Dear Captain Awkward:
I have been engaged for 1 1/2 years now. We are both in our 40’s and have been married before. I have no contact with my ex. When my fiancé and I first got together I made the mistake of discussing things from my previous marriage. There was nothing good about my past but my fiancé doesn’t believe that. He thinks I am still in love with the ex. I am not! He admits to being jealous and possessive and needs to feel like he is #1. If he is not #1 then he can not move forward with me. He has always been the first for the woman he has married or dated. He has never been with a woman that has much of a past in regards to relationships. He wants to be able to get over this hurdle about my ex and I want to do everything to help us get over this hurdle. What can we do?
Lovely Letter Writer, you’re not going to like this, because my #1 piece of advice is: Maybe…don’t…marry him? Maybe don’t “move forward” with someone who suddenly becomes obsessed with your romantic past and who accuses you of things that aren’t true? Maybe this road block is a gift to you, telling you to get out of this relationship with a jealous and possessive man who is using your past as a wedge between you.
Look, I really distrust people, especially straight cis men, who self-describe as “jealous & possessive.” I have a lifetime of experience/an inbox full of examples/an endless sea of violent headlines that point to why the guy who “playfully” grabs your phone on a first date and casually scrolls through it looking for male names and quizzing you about each of them (true story) or why the guy who is threatened by someone you haven’t talked to in EIGHT YEARS sets off alarm bells for me. The Venn diagram of “men who monitor the women in their lives and who get hung up on being ‘#1′” and “men who do scary stuff to exert control over the women in their lives…and bystanders” has a lot of overlap. I specifically mistrust this guy because if I’m reading correctly he has been married at least once before (and dated other people before) and that’s not a problem but somehow you doing the same exact stuff is a problem? Get the entire fuck out of here, Sexist Double Standard Dude. All the way out.
Furthermore “jealous & possessive” are not awesome qualities one should lean into. Those are not things to brag about. They also aren’t excuses for behaving like a jerk. And while attachment styles are a thing and jealous feelings are a thing, people who feel a lot of jealousy and anxiety about romantic partners and fidelity still have choices about how they express those feelings. He could feel weird about your ex and never ever make it your problem. This guy is choosing to make his feelings into your problem. He’s also telling you that his feelings about your past relationships are more valid and more true than your actual words and actions. You saying “I love only you and want to marry you” is less valid to him than his newly-acquired insecurity re: your ex. I don’t like it.
I can think of two likely reasons that this is coming up now and neither of them are great:
Reason 1: He’s getting cold feet about marrying you and is looking for an excuse to break it off or slow things down but instead of saying “I don’t think this is working, let’s break up” he’s fixated on something to blame you for, some “flaw” in you that makes the breakup all your fault.
Reason 2: He is cool with getting married as long as he can put you in an impossible position of having to convince him and pet him and audition for him and reassure him and apologize to him about something that is not actually a problem and not actually happening, i.e., you are not still in love with or even in touch with your ex. He has taken things you told him in confidence long ago and is now using them as a weapon against you to make you beg and apologize and strive for his affection and look for ways to fix a thing that is all in his head. This is an attempt to establish control and reset the power balance between you. Not good.
I mean, if your fiancé truly wants to get over this hurdle, he could talk to a therapist about why he’s having these thoughts and feelings. He could take responsibility for the feelings, like, “Hey, I know I am out of line and your romantic past is actually none of my business, so I’m going to figure out a way to deal with this so that it doesn’t intrude on our life together anymore, please bear with me for a bit, I love you and of course I trust you.” He could talk to a therapist and say “Hey I’m feeling really insecure and need a lot of reassurance from my fiancée about this stuff lately, and it’s upsetting her and stressing her out, how can I redirect some of these thoughts?” He has some negative emotions and you’re supposed to…what…build a time machine? No ma’am.
I think the most gentle script I can think of is something like: “Whoa, I’m sorry you feel that way, that must be a really awful feeling. Since I’m not in love with my ex and none of this is actually true, I’m at a loss for what I can do to help. I agree, though, we should absolutely take a step back and slow down wedding plans. You’re right, we absolutely can’t move forward while this is such an issue for you. Why don’t you talk to a therapist or somebody and try to work it out?”
Yes, he gets the “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology. Yes, he gets his bluff called.
If you told him that script, what do you think he’d do? Would he yell? Would he blame you? Would he accuse you? Would he bring up old painful things you told him in confidence? Would he monitor you, follow you, quiz you about your plans and who you’re with? Would saying something like that generate too much friction and conflict to be worth it? Would you end up having to soothe his ego and pet him for hours afterward? Are you already dreading the fruitless and stressful conversation you’ll end up having about this? Do you feel safe being able to say “Whoa, hold up, that is not actually a problem or my issue to handle, it’s yours” to him?
- “That’s incorrect.”
- “But you’re wrong about me still having feelings for that guy.”
- “But you’re upset with me about something that isn’t true.”
- “Could you explain to me why this is a problem? Can you help me understand why it’s just suddenly coming up?”
- “It’s not possible for you to be my first-ever husband, but you’re the one I’m choosing in the end. That has to be enough for you.”
- “I’m sorry you feel that way. What would you like me to do about it now?”
- “Wow, none of that is true. I don’t know how to reassure you about this. What do you want me to say?”
- “I can tell you feel really anxious about this and I honestly don’t know what to say that will make it better. What do you think we should do next?”
- “What is this really about?”
Whatever you decide to do about the relationship, hold this close: You didn’t do anything wrong. This is literally all in his head. Do not give into the idea that you did something wrong by meeting somebody when you were younger and loving someone else before you met this man. If you start saying to yourself “Well, he does have a point about this, to be fair, some of this is my fault,” it’s time to RUN. That is an abuse script talking, one that shows that the abuse has moved inside and colonized the victim. Seriously, run.
This is a problem created by him, and one that only he can solve (by getting over himself already). It’s not fixable by you because nothing that is happening is created or caused by you. What would happen to the relationship if you didn’t try to fix it, like, “Ok, welp, that’s your weird obsession to deal with, good luck working on that, let me know when you want to go back to enjoying our relationship instead of manufacturing problems.”
Proceed with extreme caution. Pull in your Team You and make sure you have safe, supportive people to talk to. Do not get married with this cloud hanging over you.
I know this is really hard and not what you wanted to hear, but I don’t have a magic spell against misogyny in general or dudes who suddenly decide to hold your life story against you because “Love!”
Update: The fiancé showed up in the thread to tell us that the Letter Writer is way more jealouser than he is, among other things. Warning bells have become klaxons. I’m closing comments because, among other reasons, it’s very possible that this guy feeds on the attention and will use what we say to hurt and punish the Letter Writer.
I hate this.