Everything I Need to Know: Second Try

AdviceToday’s advice letter is all about taking the risk with a person for the second time after the first time didn’t work out.

Dear Sarah:

I love that you have an advice column called “Everything I need to know I learned from Romance Novels.”  I haven’t noticed any topics on relationships (although maybe I just missed those emails) so I thought this was a great opportunity for you (to be well rounded advisors capable of dishing on any topic) and me (although mostly me, because you could probably do without complicated questions from confused women).

I recently reconnected with my ex-boyfriend, which doesn’t sound so great on paper I know.  Our relationship was on and off for 2 years – we love the same movies and sports and activities and have the same sense of humour, and we really “clicked”…well sometimes…The other times he was really unreliable and I felt that I played second fiddle to the rest of his personal life – his ex, and his friends and family – which would make me hurt and angry, and consequently we fought a lot.  I made a clean break two years ago and ended it for good (but I didn’t date anyone else seriously during that time either).  Then over the Christmas holidays we started to see each other with mutual friends and then we started to hang out (“as friends”) and one thing led to another…you see where this is headed.

I genuinely enjoy his company and I’m attracted to him and I seriously missed him like crazy, but I’m not sure if dating again is a good idea.  I have been in relationships and I consider myself a practical person but I have had a lot of time to think about what I want from my next relationship and qualities I need in a partner.  Its really important to me to be with someone who’s trustworthy and dependable and will make me a priority in his life.  My Ex/BF is probably not that guy, but he is a great guy and he wants to make it work this time around.

The problem with romance novels is they always have a happy ending.  My questions (at long last) to you as Smart Bitches and wives:  Am I being unrealistic in my expectations? I don’t believe that I’ll get struck with lightning and I’ll know I’ve met my soulmate, but I really wish it worked that way.  How else do you know if its right?  Should I wait for the “right” person and circumstances OR simply acknowledge that there is no HEA in real life and accept what I have now?

Please, please, please help me!


Desperately yours

Dear Desperately:

Familiarity is very comfortable. Especially when you already know the downside of being with someone – in this case, unreliability. I’m not clear about what “second fiddle” means without an example, but if you felt neglected and second-best to everyone else, that’s not a fun feeling. It’s good to have friends and a man who values family is a very positive thing indeed, but it sounds from my perspective that you felt very left out and hurt, and that you felt you were not as important to him as he was to you. Imbalance in romance, passion, and partnership does not yield success and happiness.

But there are many, many romances in which the hero and the heroine have to grow up a bit to be worthy of one another, or ready for one another.

Perhaps the two years apart have done that for both of you. You haven’t told me if his behavior is different this time around except to say that “he is a great guy and he wants to make it work this time around.” If that is true, and he’s expressed a desire to make it work, then I’m going to suggest a small to-do list, with the hope that you’ve already done some or all of the following :

1. Have a serious and frank discussion with him about what upset you the first time you were together. Give specific examples and always, always couch them in terms of how his actions made you feel. “I” statments, not accusatory “You [always]…” statements.

2. Outline clearly what you’d like to be different. Maybe you want him to include you more in making plans for the two of you, or maybe you want him to keep commitments to you without breaking them because his mom/his ex/his buddy/his brother called to do something else. Breaking plans happens; it’s normal. Breaking them every time because something better came up is disrespectful.

3. Tell him how much you’ve missed him, how important he was to you, how sad you were when it didn’t work out, and why this second try is so scary but so potentially wonderful for you now. Spell it out: “You are important to me. Please do these things to show me that I am important to you.”

4. Once you’ve done this: Bury The Past. If you see a recurrence of past habits? Address them. In the present tense. Immediately. But only those. Once you’ve discussed what went wrong back in the day, let it stay there, and make it clear that you’re letting it go. Otherwise, the past will poison the future because you’ll be carrying it around with you all the time and you’ll ultimately start looking for the same behavior from him, even without meaning to. Clean slate. Take a mulligan.

Do over. Do better.

