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“I’m Moving in with my Boyfriend, But I Can’t Stop Thinking of my Ex”

I’ve been dating a wonderful guy for about six months and we’re getting ready to move in together (in about two more months). I’m planning to try to find a job outside of the town we’re in by next May, so we both felt we needed to see if it was going to work out so that he may move with me. However, with all the recent developments I keep thinking about my ex-boyfriend and can’t get him out of my head. Not in a “I want to get back together” way but just sort of re-thinking things that happened and being sad. We were together for almost three years and he was an alcoholic, almost ready to self-destruct. I spent that whole time supporting him financially (I’m now in way more debt that I was before the relationship), being there for him emotionally, and dealing with the effects of his illness.

I am not in contact with this person and no longer want to be his friend or girlfriend or anything, but for some reason I keep thinking about even the good times we had and get kind of sad. So my question: is this normal? I mean, I think some kind of self-reflection prior to moving in with a new boyfriend is bound to occur but I just want to make sure I’m not missing a huge warning sign. I don’t want to put my new boyfriend, or myself for that matter, in a situation that is doomed from the start. It probably doesn’t help that he’s moving in to the house I shared with my ex (mine is bigger and less expensive than his). I just really want to be as emotionally healthy as I can be so that my new relationship flourishes. — Thoughts of Ex

Right after I got engaged two and a half years ago, I had a series of strange dreams that lasted maybe a couple of months. I had a few of these dreams in the first weeks following my engagement, and then they petered out to once every couple of weeks or so. My exes were featured heavily in several of the dreams, but not necessarily in a romantic sense. In the dreams, it seemed like I missed them or like I couldn’t figure out why things didn’t work out, and always when I woke up, I was a little bit sad that things in real life ended the way they did. The sense I made of these dreams — dreams about exes I most certainly did not wish I was still with — was that they represented whatever anxiety I felt about my impending marriage and the possibility of it, like my past relationships, not working out (let me be clear here that that was a small, insignificant anxiety, but one I think must be normal for most newly engaged people). If I was in love before and things didn’t work out, how could I be certain that this time it was forever?

Luckily, it wasn’t hard for me to answer that question in my waking life. While I suppose we can never be 100% certain that our decisions will work out — even the ones that seem fated — there were so many reasons I felt confident that marrying Drew was right. And it was that confidence that helped me win the war against my own anxiety — anxiety about the future and about being a wife and about wedding-planning and just all the things that crosses one’s mind as she takes a step as big as marriage.

Moving in with someone, while perhaps not quite as big of a step as marriage, is still a big deal. Unless you are having serious doubts about your relationship or your motives for moving in with your boyfriend, or if you feel like you aren’t over your ex or that you simply can’t trust your own judgment, I’d chalk up these thoughts you’ve been having about your old boyfriend to common nerves. It sounds like it’s your mind’s way of projecting anxiety over making such a big life change. You’re making a huge step in your relationship and it’s only natural to think back to the last relationship and all the mistakes you made with that one. How can you be sure — how can your trust yourself — that you aren’t making similar mistakes with this one?

Only you can answer that question. You’ve got to do some soul-searching and see if you can come up with some answers. Are you completely confident this is a wonderful relationship that you are totally committed to? If not, what’s the rush? You’ve only been together for six months. Why not take another six months or a year or even two years to continue getting to know each other before you share a home together? If it feels like you’re rushing into something, then you probably are, and of all the things to rush into, moving in with someone is right up there with a burning house fire and a free trip to Beirut. If you’re having anxiety about something — if your gut, or your subconscious thoughts or whatever — seem to be tell you to slow down and mull things over, there’s no harm in doing just that. At best, you’ll have validation and a deeper confidence that you’re making the right decision; at worst, you’ll save yourself from getting burned.

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com and be sure to follow me on Twitter.

