what your therapist really thinks

‘Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About My High School Crush?’

Photo-Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been happily married for 15 years, although we dated for about five years before getting married. We met in graduate school and have, in essence, been together our entire adult lives. We also have two little kids.

My life and my marriage are really great. We both work in an intellectually stimulating and high-paying profession. My husband is a truly equal partner. He is a smart, funny, loving man and an engaged father. I love spending time with him. Our sex life has been dull at times, but we have worked together to spice things up in the last year. I truly have no “big ticket” complaints about my husband. He is my partner, my person.

Then why have I been unable to stop thinking about a guy from high school for the last year? High school guy (HSG) and I have a somewhat tortured history, which is probably why he can so easily monopolize my thoughts. I had a huge crush on him junior year. He always seemed interested and then would pull back as soon as things started heating up between us. He wound up dating another girl most of junior year, and I moved on with another guy. Senior year we were both single and ended up in this cycle where we would be intimate (but no sex!), then HSG would ignore me, then we would start flirting with each other, and then we would hook up again. It was maddening at the time (and actually still is when I think about it).

Anyway, after high school, I didn’t really think about HSG all that much. I dated a few guys in college. HSG met his wife in college and got engaged shortly before college graduation. Everything between me and HSG seemed to be over. Then, one night, after we had graduated from college — when HSG was engaged and I had just started dating my husband — HSG and I were both out at a bar with high-school friends. He followed me back to my house, confessed that he had always been in love with me, and we slept together. And, that was it. HSG married his fiancée. They had kids and are still married. I married my husband, had kids, and am still married.

HSG lives one neighborhood over from me. I ran into him in a store about a year ago. We both had our kids with us. Our kids weren’t really letting us chat, so we exchanged emails to set up a coffee date, which involved catching up and a bit of reminiscing but was entirely aboveboard. We hugged at the end and went our separate ways. We haven’t been in contact since, but HSG hasn’t left my mind.

To be clear, I love my husband very much and cannot imagine my life without him. But I have been having a lot of sexual thoughts about HSG since we caught up. I’m left wondering, how do I deal with these thoughts? What do they mean? Is this just a common phase that occurs in a marriage after getting through the most intense of the early-childhood years?

Stuck in High School 

Dear Stuck in High School,

Let’s start with the part of your story when High School Guy declares —while engaged to his future wife — that he’d “always been in love” with you. I imagine what may have gone through your mind at that moment was, “Ah, finally!” After all the earlier back-and-forth, all the not knowing where you stood, all the wondering how he felt about you — he revealed his true feelings, the feelings that, at least in high school, you so longed to hear.

What results from this bold revelation? Does he break off his engagement and begin dating you to see if you’re truly a match? Does he explain why, despite his always having been in love with you, he “ignored” you after each high-school hookup? Does he clarify why he proposed to another woman while in love with you? In other words, does he finally show up, adult to adult, after this profession of love?

Well, no.

Instead, you have sex and part ways. Then, years later, you have coffee with him, and … nothing happens. And again, you’re left holding a bag of unfinished business.

It seems that three things are getting tangled up for you, SIHS:  desire, unrequited love, and familiarity.

Most people in committed relationships have all sorts of extracurricular desires and fantasize about other people. Often these fantasies reconnect us with aspects of ourselves that have been tamped down by the daily demands of work, kids, and our partner’s needs (the fantasy partner doesn’t have inconvenient needs). Our fantasies safely and temporarily transport us to a place that we want to visit for a thrill but not inhabit full-time. They stoke the intense desire that comes from mystery, distance, and lack of attainment. In these ways, fantasies provide a magical space to play in a different context from the real-life playground of relationships or marriage. In other words, fantasies themselves aren’t problematic; they’re simply a manifestation of normal desire.

But your fantasies about High School Guy are somewhat complicated, SIHS, because of your history together, which looks similar to a romantic comedy but with a different ending. In fact, there’s a biological underpinning to the arc of romantic comedies, which are structured so that two people almost get together, but don’t, until the last minutes of the movie (and then the movie ends). Studies from the anthropologist Helen Fisher show that the longer we wait to fulfill our desire, the higher the levels of dopamine — a neurotransmitter associated with “pleasure” — in our brains. It’s no wonder that though the push-pull of not knowing where we stand can be “maddening,” it also has the potential to thrill.

