Twelve years ago, I had a five-month relationship with an Irish guy. We were both travelling in Australia and he pursued me. When we did get together, I fell for him hard. The relationship, though short, was fun, passionate and I felt totally in love. When it came to us both moving on with our travels I asked him how we could make things work back home (he in Ireland and me in the UK). He said it wouldn't work. I was heartbroken for a while but quite quickly met someone new back home on the rebound.
Twelve years on, I am married to the rebound man with a mortgage and children. My husband and I hardly have a sex life and I still frequently think of my Irishman from all those years ago. We are friends on social media so I could contact him if I wanted but I’m not sure it would achieve anything. I don’t want to break up my family, but I feel things aren’t right and I’m missing out on a truly fulfilling relationship.
I’m a stress cleaner. One day at a particularly stressful intersection of personal and professional upheaval, my flatmates came home to find me literally washing the walls. The kitchen had been emptied, deep-cleaned, reorganised.
The furniture had been vacuumed and rearranged. The bathroom was spotless. My fingertips were red and tingling because I had been scrubbing everything with bleach and hadn’t thought of wearing gloves. I was a wreck, but the apartment was sparkling.
I stress clean because sometimes, when everything in my life feels completely out of my control, all I can do is make the space immediately surrounding me clean and organised.
There's no joy in your description of your life; you're defining it by a sense of being trapped, of feeling obligated and responsible
It gives me something to focus on, a task to complete. It lets me channel all my desire for a life that feels safe and secure and purposeful, and my desire to feel useful and together and accomplished into something, anything – even if it’s just the bathroom cabinets.
This man you met in Australia? He’s your bathroom cabinet. You’re channelling all your feelings of dissatisfaction and unfulfillment and your desire for excitement into the memory of a five-month fling you had more than a decade ago, certain that if you just reconnect with him, if you just reached out to this man, all the uncertainty and lack of drive and passion you are feeling will suddenly be solved.
You’re focusing on this man as a solution to your problems because the alternative is to look at all the other aspects of your life that you don’t feel content with and to try address them. That feels too huge and daunting and uncomfortable – but dreaming of a man with whom you had a lovely fling once? Well, that’s easy.
It seems clear that what moved you about this relationship that happened was its sense of fun, passion, adventure, that intoxicating sense of possibility – qualities that both define a lot of whirlwind romances (particularly ones that happen while travelling), but that can feel in short supply in the throes of a long-term relationship and parenthood.
You say little about your life and husband, apart from describing him as “the rebound man” and mentioning a mortgage and children in the same sentence. There’s no joy in your description of your life; you’re defining it by a sense of being trapped, of feeling obligated and responsible, and are comparing that to the sense of excitement and passion and choice and possibility that you felt all those years ago. That’s why you’re focusing on this man from your past – he’s a clear symbol for what you wanted your life to be, instead of what you have now.
But just like organising the bathroom cabinets isn’t a magic solution to my life’s stresses, just a distraction, this man isn’t the magical solution to your life either. He wasn’t even the solution back then – he didn’t want to be. He was a beautiful passion while travelling, but didn’t want to try to extend the adventure when either of you went home.
You were the brave one. You were the one who wanted to try to maintain the passion and romance and excitement – he’s the one who said no. Maybe it’s worth reframing your memory of this time, that he didn’t actually hold the key to the passion and excitement of your time together: he’s the one who walked away from it.
You can think about what your old fling taught you, what you learned to value, what aspects of that relationship you want to bring into your life – and take responsibility for doing that yourself, instead of assuming you need this man back in your life to do so.
Look at your marriage for its own merits, its own needs, its own deficits, and start talking about them with your husband
You keep surrendering your capacity for passion and fulfilment to other people, to men: this man held the key to your passion and left; your husband was the rebound and now you’re unhappy. What would it mean to own your decisions, your desires, your power, instead of locating it in other people? What would it mean to stop focusing on the bathroom cabinet and instead look directly at your life, and think about what you could do to move it closer to what you want?
Think deeply about what you value, what fulfils you, what excites you – and think about how you can make room for these things in your life, yourself. And then look at your marriage. Just as you’re doing yourself a disservice by locating all your life’s potential for passion and fulfilment in a long-lost fling, you’re doing your husband a huge disservice by comparing your decade-long relationship to a relationship that never hit the six-month mark, that never had to deal with intense responsibilities, that never had to settle into routine, that never had to overcome challenges and raise children and sustain itself.
Look at your marriage for its own merits, its own needs, its own deficits, and start talking about them with your husband, start addressing them together. Give yourselves the chance to change your relationship and lives into something more fulfilling, instead of silently resenting your life and believing that one man who you had a fling with once and haven’t seen in years is the only one who could change it.
Forget the bathroom cabinet. The answer to your problem isn’t in there. It’s in you. Start owning that.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies. If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer (max 200 words), you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe. Only questions selected for publication can be answered.