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{ 25 comments… add one }

  • avatar Mainer August 16, 2011, 9:45 am

    This is completely normal. We do it with everything, if we think about it. Any time we do something we automatically think of other times we have done it. It is a way to prepare yourself for what we’re about to do. For example, every time I go skiing and am about to do a trail with moguls, I think of other times I have skied moguls. It could be a way to relax you (“I’ve done this before, it was fun and worked out fine”). It could be a way to warn or caution you (“Last time I did this X happened, I need to prepare for that and be wary”). Our most natural instinct is survival, doesn’t matter what it is. It could be literally or figuratively (i.e. “surviving” a relationship), but either way we are going to do what is most necessary to us at any given moment in order to ensure we “survive.” Relationships are no different. Our relationships shape us, just like any other experience shapes us. We learn, grow, get hurt, get wise, develop, and sometimes crash from them. But with each one of those things we gain a little more confidence in ourself and learn what we can handle. So when you’re preparing to move in with a boyfriend, it is only natural to think back on other boyfriends, specifically other boyfriends you have lived with. What worked, what didn’t? How can you prepare to make this work so you “survive”? The more you think about the details of your last relationship, the more reminiscent you’re going to get. As such there will always be a part of you that hesitates as a response to your last experience. You may not want to get back together with your ex, but you still cared about him at some point. He is someone you loved and took care of. You can’t turn that off. It doesn’t mean you aren’t “ready” to move in with your now boyfriend, it just means you keep thinking about your ex because you had a history with him, and the history is slightly more detailed than recalling the last time you skied moguls or something. So whereas the natural instinct of recollection to prepare for an experience is there, it goes a little deeper simply because the experience was more personal and more emotional. Compound that with the fact you literally shared this same place with your ex, and it’s to be expected because those details don’t only exist in your mind.

    It’s fine, you’ll be fine. If you analyze this too much you’ll psych yourself out. If your initial response was “I’m ready to move in together,” then go with that. All the other stuff is just a natural response. Life’s about moving forward. If we balked at every experience because of a less-than-favorable prior experience, we’d never get anywhere.

  • avatar lemongrass August 16, 2011, 9:51 am

    I got the same dreams as Wendy before I got married. Its a pretty normal experience and you are doing the healthy thing by processing these thoughts. As long as you are available emotionally to your new bf then it isn’t wrong (or bad) to think about your previous ones.
    I can’t give you any advice about moving in too soon. I moved in with my husband within 5 months (and had sex with him on the first date.) I say to hell with the rules, do what is right for you.

  • avatar Jena August 16, 2011, 10:22 am

    Why are people so freakin’ quick to move in together? Six months? Eesh. Good luck.

    • Budj Budjer August 16, 2011, 10:36 am

      Any time an “interest” ends up crashing for a few days at my place I’m ready for them to be gone by the end of it….I would put off living with my future s/o for at least a year or more just because I think I would feel smothered or that I have to give them my undivided attention while they are there and I can’t do that for extended lengths of time…maybe I’m just into the wrong girls…haha.

      • avatar Lydia August 16, 2011, 10:46 am

        For me, the point of living together is that you can be together and NOT have to give each other your undivided attention all the time. A lot of the time it’s just nice to sit on the couch together, me reading a book and him watching football.

        • Budj Budjer August 16, 2011, 10:53 am

          I totally agree…because at that point one person doesn’t feel like a drag on the other and no resentment can build.

        • avatar Jena August 16, 2011, 11:00 am

          I can do that without living together. It’s called “hanging out.”

          • avatar Jena August 16, 2011, 1:48 pm

            Seriously 8 thumbs down? You’re going to move in with someone so that you can comfortably be quiet in the same room together?

            • Budj Budjer August 16, 2011, 1:56 pm

              I didn’t thumbs you down, but I think it was because they are saying that the relationship has progressed passed the “butterflies / zOMG I need all your attentions” so that living together isn’t an emotional drain…i.e. has progressed to the point of being mature enough for the decision to co-habitate a dwelling…

              • Budj Budjer August 16, 2011, 1:57 pm

                Not the LW’s situation…but the commenters’ personal situations.

            • avatar TheOtherMe August 16, 2011, 2:12 pm

              Don’t worry Jenna, I totally agree on the moving in too quickly part ( and have repeatedly gotten thumbed down for it ). I am actually pretty much a “runnaway-mover-inner”

            • avatar Lydia August 16, 2011, 2:27 pm

              I didn’t mean that people move in together for solely that purpose. (Yeah, I said “the point of” originally. It was badly worded. My mistake. Does it help that English isn’t my first language?) Just that it’s a nice thing about living together and that being together doesn’t have to mean giving eachother your undivided attention all the time.

    • avatar lemongrass August 16, 2011, 12:39 pm

      No need to be condescending, it doesn’t do much to help your argument.

