I’m infatuated with a man I met in high school. He’s my complete and utter opposite. I’m sensitive and empathic. He’s cruel, aggressive, manipulative and status obsessed. And yet our love affair went on for years. I’ve cheated on multiple boyfriends with him.
During our final sexual experience, he was drunk, demeaning and cruel. I seized an opportunity to move out of the country, far away from him. While abroad, I met the man who’s now my husband. Even after meeting him, I still met with my former flame or had secret phone conservations with him. When I did, all my desire would come flooding back, so I cut off contact. He recently got married, and I had my first child.
Still, he frequently haunts my dreams. These dreams can be so intense and sexual that I wake up and want to contact him. I’m deeply ashamed of this, but sometimes I fantasize about him while I have sex with my husband. I know this man doesn’t love me and perhaps never did. I know that what I have with my husband is wonderful. These dreams make me feel pathetic and like a horrible wife. If I found out that my husband had such feelings for someone else, I’d be devastated. But I cannot control these deep dark places of my psyche.
I recently got a job opportunity in the city where this ex lives, and I’m terrified about that geographic proximity. How do you exorcise someone like this, get them out of your deepest being, out from under your skin?
Where There’s Smoke
Steve Almond: First things first: Please stop punishing yourself. You don’t choose your dreams. They choose you. In other words, the torch you hold for this ex isn’t going to dim until you can shed more light on what it means. Why are you so persistently drawn to a man who you don’t respect, and who treats you despicably? Why have you given him so much control over your life? That’s the most striking aspect of your letter, frankly.
You don’t move overseas to pursue your own destiny but to get away from him. You sound ready to sacrifice a new job because it would bring you back into his orbit. So what’s it all about? Really answering these questions will require you to revisit experiences, and expose feelings, that are shameful and unhealthy. For this reason, my advice is to seek out the help of a skilled therapist, if you can manage it.
Cheryl Strayed: A good place to start changing your ex’s place in your psyche would be to reframe the story you’ve told yourself about his power. You’ve given an awful lot of it to him when in truth it resides within you. You describe your wish to be free of your ex as an exorcism, but I encourage you to think of it in another way: not an opportunity to rid yourself of a man you no longer love, but as an opportunity to know yourself and your desires more deeply. One act is an expulsion, the other is an expansion. One is about someone else, the other is about you.
I’m going to guess you’re haunted by your ex not because of who he is (in the end, a man you loathe), but because he represents something to or about you. Danger? Shame? Your own dark impulses, which have thus far expressed themselves only through your relationship with him? Only you can know. I suggest you do the internal work it takes to find out. A therapist can help you in this process, but if that’s not an option, you can also do this sort of emotional excavation on your own, through journaling, contemplation and perhaps conversations with a trusted friend.
SA: We’re often the most stubbornly attracted to those who represent forbidden, or unresolved, aspects of our personality. In this light, it’s worth considering that you’ve cheated on “multiple boyfriends” with this man. Could it be that your overwhelming desire for him allows you to behave in ways that otherwise violate your sense of self? After all, it’s not exactly “sensitive” or “empathic” to betray a series of lovers. I say this not to make you feel guilty but because the path to the truth so often runs through shame. Perhaps being with this man allows you to indulge certain darker aspects of his personality that dwell within you while also disavowing them.
CS: Bingo. This is precisely what I mean when I suggest you consider the narrative you’ve established about your ex, which is all about dichotomy. You’ve described him as your “complete and utter opposite,” and yet perhaps what draws you to him are not the ways he’s unlike you, but rather traits or impulses you share. These emerge when you speak to him or even think about him — and they thrill you. Pay attention to that.
Like Steve, I’m struck by the fact that you cheated on several boyfriends with your ex. He has functioned in your life as someone who disrupts your romantic stability (even if he doesn’t destroy it). We generally see that as a negative, but very likely, in your deepest truth, you wanted or needed that disruption. Do you want or need it now? Your concern about living near your ex — a concern, I’ll note, you describe as terror — seems to me to be both a fear and a wish, and it takes you entirely out of the equation, as if his hold over you and your agency is inevitable. But it isn’t. You ask us for advice about how to free yourself of him, but it’s not him you need to be free of. It’s your own desire for the part of yourself he makes manifest.
SA: One other significant aspect of all this is the timing. You’ve settled into a stable marriage and just had your first child. You’re at a moment in your life when everyone expects you to behave like a dutiful and doting mother — to suppress the uninhibited and frankly destructive lust that made your affair with this man so exhilarating. Nobody knows the precise ingredients of temptation. We can only attempt to know ourselves. That’s ultimately how we gain control of our lives. It’s not that we banish our desires. We simply learn to manage them, so that they no longer hold the power to destroy our happiness.