DOCTOR’S NOTE: The letter writer apparently sent a similar letter to multiple advice columns, including Dear Prudence.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been with “Tom”* for 8 years, married for 6. We have an amazing 4-year-old daughter and I’m pregnant with our second child. I’m a painfully shy and ordinary-looking woman who never had a relationship of any kind before I developed a strong enough crush to spur me to pursue Tom. He is an equally shy man who would not appeal to most women, being short, slight, nerdy, intense, and almost entirely lacking a sense of humor, but to me he’s the most adorable and precious thing on the planet. Tom has had only one previous relationship, with “Summer,”* a gorgeous, outgoing woman who apparently swooped down out of nowhere, relieved him of his virginity when he was 27, and dated him for about 6 months before dumping him without warning and breaking his heart, approximately 3 years before we met. He still talks fondly about how superhumanly fun and sparkly and magical-seeming he was, and I grit my teeth and hide my feelings of jealousy—just as I hold and soothe him when he talks about how lonely he was before he met her, and how he contemplated suicide after their breakup. I have total confidence that Tom loves me, adores our daughter and our baby-to-be, and is committed to our life together— provided that Summer is no longer an option for him. But I can’t help feeling insecure when I compare myself to photos of her, and the fact I don’t have anyone comparable in my past bothers me more than it should.
Last week I was doing some work on our shared desktop computer (we mostly use individual tablets) while Tom’s personal email was still logged in—which I didn’t realize until an email notification popped up, and I caught sight of Summer’s name. Unable to control my curiosity, I skimmed the novella-length message she’d sent him. She apologized profusely for the way she treated him, rambled on about her acrimoniously divorced, unloving parents and abusive early relationships, and admitted to having substance abuse problems and untreated bipolar and borderline personality disorder throughout her 20’s, but detailed her journey through rehab/therapy/yoga and claimed to have become a better, more stable person, whom she hoped was now worthy of him. Now heading into her late 30’s, she said she was desperate to start a family, that Tom was the only truly good and caring man she’d ever known, and she wanted to give their relationship a second chance. She was fully aware he was married and a father already, but didn’t think that should stand in the way if they’re truly soulmates—as she reminded him he said when she broke up with him. (For the record, Tom has never called me his soulmate.)
With my heart racing, feeling on the verge of throwing up, and almost without thinking, I sent a brief reply, as Tom, telling Summer that I was very happy in my marriage, and to please never contact me again. Then I deleted the sent message and the original, and deleted them both from the trash. I haven’t breathed a word to Tom about this, and Summer, to my knowledge, has not emailed him again. Yet ever since I’ve been eaten up with guilt. I know I did terribly wrong just by snooping in my husband’s email, let alone impersonating him and withholding a message meant for him—but was it justifiable, to defend my marriage and my children’s home? I almost feel like some higher power meant for me to be at the computer to intercept that email—would I be throwing the universe’s intention in its face to tell Tom after all? Or do I owe it to him to come clean, and let him decide for himself whether or not to get back in touch with Summer, even if it ends up costing me everything?
DEAR SHAMEFACED SNOOP: Hoo boy.
Alright SS, you asked, but I don’t think you’re gonna like the answer.
No, it wasn’t justifiable. No, you weren’t saving anything. And no, this wasn’t “The Universe” sending you an opportunity. What you ended up costing yourself was your own sense of security in your relationship.
Let’s break this down for a second. Tom was with Summer for a grand total of six months, after which she broke his heart and left him to the point of being suicidal. So, ok, been there, done that myself, I can relate to Tom. That’s more or less my origin story. Tom, however, has been with you for eight years, with one daughter and another child on the way. Those are not the actions of a man who has a foot out the door on the off chance that a woman – someone he apparently has had no contact with in nearly twelve years – happened to wander back into his life.
I mean, let’s look at the tape here. There’s literally nothing you’ve described in your letter that sounds like Tom has been pining for Summer all this time or hoping that she might drop back into his life like a kamikaze angel. I could understand being worried if, say, Tom were still in contact with her. If Tom were deep in the creep on her Instagram, or he’d been sending plausibly deniable “get back together” pings every few months or years… yeah, sure, you might have cause for worry. Not a lot of cause, but it would at least be understandable.
Instead… well, we’ve got a family man who seems pretty happy with a loving wife and daughter. As a general rule, folks who’re really hung up on someone – the One Who Got Away, the One Who Was Their True Love – don’t get married or start families. If we were to accept that Tom were hoping that somehow, some day, Summer might come back to him, it’s doubtful that he’d be willing to saddle himself with so much that he couldn’t just walk away from.
I mean, you know him better than I do. Even if we were to posit that Tom either doesn’t love you or doesn’t love you as much as he loves/loved Summer (and I don’t believe that to be true), do you really think that he’s someone who could leave his children too?
OK so maybe he hasn’t been actively pining all this time. But he talks about his past relationship with her in such glowing terms! Ok… and? This doesn’t mean that she’s the yardstick by which all other relationships are measured. What it means is that this was a formative relationship from his past and one that was so short and ended so quickly that he never had the time to get out of the honeymoon phase. And yeah, it’s going to be a pretty significant memory for him; a six month whirlwind romance where he lost his virginity, one that was likely full of drama (that he likely saw as “excitement”) and that ended as abruptly as it began. He never had a chance to see what Summer was like when he wasn’t f--kdrunk on oxytocin and dopamine, there was never a point where her undiagnosed was more than a manic phase or her BPD could kick in and he almost certainly hadn’t seen Summer at a point when her substance abuse problems were less “free spirited wild child” and more “on a bender, out of control and not nearly as charming as it was two months in when he didn’t realize what he had gotten himself into.”
