-forward a decade or so: ultimately, she leaves me and moves back home. I was not fulfilling her needs, which hurt a lot because I felt like she was fulfilling mine well; I did not want her to leave. We tried some couples therapy, but I think it was “too little, too late.” While I did not want her to leave, I respected her decision and assisted her in getting back home safely. So while the breakup was certainly not mutual, I still feel like it was relatively amicable; we wanted to stay friends.
So we agreed to go silent for a few months. We started talking again at the new year (she left in September of 2014); however, it quickly became apparent that I was not ready for friendship yet, although she had moved on. So we agreed to go silent again. In late 2018, I entered therapy. After some time, my therapist suggested I contact her again; I did so in early 2019, and we have been doing well as friends since then.
While we were still together romantically, she gave me an item that she hand-crafted from scratch. I still have this item, and it reminds me of the good times that we shared. While I am not generally a sentimental person, this particular item has strong sentimental value for me.
However, I have recently considered that I might start dating – for the first time, at age thirty-five. That’s likely to come with a whole host of complications on its own, and I’m definitely nervous about it.
But this brings me back to my question: should I get rid of the item that my ex crafted for me? Or, perhaps more accurately: would it be a disservice to a new relationship for me to continue holding on to it? Is it an indication that I’m not fully “over” my ex?
Were the situation reversed, I think I would feel uneasy about it. But I’m also still quite insecure (working on that before I wade into the dating pool), so I’m not sure how a “healthy” person would feel about it.
What are your thoughts?
Old, Alone, and Still Confused
Well this is a first. In all my years — as a pick-up artist, a dating coach and an advice columnist — I’ve never actually encountered someone from the old Jealous Girlfriend opener.
For those of you who either haven’t read Neil Strauss’ The Game or who had someone use this line before, the Jealous Girlfriend opener goes like this:
“Hey, I need an opinion. So you know how everyone has this box of, like, souvenirs and mementos from past relationships? Like, pictures, cards, things your ex gave you? Well my buddy just started dating this new girl and she’s kind of the jealous, possessive type. So check this out: she was over at his place the other day and she found the box. Now she’s kinda freaking out and she’s telling him that he — get this — needs to burn the box. That’s a little extreme, right? What do you think?”
And then you let the group argue about whether his girlfriend is out of line for demanding this or not before segueing into trying to figure out who in the group is and isn’t single.
So congratulations AOSC: you’re a first for me.
But let’s actually talk about this situation. Part of the reason why that opener works to get a conversation started is because of the universality of the situation. Unless the relationship ended very badly — or you’re the sort of person who performs a damnatio memoriae whenever you break up with someone — then the odds are good that you’ve got various random bits and bobs from past relationships. Some of them may just be the clutter from having another person in your life, but others may be welcome reminders of how things were. These could be anything from old photos to mix CDs (if you’re old, like me), random gifts or even clothes and the like. It’s incredibly common, almost to the point of being expected.
The fact that it’s so common is also part of why the theoretical girlfriend’s demands prompt so much discussion. For many people, the fact that she’s jealous of someone she’s never even met is unacceptably controlling. For others, it’s a reminder of an ex who couldn’t let go of the past and give themselves fully into their current relationship.
But here’s the thing: what often makes the difference between an understandable problem with those mementos and an unreasonable demand is often the relationship the owner of those mementos has with them and the memories attached to them. If, for example, the theoretical girlfriend was finding her boyfriend starting at those old photos on the regular (or possibly catching him using them as masturbation fodder) or he was keeping a framed portrait of his ex in a place of honor on his bookshelf or over the fireplace… well, that might be cause for concern.
If, on the other hand, they’re just reminders of a happy time — like looking over old wedding photos or videos shot on vacation — then it’s not unreasonable for the boyfriend to think that the fact that his girlfriend is threatened is a sign that maybe they’re not a good fit.
I suspect that in your case, it’s the latter. You don’t mention what this particular reminder is — whether it’s something like a knit scarf, a photo album, some objet d’art — but it doesn’t sound like something that a stranger would immediately twig to as related to an ex. You also don’t sound like you have any sort of unhealthy relationship to it; it’s just a reminder of a happy and formative period in your life.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s any reason to get rid of it. You are the sum of your past; your experiences with your ex are part of what made you who you are today. It’s not as though Thanos snapped all of your exes out of existence the moment you two broke up. Trying to pretend that they never existed or that they didn’t shape you isn’t just a fool’s errand, but it’s unreasonable to demand it of someone.
It would be one thing if this were an object of great and terrible importance in your life… but it isn’t. It’s a sweet gift from your partner at the time and one that still has positive associations for you. I think someone who would be that bothered by it is somebody whose own insecurities are going to cause issues the longer they go unexamined and unaddressed.
(Which, incidentally, applies to you too, AOSC: just because the souvenir exists doesn’t mean that your future partner prefers their ex over you.)
As long as it isn’t part of a shrine to your ex, I don’t think a reasonable, grown-ass woman is going to have any issues with your still having it. It’s also not something you have to justify holding onto. If anyone asks, you can tell them honestly: it’s a present your ex made for you years ago and you’ve kept it because it has sentimental value for you.