But as far as your questions about lightning strikes or sudden enlightenment, no, it really doesn’t always happen that way.

There is a lot of passivity in romance novels, because the genre itself creates the expectation that the hero and heroine will have a happy ending. The happy ending isn’t the problem – it’s the guarantee. The hero and heroine may have to earn it or demonstrate their worthiness for it, but it’ll happen.

And the passivity bred by that guarantee can easily translate into a wish or desire that The One should be so obvious to all of us without our having to do much or even get off the couch. Identifying the one should be as easy as telling twins apart or seeing in color or having your heart beat again or some other Really Big Impossible to Miss Holy Shit Hold All Calls We Have a Winner sign.

It doesn’t work that way. And “work” is the key word: there are happy endings, but to be the heroine of your own happy ending, you have to work for it. And that means asking for what you want in a relationship and making your expectations clear. He can choose to meet them, or choose not to. But you owe it to yourself, especially if you’ve had two years to think about it and miss this man in your life during that time, to ask what you want for your happy ending, and hear him if he communicates his own wants for your relationship.

Life is not passive. Happy endings are definitely not passive. Happy endings and happiness take work and honesty.

So get to it: get to work, be honest, and ask for what you want. I hope you get it, that he’s able to hear and understand what you desire in a relationship, and be your hero. May you live happily ever after.


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Marna says:

    Ooo, ooo, ooo, I’m qualified to answer this one! ;)

    I’m on my second marriage to my first husband, after a six-year break. Most of my friends have told me this was a mistake, and I can understand where they are coming from—basing things solely on his past behavior, it would have been awful.

    So, Desperately, my question to you is—what’s changed? What has changed in you that would make his formerly unacceptable behavior ok? What has changed in him that would keep him from repeating old patterns? If your answer to both questions is “nothing,” then run, do not walk, away from this train wreck in the making.

    If something has changed (in my case, my husband entered the military and pretty much became a different person), then take a long, hard look at both your lives. Are the changes ones which will make it easier for he two of you to meet on common ground? Are the changes ones which will be lasting, or are you fooling yourselves over temporary ideals?

    Please be aware that there are no easy fixes. Both of you carry baggage from your first time around, and both of you ill have to learn to let that baggage go.

    Can a second-time-around work? Yes. Will this one? That’s up to you two.

  2. 2
    Leah Guinn says:

    I don’t see any problem with dating him again.  Honestly, your guy might have just had to mature a little.  Two years can be ages in guy-development, particularly if he is/was in his 20’s. But if, after a really good try, he’s still unreliable, please don’t settle.  And don’t marry him until he proves worthy of your confidence.  My husband and I don’t like the same movies, music, or humor (Larry the Cable Guy? Stewie? Ick.).I have had to develop a slight interest in fishing and physics.  He suffers through chick flicks and House Hunters.  But he is nothing if not trustworthy and reliable.  I’ve never once had to wonder where our family and I rate with him.  You deserve that in your relationships, too.  I wish you guys all the best!

  3. 3
    Wendy says:

    The cynic in me is saying that you don’t put sour milk back in the fridge, and you don’t take it out again hoping that a little time and absence has changed it for the better. But that may just be me. I never even tried to stay friends with any ex-boyfriends, because they were ‘ex’ for very good reasons, either mine or theirs.

    People grow up, and mature, but they very seldom change fundamentally. A man who puts you last once is statistically likely to do it again.

    The only way to find out if it’s going to work in the long term? Is to try it.

  4. 4
    Sarah L says:

    When my husband and I began dating, we dated for a short time and then he told me “I’m sorry, I care about you, but like a sister.” After about a month or so, he came back and basically said “I’m sorry, I had my head up my ass, I needed some time to figure out what I really wanted, and I don’t deserve it, but I’d love it if you gave me another chance.” We’ve been married for almost 6 years.

    This to say: sometimes it takes losing you for them to realize that you’re what they want.

