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Carolyn Hax: The modern triangle — boyfriend, girlfriend, and the ex tattooed on his wrist

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend of nine months has his ex-wife’s name tattooed on his wrist. They have been divorced for six years. He says he despises her.

I've mentioned the tattoo bothers me. He said he was going to get it removed and never did.

I don't want to bring it up again, because I want to see if he will have it removed on his own. I almost feel as if he doesn't want to do it. It hurts my feelings because I think he still loves her. Should I address this with him again? Am I being petty?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: No, just conflate-y.

There are three elements to this — a tattoo, his feelings, your methods — but they're actually not connected.

His feelings: He may still love his ex-wife, sure. But many other things will reveal how he feels about her — and more important, about you — better than an old tattoo can. How does he treat you, does he give you his full attention, does he listen to you? Is he present? Or are you making most of the effort? Heed current messages, not old ones. If you have doubts about the relationship, then address those, not the tat. If your relationship is good, then the tattoo is just ink.

The tattoo: In descending order of pain and expense, his options are to remove it, cover it, or ignore it. Love is powerful, but never underestimate how attractive an option can be when it costs nothing and doesn’t hurt.

Your methods: Sometimes our best option is to wait to see how something plays out. Not all answers are available on the spot. In this case, however, you're treating his tattoo (in)decision as a secret test of his feelings for you — when how he feels about it and what he does about it might have zero connection whatsoever in his mind. You're setting him up.

You have two honest, transparent choices here: Genuinely let it go, really, for real; or say openly that you can't let it go. This applies to tattoos and everything else. Get over it or admit you can't — so you can decide what's next together, without tests or ultimatums. Equal partners, even relatively new ones, let each other know where they stand.

Dear Carolyn: Twenty years ago, I met the man I really thought I’d spend the rest of my life with. (Both men, if that matters.) We were together two years and unfortunately split up. We both moved on and he ended up with someone else, although I believe he still loved me. I moved out of state.

I just found out the partner recently passed away. Part of me wants to reach out to tell him how truly sorry I am and that if he needs anything he should let me know. He is very intelligent but also extremely fragile, and I worry the loss of his partner might be more than he can handle. The other part of me says just let it go after all these years. Should I let him know I’m here for him as a friend?

— Confused

Confused: Only if you really are and are prepared to follow through — and you don’t have another agenda. If your motives are unclear or ulterior, then an arm’s-length card would be best.

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