Dear Margo: When Memories Pose a Problem

Moving gracefully on from the past. Margo Howard’s advice

When Memories Pose a Problem

Dear Margo: My fiancee, whom I’ve been seeing for five wonderful years, is moving into my house in a few weeks. Our wedding (first for both) will be in December, and I couldn’t be happier. I have four oil paintings that an ex made for me nearly a decade ago, and I think they are quite good. They’re all abstract, but they do represent places and memories specific to that relationship, which was formative for me: first love. The relationship ended years before meeting my current partner, and I’ve had these paintings for so long that I no longer ascribe any special emotional meaning to them; they are just part of my “stuff.”

Before discovering their connection with my past relationship, my fiancee always commented favorably on the paintings, but now that she knows their origin, she doesn’t want them displayed. I understand and respect her feelings, and I actually share her opinion. They are, after all, love letters of a sort from the past. Do you have any ideas as to what I could do with them? None of my acquaintances wants them. I can’t bring myself to just put them in the trash, and while I think they’re amazing, they aren’t exactly gallery quality. I don’t mind parting with them; I just don’t want them to be destroyed. — Looking for a Solution

Dear Look: What a nice person you are. Some people would not see it your way. My own view about “stuff” is that things with memories need not be disposed of. (If that were the case, I would have far less jewelry, but that is another story.) Possessions are just things, after all. Your situation strikes me as being about maturity. In a perfect world, your intended would not have jealous or competitive feelings — but she does, so I will answer the question you asked. Offer the paintings to a not-for-profit in your town or a women’s shelter, or put them on Craigslist. — Margo, pragmatically

A Little Bit Stuck

Dear Margo: I was in a terrible relationship with a man for seven years. (No abuse, he just was not a good or nice guy.) That ended five years ago with our engagement and the birth of our child. In the time since, I have accepted that I made many willfully ignorant/naive decisions and have absolutely no desire to be with him ever again. I am very happy with the life I have built for myself after spending some time being utterly adrift.

My reason for writing is that I feel stunted by this past experience. It is the only one I have ever had, but I find myself sabotaging new relationships. I am a bit standoffish in general, but I’m taking things to extremes with a perfectly nice, decent guy by finding flaws in him that just aren’t there. I sometimes feel that expressing my hurt and disappointment to the old boyfriend might help me move past this, because I was never able to do that. Is it something you would recommend, or could you suggest another means through which I could acknowledge my past feelings and hurt and hopefully move on to a new, fulfilling relationship? — Road Blocked

Dear Road: I doubt that confronting the old boyfriend who was neither good nor nice would be cathartic, or that you would even be “heard.” I don’t think exorcising that damaging experience would come from railing at the source of the damage.

The positive part of where you are now is that you seem able to examine, if not analyze, your patterns of behavior, and a therapist would be a better bet to talk to than the bad boyfriend. I think you’ll be surprised at how successful you will be, with professional guidance, at putting the past behind you, understanding it and not letting it color a current relationship. — Margo, progressively

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.

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41 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Susan JH says:

    LW2, Write him a long letter and say everything that you feel.  Just don’t mail it.  Getting it down on paper will enable you to purge some of those feelings, and maybe come across some feelings you didn’t even realize were there. 

  2. avatar Lil Kristie says:

    LW2, I would go one step furthur than Susan JH suggested. After writing the letter and reading it over, BURN IT. I had a counselor have me write a letter and then read it and burn it. It was like purging my soul. I felt much better when I burnt it. Then as my counseling progressed, I realized that the sabatoging I was doing with future relationships was gone.

  3. avatar kj80 says:

    I’m LW2, and just wanted to correct something – it was his child that was born, not ours as the post above states.  I really appreciate the advice given – sounds like a great idea.  Thank you!

    • avatar Pinkie says:

      I wish you well, LW2, and I think you’ve gotten some very good advice. Write that letter, read it, cry over it, and then burn it. Let this new, wonderful man know what happened to you in the past–not necessarily the nitty gritty details, just that you recognize you’ve been trying to sabotage the relationship because of it. If he’s as you say, he’ll not only support your going to therapy, he may even be willing to go with you. With the right therapist, this can only strengthen your relationship.

