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 was married to my ex-husband for three years, and we were together for a total of six. We have one beautiful daughter, and things ended because between work and child-rearing, we didn’t make time for ourselves and we drifted apart.

We are both romantics, so we refused to accept the conventional narrative that breakups have to end with hating your ex and trying to forget that the other person ever existed. We rejected the “Picture to Burn” sort of narrative.

We made a scrapbook for each of us when we broke up. They were filled with relationship moments and highlights from our love story. The idea was that one day we could show it to our daughter, and beyond that, when we are old and need help remembering things, what was once a beautiful love won’t just be completely forgotten. Why should we not be grateful for past loves, when our past loves were fundamentally good people?

I bring this up because my new boyfriend found the scrapbook. It wasn’t lying around on the coffee table; it was in the attic. I gave him the explanation I just gave you, but he didn’t buy it. He seems to think that if you don’t completely hate your ex, or actively try to forget he ever existed, then you still love him. But I really don’t want to be with my ex anymore. If I “love” him, it’s only in the sense that I’m grateful for our time together and I don’t hate him. Shouldn’t my boyfriend feel better knowing that he too won’t be forgotten if things don’t work out?

My boyfriend wants me to destroy the scrapbook, but I just can’t. I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell if I’m being a hopeless romantic for not wanting to forget all the memories my ex and I developed over the course of a six-year love story. To me, love deserves a better ending than that.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Every person enters a romantic relationship with a history. This history generally includes former partners, a circle of friends, family relationships, and various experiences and life events. Our histories shape who we are; nobody enters a relationship as a blank slate, uninformed by their past.

This means that just as you come into your current relationship with a history, so does your boyfriend—and there’s something about his past that is making your past (in the form of a scrapbook) feel threatening to him.

Of course, feeling some jealousy when seeing photos of a partner’s ex is common. But the context is important. You’re not paging through the scrapbook every night; you’re storing it in the attic. Nor does it sound like you’ve given your boyfriend reason to believe that you wish you were still married to your ex.

Developing trust is an important part of the process of forming a new relationship, but nobody develops trust by trying to control the narrative of his partner’s life. Acknowledging that you had a full life before you met your boyfriend and that your ex-husband was an important part of it is staying true to your life’s story.

Your boyfriend, on the other hand, would like to create a narrative that’s a fiction, a pretend version of you, edited for his comfort. In his story line, if you have positive feelings about that time in your life, you can’t have positive feelings about this new chapter in your life—so he wants to cut the part of the story that happened before he entered the scene. By asking you to get rid of something you hold dear—and that your daughter might find very meaningful one day—he’s operating under the illusion that by discarding an object, he can discard your feelings associated with it. But even if you were to get rid of the scrapbook, your feelings about that period in your life wouldn’t go away.

Often when people tell us that something is wrong with our story, we start to doubt ourselves and make edits that don’t really work. I see you doing that in your letter. On the one hand, you say that you “just can’t” destroy the scrapbook (the protagonist is clear about what to do), and on the other, you say that you “don’t know what to do” (yet the protagonist just said that she has to keep the scrapbook).

You need to reclaim your story by sharing it with your boyfriend, in a way that he might be more receptive to during this early, more tentative stage of your relationship. You can start with a spoiler alert: that in order to be true to yourself and your daughter, you’re going to keep the scrapbook. Then, instead of focusing on the hopeless-romanticism angle, which triggers his insecurity, let this be a story of your own becoming—becoming the person your boyfriend is falling in love with.

Share with him that you think of your life as a journey, and that each part of the journey has meaning for you. Pictures are snapshots of you at various moments in time—the apartments you lived in, the clothes you wore, the way you smiled and wore your hair, the vacations you took, the friends you made, the birthdays you celebrated, the people you dated and loved.

You can explain that your ex-husband was a part of your life for six years—years full of memories you don’t want to erase, so you keep them alive with photos and mementos and letters and concert-ticket stubs. You can say that if you hadn’t experienced that marriage—if you hadn’t once loved your husband, who happens to be a decent human being with whom you experienced joy and pain and everything in between—not only would you not have had your daughter, but you might not have been ready for this new relationship in the way you feel you are now. Your boyfriend thinks he can ask you to remove those six years of your life from the house—but you can’t do so, and nor should he want you to, because those years are an integral part of you.

Moreover, this isn’t just any ex—this is the father of your child, so your relationship is inextricably linked to the person you love most, your daughter. You can help your boyfriend to see that your daughter will always be a main character in your story, and that you want to show her in this very tangible way the love from which she was born, because the love that’s memorialized in this scrapbook is an essential part of her life story too—her origin story.

Finally, share with your boyfriend that in your view, to love you is to embrace your entire story—not to dictate that you edit parts of it out. Explain that in the kind of love you’re looking for, you get to be the author of your own story, just like he gets to be the author of his, and that if he can’t honor all of you—including your past—you’ll have a hard time creating both a history and a future together.

Then see where the story takes you. Maybe he’ll share the part of his story that makes him feel jealous or insecure. Maybe he’ll get curious about aspects of your story in order to understand you on a deeper level. Or maybe he’ll write your feelings out of the narrative entirely, and that will be useful for you to know now, rather than years down the road with this person. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a pivotal chapter in your relationship, and one that will help you both move forward.


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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