Q. My boyfriend and I are both 50. We have been happily together for seven months, are in love, have decided on exclusivity, and talk about a future together. Thus far, there are many good aspects of our relationship and his character. But when we are at his house, I must sleep with a framed photo on the nightstand of a memorable outing from five years ago. The photo includes his parents, siblings and former serious girlfriend. His hands are all over her.
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Though I have mentioned several times that this picture makes me uncomfortable and is inappropriate for the bedroom, he has never removed it. Additionally, there are three huge photo collages in the living room that contain numerous photos of him and his ex-wife, including their wedding photo. They have been divorced for nine years. I can’t sleep, eat or watch TV without looking at his former paramours!
He recently sent me an e-mail that he also sent to at least two former girlfriends. I explained my distress over his continued communications with these women. At least one former girlfriend requested he give her a call. He says he responded that he was too busy to call her. He also did not inform her that he is seriously involved with someone else.
He knows that when we met I was corresponding with an on-and-off boyfriend and also with my ex-husband, but I thought it inappropriate to continue these communications once my relationship with my new man became exclusive and serious.
My boyfriend vehemently disagrees with me on this point and believes I am overreacting, being unreasonable and trying to change his “friendly, open nature.” He says he is totally innocent since he has made me aware of what he is doing. I remain distressed. Can you help me?
A. This is a question of boundaries, and it’s a big gray area.
What is the boundary of a person with a past love interest? The issue of crossing the line has much to do with secretiveness — for example, if he is out meeting or communicating with others and making a point of not telling you.
Your boyfriend may be entirely aboveboard, with little emotional content to his relationships beyond a shared link to the past. If you are getting the lion’s share of his attention and he is keeping no secrets, it is unfair to tell him he may have zero contact with other women and must eradicate all memories.
The fact that you are feeling so disturbed, however, means your new boyfriend should respect your feelings. If he really loves you, he will bend over backward to make you feel secure.
So where do you draw the line? That is a question you must decide for yourself.
If you met when you were nearly 50, both of you already lived much of your lives before the other came along. So it’s unrealistic to expect that he should have no past or memories that included somebody else romantically. In fact, it would be worrisome if a 50-year-old did not have any past loves or emotionally significant relationships.
Are there also pictures of you in his home? If there are pictures only of other women, that is strange, but if you are also represented, I don’t think it’s a problem that, at age 50, he has reminders of enjoyable times with other people.
If it's the placement of these pictures that is bothering you, you should ask to rearrange some of them, with pictures including you in a more prominent place. This doesn't have to be a huge confrontation — just a “Hey, this would make me feel better and still allow you to have your past.”
You should also ask yourself what is making you so intensely jealous. Do you really need to be? Clearly, you yourself think it appropriate to cut off contact with your own past romantic interests when a more serious one enters the picture. You don’t want your new boyfriend to feel threatened. This is completely fine, and fits in with your perception of how the world should work, but it's not required.
It is fair to ask if he is keeping up ties with his exes to keep his options open. Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he is just a friendly, open, engaging guy who is a lousy decorator. Perhaps he is merely having passing conversations with these former girlfriends that he barely gives much thought to. There’s no need to declare to an old girlfriend, someone he is too busy to talk to, that he is seeing someone else. It probably didn’t even occur to him to tell her that. He probably feels it’s none of her business.
Do these exes of his represent a real threat? Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Certainly, exes do get back together. But generally, they are exes for a reason. The way to know for sure is to keep an open line of communication, where you are both free from keeping secrets about these people from the past. If you hound him about any contact with another woman, he might go underground with it just to avoid confrontation. That can make problems really brew.
What is important is whether he can respond to your feelings and make you feel reassured, and that both of you care enough about the other’s feelings to make some compromises.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Only you can decide your comfort level when a partner gets, or stays, too close to an ex. Most important is whether or not someone is being secretive.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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