      • avatar Jena August 16, 2011, 1:48 pm

        What argument? She’s writing to an advice column saying “I’m moving in with a guy I barely know and I’m doubting that it’s a good idea.”

        (6 months and they have already made this decision to move. They don’t know each other that well, I don’t care if they HAVE spent every single day together).

        • avatar lemongrass August 16, 2011, 2:20 pm

          You don’t know that thats too soon for them. Some relationships progress faster than others and yes, sometimes, when you meet the right person you know. I know this from experience because I moved in with my husband at 5 months, and we are doing fantastic thankyouverymuch. Just because YOU haven’t been there doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

          • avatar Jena August 16, 2011, 4:38 pm

            She’s writing in saying that she’s thinking constantly about her ex, and you’re saying that it doesn’t seem like it’s too soon.

            I’ve been there. It’s not a good idea to move in when you’re not ready to do it. I moved in with a guy after 9 months and we broke up at 2 years. So yeah, I’m not as dumb or inexperienced as you’re implying.

    • avatar robottapocalypse August 16, 2011, 12:40 pm

      At least we know she stands by her bad decisions to act quickly and think later. Perhaps she’s just now thinking, for the first time, about the decision to move in with the last guy.

      Maybe four years from now she will be thinking about this decision as well.

  • avatar Nick August 16, 2011, 10:57 am

    I’m going to differ with the Mainer & Wendy because there may be some warning signs here to sort out for yourself that were not brought up.

    1. Alcoholism affects more than the drinker. 3 years with a ready-to-destruct alcoholic may well have left you in an emotional debt the way it has left you financially. Consider reading the al-anon page for newcomers at http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/ and just consider if it resonates (if you have not already done so).

    2. The same house as all this trauma with your ex? Eh. My gut dislikes that idea. If you were a friend, I’d strongly suggest you find new neutral territory or hold off. And move yourself out too. Do you see how some of your language can be construed (incorrectly?) as you worrying about the pattern? You say doomed from the start. That’s a red flag way to put something. I appreciate very much how Mainer contextualized the whole “survival” instinct for your worries. We have stronger instincts than survival though, and one of them is to repeat patterns learned earlier in life. Conscious avoidance is what’s called for here. Thus the same house concern.

    3. Financially. Your debt is a potential source of problems in a live-in s/o arrangement. Deal with that by paying it off before you allow yourself a new s/o live-in. The debt is a symbol of other ways you are still in need of some cleansing perhaps. I could be wrong, but urging caution seems prudent what you’ve given us to work with.

    Good luck!

    • avatar Mainer August 16, 2011, 11:26 am

      Well put, and I certainly agree with you on point #2 (assuming it would be relatively easy to move, such as a rental toward the end of it’s lease and not a mortgage). A new place would help her to stop thinking about her ex. And I agree with your take on resorting to familiarity, it is certainly just as strong an instinct as survival since familiarity usually gives us comfort. So it’s a double edge sword for sure.

      One thing that struck me about the letter, however, was not so much she was still tortured by her last relationship. It was more that she was thinking back on it and lamenting over all the good times she had, which is obviously confusing for her since she knows she would never get back with her ex, nor does she have a desire to. It seems like a classic “grass is greener” mindset, where we tend to only think of the positives of a situation we’re either not in or were once in. So I believe a main part of her letter was addressing this issue, and she was wondering if this meant she wasn’t ready to move in with her boyfriend. From the letter (and this assumption could be off) it does not appear she is re-creating her last experience (i.e. her current boyfriend is just like her past boyfriend).

      Depending on the severity of the debt, that can be unfair to her boyfriend for them to move in together. However, it quite a bit of instances, moving in together helps to save money, which may help her reduce her debt faster. I shouldn’t have to point out that this should not be the motivation for moving in, but it is something she should definitely be bringing to her boyfriends attention and may help them both in the long run.

      But I liked your take on it, on proceeding with caution. I just felt a majority of the concern in the letter was the lamenting thoughts about her ex, not so much whether she felt ready.

      • avatar lemongrass August 16, 2011, 12:42 pm

        I agree with both of you, except for the debt. Moving in together doesn’t equal sharing finances. Many times marriage doesn’t mean sharing finances. The LW should absolutely work to pay off her debt but I don’t think that should be a reason not to move in with someone.

    • avatar moonflowers August 16, 2011, 8:13 pm

      Seconding the alcoholism part. If the LW has fallen into a pattern of being responsible for other people when they should be stepping up for themselves (codependence), having someone else back in the house with her could send her into a codependent pattern again, even if the new guy doesn’t need caretaking.