So, yeah, part of why this is such a golden memory for him is because she was a shooting star in his life; bright and blazing and then gone just as fast, leaving only memories in its wake.
Oh and pain. Did we forget the pain and heartbreak? Because that was there too. And I can promise: Tom didn’t forget the pain and heartbreak part either. In fact, I kinda wonder if you didn’t hear the brittleness in his voice or the edge he’d take on when talking about it. Because – and I’m speaking from experience here – even if someone was a golden dream, the heartbreak and feeling of betrayal and just getting poleaxed by his sudden dumping is gonna be a part of that mix too.
But that mix is important, because we don’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t live a frictionless existence, where people slip in and out of our lives without leaving marks on us. If we did, then yeah, you might be at risk for Tom leaving you for Summer. But we don’t. We are all the sum of all the people we interact with, the people we invite into our lives and into our hearts. And that matters a lot, especially for your relationship.
If you were to ask Tom what that relationship means to him now, I suspect he’d probably tell you that it’s a lovely memory, but it’s his past. And if he’s half-way emotionally intelligent or has any self-awareness, he might tell you that the lessons he learned from that relationship are what put him on the road to you. If Summer had never existed, then Tom would never have become the man you met, the man you married and who married you. Summer’s taking his heart and his cherry is what ultimately lead him to you in the first place. In a very real way, if there were no Summer, there’d be no you.
Part of the problem is that you seem to be seeing his talking fondly of her as an indication that he wants to go back there, that his being suicidal after he left is something he still feels, as opposed to acknowledging that the break up left him in a dark place. I can talk about how bleak life felt after some of my break ups. That doesn’t mean I want to go back to those relationships or date those people again; it just means that sometimes life f--king sucks after you get dumped. It’s a thing that happened to him, a thing he experienced; it doesn’t magically transform into frolicking in meadows in the spring sunshine just because years have passed and he got over her.
Yeah he called her his soulmate and hasn’t called you his soulmate. Leaving aside that we all have many soulmates, he said it at the time because he was elbows-deep in the honeymoon period with the first women he ever slept with. Dude had never had a relationship, never had sex and then suddenly boom all of this is dropped in his lap. I’m not surprised he went a little over the top, like people in the throes of First Love do. Especially when they’re being dumped. He hasn’t said it to you because he’s older, more mature and more experienced. But what’s more important: word choice or actions?
Because his actions, again, say “this is a man who loves his wife, his life and his family.”
But speaking of actions, let’s talk about yours. You snooped. This wasn’t an accident. You didn’t stumble upon this. It’s one thing to be on the computer when it’s still logged into somebody else’s account. That’s not a big deal, especially if it’s a shared item. But once you saw the notification pop up, that was your cue to either close the app or to log him out. You didn’t. You chose to read it. And then you chose to respond.
This wasn’t just a violation of trust, it’s crossing a lot of lines. And let’s be honest here: you didn’t defend anything. This wasn’t you being a fierce protector of your family, this was you having an opportunity to slap back at an imaginary opponent. Instead, you made things worse. Why? Well, to start with, you’ve robbed yourself of your trust in your husband. If this were a test – I don’t believe that the universe tests people like this but let’s pretend – then it was a test of Tom’s love and devotion to you and your family. If Tom, had gotten that email, would he have just dropped everything and left? Profoundly doubtful. He might’ve wrote back, sure, maybe even talked to her. But I doubt he would’ve just up and left.
But guess what? Now you’ll never know. By snooping and impersonating Tom, you’ve now made it impossible to have an answer as to whether Tom would choose you over Summer. You could have had certainty. Now you don’t.
And you know what else you did? You robbed Tom of getting the apology he deserved from Summer. Tom got dumped by his first love, a dumping that left him feeling suicidal. Even if he were long, long over it, he’d processed that pain and moved on, Summer coming back and saying “You know what, I was wrong, I treated you badly and you didn’t deserve what I did to you” would be huge. That moment of “yes, I f--ked up and I’m sorry” may not have healed wounds long since scarred over, but it sure as s--t would’ve been appreciated. That would’ve nicely closed the book on a significant act in his life. And you took that from him. That is profoundly not cool.
Should you tell him? Well, at this point, I think that’s more likely to blow up your marriage than the email would have. But now you have to weigh the odds of whether Summer’s ever likely to write again, or direct message him or even call… and then Tom’s gonna have a lot of questions about why she’s talking about an email he never saw, never mind replied to. Is it likely? I don’t know. But that’s going to be a risk you have to accept if you decide it’s better to stuff this down the memory hole and let the guilt of it all be your penance for this.
Oh and one more thing. Tom’s 38 now. He’s grown, he’s matured, he’s gained experience and put down roots. Apologies and closure aside, Summer rolling back – again nearly 12 years later, with no contact – and saying “yes, I know you’re married and all but you should leave all that behind for me because of something you said when we were breaking up” isn’t likely to make him say “oh hell yes, let me blow up my whole-ass life”. If he had even two braincells to rub together, he would look at that second part of the email – “ok I know it’s been over a decade and I broke your heart and you have a life and a wife and kids but you should abandon them for me and stick a baby in me because I’m all better now” – and say “there is no way in hell I’m going to stick my junk in that beehive again, because what you’re asking for is bats--t and I want no part of it.”
Maybe next time trust your husband a little more.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com