  5. 5
    Robin C. says:

    I’m with Marna on the “So what has changed?”  If it’s that important to you to be with someone who’s dependable and makes you a priority in his life (which is a perfectly reasonable desire, IMO), don’t compromise on that. To me the “My Ex/BF is probably not that guy” says it all – End, stop. Romance Heroines don’t tend to find love through compromise –  and it sounds to me like the tone of your post indicates this would be a compromise.

    There’s a joke about men and women where a man, upon learning he has 24 hours to live, asks to make love to his wife all night. She obliges a couple times and then finally says, “You know what? Lay off. you don’t have to get up in the morning.” I think that’s relevant here. Romance novels don’t have to get up in the morning. They don’t have to constantly assess whether they’re happy in life and whether their partners are making them so. We get to believe based on their story that they’ll go into the future hand in hand, but it sounds like nothing in your story so far has given that indication. Mostly it sounds like a disappointment from what I’m reading here.

    I’m not saying “don’t go for it” there’s nothing wrong with spending a few months figuring things out, but if you don’t like the trajectory… don’t stick with it. They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Things can change. You might get a happy ending out of a second time around. But if you’re not progressing to a place where you want to be, don’t just decide there is no happy ending. A happy ending doesn’t have to be all butterflies and roses, but I do think any relationship should end if, when push comes to shove, you’re not happy in it.

  6. 6
    Robin C. says:

    Also, I have to ask: if he’s not trustworthy, dependable, or willing to make you a priority, what makes him such a great guy? To me, those are a great guy’s defining qualities!

  7. 7
    Bhetti B says:

    The other problem is unreasonable expectations, too, though. You have to ask yourself how much you enjoy spending time with him and if you’d regret it for the rest of your life if you didn’t feel the same with someone else that you’ve felt for him. Look at the deeper issues: was there a deeper reason why you felt neglected, does he have deeper issues of his own for the way he acted? One thing I learnt from romance novels (oh, no, the misunderstandings, goodness me!) is that if you really want it, you fight for it. You have to make sure from the get go that you don’t sink into the patterns that ruined your relationship previously by making it clear to each other why it didn’t, that you care enough to want to take an active part in making sure change happens and that—while nipping red flags in the bud—you concentrate on having a good time for both of you.

  8. 8
    Bhetti B says:

    Also, I decided myself after trying out a few relationships that unless it’s true love that just makes me unable to live without my other half, I’m really much much happier on my own, possibly with some cats. This is due to my own social/trust issues, but that’s my own problem.

    Are you making the decision of being with him solely because of the fear of these cats?

  9. 9
    KJG says:

    When a man loves you, he treats you much differently than when he is just ‘dating’ you. And you can tell that difference right away. At least, I could.

    Guys who just want to date someone don’t go to a lot of extra effort. Guys who love you do. When I met my husband he was very concerned for my welfare at all times, always wanted to be with me and if he couldn’t would call or leave notes on my car, would bend over backwards to please me. In essence, he wooed me!

    If a guy is not going to any extra efforts, it’s not love, and it won’t last. Or it won’t be very happy…

    Just my two cents after almost 13 years of marriage. :-)

  10. 10
    joykenn says:

    Desperately should definitely take a long hard look at the ex to see if he might have changed but should also take a look at herself.  Have you changed? Were you clingy and only wanted him to do things with you?  Were your expectations of putting you first unrealistic?  Seeing his family once or twice a week isn’t unreasonable—everyday, too much! Did he break clearly set up appointments or stand you up for engagements he agreed to attend or were you making assumptions or appointments without checking with him?  Did you develop some separate friends and separate hobbies or interests so you could be happy and fulfilled when he met his old high school chums once in a while or got together with the guys for a touchfootball game a few Sunday afternoons?  You don’t have to live in each others pocket to have a close and loving relationship.

  11. 11
    Kimberly says:

    Here’s my haphazard advice such that it is:

    I have to agree with the SB’s advice on this one.  People can change when there is impetus to change.  If you feel that’s happened for both of you in the direction where a second chance is not only possible but desirable then have at it!  Just be sure, should you try this, you can leave the past in the past.  It’s such an easy thing to say- address what happened before but then leave it there, but to experience something that feels so much like damage dealt previously and NOT react to it like it is….  well, that’s something else altogether.

