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Your Turn: “Am I Just a Replacement Girlfriend?”

In a feature I call “Your Turn,” in which you, the readers, get to answer the question, I’m presenting the following letter without commentary from me:

My partner and I have been seeing each other for about six months. The beginning was rocky and more like a secret relationship. For example, we held hands but he let go if anyone we knew could be around, and he wouldn’t tell friends if he had spent the evening with me, etc. Not until the past three months have we become more comfortable with the idea of calling ourselves “girlfriend and boyfriend” and not until two weeks ago did he tell his parents about me.

Three months before we started dating, he and his live-in girlfriend had a heartbreaking break up. They were soul mates, best friends, in love and meant for each other. They as a couple were loved and adored by everyone; they were cute and very likable. The reason their relationship ended was because she was dealing with depression and he could not give her support the way she needed. She felt he didn’t care, she projected anger and they both closed off from each other. He was passive and confused and she was upset and sad. They kept communicating after the break up and still ended emails with “I love you.” He stopped emailing her because he needed space and time to heal but intended on reopening their communication after a short time.

A few months later, we started dating, and about a month after that she emailed him asking what was going on with them. He didn’t mention me and just apologized for being busy and told her that he missed her. It’s been three months since that last email, and she tried getting in contact with him once more, but he avoided it. We talked about it once, and he said he didn’t know what to say to her or how to explain himself to her. I think that he felt like he let her down emotionally and failed to be there as a boyfriend and friend for her. Their relationship has no closure and still has emotions left and right.

Although I’ve never met her, it seems like she and I are fairly similar in interests and characteristics. Sometimes I think my boyfriend only sees the similarities of her in me, and not all of me. I did some internet snooping that I’m not proud of, but noticed a lot of things that scare me. First off, he still has photos of her and him in his Facebook and flickr — tons of them. There are none of me and him. Next, I noticed that he and I do the same things that they did, have the same cutesy nicknames and cutesy language that they used and we even do the same poses in photos that they did.

When I’m not thinking about this, our relationship is so great — lovely and ideal. But when I do think about it, I can’t shake this awful feeling in my gut. Is it out of line for me to feel a little crazy here? I wonder if he still misses her and still loves her. I wonder if he’s only dating me because I remind him of her and he wants to prove to someone that he can be a good boyfriend. It tears me apart to think about him still missing his ex and using me as some sort of coping method. Am I not being rational or understanding of his position here? — The understudy girlfriend

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avatar scattol October 17, 2011, 7:26 am

Tell him to man up and make up with his future wife (the soul mate girlfirend I mean).

avatar Liz October 17, 2011, 7:41 am

Sounds like you are the replacement girlfriend :/ He might not even realize it but from your description it sounds like he might not be ready to commit to someone else the way he did to his previous girlfriend. I think it’s important you figure out what you want your relationship to be, if you’re ok with casual dating and can deal with the fact that he isn’t willing or capable of giving you 100% in the relationship, then that’s fine. But it doesn’t sound like you are. You said it yourself: ‘They were soul mates, best friends, in love and meant for each other’ and if you believe that then it’s obvious that you are not all that to him (and he isn’t to you either). Have you told him about all of those concerns?
Personally, I’d bow out. You are obviously uncomfortable with the situation, and even though you say your relationship is great otherwise that doesn’t change that his ex is a huge factor when it comes to trust and commitment for the future, etc.
You deserve a relationship in which you’re not constantly doubtful of your partner’s feelings towards you. Good luck!

