Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m writing to you in hopes of receiving your impartial insight into a particularly tricky personal situation. My wife (Alpha) and I just celebrated our 5th anniversary, although prior to getting married we’d already been in a long-term committed relationship that had culminated in living together. There’s one troublesome long-standing issue that’s been present in our relationship since the beginning, though: her ex. Let’s call him Beta.
The three of us have known each other since we were teenagers. At that time, we were all part of an online mailing list, and a few particular folks had formed a smaller, more tightly-knit offshoot. Beta was the one who invited me to join their group of about 8 others, one of whom was Alpha. At the point that I became friends with them, the two of them were already in a long-distance relationship and had already met up in person a few times. I got along better with Beta than Alpha at that that time, likely since he and I shared more interests during those years.
Fast forward several more years to the point where we are all ostensibly young adults. After graduating college, Beta happened to get a job in my neck of the woods. I still chatted with Alpha occasionally and I knew she and Beta were still seeing each other. What I didn’t know was that their relationship was already falling apart at this point. He had been cheating on her with some other online relationship that she found out about and confronted him about. They argued, had a break from each other, and then she tentatively forgave him and tried to get back together with him. That had only been one transgression out of a list of others she’d tried to overlook in an attempt to keep their relationship together though, and eventually the two of them broke up again. There was a period after that where I lost touch with Alpha as she was trying to juggle both picking up the pieces and studying abroad. When I graduated college myself, Beta offered to let me move in with him for a while.
Some years later, Alpha and I began talking more frequently. Eventually, she said she was interested in me. I was interested in her too, but felt torn at the time since I was still rooming with Beta. Before proceeding into a potential relationship, I wanted to talk to him and make sure that he was OK with me seeing his ex-girlfriend and that it wouldn’t be too awkward. He told me he wasn’t bothered by it, so I told her I wanted to give it a shot. We didn’t always click at first, but we eventually said ‘I love you’ to each other and began a serious relationship. I still didn’t know the details about her time with Beta and his cheating on her. She was vocal about her negative feelings toward him, but I stubbornly thought it was something that would ‘work out’ where she would eventually be friends with him again. When she came to visit, it seemed like they were trying to be cordial with each other, at least.
Now that we’ve been together for quite some time and had some long discussions about it, I understand that he cheated on her, and that rather than admitting to her that his feelings for her had diminished, he’d just let their relationship wither away because he wanted to avoid confrontation. I was greatly disappointed in him when I learned how he’d treated her. Beta doesn’t live around here any more, but my other local friends and I have continued to maintain an online friendship with him. That doesn’t make things easier for my wife, but she’s also said that she couldn’t bear to see me cast aside essentially my oldest friend. I keep wondering if things might be easier for her if I did. She’s seen a therapist who has validated the feelings she has about Beta and their relationship, but she’s not ‘free’ from those feelings and can’t fall back on the comfort of ‘well at least I never have to see or hear from him again’. She dreams of him frequently and wakes up feeling exhausted, angry, and depressed simply from having to think about him. I worry that even if he were truly out of her life completely, would any of that really just ‘stop’? I’m not expecting her to either forget or forgive him, but I want to help her not have to feel the pain of that past relationship constantly. Is there something more I should be doing for my wife? Am I being selfish in maintaining my friendship with Beta? I feel like he’s striving to be a better, more honest person. I think, “I’m sure I’ve hurt people when I was younger, too,” but I don’t know if I’m only looking at it through my ‘this guy was my best friend’ lens and I’m actually completely out of line.
Thanks very much for both your time and for any feedback you have to offer, Doc.
Exes & Oh No’s