Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Hello, Esther. I am speaking to you from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in South America. I am divorced. I’m 48 years old and early this year, in January, I met a wonderful man who is 59, a widower. The thing is that his wife passed away about four years ago and neither he nor his daughters, I think, have dealt with a lot of the stuff that belonged to her. I find that a little spooky and it disturbs me. How do you manage this in a caring and sensitive way and at the same time, in a way that is intelligent and practical?
The Phone Call
Caller: I’ve recently met a wonderful man. I’m spending more than half of the week at his place after about 15 years of living on my own. Since we’ve been talking about the possibility of moving in together, and we’re very happy about the prospect of living together, I had a talk with him recently. I was very direct and I said, this makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do about photographs and objects, and if I moved in with you, I wouldn’t want such a heavy presence of the past.
Esther Perel: And his response was?
He was moved and also uncomfortable, but he didn’t respond in an action-oriented way, saying, “Okay, I’ll do this or that,” or “Why don’t we …” or “Perhaps give me some time and I will.” So I didn’t hear any of that. He said he understood. It’s been four years since his wife passed and I think there’s still a great deal of attachment.
Yes. Why shouldn’t there be? Are there other people in the house?
No, his youngest daughter, who’s in her early 30s, moved out of the house about a year ago to live with her boyfriend.
Okay. Do you wonder if he has mourned the death of his wife in such a way that there is room in his heart, in his life, for you? Or do you wonder what will be the slow transition — I started with one evening here and there, it’s become half the week, and at some point I must get a drawer and I’ll start to put my stuff in there and I’ll have a shelf in the bathroom, and then slowly, if we talk about moving in, the closets will have to be cleared and that will be a major ritual of transition for him? But my question to you: Is it pictures, is it remnants, memories about her? Or is it that all her clothes are in the closets, as if she is about to come home any minute?
I wouldn’t say the house is a shrine. There are two levels. On the first floor there’s a photo at the entrance, and then are some photos in the bedroom. And then, on the upstairs level, there are some things that are packed away and you wouldn’t see them unless you opened a closet or a box. But there are some clothing items that are out in the open and that … it makes me quite uncomfortable — even mentioning that to him, and I did try to speak with sensitivity. I tried to be delicate about it, but at the same time I noticed my own reaction is of great discomfort.
And the discomfort is what? Tell me, what is the thing inside of you that you wouldn’t necessarily say to him?
Will I reach that level? Will I be loved like that? Will I … am I enough? I know that under this, there are many questions about my own worthiness, and occupying a space — it’s very symbolic of occupying a space in someone else’s heart as well I think.
Did you say that to him?
I did talk about me. Because when I said that I had had a similar experience in some way when I moved in with my ex-husband, into a home that was already decorated. In that home there was not enough space for me, then I got divorced. And in this home we have made space for me, for some of my clothes. I brought a lot of stuff for the kitchen because we love to cook together. So there are some really positive steps I think that we’ve already taken together. But what I just told you about room in his heart, I just realized, you know, saying it to you. It’s wonderful. And I think he would really appreciate hearing that.
It’s a different conversation. It’s a conversation in which you’re not talking about the items. Anyone who meets someone who has had a deep love and a loss that they didn’t choose at some point may feel sometimes, Will I ever be loved like this? These are very normal questions. Will I compete with this woman forever? is the first one, always, and the last one at some level. What is the love that he has for me and how different is it from the way he loved her? And then your own questions about yourself: Am I lovable? Am I lovable enough? Can I be enough? All these questions that many of us live with because love is super vulnerable and terrifying. If you actually don’t talk about the clothes and the items and the pictures and anything, you just simply talk about what it feels like to be a woman who comes after a deeply beloved woman who died. You talk about you, then you give him the opportunity to reassure you, to tell you whatever he feels, to tell you that you’re the first person who’s actually been in this room since, or you’re the first one who’s actually been here as much as you’ve been here. I never have thought about starting all over, but since I met you it’s different. There is room in my heart for two, et cetera.
You sound like you’ve been the fly on the wall in this home because those are the things more or less word by word that he has told me. He’s incredibly sweet and very sensitive for a man in this culture where I live. He’s very open and he does communicate quite well. So he did say all of that and I am the first woman in about four years that has slept in this house and stayed here and that he has introduced to his family. So I know that I am important to him, I do.
I know that you are important to him — I don’t know that you feel important enough. The interesting thing is that one way to be sure, to feel chosen and to feel wanted, is to be in the circumstances that you’re in. And it’s about believing him. He’s doing the right thing, and at some point, you can always say, “of course you want pictures of her, but maybe not next to our bed.” At some point it becomes a new bed, for a new relationship. But this is not the piece. How many months has it been?
We met in early January.
Okay. So that’s not long at all. And as you are getting more intimate with him, as you’re feeling more open and more vulnerable, your fears are coming back, the fears that you didn’t allow much in for the past 15 years, that you lived on your own. That’s the piece. The piece is not him and his ex, his previous wife, it’s really that you’re getting deeper involved with him and some of those fears — how lovable am I, how sustainable is it? Am I enough? Can I capture somebody’s attention for as much as I want? — those are coming back up, and they could come up regardless of the deceased wife. They have to do with the degree to which you’re feeling more and more intimate with him and you develop a deeper relationship. They don’t have to do with the fact that there was another person before you, but that just adds something to the plot.
It’s a normal feeling, by the way. It’s the development of the trajectory of a heart that opens up. For that matter, he may have some of the same fears and vulnerabilities and worries, because I think that they come when we fall in love.
Because they open us up right?
Yes, of course.
Also what’s coming up for me Esther is, Am I able to build a home with him, a different home? He was married for many years and I wasn’t, so I feel like I’m less experienced although I’m in my late forties. So that’s also some big piece of my self doubt. Now that I’m talking this over with you more and more, it’s kind of opening up and I feel perhaps it’s also about home making and nesting.
So how are you doing in the kitchen?
We are a great team in the kitchen.
It’s the same metaphor. What is happening in the kitchen will expand to other rooms. He’s not interested necessarily in having an extension of the life he had before. He is rediscovering. Once you have loved deeply, you can love again. And you’re that person. It’s moving at a beautiful pace. He doesn’t have to respond to you immediately after your conversation. He just heard you but you do need to go back to him, switching the lens. The lens has to move from him and the presence of the wife in the house to you and what you’re feeling as you’re getting more and more attached to him.
He would really appreciate that. And I could imagine him even tearing up if I spoke from the heart, from my own perspective. He would appreciate that.
That’s it. That’s your starting point.
The turning point is what’s underneath the items, and underneath the items is my vulnerability. Once you bring him into that, he will, you will have a different conversation.
Okay. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.
Oh, I appreciate you so much.
More From This Series
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- ‘I Blew Up My Marriage. Now I Want Her Back.’