Dear Captain Awkward:
How bad is it to get involved with a new person when I am still very hung up on someone else? Someone not available to me, but still part of my friend group? Even though I am still in love with him, I no longer hold out hope that we can be together and I feel ready to find someone else. What I’m afraid of is that I’ll meet someone new, and get involved, and then realize that I am not really emotionally available for him, which seems like an awful thing to do. But, I don’t see how I can know in advance whether or not I will love the new person more, unless I give it a try. Does this make me evil?
Part 2 of this question is, do I have to tell my new guy at some point about the old guy? Old guy doesn’t want me to, as he’s married and is afraid of the story getting out to all our friends and our children. Does it really matter if either I don’t love new guy enough to stay with him, or if I love him enough that I don’t love old guy any more?
In answer to two of your questions:
“Does this (meeting someone new when I’m still hung up on someone else) make me evil?”
“Part 2 of this question is, do I have to tell my new guy at some point about the old guy?”
Here’s what I see in your letter.
You’re still extremely hung up on Unavailable Guy, and as you decide (correctly and laudably!) to move on, your jerkbrain is still looking for ways to keep making him important in your life and central to your decision-making. You can’t go out and meet new people, because your feelings for Mr. Unavailable might get in the way! If you did meet someone new, you’d of course have to tell him about Mr. Unavailable because….fairness….or…something? This idea of being “fair” to him, or to your feelings for him, or making those feelings part of decisions you make is a way of holding onto him in the face of grief and loss.
Inadvertently, you are hitting on THE fear and THE central possibility that is between the lines of so many dating questions, when you say: But, I don’t see how I can know in advance …unless I give it a try.
When seeking romantic love, you can’t know in advance how it will go. If you choose to try, you choose to do so without knowing or controlling the future. Because we feel out of control, we do what we’d do in other situations, which is to play the “what if” game and run through scenarios. What if New People like you but you don’t like them as much as you like Unavailable, and you hurt them? What if you like them more than they like you, and they hurt you? What if being so hung up on someone that you are actually planning out the moment that you tell people you haven’t met yet about Him puts the kibosh on your ability to move on?
What if you never find someone you like as much as Mr. Unavailable, and this was your one chance at this, and now you can’t ever, ever have it?
I don’t think that’s true, for the record, but I think it’s a thing that can feel really true. And I think that’s the question at the heart of your letter, the secret question that keeps you fixed on an intractable problem because at least it’s a familiar one. The problem of “What do I do about Mr. Unavailable and my feelings for him?” is a well-worn groove in your life, a broken-in shoe. New shoes are shiny, but they aren’t comfortable. Not the way the old shoes were. Those were broken in just right…except for the hole in the sole. Those were the perfect shoes ….except for the stench from when you wore them without socks in summer that will never quite go away.
So, how do you grieve, while opening yourself to the possibility of the future? There are some things you can do to take care of yourself in the aftermath of a breakup, and the rest is up to time.
I have loved, and I have lost, and every time the losing felt like it would be the end of me, and every time I tried to bargain – with myself, with the other person, with the universe – to make the ending not be real.
And every time, time did its work. Once, years ago, at a party I was throwing, I saw an arriving guest only from the back as he walked down the hall to stow his coat. I was in the middle of something and someone else had answered the door, so I didn’t quite catch who it was, just the back of him.
The back of someone I had slept beside for years.
The back of someone I had been convinced at one time I would marry someday, a person it had been very hard (though 100% correct) to leave.
And the thought that I had while watching his back walk up my hallway was “Who is that? Must be one of (roommate)’s friends” because I literally did not recognize him until he turned around. I was glad to see him, but the days where my happiness rose and fell with his were long over. My brain had cauterized the place where he was anything more than another well-wisher at the party.
