About 10 years ago I had a short-lived, whirlwind romance with a man who was taking a long break from a complicated relationship with another woman. Once things got emotionally intimate with me, he bolted back to her and they eventually married. I was devastated. Despite my initial grief, we remain a presence in each other’s lives. Although we have transitioned to being only friends, there has always been a flirtatious quality to our interactions. I refer to him as The Question Mark because I have always had the “what if” question haunting me about him. What if he had been more available when we first started dating? What if our career paths were not so different? What would happen if we lived in the same city today, now that we are both single again?
My friends continually ask why we remain friends, and neither of us can explain it. Interestingly, people are more likely to remain friends after a break-up if the initiator uses “de-escalation” tactics.1 Such tactics involve saying things like “you and I would be better off as friends.” He told me that he was bad at intimate relationships and being friends would ensure that we would remain close (which was important to both of us). He also held out the possibility that we could have some future relationship if our personal and geographic situations were different.
The Question Mark’s presence in my life has always made it hard to move on for several reasons. One, he is very attractive. People experience a more negative mood when they observe attractive opposite-sex faces followed by “average” faces.2 This has no doubt been happening to me over the years, as whenever I would see The Question Mark (or even text or talk with him for that matter), I have ultimately felt more dissatisfied with whoever I am dating. Second, even though there have been too many circumstantial and geographic barriers to make having an intimate relationship with him possible, my past boyfriends have always been threatened by my continued friendship with The Question Mark. He is a very successful executive, and men are generally quite threatened by mate competitors who have high status or resources.3
The last decade has been a very long, dizzying emotional carousel for me while The Question Mark has popped in and out of my life. The more I have tried to put him out of my mind, the worse it gets. Dan Wegner and Dan Gold4 once conducted a study in which they had participants think of an “old flame,” which is an ex-intimate partner. While they thought about this flame, the researchers measured participants’ skin conductance, which is a physiological measure of emotional arousal. Half of the people in the study were then asked to stop thinking about their old flame, and the other half tried to not think about the Statue of Liberty (which does not have quite the same emotional impact!). After a few thought-stopping minutes, all participants were asked to think about the old flame again. People whose old flame was “hot,” meaning that they still had strong feelings for him or her, had more emotional arousal when they tried to stop thinking about their ex than the Statue. These participants also had more emotional arousal than those who were asked to not think about a “cold” flame. Based on this research, rather than trying to suppress my thoughts and feelings for The Question Mark, I should just deal with them directly by accepting that they are there—denying them will only make me more emotionally upset.
The reason I have been thinking about this a lot lately is that The Question Mark texted me this week. Like some sixth sense, he seems to know when I have started to move on and develop feelings for someone else. Recently, this someone else is The Consultant; and true to form, The Question Mark resurfaced after about a 6 month radio-silence. I feel angry with myself that my heart skipped a beat when I got his text. So far, I have resisted the urge to respond, but I can’t stop myself from wondering what he wants. Do I entertain these thoughts of him because I am scared to get intimate with someone else who is truly available? I believe it is time for a girl’s night out to process some of this with some trusted friends.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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1Banks, S. P. Altendorf, D. M. Greene, J. O., & Cody, M. J. (1987). An examination of relationship disengagement: Perceptions, breakup strategies and outcomes. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 51, 19-41
2Kenrick, D. T., Montello, D. R., Gutierres, S. E., & Trost, M. R. (1993). Effects of physical attractiveness on affect and perceptual judgments: When social comparison overrides social reinforcement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 195-199.
3Dijkstra, P., & Buunk, B. P. (2002). Sex differences in the jealousy-evoking effect of rival characteristics. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 829-852.
4Wegner, D. M., & Gold, D. B. (1995). Fanning old flames: Emotional and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 782-792.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.