Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Do I Need To Let Go of Past Relationships?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Should I get rid of a treasured memento of a past romantic (and currently platonic) relationship before pursuing a new one?

I’ve only been in one serious relationship. It started as an online, long-distance relationship shortly after high school. After a couple years, she moved in with me. While we had our ups and downs, of course, I think it was mostly a pretty solid and healthy relationship overall. Of course, we were young; we were therefore experiencing a whirlwind of change both within ourselves, and outside of ourselves.

To summarize, we’ll fast-forward a decade or so: ultimately, she leaves me and moves back home. I was not fulfilling her needs, which hurt a lot because I felt like she was fulfilling mine well; I did not want her to leave. We tried some couples therapy, but I think it was “too little, too late.” While I did not want her to leave, I respected her decision and assisted her in getting back home safely. So while the breakup was certainly not mutual, I still feel like it was relatively amicable; we wanted to stay friends.

So we agreed to go silent for a few months. We started talking again at the new year (she left in September of 2014); however, it quickly became apparent that I was not ready for friendship yet, although she had moved on. So we agreed to go silent again. In late 2018, I entered therapy. After some time, my therapist suggested I contact her again; I did so in early 2019, and we have been doing well as friends since then.

While we were still together romantically, she gave me an item that she hand-crafted from scratch. I still have this item, and it reminds me of the good times that we shared. While I am not generally a sentimental person, this particular item has strong sentimental value for me.

However, I have recently considered that I might start dating – for the first time, at age thirty-five. That’s likely to come with a whole host of complications on its own, and I’m definitely nervous about it.

But this brings me back to my question: should I get rid of the item that my ex crafted for me? Or, perhaps more accurately: would it be a disservice to a new relationship for me to continue holding on to it? Is it an indication that I’m not fully “over” my ex?

Where the situation reversed, I think I would feel uneasy about it. But I’m also still quite insecure (working on that before I wade into the dating pool), so I’m not sure how a “healthy” person would feel about it.

What are your thoughts?

Old, Alone, and Still Confused

DEAR OLD, ALONE, AND STILL CONFUSED: Well this is a first. In all my years — as a pick-up artist, a dating coach and an advice columnist — I’ve never actually encountered someone from the old Jealous Girlfriend opener.

For those of you who either haven’t read Neil Strauss’ “The Game” or who had someone use this line before, the Jealous Girlfriend opener goes like this:

“Hey, I need an opinion. So you know how everyone has this box of, like, souvenirs and mementos from past relationships? Like, pictures, cards, things your ex gave you? Well my buddy just started dating this new girl and she’s kind of the jealous, possessive type. So check this out: she was over at his place the other day and she found the box. Now she’s kinda freaking out and she’s telling him that he — get this — needs to burn the box. That’s a little extreme, right? What do you think?”

And then you let the group argue about whether his girlfriend is out of line for demanding this or not before segueing into trying to figure out who in the group is and isn’t single.

So congratulations AOSC: I’ve never encountered this before.

But let’s actually talk about this situation. Part of the reason why that opener works to get a conversation started is because of the universality of the situation. Unless the relationship ended very badly — or you’re the sort of person who performs a damnatio memoriae whenever you break up with someone — then the odds are good that you’ve got various random bits and bobs from past relationships. Some of them may just be the clutter from having another person in your life, but others may be welcome reminders of how things were. These could be anything from old photos to mix CDs (if you’re old, like me), random gifts or even clothes and the like. It’s incredibly common, almost to the point of being expected.

The fact that it’s so common is also part of why the theoretical girlfriend’s demands prompt so much discussion. For many people, the fact that she’s jealous of someone she’s never even met is unacceptably controlling. For others, it’s a reminder of an ex who couldn’t let go of the past and give themselves fully into their current relationship.

But here’s the thing: what often makes the difference between an understandable problem with those mementos and an unreasonable demand is often the relationship the owner of those mementos has with them and the memories attached to them. If, for example, the theoretical girlfriend was finding her boyfriend starting at those old photos on the regular (or possibly catching him using them as masturbation fodder) or he was keeping a framed portrait of his ex in a place of honor on his bookshelf or over the fireplace… well, that might be cause for concern.

If, on the other hand, they’re just reminders of a happy time — like looking over old wedding photos or videos shot on vacation — then it’s not unreasonable for the boyfriend to think that the fact that his girlfriend is threatened is a sign that maybe they’re not a good fit.

I suspect that in your case, it’s the latter. You don’t mention what this particular reminder is — whether it’s something like a knit scarf, a photo album, some objet d’art — but it doesn’t sound like something that a stranger would immediately twig to as related to an ex. You also don’t sound like you have any sort of unhealthy relationship to it; it’s just a reminder of a happy and formative period in your life.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any reason to get rid of it. You are the sum of your past; your experiences with your ex are part of what made you who you are today. It’s not as though Thanos snapped all of your exes out of existence the moment you two broke up. Trying to pretend that they never existed or that they didn’t shape you isn’t just a fool’s errand, but it’s unreasonable to demand it of someone.

It would be one thing if this were an object of great and terrible importance in your life… but it isn’t. It’s a sweet gift from your partner at the time and one that still has positive associations for you. I think someone who would be that bothered by it is somebody whose own insecurities are going to cause issues the longer they go unexamined and unaddressed.

(Which, incidentally, applies to you too, AOSC: just because the souvenir exists doesn’t mean that your future partner prefers their ex over you.)

As long as it isn’t part of a shrine to your ex, I don’t think a reasonable, grown-ass woman is going to have any issues with your still having it. It’s also not something you have to justify holding onto. If anyone asks, you can tell them honestly: it’s a present your ex made for you years ago and you’ve kept it because it has sentimental value for you.

If you’re really worried, you could always just keep it in storage somewhere, where it can be a sort of out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation. But honestly? I think you’re borrowing trouble from the future.

You’ll be fine, my dude.

Good luck.

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