    • avatar luna midden says:

      kj80, I am glad YOU corrected THE EDITORS of the column, as they were the ones with the error, not Abby or YOU, SINCE ABBY would have mentioned the child in her response if she thought the two of you had one. Unfortunately, as the replies come in, your response will be lost in the pile and we will see ‘you must be civil towards the father of your child’, ‘you can’t cut him out…’ etc. etc. etc. I think writing a letter, burnig it… GREAT…. but to take it one step further…. get one of those blow up ‘BOZO’ clown ”BOP BAGS’ you know -the ones that you hit and it bounces back up. Just like a punching bag. Put the CREEP’s photo on the clown’s face and PUNCH AND YELL AWAY. It helps, believe me. Then, deflate it and put it in the closet for future stresses. Helps greatly whe you can’t work out.

      Then, please, remember, before the ‘engagement’ and the other woman’s baby, in those 5 years, there most have been something good. NOT THAT I AM SAYING TAKE HIM BACK! but, you do not want to think you wasted 5 years of your life. That was just a bad relationship, a life experience…..and now YOU KNOW THE SIGNS AND YOU WILL PICK THEM UP QUICKLY AND NEVER REPEAT IT AGAIN. If the entire 5 years sucked and you did not leave, then please, get therapy to find out why you would take dog poo from someone who ranks lower on the food chain then a bedbug.


    • avatar mayma says:

      I don’t get it.  The relationship ended when he became abruptly engaged to someone else who then had their child?  Is that right?  

  4. avatar martina says:

    I understand what it’s like to part with a painting that has meaning but not much value. I just finished cleaning out the parents’ house and they had a 5’x7′ painting that had quite a bit of sentimental value.  It’s a seascape that was given to my parents by the artist who taught art classes above the place we took ballet lessons.  He also helped out with paperwork and such for the ballet school.  Mr. Victor was a wonderful person who always tole me I had beautiful feet – he would trace their outline on paper them to figure out what size ballet shoe I needed (he should see them now). My mother paid over $500 in the 70’s to have this painting framed and it’s well done but I too wondered about what to do with it.  My nephew offered to take it because he really liked it though, I don’t know where he would have put it in his tiny house.  But, he and his wife had a fight and he left her for a time so, I was stuck with it.  I had a few choices.  I could hang it in my house, find a gallery that would take it or offer it to the home my mother was at.  You hate to just give it away to a charitable organization because you don’t know where it’s going to end up if they can’t sell it and not everyone can handle a 5’x7′ painting.  Fortunately, we found that it hung very nicely on the wall in the front hall.  I think my mother will be pleased to see it there. I just found out that my nephew and his wife got back together (of course, after I already hung the painting) and hopefully, he will take it when we eventually downsize. 

  5. avatar mac13 says:

    This is for LW1. I think Margo might have missed a step. Contact the party that painted them. Ask her if she wants them back, if not, you are going to dispose of them in some such way. They might hold special meaning to her.

    LW2. Margo is spot on.

    • avatar Pinkie says:

      mac13, on LW1: I was wondering about that myself. The artist may indeed want them back!

    • avatar sueb1997 says:

      Or, since you said the paintings are of specific places, perhaps there is some entity associated with those places that might like them — even just a restaurant or hotel nearby, etc.  If I had to donate them to a thrift store I think I would try to do so in the town near the place featured in the paintings, to increase the chance that someone would be found to appreciate them.

  6. avatar casino la fantastique says:

    LW1, aw. I think you should get to hold on to at least one of them. Put it in an out of the way spot, extra bedroom, attic, something like that. I think that’s a fair compromise. You sound sweet.