    Work is one thing, but it can never be one-sided.  Be sure that he is as determined as you are and the changes that need to be made are reasonable.  Complete personality overhauls are not signs of healthy relationships, but rather a demand for change that would leave both of you wanting.

    Be kind and compassionate to yourself first.  Love yourself.  If at any point in time you think to yourself, “I would tell a girlfriend to dump this guy” then do it.  You deserve happiness and one must never let go of that hope and resign themselves to being treated as “second fiddle”.

    Best of luck to you.  I wish much happiness.

  12. 12
    SonomaLass says:

    I’m in the eighth year of my second-chance romance, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.  We had almost 20 years between first and second shot, which is a lot of time to change, grow, mature, figure out yourself and what you need/want/prioritize in your relationships and your life. (We also married and divorced other people, and I had four kids, which complicated things just a little bit.)

    Two years isn’t as long, of course, but maybe your guy wasn’t as messed up as we were!  I agree with SB Sarah’s advice, particularly TALK IT ALL OUT and, if you agree to try again, DON’T DRAG UP THE PAST.  We were lucky that both of us had good counseling in conjunction with our divorces, so we had very clear ideas about ourselves and what we were after in a mature relationship. Early on we agreed that we both made mistakes and were very different people the first time around, so no blame from back then applied now.  It has worked really well for us. 

    Incidentally, my biggest problem in the past was making clear what I wanted.  Make your needs known, make sure you know his, and then see if between you there’s a will and a way to make this work. Good luck!

  13. 13
    JaneyD says:

    My sister divorced her spouse, who was an abusive, self-centered, wait on me hand and foot, jerk of an alcoholic.

    He went to AA, got himself straightened out, and they got back together, re-marrying.

    Surprise—he was still an abusive, self-centered, wait on me hand and foot jerk.

    She divorced him again and lives HEA.

  14. 14
    StephanieL says:

    A person can change a lot in two years.  Things that may have been a priority in the past may not be so important now.  You two should acknowledge what went wrong in the past (for him and for you) and address them.  You also need to make sure that you let him know what you need, want, and expect from the relationship and vice versa.  If not you may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.  And if he isn’t your Mr. Right that’s okay too.  There is nothing wrong with Mr. Rightnow.

  15. 15
    MRM says:

    You know, I am usually the person who tries to discourage folks from getting back with exes.  I know one person who’s happily married to an ex (and I do think they both changed for the better and are doing very well together), one who’s trapped in a trainwreck, and one whose relationship seems really tough to pin down – but from an outsider’s view, it seems like the downsides outweigh the benefits.

    What I sometimes forget, though, is that I’m in one of those “second change” relationships.  N and I dated for about five weeks when I started college; N was really depressed and couldn’t feel much at all so said “I really like you but I can’t have a relationship right now because I can’t enjoy anything the way I should and it’s not fair to you.”  Like the teenager I was, I was really upset by this, but we both really wanted to be friends with each other so we settled into having a very close friendship. 

    I dated someone else for a while, and that didn’t work out, but in the meantime N and I were best friends – we shared everything with each other and got to know each other much better than we had when we met and started dating before.  A little over two years after the initial breakup, we sat down and had a serious conversation about trying a relationship again.  We both brought up things that didn’t work before and talked about what kind of relationship we wanted to have. 
    We’ve been together over six years now and have bought a house and adopted kitties together, so it’s a serious commitment (no queer marriages in our state and we’re Not The Marrying Kind, but it’s just as serious) and I’m very happy.  There are things that will always frustrate me about N, but they’re relatively minor and we talk about things all the time. 

    The advice I’d give is that you shouldn’t just jump into this because it’s familiar and easy.  A LOT of communication (ideally before anything really happens, which it seems may not be the case) is essential, so you can both be clear about what you need from each other and a relationship.  I think the negotiation phase turns some folks off and isn’t very romantic, but having had relationships where no discussion took place, I know I’ll never do it again.  I’m way too old to deal with high-school drama bullshit, and I need to make sure my relationship style meshes with anyone I’m involved with.