      I’d also recommend moving out in order to move on, and perhaps reading up on codependency or other Al-Anon materials so the LW is conscious of where these behavioral patterns come from.

  • avatar MsMisery August 16, 2011, 11:17 am

    I still think about one of my exes more than any of my other exes, probably because he’s the “one that broke my heart.” I have no desire to be together with him anymore. I never talk to him or see him, and it’s been years since we’ve been together. Some people and some situations just stick in your mental craw. Sometimes I think of him in a passing way, but sometimes I still get totally pissed off at him, and I’m not even about to move in with someone or anything like you are. Hopefully one day our brains will give up the ghost. As long as you’re not PINING AWAY (or plotting revenge) or anything, it’s just a part of your past and probably nothing to worry about.

  • avatar Sarah August 16, 2011, 11:53 am

    I think its normal to think about other exes and be sad about what happened before you move in with/marry a man. You’re basically doing the thing that you once hoped for with all these men(or one man in particular), but were heartbroken. Especially you, who put so much of yourself into a relationship, both financially and emotionally, just to have those hopes dashed after three years.

    Just before I moved in with my boyfriend, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my past relationships. I had never lived with a man before and it helped to think about the past and what I learned from these men. Unfortunately with that comes the sadness you felt when it was over. Think of moving in with your boyfriend as sort of a funeral for your past relationship, you are finitely ending that chapter of your life, and its ok to be sad about that, but you also have to know when to move on.

    I actually had a really cathartic experience by accident that cured me of the sad memories thing. It was the night before the move and I had been putting off cleaning the trunk of my car til that evening, so I had to clean the crapalanche of stuff out late in the evening alone. Turns out I had stuff dating back almost 5 years in the trunk (I swear, if they ever make a car Hoarders my ass is there.) and a lot of things were knickknacks boyfriends had given me that I no longer cared to see, but in the past felt weird to throw away. One ex’s band’s metal cd, another’s old college sweatshirt, a necklace (that my ex had exchanged beforehand from another necklace that said “love” on it because he was pretty sure he was gonna dump me and he thought a “love” necklace would imply too much but he wanted to wait to dump me until the day after Christmas and how do I know all this well because he told all my good friends he was dumping me weeks before he actually did it to further humiliate me and sorry I got distracted.)

    I was on a time crunch, and with only a few hours before the movers arrived I didn’t have the time to ponder over the sentiment of what each item meant to me at the time. I just tossed it all. Every last piece of junk, a lot of it gifts from men. And it felt fan-fudgin-tastic. It was like me taking control of how I felt about them back.

    Anyway, the very healthy and sane advice I’m giving you is to find some stuff of your ex’s and set it on fire. Or toss it. Melt it in the microwave (that’s totally safe, right?). Something like that. That way you can stop being controlled by your doubts and start getting excited about this new chapter.

  • avatar bostonpupgal August 16, 2011, 2:08 pm

    OK, This is so weird. I got engaged last Christmas, and for the first few months after I had the EXACT SAME THING happen to me that happened to Wendy. I had dreams about exes-long ago ones, more recent ones, etc. And in every one I was sad we weren’t together, and when I woke up I had a lingering feeling of sadness. In the morning, however, I could see clearly how happy and ready I am to marry my soon-to-be husband. I think Wendy’s exactly right, it’s more about our anxietys and fears moving forward then an indication we aren’t over the past.

    I’m ready to be a wife. And as long as you are happy, healthy, and confident in your relationship with your boyfriend, LW, you’re probably ready to move in together. If you’re not, that’s ok too. What helped me finally stop having the dreams was writing a letter to myself and my exes, thanking them for what they brought to my life, saying anything I felt needed to be said, and stating I was ready to move on (I didn’t send it to anyone of course) Maybe that will work for you

  • avatar Lydia August 16, 2011, 2:24 pm

    A similar thing happened to me whenever I got a new boyfriend in the past. In the early days of the relationship, I’d start having vivid dreams where I made out with other guys. Close male friends, random celebrities, and sometimes even complete strangers. All people that I had no attraction to in real life. Then, halfway through the dream, I’d remember that I had a boyfriend and would get all worried and upset. The dreams always stopped within a week or two and had no bearing whatsoever on the relationships.

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