  7. avatar Koka Miri says:

    Margo, I find your response to LW1 baffling. You have a nice guy in a good relationship, and for some reason it sounds like you’re trying to cause trouble where there isn’t any. He didn’t sound like he resented his fiancee but from your “perfect world” comment it sounds like you think he should. Why you would even bring that up, what you hope to get from it and how you think that will make your LW happy is unclear to me as a reader. 

    LW1, congrats on being one of the few rational people in the world, I hope you and your fiancee have a lovely wedding! Most people would actually find something so personal from an ex distasteful to display. It sounds like you have the go-ahead to hold onto them, but just not put them up, which shows your fiancee is rational and balanced, too. Maybe donate them to a goodwill store? The right person will find them.

    • avatar K Coldiron says:

      I quite disagree. Margo was completely right to drop a hint the way she did. That the fiance liked the paintings until she learned their source seems like something approaching a problem to me, and speaks of potential bigger problems in the future. 

      One of my exes commissioned a painting for me while we were together, and although I have little but bad memories of the ex, the painting was pleasant enough to hang in our bathroom where we needed some color and a space-filler. My husband didn’t care a bit, because he’s a grownup. 

      • avatar K Coldiron says:

        HOWEVER, I just noticed that the LW said s/he shares the fiance’s opinion…which means there is probably more subtle emotional weather than we can read here, and that the two are suited for each other. I still think Margo was right to plant the seed. 

      • avatar Carrie A says:

        I don’t think Margo was right to drop that little “hint” at all. Because, really, in a perfect world there would be NO jealousy, envy, anger, or any other negative emotion. But unfortunately we’re human so we have to deal with those emotions. And all married people will have an irrational emotion sometimes and I think your partner should support you (as long as it’s not all the time on every issue). Especially when it’s something that isn’t a big deal to the other person (like the paintings aren’t to this guy). It sounds like they worked through it just fine, which will be important in their marriage, and Margo was wrong to try and cause problems where there aren’t any. Besides, anyone who says they’ve never had an emotion about something that wasn’t entirely rational is a liar.

  8. avatar egg99 says:

    Oh Geez… don’t get rid of the paintings. A person’s past is what makes him or her into the person you love today. How insecure. 

    • avatar Lila says:

      Egg, I agree.  My mother kept photos from her former boyfriend with his notes written on the back (it was the 1940s-1950s, so nothing tawdry).  My Dad knew about the significance of the photos, and in fact HE is the one who explained them to me, since Mom died when I was quite young.  Dad was never threatened or jealous; as you say, her past was what made her the person she was.  Decades later, I found it interesting and it made my Mom’s memory more three-dimensional for me, so I am glad he kept those memories too, and was open with them.

  9. avatar joanne in jax says:

    LW#1 – As an artist myself, I do recommend contacting the original artist and giving her the option of taking them back, or recommending where she would like them to be donated/sold.  Most artists I know have a personal connection to all of their work, regardless of the artistry, and would be hurt to think they ended up in a landfill. 
    A few years ago, I was in one of my favorite low-end thrift stores when I spotted a huge work by a local textile artist, who I knew, and had also been a friend of my family.  The 4’x7′ intricately sewn work was priced at $35, and I negotiated the sale for $25.  A dear friend of mine has a work of hers, that is a fraction of the size of my piece, which she purchased a decade ago for about $2,000 – a reduced price because they were also acquaintances.  While I’ve grown to love this work, which is now in my dining room, my overwhelming motivation for purchasing it was to ‘rescue’ it – from a thrift store! (the darling artist would have been appalled), from another buyer, who would have no clue about the artistry and labor involved, or, the afore mentioned landfill.  If ever I decide to let it go, I will contact the artist, if she’s still living, or her daughters (who I grew up with) and offer it to them for free.  If they do not want it, it will go to a shelter or non-profit.  I have no desire to profit from my serendipitous find, but I also don’t want to see any artist’s cherished work destroyed.
    LW#2:  I suggest therapy – it really helps.

