I have a friend who won’t stop talking about an ex-boyfriend. “Karl” is mentioned in just about every conversation. She and Karl dated off and on for a rocky five years or so—he was possessive, jealous, had a serious drinking problem, plus her kids didn’t like him and she didn’t like his family. The only positive thing she has said about him was that he was drop-dead gorgeous.
Their relationship ended badly after a particularly bad alcohol-induced argument. That was fifteen years ago. Since then, they’ve had no contact. She discovered about a year ago that he died in 2004. My friend was understandably very upset, but said she wasn’t really surprised at his passing given the extent of his drinking problem. Nevertheless, she claims the happiest time of her life was spent on the beach with Karl.
But here’s the kicker: She’s been happily (according to her) married for the past ten years to an intelligent, attractive, caring man who isn’t possessive, is a great father to her children and doesn’t have a drinking problem. My friend has no complaints about her husband, yet she still talks longingly about Karl--she watches TV shows which feature actors who remind her of him, she listens to music from the time they spent together. As her friend I know more about the significant details of her relationship with Karl than I do about her relationship with her husband. Recently she and her husband attended a romantic, black tie and champagne event at a historic hotel as part of a romantic weekend getaway. While dancing with her husband under the crystal chandelier, she said the music reminded her of dancing with Karl.
I’ve been trying to break my friend of talking to me so much about Karl, especially in front of her husband, as it makes me uncomfortable. I asked her to consider whether all the talk of Karl might be hurtful to her husband. She claims it never bothers him. I worry that by thinking so much about the past, my friend will create problems with the guy she has now and miss out on good times with him. Besides, the old boyfriend is not only long gone, it sounds like he was bad news best left in the past.
Should I say something more to my friend, or keep my big damn opinionated mouth shut?
Dear Enough Already,
You should say something more to your friend.
That might be the fastest I’ve ever gotten around to giving my opinion!
But now, two quick stories. And you thought you were getting off easy.
I have a very good friend, whom I love dearly. She is warm, kind, smart, funny, supportive…basically, everything you could ever hope for in a friend. But her cell phone, which she uses frequently because of the nature of her work, plays Gary Wright's “Dream Weaver” when it rings. And it rings often. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck humming “Dreammmmmmmweaver” for hours after she gets a phone call. Anyway, she and I and another friend were about to embark on vacation, and when we got to the airport I said, “I hope you’re not planning to bring your cell phone with you, because the first time I hear ‘Dream Weaver’ in Ireland, I’m tossing that thing out the window.” I heard nary a 70s chestnut the entire vacation.
On the same trip, I commented more than a few times that a certain cow or sheep or pig reminded me of my dog, Samson. (There is no rational explanation, really. I missed him, and cows have kind, brown eyes like he does and are often similarly spotted. Whatever.) One day, in Northern Ireland, standing on a wall overlooking the town of Derry, my Dream-Weaver-loving friend pointed wistfully to a border collie that brought to mind her own. To which I replied, “This dog doesn’t look like yours. This one’s got a lot more white on her.” My friend gave me an incredulous stare and said, with an even, but clearly displeased voice, “Oh. Sure. You can be reminded of your dog by FARM animals, but I look at a DOG of the same BREED, and can’t be reminded of my dog?” I laughed at how ridiculous I’d been and shut up about dogs after that.
(I’m getting back round to you, so bear with me.)
You say you’ve already tried to break your friend of her dead ex-boyfriend habit. You likely did so with tact and grace. Unsuccessfully. As such, it might be time to say less-than-half-jokingly, “I’m going to lose my mind if I have to hear about Karl one more time.” I know this doesn’t jibe with my usual advice, which tends occupy the “be honest but gentle” territory. But what I tried to get across with my Ireland stories is that sometimes it takes a direct, straightforward, and possibly even jarring comment to get through to people. A strong friendship can take it, and anyone with a sense of humor should be able to laugh at herself and recognize her foibles.
I think you need to risk it. This is a quality of life issue for you and a mental health issue for her. How much you should be concerned about the latter depends on how close you two are, but you have every right to want to improve the former.
Best of luck!