I don’t hear you saying that you couldn’t stop thinking about High School Guy after he confessed his love and you had sex many years ago, and that’s likely because once we finally get what we’ve been yearning for, the fantasy ends, or at least subsides (unless the “love” was of a deeper, more grounded sort). But now High School Guy reappears, and the cycle repeats. You wonder: Has he been thinking about me all this time? Does he still love me? Want me? Being desired stokes desire — and for women especially, another’s desire has been shown to be a potent aphrodisiac. So you meet for coffee hopped up on dopamine and then … another pause. High School Guy hasn’t left your mind because you’re forced to hold off again — and given that he hasn’t made a move for further contact, you have no idea when or if you’ll see him again. That’s a lot of dopamine coursing through your system.

I don’t think that this push-pull dynamic is all his doing, though. I’m curious to know what happened on your end whenever you got close to each other. In high school, did you ask him directly what was going on when he would withdraw after hooking up? When you slept together after college, did you talk about what it meant — or didn’t mean — for both of you? Did you share how you felt — and find out how he felt — about the relationships you were both in? When he said that he had always loved you, did you gain an understanding of why he never reached out to tell you this before? Did you talk about what you wanted from each other going forward — friendship, more, less? When you had coffee together last year, did you ask what happened for him after his profession of love?

Sometimes we firmly believe it’s the other person who’s being confusing, but actually we’re colluding in the confusion, because remaining in a state of confusion serves us. The downside of confronting High School Guy, of clarifying the situation, is that your fantasy would end in a definitive way. Either you’d both remove the barriers and test out a possible relationship (if you actually “had” him, it’s likely you’d think about him less), or you’d decide not to, and the bubble would burst. Either way, the fantasy phase would end, and so would the intoxicating desire surrounding it. And that dizzying desire can be hard to let go of. How nice, on the other hand, to have an exciting place to go, even if only in your mind? How useful (albeit agonizing) this confused state can be.

But there’s a hitch. In keeping the fantasy alive and present, you miss out on the actual present.  With the fantasy front and center, the unlived life becomes the prize.  Not that you intend to leave your husband or he his wife. But you might be spending more energy on the life you don’t have than on the one you do, the one you know. You might be neglecting the life that’s less confusing, but more familiar.

Familiarity gets a bad rap (“familiarity breeds contempt”) but what brings on contempt or boredom or indifference often isn’t our familiarity with our spouse — it’s our familiarity with ourselves. We have become boring to ourselves. We haven’t made an effort to keep ourselves interesting. We haven’t done much to grow into our next life phase. We have let go of our passion, curiosity, and vitality. We have become utterly predictable.

Distraction — and that’s what High School Guy is — takes root in an emotional void, an emptiness that calls out for something to fill it. Your life may indeed be great in all the ways that you describe. But something is calling out to you that’s more about you than it is about High School Guy.

What are you distracting yourself from feeling? What do you need to resolve? Because high school is such a formative time in our lives, our last leg on the journey from child to adult, sometimes those experiences become lodged so tightly in our psyche that years or even decades later we still carry them around. It could be that this excessive focus on High School Guy means that once and for all, you need to put to rest the need to prove your worth to High School Guy; it might be a signal that it’s time to concede the battle rather than continue to wage it, and then grieve this loss and all it represents (remnants of your youth?). Or it could be that these thoughts are a clue as to how you may or may not be showing up in your marriage. Maybe the part of familiarity that you’re trying to escape isn’t your familiarity with your husband, but your husband’s familiarity with you and who you have or haven’t become as you approach middle age. With High School Guy always at a comfortably uncomfortable distance, you can’t ever become familiar to him, and therefore he’ll never see the parts of you that you like least, the ones your husband sees. Sometimes the real fear of familiarity is that somebody becomes familiar with us.

With couples in my office, I find that once they look inward, rather than at something elusive “out there,” familiarity breeds content, not contempt. It brings connection, curiosity, and a desire for discovery. Of course, you’ll still fantasize about the less familiar — and that’s a good thing — but those fantasies won’t feel intrusive. Instead they’ll be a place to dream, not obsess.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘Why Can’t I Stop Thinking About My High School Crush?’