I threw out my girlfriend’s mementos

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 28, 2009

I tried to retrieve her photos from the Dumpster but they were gone! What have I done?


Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have been together for five years, and although the beginning was a bit rocky, things are great now. Our setbacks were mainly due to my commitment avoidance. So, we’ve been living together now for six months, and I’ve started to … snoop. I admitted this to two friends, and one laughed that I waited so long, and the other was horrified that I would commit such a breach of trust. I don’t suspect anything untoward is happening, but I find some sort of tortured comfort in knowing the secrets. I have looked at her e-mail a few times in the past, and I don’t exactly stop myself from glancing over at her laptop when her in box is up — but I haven’t hacked into her account or spent half the night reading 1,400 old e-mails or anything — OK, that happened once, but there was a bottle of whiskey involved and the tail end of a really bad day.

She was just out of town for the weekend, and I spent most of the time rummaging through her things, reading old journals, and inspecting film negatives. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? I am confident and trusting and respectful — or at least I thought I was. I find myself engulfed in a jealous rage when I find old photographs of her past lovers or racy journal entries or letters detailing wild sexual encounters (all prior to our meeting). Why is she holding on to these things? You’re probably asking, why am I looking at them? I can’t help it. Maybe this is why I was so hesitant to jump into a real commitment — I have trust issues … or control issues … or self-esteem issues … or maybe all of the above.

Here is the kicker: I threw out a box of her personal items. After I came to my senses, I panicked and tried to retrieve them. The maintenance guys in my apartment complex thought I was crazy going through the trash. I covered it up saying I threw out important paperwork by mistake. I came up empty-handed. Her personal memories are lost forever. A small part of me is wickedly satisfied, but the bigger (and much better) part of me is appalled.

What should I do if she discovers that these items are missing? I know if I come clean she will lose it, and I certainly don’t want to lose her. But if she is so dearly holding on to these items, then maybe that is a sign we shouldn’t move forward. If she becomes irate over a few photos of her sexual adventures or letters from past lovers, I have to worry, don’t I? Is she over these men or holding on? Why is she keeping this stuff? Will she be able to let go? Sure, these concerns just help me to validate my snooping, but we’re living together — when will she forget the old boyfriends?
HELP.

Private Dick

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Dear Private Dick,

Basically, unequivocally, I think you’ve got to tell her what you did. In throwing out her stuff, you moved beyond snooping into theft and destruction of personal property. If the relationship ends because you told her, so be it.

But it might not end the relationship. For one thing, it might be the sort of thing where it turns out that yes, OK, her boyfriend indeed does have a sort of problem, which is akin to like OK, maybe you’re an alcoholic or you’re bad with money or have some other life problem that is akin to just, well, having issues, but you’re willing to be honest about them and face them and seriously get some help and change.

And there is also the possible romantic/comedic element to this. In confessing to her, you might come off like a guy who is sort of seriously nuts but whom she still loves. In my heart there is room for all kinds of compulsion and insanity. I am seriously nuts in many ways. It hasn’t prevented me from holding down a job and a marriage and so forth. So I can relate to such compulsions as you describe. I tend to believe that lots of us walk around with crazy ideas, but we mostly don’t talk about it. Every now and then one of our crazy ideas gets the best of us, and we do something we’re going to have to own up to. So I’m glad when somebody talks about it.

I also think that if you were seriously dangerous you wouldn’t be writing to me; you’d be cowering in her kitchen with a hammer, and we’d never hear about it. Men who try to control women are truly dangerous, but it is my impression that they do not write to advice columnists.

But it is a serious breach. It’s the kind of thing that is going to freak her out, but if you withheld it, it would be worse. If you tell her now, you’ve got a better chance of saving the relationship.

I spent a little time thinking about where this fits into the whole moral picture. I mean, how is snooping through someone’s things different from spying on her when she is in the shower, or when she is getting dressed, or listening in on “the extension” (as we used to call the analog branch of a hardwired household phone line)?

You know these things are wrong. Because if you keep doing these things, she is harmed. I believe that she is harmed, morally or psychologically, by your snooping. I believe that’s what she would say if she knew: that she feels violated or harmed. And I think we ought to take people’s subjective assessments as having some weight.

Now, it may be that she also snoops. It may be that she is well aware of this tendency in people and will understand. Or it may be that she will be outraged to the point of demanding that you move out. I cannot take responsibility for what happens in your private life if you are moved to act on what I say. It’s still your choice. I can only say what I truly feel. And I truly feel you should tell her.

I do not know why we do these things. It may have to do with a lack of trust — that you feel she has some other world that competes for her attention, or that might threaten your belonging to her, your ownership of her. Ownership. That’s a word that comes up. That’s interesting. Do you feel that you own her? Do you feel in some way that what is hers is yours? It may be that you do. I’m not accusing you of anything; we all find, when we begin examining our assumptions, that we carry certain assumptions that are insupportable. Mainly we carry them as long as we do not examine them, and then, as we examine them, we go, Holy shit! I really do believe I own her! Where did that come from?!

And then you plumb your family history and see that, in fact, you were raised with the assumption that as a man you could own a woman, that you could have rights far greater than hers, that you could take her stuff, that you could “take her,” in all the senses of that phrase. Who knows. We have all kinds of stuff in our heads. That’s what makes therapy so much fun. Because when you approach it in a fairly detached way, you can see that, well, yes, these beliefs do reside in my mind, how do you like that? I don’t think they serve me very well, I don’t even think I consciously believe them, and yet there they are, residents in the attic.

So then you try to sweep them out if they don’t fit in. Or you learn to recognize when your behavior is being influenced by them, as in, Gee, I seem to be taking my girlfriend’s stuff again, why am I doing that? Oh yeah, I remember: because in some part of my brain I believe that I actually have greater rights than women! But I don’t really, do I? So I’d better put this stuff back and tell her that old mania has cropped up again!

Or whatever it is. It could be a sexual thing, that there’s a thrill to snooping. It could be a replacement for intimacy; you might feel a deep closeness to her that you do not get to feel while she is in the room because maybe she will not settle down or will not willingly be the object of your contemplative gaze or will not answer your questions about her past or about that part of her life she keeps separate from you.

At any rate, if you don’t tell her, I think you will have committed a wrong against her, and you also might never get to find out why you’re doing this. So it will be to your benefit, ultimately, to come clean.

So seriously, I think when you threw her stuff out, you crossed a line, and regardless of the consequences, you have to tell her. She has a right to know and a right to figure out what she wants to do about it.

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