Skyblossom Skyblossom October 17, 2011, 8:04 am

He may not be over his ex and the fact that the two of you have taken this relationship at a slow pace is probably exactly what he needed to do to heal. At this point he may still have feelings for his ex or he may just be afraid to upset whatever fragile mental balance she has achieved. He may know that he could never live with her because of her depression but at the same time not want to be the one to throw her back into depression. So he may not feel that he can post pictures of the two of you because she would see them. That leaves him in a bind where he doesn’t want to go back but is prevented from moving forward without being the bad guy who causes her to relapse. He may just be waiting until she is in a new relationship so that she isn’t harmed by his new relationship before he shows off his own relationship publically.
The fact that you are similar to the ex may be his attempt to have a duplicate to her or just that he is attracted to certain personality traits. I think you need to talk to him about his feelings and about what he wants from your relationship. Be prepared to know that he may not yet know what he wants. I’d at least want my own nicknames, that came from my own relationship. Try making up a new nickname for him. Just let it roll out naturally at some time when you’re having fun. Let the two of you build your own special relationship but if it causes you too much doubt or stress then consider moving on.

avatar DDL October 17, 2011, 8:17 am

If you had to go snooping through Facebook and Flickr, obviously you were more than just curious about this relationship of theirs. And, to be honest, I’m not surprised that you found old pictures of them together, that you two pose the same, and he uses the same nicknames – he still loves her, and that’s not about to change any time soon. You mentioned he has no photos of you, yet by the sounds of it you have pictures together… well, I guess that can be a minor red flag (I’m not fond of pictures myself, so I honestly wouldn’t care if there were any of me or not) seeing as he still has his ex’s photos.

But, really, LW, what was your first guess that he wouldn’t fully commit to you? When he hid you for 3 months from friends and family, not wanting to say you two were dating? Yeah, that should have been your first clue. He just broke up with his girlfriend, dramatically albeit, 3 months before you started dating him, and you still maintain that you were gf/bf since then. If that doesn’t scream rebound, I don’t know what does.

I think the two of you are on a different page: You want a relationship with him, and he wants a relationship with his ex. He’s floundering because he’s caught between wanting his ex and dating you.

LW, you don’t need drama like this. You said yourself that the relationship is “lovely and ideal”, but, if it were, you wouldn’t be writing to Dear Wendy about the crux of your relationship. No relationship is perfect because no one is perfect, you either make do with what you have, or you move to greener pastures.

Talk to your boyfriend about this, and if he flounders and can’t give you a straight answer, then he needs to grow up and spend some time on his own as a single man. He can’t bounce from girlfriend to girlfriend and expect to be satisfied, or expect to get over his ex (if that’s what he indeed wants).

As for you, if I were you, I’d find a man who would want to give his attention to me and not constantly worry about his ex-girlfriends or be involved in the drama of an old relationship. Bow out with your boyfriend gracefully and keep in touch from time to time. But find someone without so much drama in their life. :)

FireStar FireStar October 17, 2011, 8:17 am

One of the most basic characteristics of a relationship is commitment. That means you are committed to being with some to the exclusion of everyone else. Your boyfriend may not be cheating but he isn’t exactly committed either. And while he’s playing the coward and riding the fence he is doing both you and the ex a disservice. If it is truly done between them, he needs to be clear about that and set her free. If he is unsure about you then he needs to free you to date other people or let you go to find someone who won’t be ashamed to date you. And the way to get him to do this is to TELL him the current situation doesn’t work for you and he needs to figure out what he wants – as in by the end of the conversation. I’m so confused – this person is your boyfriend but you feel it is wrong to tell him treating you like this is unfair? If he can’t be open about your relationship to EVERYONE you have your answer. There is a certain truth in no one can take advantage of you without your consent. It’s more than a little odd you allowed the things you did – he was treating you like a mistress – maybe that’s something to put on a dealbreaker list for next time.

avatar MiMi October 17, 2011, 8:29 am

This is pretty darn messy, LW. You’ve assembled an impressive dossier on this man, his long term girlfriend, their habits, the nature of their emails, their pet names, their community standing, etc. in order for – what? For you to pretend like you can’t add 1 + 1 and get 2?
C’mon!
The girlfriend’s “breakup” was a posture since clearly she expected the relationship to continue, the guy’s waffling behavior has sent mixed-messages to everyone (and shown him to be quite spineless) and you have been willing to play the ostrich, sticking your head in the sand in order not to see that good, stand-up men don’t treat their new girl like a dirty secret or say “I love you” to someone else while they are with you or keep all their ex’s photos up on Facebook or…do I need to go on?
Shake the dust of this guy off your Pradas or your Birkenstocks and move on. This mess is not for you.

avatar Nick October 18, 2011, 2:24 am

I’m essentially with MiMi here.

