dear hilary: on old flames

Dear Hilary,

Do you think that it’s a good idea to get back together with an ex? I’m wondering if it’s a good idea, because while we fought, and it was hard, and a lot of us felt difficult and broken, there was a lot of good. And so now it feels like a real possibility, and I’m wondering if it’s a good idea. What if we just hurt each other more? What if this is it, but we don’t get back together and we leave it unfinished? Where do you even begin to go with that possibility?

Old Flames

Dear Old Flames,

Well, here is an interesting question, and an old one, and a good one. Do we step back into something that we left behind? Do we return to a landscape we have visited before? On the one hand, there is that warm call of familiarity. This person knows you, knew you in a moment in your life full of growth/change/becoming. They understand that habit you got into your 20s with folding your sheets or only ironing shirts the morning you wear them. This person knows your favorite movie when you were 5, what you think about taxes or the environment.

On the other hand, there is that list of the things that fell apart – the way you couldn’t fight fair, the misunderstandings that started over coffee and ended over listening and whether they cared at all about your feelings. The long nights of counting shadows on your bedroom wall thinking about everything else that might be out there, and could this be it? And the conversations where those thoughts slipped out and it felt like things broke all over again.

So there you sit, with your old flame, who is wonderful and difficult and folds sheets weirdly and doesn’t like Mexican food. There you sit, you who are wonderful and difficult and don’t like parakeets and think James Bond is a total sap. You both come to this moment, and ask, do we go back?

But that’s not really the question. Relationships are only like places in that we live in them, that we make space in our hearts and minds for another. We cannot make the same space twice; because we are changing, and the person is changing. So you are never going back, if you and an old flame decide to pursue a relationship. You are going to build something new together, because you are meeting again as people weathered by the years or months apart. You are meeting, not as old flames, but as a possible fire.

I can’t tell you what to do – there isn’t a universal rule about ex’s and get togethers. Some work wonderfully; some don’t. Some build back the patterns they had hoped to learn from; some build something entirely new. But always, I urge you to ask questions not from the perspective of wandering back into the past, but from the perspective of bringing all that you have learned from your past into your present. What did the first falling apart teach you both? What do you want it to teach you about this new possibility? Who have you each become in the time you were apart? Do those people fit together?

Don’t be anxious, sweetheart. These questions won’t be checked off a mental to-do list before you make a decision; you’ll ponder them lying awake in bed at night no matter what you do. Your gut will make the decision and you’ll step into it, tentatively and boldly, with confidence and trembling. But ponder them with all your might, and listen closely to your heart. It will tell you whether to work out those questions alongside your former lover, or whether those questions are better pondered alone, in preparation for the next relationship.

We do this work of love, whether with people we have just met or have known a ten thousand days, whether lovers or friends or teachers, by allowing our hearts to guide and be guided. By asking ourselves about the people we were, and are, and who we would dare to become, and letting those people point the way. In the great unfolding of your life, getting together with your ex is a sparkling silver thread; no matter what you choose, there is bound up in the choice itself such wonderful things to learn.

The poet Robert Bly once wrote, “I love you with what in me is unfinished.” Does it get more beautiful, Old Flames? Does it get more true?

You are unfinished; your ex is unfinished. This choice will not finish or complete either of you or your life stories – it will only help you love with what is unfinished inside you.



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