Is it weird to say sorry to my ex three years on? | Dear Mariella | Life and style

The dilemma Three years ago, I split up with my girlfriend of seven years. I felt very unhappy and put it down to the relationship. She was devastated and wanted to resolve things. But by that stage I’d made my mind up. I’ve lived a quiet, celibate life since, which has given me time to reflect. It struck me that I’d been very selfish – after an initial romantic period where I pulled all manner of stunts to impress her, my effort as a boyfriend tapered down to the bare minimum. Secondly, I realised they had been the best days of my life. We went on amazing adventures which we probably wouldn’t have done otherwise, and had very different skills sets, which complemented each other. After we split up, I made little effort to maintain our friendship, maybe because I felt guilty. Now I’m ashamed of how I treated her and can’t forgive myself. I want to write and apologise, but it sounds weird and inappropriate. It’s hard to write without it sounding like a rapprochement, which it isn’t. Is writing such a letter an appropriate thing to do?

Mariella replies Hell, yes! We should all be writing letters to our lovers, ex or otherwise; whether it’s just to say hello, to expand on our feelings, because our behaviour has been less than exemplary, or perhaps, as in your case, to say thanks for a union that may be long over but in hindsight appears so much more precious than you realised at the time. There are few things more soul enhancing than knowing that you’ve had a positive impact on another person’s life, that you were appreciated and that whatever may have led to your parting, a residue of love remains scattered over the debris of the relationship.

I’d argue we should be writing more missives of the tangible and non-electronic variety. Otherwise when we’re old and grey how will we know that anyone cared for us at all, or remember the names of those who have long since slipped from our lives, emotionally, geographically or permanently? Searching your inbox just isn’t the same as dragging a box from the loft and having your life leap out to meet you. I recently found a folder full of a jumble of past correspondence, covering old love letters and fractious disputes, baffling postcards of some importance at the time and notes from luminaries whose attention I briefly captured for one reason or another – and it proved an emotional couple of hours sifting through those faded but still legible scraps.

A message to my hotel room in Morocco in the 1990s read like a title for a novel: “Mr Miss You from Rabat” had called, hurling me back to memories of Robert, the gentleman caller, who’d obviously challenged the translating abilities of the Mamounia operator with his note. On another sliver of near-translucent paper was the marriage proposal I received three decades ago via a switchboard operator at the Parker Meridien in New York who’d hastily typed it up and slipped it under my door with a squashed red rose! There were sexy letters from a lover that made me blush, extolling my “eyes as green as Eastleach water meadows” and a letter from my mother with her overview on the chronology of my peripatetic childhood. There was huge pleasure in revisiting those moments, the words belying the heft of the emotions they bore while the paper carried sensory messages from a past age.

Communication today is functional, and deleted within seconds of receipt. Like the photographs that linger in devices that become obsolete faster than we can learn to use them, it seems that the next generation will have to trawl Facebook to take their trips down memory lane. It certainly lacks the romance of a battered box, but since Facebook seems to know more about us than we do ourselves it may nonetheless prove a riveting archive. What a sad loss though to be unable to sniff the leaf, puzzle over the smudges or feel your heart leap at the loop of familiar handwriting decades after it was last viewed. As a regular performer for the brilliantly conceived Letters Live project, I’ve had the pleasure of exposure to some of the finest letters ever written and whether they’re slapping you down, or building you up, they’re a much undervalued art form.

So, your heart is in the right place and your compulsion a good one. I’m wondering if your reluctance to write and let her know it wasn’t her fault is because what you are secretly after is a rapprochement. If that’s the case I’m not in a position to judge whether it’s right or wrong, but it does slightly temper my enthusiasm. The greatest gift in the world is a letter that wants nothing but offers a loving thought, or apology, or simply a hello.

Keep it simple is my advice; don’t try to channel Shelley. If all you want is tell her you regret your behaviour and think of that period with fondness, do just that. Keep it brief, don’t overload the memories, write it from the heart and don’t go into detail about your current state of mind. This letter, if your description is an accurate one, is not about you. So don’t dally another moment, put pen to paper and get your sense of gratitude off your chest and into her heart.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1



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