Ask Dr. Gilda-Can’t Let Go Of The Past

A widower and his new love are literally overwhelmed with mementoes from their prior relationships.

By Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D.

ear Dr. Gilda,
I was married for over 30 years. I lost my wife four years ago. Since then, I have fallen for another woman. The problem is, our house looks terrible. My wife was not the best housekeeper, but this is worse. I have tried to talk to her about cleaning,
While you’re ripe for the ridding process, your lady friend is not.
and I even offered to clean up for her, but she refuses. She says I might throw away something important from her previous marriage. I have tried everything, and I am afraid to let anyone visit. I really love her, and with the exception of this, I have no complaints. How can we de-clutter two combined houses without hurting each other’s feelings?
– Cluttered Carl

Dear Cluttered Carl,
While you’re ripe for the ridding process, your lady friend is not. I suspect she’s newly divorced or newly widowed, and that she’s still grieving her loss. As my Gilda-Gram says, “The issue you see is rarely the issue you have.” When someone holds on to material memories, she is sustaining the emotional comfort she derived from her former life. The longer two people spent together, the more significant (and abundant) their collectibles. While you have had four years of being on your own since your wife’s passing, this woman evidently needs more time to accept the fact that her husband is gone.

You say, “Neither of us wants to get dragged down by these past reminders.” While that may be true for you, it is not true for your lady. Not only does she want to retain these “past reminders,” they are also serving as relief from her loss. When you offered to “clean up for her,” she jumped into panic mode, fearing the removal of what she apparently still feels she needs to get her through her pain.

How long have you been “Cluttered Carl”? Are you willing to hang in there a while longer? As time goes on, your woman will probably accept the situation for all it is, she’ll accept and appreciate you for all you bring to her life, and she’ll be willing and, in fact, anxious to clear out the old. But in the meantime, you’re left with a household mess.

Here’s what you can do immediately:

  • Amid your living arrangements, create a special and private space for yourself with a door or screen, so her “stuff” does not disturb you so much.
  • Adopt my Three Steps to New Beginnings — and let your lady see how you are handling your own “past reminders”:
    1. Let go: Substitute your old collectibles with more current ones.
    2. Have patience: Don’t rush the process.
    3. Let in: Honor and embrace each new element you add.
  • Level with your lady about what this all means, and make it safe for her to express her fears. Honest communication will bond you deeply.
You began to cohabitate too soon after her loss. If it is impossible to carve a private space for yourself while sharing a home, it might be better for you to find a place of your own until more time passes. Discuss this with her, and listen carefully to what she has to say. The way she reacts will tell you whether she’s moving towards getting over her loss or not. And by knowing that, you’ll know exactly what your next step should be.

Relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., has a private practice and is an associate professor at Mercy College in New York. Her best-selling books include Don’t Bet on the Prince!, 99 Prescriptions for Fidelity and How to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit her website ( and send her your relationship questions.
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