  16. 16
    Single and Satisfied says:

    Are you, deep down inside, determined to change him? Save him? Make him love you? Win him over? Fix him?

    Forget about it.  Not happening. 

    Are you really lonely? In need of adoration?  Desperate for an object for your affection?  Adopt a cat or two. (Or, of course, a dog, if you swing that way.)  Rescue a pet who needs you, will love you unconditionally, and will give you years of joy. The begrudging company of a man you semi-forced into a relationship will not give you joy. It will give you baldness, fat, and the sour experience of being lonelier than ever while you’re living with someone who doesn’t really care about you.

    They say in a two-person relationship, one loves more than the other. If you pursue life with somebody who doesn’t act as if he’s crazy about you, be sure you’re okay with being the loving, not the loved, one in your relationship. It might be a good life for you.

  17. 17
    Kathy says:

    I was once told by a very wise old woman who knew I was off and on with a beau, “You can’t chew your cabbage twice”.  And I never did again.

  18. 18
    Kaetrin says:

    Great advice Sarah!

    I so agree.

    Dear Desperately Yours,

    Give it a go.  At least you’ll know.  Sounds like he just needed to grow up a bit.  Maybe he did.

    I have been happily married for 10 years now.  There was no “lightning bolt” moment.  It kind of snuck up on me.  But it’s real and better than I could have imagined.

    Besides, there are plenty of “second chance” romance books around… Maybe you two could “write your own”.

    Gook luck.

  19. 19
    Marie says:

    Delurking for this one!  Two pieces of advice.  First, you say you were lonely and missing him while you were apart.  I think you need to figure out if it was really that you missed HIM, or that you were lonely and missed having SOMEONE.  People need to learn to be happy by themselves—with friends, and books, and hobbies, and maybe those dreaded cats!  =)

    Second, related piece of advice—so you figure out how to love yourself and you’re happy and fulfilled, and really, honestly, truly, you still miss this particular man.  So, assuming that maybe some of the things that bothered you change, and a lot of them don’t (because people make an effort, but let’s be real, big changes are hard and involve a lot of backsliding)… will he still add something you want to your life?  Are you, flaws and all, happier with him than without him?  Would you still give him a kidney, nurse him through cancer, or support him through 6 months of unemployment?  When the chips are down, what would he do for you?  Does he, on a good day, still have the ability to put the biggest smile on your face that anyone ever has… or on a bad day, to wrap an arm around you and make it all a little better?  Those are the big things, and while the small things can break a relationship, I think without those big things there’s not much point in trying to make one!

    With romance novel “reunions,” most rely on the fact that the hero and heroine truly did LOVE one another… not just that they had a pretty good thing going.  If you can say yes to those questions, I think it’s probably worth fighting for… that’s my 2 cents, after almost 9 years with the boy.  Good luck – the HEA is always a work in progress.

  20. 20
    MB says:

    I like the advice here.  I’d add that I think you should hold back your heart a little for about 6 months until you see whether those habits re-occur once he feels more comfortable with having you back (and likely to slack off).

    Don’t tell him you’re holding back, though.  Just keep it to yourself.  You’re protecting your emotions a little and keeping your self respect.

  21. 21
    MB says:

    …keeping your self respect so that if you need to later you can walk away with your head held high.

    My motto is:  Respect yourself and expect to be respected by others.  Don’t settle for less and start doubting yourself.  A relationship takes compromises but they shouldn’t be only on one side, especially at the beginning…during the “negotiation period.”

  22. 22
    Ann says:

    There’s a difference between compromising and settling.  Compromise is often necessary in any relationship because its impossible for 2 people to see eye-to-eye on all things all the time.  However, you should never settle for being treated as anything other than a priority in your partner’s life.  Even if you stay together, you probably won’t be happy or you will end up resenting him sooner or later.

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