Staying in touch with former lovers is fraught with perils

Q: Just before getting divorced I had a brief relationship with a woman who worked with me. (After this relationship ended, I married my current wife.) During five years we haven’t lost contact. We write, send Christmas cards and even sometimes we share e-mails. We have always wished to have a drink together and I even suggested taking her out for dinner if she ever (visited my city.)

Now, she is here. And I’m petrified. She sent me an e-mail telling me where she would stay during this week and I want to call her but why am I so afraid of doing that? All this time wishing she were in town to talk to her and see her and the way she looks now. I’m so curious that I can’t wait. Why am I so scared? Please do not misunderstand me. I love my wife. — M.T., Germany

A: Ah, what to do with former lovers? Especially the ones that pop up from your past. And even more especially with the ones that never really went away.

You are a man in an emotionally committed, monogamous relationship — in this case, marriage. You love your wife. Yet you are made anxious by the prospect of a former date/partner/lover who is in town and would like to see you. In fact, you’ve stayed in touch with this woman. You never really terminated the relationship, just shifted its terms from lovers to friends.

With her in a different city, the occasional correspondence seemed appropriate, safe, benign and honorable. After all, who can have too many quality friendships?

But now she’s in town. She wants to connect with you. And you are anxious. And you are anxious about being anxious, because it doesn’t make any sense to be anxious. Nobody has done anything wrong. Nobody intends to do anything wrong.

You’re anxious, M.T., because former lovers expose us. They rattle our preferred mystique. They challenge the persona we count on in our current relationships. They render us ordinary.

Former lovers deflate The Myth of the One and Only. This myth dies hard. It feeds the idea of “soul mates.” Is there one and only one person on planet Earth right now who is my soul mate? Or are there 47 women in Las Vegas alone with whom I could pull off a competent, meaningful and satisfying lifelong partnership?

Former lovers shape the context of our current love. Doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But it most certainly is something with which we must reckon.

Former lovers remind us that sex is ontic, which means that sex changes things. My generation hates this. We tried hard to make sex objective. We coined the phrase “just sex.” We postulated a worldview within which we could compartmentalize ourselves, leaving our souls at home to wait for “Mr./Mrs. Right” while the rest of us went out on Friday night.

I’m not passing moral judgment on the idea of “just sex.” I’m just saying it tends to not be true. Or, as I’m fond of saying to adolescent audiences, if you decide to give up your innocence in the back of a Chevy on a November night during your junior year of high school, then whatever. But mark my words: At your 10-year high school reunion, when after all these years you lay eyes on your fellow Chevy Adventurer, it’s the first thing you’ll notice. The energy you created together that night is still alive.

It’s a bit like getting a tattoo. You’d better make sure you really like it, because it’s not going away.

This is why, for most couples, there is a huge difference between “Hey honey, this is my ol’ friend from college,” and “Hey honey, this is a former lover of mine from college,” a qualitative distinction between “This is a dear friend” and “This is a dear friend who has seen me naked.”

Again, doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But it is a thing. It exists. It lives.

M.T., you are managing the energy that lives — and always will live — between you and someone who is not your wife. The energy is objective. It bonds you to this person. At once it creates in you gratitude, warmth, exposure, affirmation and insecurity.

We manage these energies by acknowledging them without provoking them. We’re neither naive nor indulgent. If we choose to remain connected to former lovers, we surround our participation in these relationships with symbols of propriety. Our current mate is kept appraised.

In some cases we decide not to stay connected. And sometimes the only reason is because it just takes too much energy to manage the energy.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@ reviewjournal.com.

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