I’ll only add that some ppl I know say things like “people come into your life for a reason.” I don’t usually buy that (however convenient it is to think so), but we do all need to a) learn certain lessons and b) sometimes we are that other person’s “someone” (who has come for a reason). It sounds like there is an awful lot of hurt on both sides of your bf and his ex. Depression sucks. Maybe you will end up with him and maybe not, but it sounds like if you don’t, at least you will have helped him move on or cope. There’s some silver lining there. It’s not in vain. Life is about what you give, isn’t it, or at least it makes me happy for you to think so. Good luck.

avatar ReginaRey October 17, 2011, 8:31 am

The part of this letter that stood out the most was this: “When I’m not thinking about this, our relationship is so great — lovely and ideal. But when I do think about it, I can’t shake this awful feeling in my gut.”

Basically, you just said: “When I deny that this is going on, I feel great!” Well, of course you do! But the fact that you have to actively deny this in order to enjoy and appreciate the relationship is a huge red flag in and of itself.

The other red flag is, of course, that you’re DEFINITELY a replacement girlfriend. This guy needed to be single in order to get over his girlfriend, and to work out his perceived failings as a boyfriend. Instead, he rebounded with you in order to avoid some of the hurt and to soften the emotional blows he’s feeling. Make no mistake, he’s using you as an emotional cushion right now, while he pines away for her.

Move on, right now! This guy wants to be with someone else, he just can’t figure out how to do it. You’re not his girlfriend – you’re a stand-in.

avatar H October 17, 2011, 10:50 am

Right- relationships should *not* give you awful feelings in your gut.

They should make you feel good.

Budj Budj October 17, 2011, 8:40 am

I’ve decided to break your letter into different points rather than a cohesive all-encompassing response:

He is hung up on this girl and still cares about her, but I wouldn’t necessarily say you are the replacement…depression can also include suicidal tendencies so he might be scared to tell her about you depending on the severity of her situation.

Of course you have similar things in your relationship to his last one and of course you share similar personality traits…he isn’t a different person and the traits you possess that she possesses are obviously things he finds attractive.

If the relationship is great other than when you think about this then I feel like you are projecting….

He isn’t going to delete years worth of photos for you and if you have only been “out in the open” a short time you need to let your library of photos as a couple build up. I mean the worst thing you found were photos from his previous relationship?

The only mistake you made in this was getting involved with a guy that has baggage….work through it if you want.

I’ve dated someone with depression before and it sucks the life out of you if they want it to. He may care for her as a person, but if she was unwilling to get help on her own then it is one of those tough break ups where you know it isn’t going to work even though you still care.

avatar 6napkinburger October 17, 2011, 12:08 pm

This brings up a good point.

I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with years worth of tags in facebook when you break up.

Do you really have to go through and delete all those tags? Isn’t it just kind of part of your photographic history?

This isn’t the same as having your own albums up; I get why a new person would want those taken down. But If I untag myself from other people’s pictures, I’ll lose track of them and never have any idea what pics are up of me. I don’t feel like I want to do that. Of course, a person could just make it so others can’t see those pics, but then some would argue that you are “hiding” those from your new SO.

So what is the right way to handle YEARS worth and HUNDREDS of tags with an EX?

avatar oppositeofzen October 17, 2011, 2:29 pm

I think it depends on the break-up. If if was more or less mutual or done on good terms, I think it’d be ok to leave them. If it was bad, I’d just take the pics down.

avatar Morgan October 17, 2011, 5:03 pm

I asked this below. I say leave them. Unless it was a horribly traumatic, bitter, drawn out awful affair, leave them. The events still happened. It was still a chapter of your life. Maybe if there is and album of just you as a couple being all cutesy engagement shoot style, take that down. But otherwise, I don’t see why you should take down OBX2009 or Insert-Song-Lyric-about-nyc-that-I-am-totally-original-in-using-here . Or maybe you don’t name your albums like you’re still 12, but the principle applies.