That’s a particularly happy ending, as we stayed friends. There are other kinds of happy, healthy endings best described as “It was really painful break up, but then we went our separate ways, forever.“
Time can’t work its magic if you’re still up in each other’s business all the time, if you’re still factoring him into your future decision-making or strategizing how you’ll deal with seeing him at Trivia Night. If seeing Unavailable Guy is painful for you, minimize how much you hang out with him. He’s part of the friend group, you say? Cool, you shouldn’t have to give up your entire friend group because of a romance that went bad. You’re so concerned about being “fair” to Mr. Unavailable and Theoretical Future Guy, maybe it’s time to be fair to yourself and ask Mr. Unavailable to step back certain events for a bit until you find your equilibrium and are not feeling so raw. He was a married guy and this was all a big secret, you say? Oh, okay, that adds a layer where you feel sad but you can’t publicly BE sad; you have to pretend that you are fine and that everything is fine, or people will Notice, and then they will Talk. Of course you’re feeling anxious and uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t have a hard time dealing with a bunch of secrecy and the fear of social fallout on top of rejection?
My recommendation is to make your old social circle a “small doses” thing, and go to their events only when you’re feeling strong. Put your energy into meeting new people – all kinds of new people, not just potential dates. Some of those people might be new date prospects. Some of them might be new friends. All of them might be people who don’t know about you & Unavailable, people who don’t remind you of him, people who won’t bring you into contact with him or into situations where you have to fake being okay. And the very act of changing up your routines will be healing for you, will breathe fresh air into your life.
I think you should talk to someone about your time with Unavailable. But you are correct that “I’m only actually dating you because the person I really love is married and doesn’t want to be with me, and I’m not sure I can ever love you the way I loved him. But I’m willing to try!” + “Well, I’m just trying to be honest with you” are not words you probably want to deliver out loud to others. In fact, I would be wary of any new dating partner who hears that and says “sure!” or gets really into your history with Unavailable and wants process the gory details at length.
The intimacy of being close to and comfortable with someone after a long time grieving a breakup can make the temptation to use the new person as a sounding board a strong one, and it’s easy to advocate telling everything for the sake of “openness” or “honesty.” We need to be honest with the people we love, but there is also love (and honesty, and self-awareness) in asking yourself who is the right audience for certain discussions, when they happen, and how much you tell. Some things, like overburdening a new love partner with old love business, can be dressed up as the good kind of honesty. But if you haven’t done the work on your own to process this stuff, it can really be a self-indulgent way to keep talking about your ex and stay in your feelings about them…to a fresh audience.
May I suggest a pro counselor of some stripe for any details beyond “I broke up with someone last year, and it laid me low for a while, but I’m ready to meet new people again”? Use a therapist, use a journal, use a trusted friend who knows what actually went down, and tell the story over and over again until it bores you. Tell it until it sounds like something that happened to someone else, a long time ago. When the details are just mundane, and you can say what happened without analyzing and second-guessing or justifying your decisions, when it takes 2 minutes to tell rather than 2 hours, you’ll know that you’ve healed.
In the meantime, if you want to try to go on some dates, try going on some dates. It is okay to go on some dates without putting your entire romantic history and your entire heart up for grabs. If they are lackluster and you don’t feel excited, if it feels overwhelming or like too much effort, don’t go on more dates with those people. If some of that is secretly about how they compare to Unavailable Guy, they don’t have to know that. If someone stands out from the crowd – he’s really great, he’s into you, you’re always excited to see him, he’s emotionally available and not otherwise attached (this should be your new operating baseline, it will save you a lot of grief or at least from repeating the same grief), give it a chance and get to know him better. If he supplants Mr. Unavailable in your heart, you have very good problems. If he doesn’t, and it ends, let it end. But again, you don’t have to tell him the reason beyond “You are great, but I don’t want to take this deeper or further, I’m sorry.”
Don’t get involved with anyone you don’t adore. But also, don’t use the specter of Unavailable Guy as a reason to keep good people at arm’s length because you’re scared. Being scared is just part of the territory of the unknown, which you have to venture into, because it’s where the future lives. The thing about the future is that you’re going there no matter how you go, whether it’s kicking and screaming, hung up on somebody who doesn’t want to be with you, or cautiously excited and brave. You’re asking the hard questions now, which has me leaning toward “brave,” so here’s hoping that fear will soon start to feel like freedom and possibility.