  10. avatar Rustie says:

    LW1 -If the fiance’ is jealous of inanimate objects, do you really think she will not have a problem with him contacting his EX to see if she would like them back? Personally, I would not rid myself of it, although I would consider hanging in an area where it was not a focal feature of the home. Also, keep in mind, if your fiance’ matures over time, there may be no issue. Another thing to consider, what if your relationship does not flourish once you live together? I certainly hope it does, but should it not, you will have gotten rid of artwork that you care about for nothing. Have you thought of wrapping it properly and putting in a storage area, perhaps your attic?  Do you have a cedar chest? I would not dispose of it just yet.  The fact that you do not want it destroyed is proof that you value it for what it is, which is artwork.  Good luck!

  11. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW 1: As I sit in my home office, I now look at an abstract that was painted nearly a half century ago by the ex-lover of my late spouse — a talented university art student who was dated before my spouse and I met and married. It’s one of my faves. The artist was a nice person to boot, I’m told. Frankly, I’d think twice about dumping those four paintings in your home, and I’d think three times about marrying someone who liked the paintings until finding out their heritage only to suddenly get uppity. Tread carefully here …   

    LW2: Huh? Whose child? The letter sez “birth of our child” And now the letter-writer sez it was only his kid? I’m not getting this at all …   

  12. avatar tweety says:

    LW2, are you absolutely sure that your past experience with this man is what’s actually causing you to sabotage potential relationships with nice, decent men? What I’m wondering is if whatever it is within you that attracted you to this not good and not nice man is also causing you to reject men who are good and nice.

  13. avatar Frau Quink says:

    LW1: Do keep the pictures, but put them into storage. If you don’t miss them in a few years,
    you can always sell them or do whatever you feel like doing with them.  Let’s not be too hasty here…. At one time, they were an important part of your life. You never know what’s down the road. Just keep your options open.

  14. avatar mayma says:

    Am I the only one who thinks that LW1 is saying something between the lines?  I mean, who writes in to an advice columnist to ask where to put unwanted paintings?  He’s never heard of craigslist or yard sales?  Given the drawn-out backstory, I think he wants someone to say, “Hey, your fiancee is insecure and acting silly.”

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      OK then, I’m willing to say it: LW1, your fiancee is insecure and acting silly.”

    • avatar R Scott says:

      And I’ll see your “… fiancee is insecure and acting silly.” and raise you a “Don’t be a twit and let someone else dictate what you get to do with your posessions”.

  15. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – I think your intentions are good and I applaud that but you’re also giving in to someone else’s irrational perspective. If these paintings were really meaningless to you now you wouldn’t written. As an artist and collector it breaks my heart that the woman you love has put you in this position. Let’s just hope this is one of very few painful comprimises you’ll have to make down the road. Art or not you do keep to keep pieces of your past.

    LW2 – Not sure who’s baby and who’s engagement but I agree with the letter idea. Get it all out on paper. All of it. Take as long as you need and word it anyway you wish. Read it, have feelings about it and then let it go. It really is cathartic. Then ice pick his tires.         

    • avatar David Bolton says:


      Eh. Regardless—you’ll never be completely rid of someone in your heart or mind. Eventually when you can look back on the relationship and say: “I don’t regret it because I learned this and this,” then you’re ready to move on. 

      As far as LW1’s paintings, don’t ever make the mistake of getting rid of something from a previous relationship to please someone else. If this were a truly valuable piece of art that could only go up in value, would you get rid of it then?

      If you like the paintings for any reason—keep them and put them away. The relationship you’re in now may end up like the relationship you were in then—that is, over.


      • avatar R Scott says:

        David – Stay calm. Don’t kill’im. Just stab’im in the thigh…….twice. 

  16. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW1: From the artist’s perspective, the nicest thing you could do would be to give the art to either herself or her parents. One of them would appreciate having it back. Of course, if you are too forthright for the reason this makes your fiancee look jealous so you’ll have to be careful how that comes across. Be sure to mention how much you have admired the work over the years. I would likely just say I was redecorating-or that style doesn’t match your new abode.  

