Haunted by a first love

Dear Toni-

I am a 50+ woman who has been married for almost 30 years. My marriage has had its ups and downs, and there were times I had "what-if" thoughts about other choices I could have made and how my life could be different today. I realize that we don't get do-overs in life and that this is an exercise in futility. However the feelings are so intense at times that I get this feeling in my gut that is almost a physical ache.

My daydreams center on one person who was my first love. Our relationship was wonderful in many ways, but there were issues we couldn't or didn't work out and it ended. There was no closure really, just a break-up from which both of us moved on to new relationships and lives. He has recently resurfaced on some of my friend's Facebook pages, as they have either kept some contact over the years or reconnected through social media. When I first saw him on one friend's list a few months back, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach.

I have tried to block these thoughts, and have never considered acting on them by contacting him. I assume he knows where I am through these friends, but he has not attempted any contact either. Like me, he is married and has a couple of grown children.

I'm confused about these old feelings resurfacing and at a loss as to what I can do to get him out of my thoughts. Honestly, I feel a bit crazy for reacting this way and wonder if other people have this experience and if so, how they deal with it. I'd appreciate any feedback from you on what may be causing this and help on how to deal with it so that it doesn't leave me miserable and discontent with my marriage and the life I made for myself. --Virtual Mid-Life Crisis

Dear Dear Virtual Mid-Life Crisis,

What immediately jumped out at me from your letter is that you barely mention your spouse, except in a reference to your "marriage and its ups and downs" and moving on "to a new relationship and life." Even in your email, your focus is on your first love and all those old feelings you are struggling with. This offers one clue about why this is happening, and also points towards some possible ways to address it.

I do want to answer your question about other people having this experience. They do and I suspect for a similar reason as yours. You are not crazy, just not content or satisfied enough in your marriage and present life. Therefore, any solution will begin by addressing what is missing or problematic in your marriage, as the old love is just a red herring or symptom and not the root of your discontent. In other words, your focus needs to shift to your spouse and the state of your marriage and that is where you will begin working on your midlife crisis.

All marriages have their ups and downs, but for some the down periods far outnumber the ups, and this may be true for you. The good news is that you have held your marriage together for many years and managed all the work and stress of raising a family. Therefore, this time in your life now belongs much more to you as a couple and I suspect you are not actively using or enjoying each other as you could be.

Because I don't have a lot of background information to go on, I will assume that your marriage is one in which you have grown distant and now spend a lot of time pursuing your own interests or in solitary activities at home. If this is so, you and your spouse should sit down together for a candid talk about how you both are feeling towards the other, what if is missing/not working for either of you, and what you would like your future life together to be like. This differs from retirement planning or deciding to move near a grown child, etc.

This talk is meant to address your intimacy needs and wants and how you could be closer and more satisfied as a couple. It's possible that one or both of you has no idea what the other is feeling. It's also very possible that he is as dissatisfied as you seem to be and has had his own daydreams about the love that got away. Therefore it will be important to stay open to one another and to keep your goal as one of greater intimacy and mutual satisfaction. Everything from lifestyle choices, hobbies and pastimes to your sexual relationship should be discussed. If this sounds impossible, please consider finding a competent and experienced couples therapist to help you.

Once you have opened up your feelings to one another the next step will be to set a plan in place that addresses any desired changes you should have come up with. This plan can include anything from weekly date nights where you take turns choosing an activity/restaurant/movie, an agreement to spend at least 15-30 minutes a day talking together with no distractions, and a plan to have at least two meals together daily that you will share the preparation and cleaning for. These may seem like such simple steps, but it is all those small daily interactions and moments of connection that make up the core fabric of a shared existence--and after years of interacting through and around your children, these are the things you probably let go of. So, make up a list based on what both of you would like more of and start immediately to implement it, one day at a time.

If it is hard to conceptualize this, imagine that you are single again and dating. You would schedule activities together, talk on the phone and perhaps check in with each other a few times a day. You would share meals, future dreams and make plans together for holidays, vacations and fun weekends. Think of this time as "dating" your spouse. You want to know more about who he is now, what his day was like, and you would want to share both simple fun and new experiences with him in order to form a stronger bond that allows for greater intimacy.

If you set your mind to this task, you may awaken old and exciting feelings for this man and relationship you may have taken for granted all these years. Together you could move into a life stage that brings renewed excitement, better sex, and new passions to share. The way to address your midlife crisis and leave old memories behind is to fall in love with your husband, all over again.

(from October 2014)


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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