avatar Morgan October 17, 2011, 5:23 pm

*is an album

avatar Tinywormhole October 17, 2011, 9:00 am

LW, if after six months you are questioning whether he still loves his ex, then chances are he does. Your intuition is there for a reason and seems right on this one, so trust it. Besides, why would you want to be with someone you describe as someone else’s soul mate? Open yourself up to finding someone who is yours. Trust me, it will be MUCH more satisfying.

avatar silver_dragon_girl October 17, 2011, 9:02 am

Personally, I think you should move on. The fact that you state the ex was your bf’s “soul-mate” pretty much says it all…go out and find the man who wants to be with YOU above all others.

avatar ReginaRey October 17, 2011, 9:25 am

I know, I thought that was so sad! It should be a relationship rule of thumb that if you’re describing someone else as YOUR boyfriend’s soulmate…you aren’t in the right relationship.

avatar Anthrocuse October 17, 2011, 9:59 pm

this is exactly what I was going to post. That’s a bad bad sign.

avatar bethany October 17, 2011, 9:10 am

If their connection was as deep and meaningful as you say it was, 3 months isn’t long enough to “get over her”. He’s using you to fill the hole she left.

Sorry :(

avatar EB October 17, 2011, 9:22 am

Especially since, “They kept communicating after the break up and still ended emails with “I love you.”

C’mon LW… this seems much more like “taking a break” than an an actual “break-up”. Sure maybe they broke up physically but definitively not emotionally…

avatar Shadowflash1522 October 17, 2011, 11:28 am

“WE WERE ON A BREAK!”

Sorry, couldn’t resist :)

avatar EB October 17, 2011, 12:01 pm

and look how well that worked out for the copy shop girl… ;)

theattack theattack October 17, 2011, 9:10 am

I wouldn’t overthink things like poses in photographs. And activities you do together shouldn’t be surprising either. Just because I go through a breakup doesn’t change the fact that I like to canoe and hike, right? However, this “soul mate” business is weird. Did he tell you something along those lines, or did you make it up yourself? If he said that to you, move on six months ago. If you’re saying that yourself, think about why you’re saying it. It could just be insecurities, but most likely you know that he’s still grieving over her. Do you really want to be his second choice?

Budj Budj October 17, 2011, 9:13 am

Yea I didn’t touch on this on my post – I like your approach to it.

To me it sounds like this LW is using words other people have used to describe that relationship which would further add to her insecurities….if the BF said it MOA.

avatar EB October 17, 2011, 9:27 am

I think it’s weird that she is concerned with the fact that she and the ex pose similarly in photos and then causally mentions “oh fyi he never posts any photos of us in public”… WAY TO BURY THE LEAD, LW

avatar lk October 17, 2011, 12:26 pm

I don’t know…. I *kind of* got the idea she snooped in his email (thus the “soul mate” terminology & knowledge of “I love you” sign-offs) since she said she did some internet snooping (& as others have pointed out, checking out your boyfriend’s Facebook is not “snooping”)… Just the vibe I got.

avatar atraditionalist October 17, 2011, 9:36 am

He’s a coward who can’t figure out what he wants. If you want drama buckle up and enjoy the ride because that’s what he’s going to bring you. Also: what kind of guy lives with a woman, calls her his soul mate and the one he wants to marry etc and then balks when he finds out she’s depressed? He’s given you two examples of how cowardly he is. Do you really need a third?

Budj Budj October 17, 2011, 9:43 am

I think you’ve made a lot of assumptions on this post.

Someone that wants to wallow in their depression is impossible to be with…they drag you into the dark with them…until you’ve done it I wouldn’t throw stones.

avatar honeybeenicki October 17, 2011, 10:55 am

I agree with you. Living with (or even just being around) a person with depression can be very draining. Depression does not just affect the person who has it, it affects everyone else around them.

avatar Shadowflash1522 October 17, 2011, 11:32 am

Seconded.

