Ten years ago, I knew I was with the love of my life for a short but intense year, but chose to end it. He cared for me, but for him it was more casual and there were clear reasons why it couldn’t be long term. I needed to be the one to end that first love, not wait for it to be taken away.
Now I am happily settled with a loving, stable husband with young children, and yet I think of that first love sometimes and huge feelings still bubble up. Being with him transformed me, uncovered the best version of myself: more intelligent, beautiful, creative than I had ever been before – it matched the magic I saw in him. I overcame big obstacles in my life while we were together. Now I’m back to the me I recognize – heavy, cowardly, full of self-loathing.
I don’t know how to tell if I threw away one of the most important people or if this is just nostalgia gone wild. I cut contact with him when we split because I can’t bear the thought of hurting my husband, and don’t trust myself to deal with ambiguity. Should I leave it be? Will it forever hold me in its sway?
Eleanor says: You know those lyrics by the Whitlams: “There’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness”? I think there’s no aphrodisiac like memory.
Nostalgia gilds things. It paints old moments with a flush of promise. If we’re not careful it can lead us to perpetual distraction; keep us looking away from the present and back at something that seems to grow more beautiful the more it recedes into the past.
You describe something pretty magical in this prior relationship. The love of your life; the best version of yourself you can remember being. But equally, as you note, it’s very hard to tell when that feeling is a mirage. So often when we daydream of a past – whether it’s a relationship or a place or just youth – it’s not the thing we’re longing for, but the feelings we had at the time: the sense that things were crackling and the future was open.
That’s why I don’t think the questions here are quite the ones you’re asking. This is not about whether you threw away someone really important, or whether to let this past relationship be. Instead I think the question is how you can find the feelings you long for in your present life. How can you rediscover that sense of creativity, passion, confidence, inside the reality you now inhabit?
After all, from your husband’s point of view, the fact you don’t speak to your past love isn’t totally comforting if his memory still has this passionate grip on your heart. No one wants to play the stable reality to the intoxicating fantasy; no one wants to be the one that didn’t get away. If you want to stay married – and it sounds like you do – I think it’s important not to measure your life together by comparing it to something else.
It’s important to meet it and measure it on its own terms; to find a way to thrill in what you have as much as in what could have been. You describe your marriage as stable and loving; try not to erode it with comparisons.
One key might be to realize that the feelings your past love gave you couldn’t have been manufactured by him alone. It takes two to make a dynamic – if you felt bold and invigorated with him, it’s because you have it within you to be that way.
You now know that you dog face up to big obstacles in your life, that you can see the magic in yourself and those around you. Different people bring different traits out of us, but we don’t need to rely on others for that alchemy. Part of that dynamic was you; and you’re with you wherever you are.
You write that you ended this relationship and married your husband for reasons you still stand by. It’s an annoying feature of choices that making one always means declining another, so we can always wonder how things might have been. But imagining alternatives can keep us from building realities – if you can focus on bringing yourself the feelings this other man brought out of you, you might find he starts to shrink in your mind.
That would free you up to love the reality in front of you more wholeheartedly, and in the end that’s the way out of all nostalgia: to cherish what we have with the same passion we give to fantasies of what we’ve lost.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism
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