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Carolyn Hax: Engaged but still preparing for ‘the other shoe to drop’

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Dear Carolyn: I’m getting married next month to a wonderful partner. He is warm, loving, accepting, patient and flexible. I feel very lucky to have found him.

My issue is that my past relationships have been with men who were sometimes these things and sometimes demonstrated very unhealthy behaviors: extreme mood instability, uncontrolled verbal anger, general selfishness. These relationships were intense on both the high and low sides. They ended abruptly and in ways that were very painful for me (cheating, sudden change of heart/abandonment).

I know my fiance is committed and emotionally healthy, but I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes I keep this to myself, and sometimes it leaks into planning. For example, I may take on a lucrative side gig that would let us pay off our new home in less than 10 years. My brain leaps to: “What if we get a divorce and I put so much more money into our home. How can I protect myself?” There are rational things we are doing, such as getting a prenup, which he has agreed to as a means to help me feel secure. (I think he’d prefer we skipped it.) But I know my stuck-ness isn’t all rational.

How can I get my brain to focus more on the positives (we could have our house paid off!) vs. the negatives (what if I somehow get screwed over or he disappears tomorrow)?

— Trying to Be Free

Trying to Be Free: The thing I most want to blurt out might help you the least: I wish more people would think as you do.

Just more broadly, though, so it isn’t all about the possibility of someone mistreating you, but instead about constructive, rational preparation for emergencies of all kinds.

The difference between what you’re thinking and what I’m thinking is the attribution. To live in suspense over the dropping of the other shoe by the person you’re about! to! marry! is unhealthy for you and unfair to a “wonderful partner.” But if you can look at it as being prepared for what life might throw at you, so you can feel free to stop worrying about the future and immerse yourself in the present and your people, then you’ll be on one of the healthier paths there is.

It might take therapy, though, to get you from the first path to the other.

It’s one thing to have history, which is normal and can sneak up on us in the form of the occasional flinch; it’s another to have trauma, which, left unaddressed, can become almost a separate being who sows doubt, discourages risk and interferes with our ability to connect with anyone else.

You’re about to marry, and you don’t feel safe. I suggest therapy for this, because you already have your rational mind convinced that you’re okay, but your animal brain is in fear.

And to continue to force your rational mind to “focus more on the positives” is one of the ways people get into and stay in exploitative relationships: They make themselves ignore warnings and fear, and treat only the good stuff as real.

A working fear-response system, one you can trust to distinguish between an imagined threat and a real one, may protect you better than any prenup can.

So, yes, think carefully about putting all your side-hustle cash into the house. Enlist a fiduciary adviser to help you figure out how to protect your assets, marital and individual, in the case of illness, death, divorce or natural disaster. You apparently can, so do it. Life comes for optimists, too, right? Insure yourselves wisely.

But also tend to your emotional assets, please, and make as full a commitment to healing from your past relationships as you have to protecting your cash. Define “healed” as when you trust yourself again to get through it if something goes wrong.

Think of it as securing your marriage, not just your divorce.

Dear Carolyn: It’s okay to be communicating with an old boyfriend, right? Husband is unnerved by it, but there is no way old boyfriend and I are getting back together. We are just having fun catching up, seeing where our lives landed after so many years. We don’t even live in the same part of this very big country.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: So, the old, “He’s X, so we’d never Y.”

When people want to Y, they blow right through every version of X to get there. Don’t feed anyone false assurances, yourself most of all.

There is nothing inherently bad about having a conversation with an ex. Catch up, sure. It’s great to have a chance to refresh some memories, with the benefit of a witness to your personal history. We lose so much to time.

But if a current partner who doesn’t typically get unnerved by communication with past partners (I have no patience for the possessive) is unnerved by this communication with this past partner, then respect him enough to take a hard look at what you’re trying to assure away.

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