I’m happily remarried, but am haunted by my ex’s long-ago betrayal | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

I met my ex in our last year of high school. After a year of university we married when we were only 18. The first 10 years were rocky, with many family crises that put stress on our relationship, and at one point I left my husband. We reunited within a few months and changed our attitudes and goals. From then on I vowed to accept and find the good. We were married for 25 years, through his many infidelities and my anxieties. We didn’t have any children because he didn’t want to be a father. Finally, there was a mistress he wouldn’t set aside, and after three years I gave him an ultimatum, as gently as I could. He chose her, and divorced me. Some of the most painful words I have ever heard were: “You are a wonderful wife, beautiful and brilliant, but I don’t want you. And you deserve better than this.”

I remarried 13 years later and for 23 years have been wife to a fine man. But he is emotionally distant, while I am emotionally overflowing. I relive my first husband’s betrayal in my dreams nearly every night. In my nightmares, I am frightened when he appears and feel under his control. I wake up full of fear.

I have been on a programme for adult children of alcoholics, and for 35 years have worked steadily on achieving awareness and acceptance, and on positive action with regard to the traumas in my life. And there have been some big ones. But this divorce from 36 years ago still haunts me. What am I missing?

When we can’t let go of something it’s because we haven’t resolved it so it still holds its potency. It also helps if we are able to talk about difficult situations with the other people who were there, but that doesn’t sound feasible or desirable in your situation.

You describe your current marriage as to a fine man who is emotionally distant, but otherwise it’s good? And yet, comparatively, the man who takes up your thoughts is someone who treated you really shoddily.

You mention, almost in passing, that you are the child of alcoholics, and this will have made for a traumatic time for you growing up. Parents who are addicts can rarely really be there for their children – so you may have suffered an early abandonment, which would make subsequent forms of abandonment harder to deal with.

I went to UKCP-accredited psychotherapist Noel Bell. He said if he were working with you he’d try to “uncover the part of you that’s been wounded, because that hasn’t healed; despite your ‘new’ relationship you go back to the original wound”. But perhaps the original wound was way before you met your first love.

Bell also felt that perhaps your early attachments were “insecure, so this relationship with your first husband fed into that, and there’s a life script there”. That life script may be that you’re not worthy of proper attention or love.

Perhaps you class your first husband as the “love of your life” and you seem to miss him not because he was right for you but because he was wrong. Maybe the feelings he elicited in you were familiar, even if they weren’t beneficial to you. I would look for patterns in your upbringing.

On top of this, first loves can be very powerful – less because of the other person but because of who we were back then: full of hope and promise. First love is all about looking forward.

Bell wanted you to really think about what that first relationship meant to you at the time – what did it represent?

Interestingly, nowhere in your letter was the word anger. Your first husband robbed you of quite a lot. I think there is a lot of mourning for you to do, not least that you wanted children and he didn’t.

You’ve made an important first step in writing to me. Your ex doesn’t have any power over you, but there seems to be a part of you that maybe doesn’t think you deserve any happiness. I wondered if the figure in your dream doesn’t represent your ex-husband, but you.

I would seek out some therapy, somewhere you can be really angry: with your ex, maybe even with a part of yourself. In this safe place you can start to face up to the dream demons while you’re awake – and start to vaporise them. Your first husband was right in one thing: you do deserve better.

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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