There are people who are depressed who manage it–nobody’s perfect, but they’re doing their damndest to be happy–and then there are people who wallow in it. The former can be lived with, but there’s no reason to feel obligated to stay with the latter.

FireStar FireStar October 17, 2011, 10:37 am

I said he was a coward in my post too – but I attributed that to his being unwilling to effectively choose between the two women – I think he is most likely a nice guy who doesn’t want to hurt either woman and so remains indecisive…ultimately to the detriment of both. Saying he is cowardly for not being able to be in a relationship with the ex because of her depression isn’t fair at all. Everyone is entitled to their personal thresholds to manage whatever life throws their way. If you know that you are not the type of person who can be strong enough for both people all then time then you owe it to yourself to remove yourself from that situation – as kindly as you can.

avatar atraditionalist October 17, 2011, 9:48 am

If he really loved this woman he wouldn’t run away at hardship. I think this guy doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve been depressed before and I have family members who have been depressed. I know what I’m talking about

Heather Heather October 17, 2011, 10:12 am

As much as I believe in sticking it out when the going gets rough, and kudos to those that do, I dated someone who had depression and it was exceptionally difficult. For someone who has never had depression and has a difficult time understanding it, it was always a really difficult thing for us to get over and in the end it was better for both of us not to be together, or for him to find someone that could handle it more. So I don’t think that the BF is a scumbag for not being able to deal with it. It can definitely take a toll on a relationship.

avatar Shadowflash1522 October 17, 2011, 11:41 am

Respectfully, I disagree.

Everyone has different tolerance levels for different kinds of hardship. It’s built in, not something you can change if you love someone “enough”. Plus, who are you to tell him what he’d do “if he really loved this woman”? Love comes in all shapes and sizes. If he truly isn’t built to handle someone with depression, then the worst possible thing he could do is stay.

I can appreciate your sentiments, but I too have lived with severe depression in someone I am very close to. There is a world of difference between living with a wallower and living with a fighter.

avatar WatersEdge October 17, 2011, 10:04 am

Given your boyfriend’s ex’s depression, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that he’s been so secretive about your relationship. And after a few years together, ending emails with “I love you” doesn’t strike me as that big of a deal. Especially considering that they seem to have ended on good enough terms. And it makes sense that you’re a lot like her. They lasted for years. As for the similarities in pics and pet names, some guys seriously just aren’t that creative.

I think that what you have here is a serial monogamist. I think this guy wants a girlfriend and is happier in a relationship. He’s probably a great boyfriend! It’s what he’s good at. Yes, your boyfriend is probably not completely over the breakup, and yes he probably still feels sadness that he couldn’t work it out with her. He probably still feels love for her, too. But I don’t hear any signs that he’s being disrespectful of you, such as calling her or insisting on maintaining a friendship with her. It sounds like he wants to move on, and he wants to be with someone else. AKA you.

I don’t think you’re a replacement girlfriend for her in the strict sense, meaning I don’t think he’s dating you to ease the pain of missing her. He could have her back. But I do think you’re a replacement girlfriend in the sense that he wants to have a girlfriend and he likes you a lot, so you are now slotted in. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world, and I don’t think you’re doomed to relationship failure. But I think that’s where your gut feeling comes from— knowing that he is the kind of guy who could make a relationship work with lots of girls, not the kind of guy who waits for that “perfect fit”. It’s kind of a trade-off… guys who are pickier about who they’ll date are often less of the relationship type, while guys who genuinely want a relationship are great at it, but you can get the sense that they’ll date most anyone. If he’s a good guy and you guys work well together, that’s all that really matters IMO.

