I share your jealousy of my partner's exes and have for a decade and a half now. I have a deep fear that my partner may be remembering an ex each time he comes to my folks house in that nice sports jacket with flowers for my mom because *her* mom always patted his chest and said he looked so nice and the flowers smelled amazing. I mean he is so habitual, how could everything he does not be linked firmly back to memories when he did the same thing with her? And, the absolute horror, how can I ever cope with the pain if I find out he never was over his feelings for her? Is there any way of protecting from future pain by discerning what is simply old baggage and what is a sign of not being over feelings for a previous partner?
Here are my short answers to your questions…
How could everything he does not be linked firmly back to memories when he did the same thing with her?
I don’t know.
How can I ever cope with the pain if I find out he never was over his feelings for her?
I don’t know.
Is there any way of protecting from future pain by discerning what is simply old baggage and what is a sign of not being over feelings for a previous partner?
I don’t know.
Here’s my long answer, because I have soooo much compassion for your concerns. As you said, my own anxiety often presents in this way too, and I empathize with how all-consuming it can be. I know it can seem so silly and most people will tell you to “Just focus on the present,” yet changing your attitude feels impossible when invaded by loud cruel relentless thoughts.
Even if others don’t relate to this particular manifestation of anxiety, I suspect a lot of people’s compulsive thoughts revolve around something they can’t know (i.e. what people think, what the future holds), and I have some ideas as to why this is the case.
But first, I want to talk about eels.
I’ve been reading a book about eels, which are fascinating creatures mostly because we know so little about them. In an age where we are accustomed to having an explanation for every wonder in the natural world, this relatively common animal is still largely a mystery to us.
The Book of Eels would be interesting if functioned as a tell-all biography about the slimy charmless ocean marvel at hand, but the fact that it doesn’t is what makes it so compelling. The book is remarkable because it goes into great detail about all the eel questions, without finding any answers. This is refreshing in a science book, but also in life. In 2022, not knowing is a novelty.
In your letter, you ask a lot of questions that you can’t know the answer to. It's one thing to embrace limited information while learning about a sea creature; it’s another thing to embrace limited access to your partner’s inner world, especially when you're convinced that knowledge will be helpful. The lack of information in the eel book is intriguing; the lack of information about your partner's feelings is frightening.
I don't know what it's like for you, but a frustrating element of my own anxiety is that I enthusiastically embrace uncertainty in so many other areas of my life! Following a spiritual crisis in college when I realized that rigidity was not for me, I looked to the Mystics and now I've gotten comfy with the idea that probably all religions are true, probably none are true, God loves me infinitely, and God may not exist. I'm filled with doubt and I go to church every week, because sure-ness has nothing to do with my practice and the joy it brings me.
How can I be so comfortable with the questions of RELIGION (and eels for that matter) and yet struggle so much with the question of how I compare in a girlfriend contest that I completely made up? This is annoying!
Yet: This is actually so encouraging! I know HOW to embrace uncertainty, I’m just not doing it in a specific area of my life.
Now...why could that be?
Bingo: It’s a protective mechanism. From: You guessed it, future pain.
Your caring but confused mind is desperate to protect you from pain, and I bet it has good reason. Can you remember the first time you felt abandoned, left out, or not good enough? Wild guess it was a long time ago, long before you met the guy you're dating.
If your fear is anything like mine, it's not actually about the ex, or even your partner. If you're like me, you don't want to trust someone or even trust your own lovability without lots and lots of supporting facts and evidence.
That's not what trust is though. I'm sure neither one of us would want our partner's trust only if they knew 100% of the facts about our life and feelings and brain and memories.
Not every anxiety is linked to your past, and we may never fully understand our anxious origin stories, but it might help to get some idea of where yours comes from. I, for one, can remember several stressful situations during my childhood where having knowledge would have been VERY helpful. Instead, I was left to guess and figure it out for myself, which I didn’t have the resources to do.
So, the situations completely blindsided me, and then the world didn’t feel as safe for me as it could or should have. I developed a habit of anticipating danger—constantly scanning for the most subtle signs (a change in someone’s mood, or getting picked up 10 minutes later than usual) that I might be abandoned. I’ve carried this habit into adulthood, diligently on the lookout for reasons to distrust, seeking answers I believe will protect me.
Our problem is: knowledge won't save you, or me.
All of us struggle to feel secure sometimes, but those of us with 'need-to-know' forms of anxiety can feel threatened by lack of information. This realization was useful for me.
Another useful realization: I'm not six years old anymore.
