Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I have been with my boyfriend for about a year and a half. Before me, he was in a long-term, serious relationship in which he bought an engagement ring and was making plans to marry his ex. Clearly their relationship didn’t last, and the breakup was incredibly traumatic for him.

Since then, he and I have had a very honest, serious, and healthy relationship, but the ring is still in our basement. When I bring up the ring (or her), he more often than not gets angry, defensive, and adamant that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes he’ll offer up the excuse that he doesn't want to sell the ring because he won’t get a very meaningful return on it, or he’ll say that maybe one day he’ll sell it.

Though I am aware that she and the relationship are a trigger for him, I still feel hurt that he won’t put in the work to deal with those feelings. I also feel very angry that he keeps an engagement ring meant for someone else when we’ve been talking about the possibility of getting married ourselves.

How do I deal with this issue in a way that’s fair to both of us?

Sara
Grand Rapids, Michigan


Dear Sara,

Although your boyfriend’s decision to keep the engagement ring in the basement is painful for you, this impasse and how you deal with it has the potential to help you get to know each other in a much deeper way. That’s because it’s not just the ring that’s in the proverbial basement—so are your respective feelings associated with it.

To get to those feelings, you’ll need to have a different kind of conversation. But first, let me offer some context to help you create a space in which your boyfriend might feel more comfortable opening up about his inner world rather than evading the topic altogether with some version of Maybe one day I’ll sell it.

What you two have been doing so far is staying in what therapists call the “content” of the conversation. The content is what the disagreement is ostensibly about. It might be something like You don’t do your share of the laundry, or You need to defend me when your dad criticizes me, or I want you to get rid of your ex’s engagement ring. Just beneath the content is what’s known as the “process,” which is what informs the content. For instance: When I’m left with all the laundry, I feel invisible, unappreciated, and unloved. Or: I don’t defend you when my dad criticizes you because I’m terrified of standing up to him and I freeze, just like I did when I was a kid. Or: I avoid talking to you about the ring because I’m afraid that you don’t want to hear my complicated feelings about it, and I will have no way to convince you that I want to be with you without denying these other feelings that are also very much a part of who I am.

Many couples stay in the content, rehashing the same argument (and getting nowhere), without ever talking about what’s really going on.

Let’s begin with a fundamental truth about being human: Our experiences in life stay with us and shape who we are. Our pasts aren’t magically erased when we meet a new partner; we all show up on Day One of an adult relationship with our own histories, ways of relating, ideas about ourselves and others, insecurities, pain, and losses. It’s unrealistic to expect a new partner to be a clean slate, especially with regard to significant relationships from the past. This means that if you’re going to have a strong relationship with your boyfriend, you’ll need to get acquainted with his losses.

You might be thinking, Wait, this loss happened almost two years ago. She was awful to him, and if he’s happy with me, it’s a gain, right? But some breakups can hit hard and linger because in some ways, they feel like a death—the person who was an integral part of one’s life is no longer there. Even if that person wasn’t the best match, there’s the loss of the good parts of the relationship that will never be replicated in quite the same way with another partner. Additionally, and this seems especially relevant here, the way in which a relationship ends (amicably, angrily, unresolved) affects the way the survivor will grieve, just as how the way in which someone dies can affect their loved ones for years to come.

The conversation you need to have will be made harder if your boyfriend has gotten the sense (and based on your letter, I imagine he has) that this is less a discussion that allows room for his messy feelings and more a means to get him to stop having the feelings he’s having. There’s a big difference between Tell me more about the pain of that relationship so I can understand you better and feel closer to you—this will make it easier for me to not take so personally your wanting to keep the ring (process) and Let’s talk about how we can work together to make any trace or memory of this woman disappear, specifically by selling the ring (content). (By the way, this is also a common dynamic when a person whose spouse died begins dating a new partner. Sometimes the new partner feels threatened by the pieces of the past, while the other person has a deep need to preserve them in daily life.)

To talk on a process level, you’ll want to focus not on determining what’s “fair” but on sharing your more tender emotions and treating the other person’s with the utmost compassion and care. Instead of asking your boyfriend to sell the ring, you can share with him what it means for you that he’s kept it (maybe: that you believe he wishes he were still with his ex, or that his feelings for her are deeper than his feelings for you), and how you feel when he shuts down conversations about it (maybe: lonely or unimportant). In turn, perhaps he can share with you what the ring means to him (maybe: a tangible memento of an important chapter of his life, in the way that many people save photos from past relationships rather than deleting them from their archives), and how he feels when you try to engage him in these conversations (maybe: pressured, attacked).

He may find your questions to be intrusive, judgmental, or controlling. If so, you’ll want to get curious together about how much of his avoidance of this topic is about your approach in the present; or about a familiar feeling from his past—perhaps an old experience of getting the message that his feelings were “wrong” or unacceptable—or about his unresolved feelings about the breakup that he’s not willing to look at because he fears that if he gives them any air time, he’ll become sad and overwhelmed. Maybe he believes that he can keep them in a box (an emotional box represented by the ring box) and has taken great care not to open the lid, because he’s afraid of what might come out.

The challenge of these conversations is that they require each of you not only to talk about difficult things, but also to listen fully and tolerate the other person’s true self. If you find that these conversations keep reverting to the content, you might consider seeing a therapist together, or taking a couples’ class on how to communicate more effectively so that you improve at this hard but ultimately rewarding work, which is necessary for all strong, enduring relationships. When you do, you’ll find that you’ll feel less hurt and angry, he’ll feel less defensive, and what ultimately happens with the ring will matter far less to both of you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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