BTW- “snooping” on Facebook and Flickr is not a real thing. Those are public websites, and you have every right to see what’s on them. “Snooping” is for private things that you should not see, like his email inbox or the box at the back of his closet. Don’t feel bad about looking that stuff up. And also- she was NOT his soulmate! Believe you me, a great relationship with someone with depression is actually a terrible relationship. Maybe they could have been great if she didn’t have depression, but she does. So get that thought out of your head.

avatar Ktfran October 17, 2011, 10:21 am

WatersEdge,

I liked your response. Very thoughtful. It was also non-judgemental to all parties involved.

avatar Ktfran October 17, 2011, 10:09 am

I haven’t read the other responses yet. LW, if there is one thing I learned in this last few years is this:

Listen to your gut. I understand it’s easy to ignore because of the good times, but it’s telling you something isn’t right. In this case, listen.

Also, know this:

That everyone deserves to be in a mutually respectful and loving relationship. If you’re not getting what you want out of the relationship, move on. Find your soul mate, your best friend and the person you were meant to be with. It might take a few months, or a few years, but I promise you’ll be happier for it.

Heather Heather October 17, 2011, 10:09 am

Girl, you are totally and completely a replacement girlfriend. Move on from this guy who obviously isn’t emotionally ready for a relationship.

avatar GertietheDino October 17, 2011, 10:15 am

You are his security blanket, a place holder – not his girlfriend (she’s over there somewhere). Talk to him (he won’t open up about it, you’ve been “together” 6 months and it’s gone nowhere and now your snooping around). But it’s probably best to move on, tell him he needs to be single for a while to get his head right and most likely go back to the other girl.

avatar Lindsay October 17, 2011, 10:15 am

MOA. There are so many red flags here. Of course, the fact that he was so secretive of you and the fact that so many things in your relationship are just copying theirs. But someone who is that in love probably can’t move on so quickly from a relationship. Especially if it ended because of something like depression, and not because he’d just lost the spark. This is a really sad letter to me. The LW sounds like a very nice girl, and it sucks that this guy couldn’t just realize that he wasn’t ready. But people often don’t know that about themselves or they don’t want to admit it, so we have to realize it for them.

avatar Kerrycontrary October 17, 2011, 10:25 am

LW, I will lay out the clues that prove you are a replacement girlfriend.

1) Your boyfriend hid you from his friends and wouldn’t even hold hands with you in public for 3 months. When a guy meets a girl he likes, and especially if this girl is his soul mate, he does not hide you. Maybe it would take him 3 weeks to introduce you to his friends, not 3 months. Telling his parents about you so late isn’t such a huge deal. It depends on someone’s relationship with their parents. My sister hid her boyfriend for months and then popped up and said “we’re engaged” one day.

2) Your description of his relationship with his ex. I hope to god he’s not the one that told you all this stuff. It would be very rude and insulting for him to talk about a past girlfriend in such an affectionate way. As other commenters said, if you don’t believe you are his soulmate and someone else is, why are you dating him?

3) Your gut tells you that you are a replacement girlfriend.

LW, I do feel for you and I’m not trying to be overly harsh. In college I dated a guy casually for 6 months. He behaved similarly to your boyfriend. He wouldn’t call me his girlfriend that often, took a while to be introduced to his parents, and I could just tell that he wasn’t over his ex (who was his big college love). The crutch was when a girl called on Valentines Day saying “thank you for the flowers” and I could hear her through the phone. I was like “oh, ok, that’s how it is”. Thankfully I wasn’t too emotionally invested in the relationship so it wasn’t a huge blow. But truthfully, if your gut is telling you that something is wrong then your gut is probably right.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the similar activities/nicknames. I always call boyfriends the same pet names etc…everyone has a relationship style. A guy isn’t going to call one girl “babe” and then start calling another “kittybutt” (well…I hope not).

Sometimes we are just the casualties of other people’s relationship mistakes, but one day you will find someone who calls you his soul mate. Your current person just isn’t that guy.

Heather Heather October 17, 2011, 10:58 am

Thumbs up for kittybutt. And you might be pleased to know when typed that in my iPod (that I’m currently using) it tried to correct it to kitty utter. Oh humor.

avatar Eljay October 17, 2011, 12:47 pm

Definite thumbs up for kittybutt! Love it!

avatar Pinky October 17, 2011, 4:48 pm

Thank you for “kittybutt.”