Yes, a teeny part of me is still so scared and therefore so protective so that I’ll never be blindsided again, but she doesn’t have to be. I can actually handle being deceived. I can handle being hurt. I can handle being left. Between me, my friends, and some Lizzo songs, we’ve got this covered.
But how do you communicate with that that teeny scared part that doesn't grasp logic?
May I suggest…play?
Play is the opposite of violence, the opposite of rigidity, a method to welcome uncertainty, and the best way to talk to a teeny younger scared version of yourself.
Here’s one way to play with anxiety: Name it, boldly. The Harry Potter Universe dared not speak Voldemort's name aloud, thus giving even more power to their archenemy. When it comes to our own mental enemies, we are often so careful to avoid triggers and 'if/then' scenarios that they end up powerful beyond their wildest dreams.
To turn down their volume, I will playfully chat with my invasive thoughts, “Oh yeah, you’re right,” I reply to them sarcastically, “He’s definitely comparing you right now to his ex. Every single thing that’s happening, he’s measuring you against her. That would make perfect sense. Thanks for letting me know.”
A bit of humor and boldness can help you take your own power back when the thoughts feel bigger than you are. You can quiet down your invasive thoughts with playful surrender.
Another way to play: Think of your romantic partnership as an adventure rather than a mystery. Remember that an entire bestselling book is written about how little we know about eels. If we had all the information about eels, it would be a textbook. Instead, it’s fantasy.
“We need enigmas,” says Patrik Svensson, author of The Book of Eels. “We need questions that aren’t answered yet. Eels argue with our confidence that the world is explained.” His book is more of an adventure than nature guide, always ready to play around with and appreciate the unknown, rather than view it as a threat.
Right now, you may sometimes feel like you’re writing a mystery novel, filled with clues and connections (the flowers! the sports jacket!), but, this isn’t a mystery novel that is going to be solved at the end. Alas, your partner is a wonderfully complex human with a mostly-unknowable mind.
That said, when remembering his ex, it's most likely that your partner has an internal monologue that goes something like this: “Oh I came to this restaurant with Betsy once, that was nice, hm what's that movie I meant to recommend, is it going to rain tomorrow, my girlfriend looks beautiful, oh look there’s a pigeon.” He can’t develop selective amnesia, but those memories aren’t as threatening as you think.
So, instead of mentally writing a textbook about your partner (finding out every single detail and how you plan to protect yourself if those details result in pain), or writing a mystery novel (searching for clues and connections that don't actually matter)…could you mentally write an adventure instead? One where, like The Book of Eels, the never knowing is what makes the plot so fascinating?
Knowledge won't save you from fear. Having more information about your boyfriend’s feelings about his ex probably won’t give you the security you so intensely crave. If you’re like me, you’ll just come up with more questions that lead to even more questions, and you’ll be on a never-ending treasure hunt where the treasure ends up being poisonous fuel for self-doubt.
Knowledge isn’t your friend, so ditch it. Instead, take your new friend Uncertainty from the sidelines and ask it to go on an adventure.
As often as you play with anxiety, you will probably still experience flare-ups; that’s inevitable and nothing to be ashamed about. It’s so hard to break our habits of the brain. It helps me to imagine sending my thoughts on a slight detour rather than closing off their roads completely. Here is a little toolkit for re-routing them:
Keep a few sayings in mind when your invasive thoughts start to get too strong. My faves: Maybe that happened and maybe it didn’t. That would be hard, but I can handle it. I’m choosing to trust in this situation. (If you ever have REAL reason to distrust, it will most likely come to you during a moment of calm intuition rather than a comparison spiral).
Have some soothing songs on hand: During flare-ups I turn to ‘The Old Story’ by Trevor Hall, which is all about letting our old protective mechanisms go. I especially appreciate the lyric, “Gotta let it die/ Gotta let it go its own way/ Who will you be if you let it stay?” I think about that when my invasive thoughts get the better of me: "Who will I become if I let these thoughts stay?" Not the best version of myself, that’s for sure.
Remember that anxiety is just trying to protect you. Whenever I experience an overwhelming surge of jealousy, I say "Thank you so much for trying to help me but I don't need you right now; I see what you're doing but I'm okay." It never goes away immediately, but it goes away eventually.
Your partner is complex, and so are you. There is so much you know about him, and so much you don't, but that's where surprise comes in. Don't let a fearful little part of you put up walls where there could be wonders, or demand answers where there could be adventures. Let not knowing be a brave act rather than a consuming fear. Let it be the plot twist that turns your story into something truly remarkable.
If you have a question for "May I Suggest," send to: firstname.lastname@example.org