If you’re really worried, you could always just keep it in storage somewhere, where it can be a sort of out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation. But honestly? I think you’re borrowing trouble from the future.
You’ll be fine, my dude.
Sorry for any mistakes; English isn’t my first language.
I’m a fat, introverted, religious nerd. I was voluntarily celibate until I was 26; I wasn’t having any difficulties living without sex.
Everything had changed when I came across with a lone depressed girl. I couldn’t bear her tears of self-hatred, as she considered herself ugly while she wasn’t, she told she had no right to live if she’s ugly. My feeling of justice protested against that, and I started to reassure her. As we communicated, I learned she was a smart and educated girl, with high morals. One night I found I had a crush on her.
We communicated further, and she showed her respect to me. But I wasn’t her type, and when I proposed relationship, she refused. She was actually strongly attracted to someone else, but the man whom she loved was indifferent to her.
After a cooling off period, I resumed communication, now with purposes of friendship.
(I decided the relationship might be harmful for both of us, so I mustn’t ever dream of it).
We continued talking on various topics, she was pleasant as a friend while her mood was better, and I always tried to cheer her up while she was sad.
But after having read your article about “White Knight Syndrome” I realized I could be such one all this time. Leave her? But I literally feel pain while she suffers. Do I really have this syndrome, and what have I to do, if I want to see her happy and find a girlfriend for my own happiness?
Here’s the thing about White Knight syndrome, SG: it’s almost always borne out of insecurity and neediness. A lot of folks, especially men with a particular nerdy bent are prone to gravitating towards women they see as fragile, damaged, lonely, weak or otherwise in need of being “saved”. To them, it’s an outward expression of compassion or empathy; they can’t stand seeing someone hurt, abandoned or what-have-you and want to provide them the love and care they need and/or deserve.
In reality though, this almost always comes from a place of a lack of deservedness and a desire for control. While most of the men who do this may well have good intentions, what they also have is a lack of faith in their own self-worth. The reason why they feel so drawn to “saving” women is because they don’t feel that they have anything of value in and of themselves. They want to “save” or “fix” these broken birds because by doing so they’ll “earn” her love and affection by doing so.
(And that’s just the well-intentioned ones; there’re plenty who are drawn to women in these situations because they feel like they’d be easier to control…)
The problem with this is threefold.
First, a relationship based on “rescuing” someone is one that can’t and won’t last. It’s patronizing at best; at worst, it sets up a severely dysfunctional dynamic between the two that all but guarantees an ugly ending. If, for example, the other partner is successfully “fixed” or “saved”, then she no longer “needs” her savior the way she did… at which point, either she’s staying in the relationship strictly out of gratitude or his insecurities will run wild because now he no longer has a reason for her to want to be with him.
Second: It’s deeply objectifying. She’s not a person, so much as a project; a restoration and renovation that you can fuck. Nobody likes feeling like somebody’s project, especially since it implies that the attraction is about her situation, rather than her as a person. And the people who do want to be treated like this… are almost always folks you don’t want to be in relationships with.
Third: Even if the first two didn’t apply — it was a perfect storm of a sincere and altruistic desire for help and a partner who wants to be saved — then the fact of the matter is that those would-be White Knights are never prepared for the reality of the situation. More often than not, they have a romantic and limited idea of what life with that person would be like. Whether it’s somebody with a chronic medical condition, someone with a mental health issue like depression, economic problems or other struggles, the aspiring savior has neither the training nor the experience to actually deal with it. The fantasy of the situation may be compelling, but reality is going to hit them like The Chair Leg of Truth.
Anyone who’s ever been a caregiver for someone with a chronic condition can tell you: it’s exhausting, frustrating and takes a toll that even training doesn’t prepare you for. Caregiver fatigue and CPTSD are very, very real. Similarly, many women who have done forms of sex-work will tell you about “Captain Save-A-Ho”, who thinks that she needs rescuing or who’s very upset to discover that dating him isn’t going to make her decide she no longer wants or needs to do sex work.
Which brings us back to you, SG. I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but it’s also coming from a place of every damn pop song about a guy who feels special because he is the only one who recognizes some random girl as being beautiful when she thinks she isn’t. It’s less about her and more about how special he is because he’s able to bring out the gorgeous side of her… and also gets her in the process.
While I don’t doubt that her sadness tugs at your heartstrings, she doesn’t need you to be her happiness provider. If she’s dealing with depression and suicidal ideation, then she needs a therapist, not a boyfriend. And speaking as someone who’s struggled with his own depression, I can tell you from first hand experience: you can’t love someone out of being depressed.
And frankly, a relationship that’s strictly based on her needing you to pull her out of the Swamp of Sadness is one that’s doomed to failure. A relationship is a partnership between equals, not one person “needing” the other to get through life.
I think the thing that would be healthiest — for her and for you — is for you to start letting this one go. If you want to date, then I suggest developing the things that make you someone that women would want to date, not someone that they would date out of a sense of obligation.