  17. avatar A R says:

    LW1: It’s not uncommon for a serious partner to wish the other would dispose of things previous lovers have given them—especially if the former lovers carried undue emotional sway, caused tempestuous conflicts, or were the source of unhappy times. I’m not sure it is resentment or jealousy as it is wishing to “clean out” old, unhappy memories. I say this because sometimes you even get rid of items that didn’t come from past lovers—stuff from absentee parents, best friends who double-crossed you, gifts from coworkers who turned out to be unkind—in other words, stuff you get rid of to cleanse your mind and environment. It could even be that the fiancee privately thought the paintings were goofy as hell but believed that he had bought them out of his own aesthetic desires. (After all, he even mentions that none of his friends want them—-go figure.) Perhaps upon finding out the source, she breathed a sigh of relief that her beloved didn’t have terrible taste in art. Maybe in her heart she thought, “Oh good. Maybe I can ask him to get rid of the garish things now that we are moving in together.”
    LW2: It may be that you are sabotaging this new relationship in your mind. If so, a therapist should help you work through this. Your old relationship sounds like it left a lot of unstated hurt and emotional baggage. Don’t call that guy up, he was the reason for all that! Whew!

    • avatar mayma says:

      “It could even be that the fiancee privately thought the paintings were goofy as hell but believed that he had bought them out of his own aesthetic desires.”

      Nope.  The LW says that she always commented favorably on them, until she found out the background.  Then she wanted them gone.  Ridiculous. 

      • avatar David Bolton says:


        I agree. I think there could be a myriad of ways that the ex exerted her influence on LW1: is he expected to change all those things as well to suit the new GF?

        LW1: “My ex inspired me to go back to school and get this degree in business.”
        GF: “Well, you’ll just have to quit your job and take up lawn-mowing.” 

      • avatar A R says:

        “The LW says that she always commented favorably on them…”
        Yes, but you see, that is my point. Many people comment favorably as not to hurt their loved one’s feelings when they believe their loved one really likes a thing. If she labored under the impression he had them because he’d bought ’em out of his aesthetic attraction to them, she might be loathe to criticize them. The minute she found out he had ’em due not to an aesthetic longing, but because of some old lover, she was free to express her true thoughts! 
        I’m just throwing out an alternative perspective. Heck, only the fiancee knows her real motivations (which are often multi-layered and not just as cut-and-dry as we like to assume).

  18. avatar Beloved says:

    LW1, I’d be more than happy to take your painting, I’m sure they’re very beautiful.
    LW2, Forgiving your former boyfriend will be the best medicine.  I’m not recommending to let him back in your life but, forgiving him greatly diminishes the pain of the past and the impact of future hurts.

  19. avatar MichelleF says:

    LW1:  I think a good compromise is to put the paintings in storage or move them to a room where they aren’t a huge focal point. When I first moved in with my partner (now spouse) it would really eat at me to find reminders of my partner’s previous girlfriend (they had lived together for a few years, about 5 years before we met). One time I was rummaging for a pen in my nightstand drawer and the one I happened to grab had the ex-girlfriend’s name/job title on it. I’m not a super jealous person, by nature, but I would be lying if I say it didn’t bother the hell out of me. I honestly don’t think he would be doing anything “wrong” by keeping the paintings right where they are, but why not take them down as a show of good faith to his future wife? He says he doesn’t mind parting with them, so it seems like a good way to validate his fiancee’s feelings.
    LW2: You can’t be in a successful relationship (or even be truly open to the possibility) until you’re over the previous one. For some people it takes therapy, or some cathartic exercise, for others, just time. From personal experience I would say reaching out to an ex from a bad relationship almost never leads to anything good.

  20. avatar R Scott says:

    The more I think about the first letter the botherder I get. Shame on you Margo. She does not get to tell him what he can or cannot keep. Even though he’s feigning some agreement with her if he really bought into this he wouldn’t have written. She’s got him by the short hairs and it’s going to get worse. He’s got more to consider than just this request.