After a breakup I used to try to predict who in my life would be the one to say the most dreaded sentence of all: “Oh, just watch him marry the next girl he dates.”
There are similar variations that don’t necessarily revolve around marriage: “Watch him actually move in with the next person he dates.” Or “Watch him genuinely be serious with whoever comes after you.” Whatever the version, this prediction that an ex who wouldn’t commit to me would probably do so with the next person to come along always made me feel worse about the breakup. These comments would also exacerbate the powerlessness I felt at not being the one who could inspire someone to commit.
But as I’ve reconnected with some exes over the years, many of them have admitted that dating me made them a better partner. In one of these conversations, an ex sheepishly admitted that I had been right to complain about him always putting his friends before me; as a result he’d been trying to better balance friends and a girlfriend. A different guy told me that he could now better gauge when a woman he was dating, while seemingly mad over something he deemed trivial, was actually justified in her anger about a bigger issue he hadn’t noticed. Still another man told me that after we broke up, my hustle in my own work made him take a hard look at whether he was happy in his job and think about what he could do to get promoted or move on.
By now I’ve realized that being the one before The One — the person someone dates right before they settle down with someone else — might not be something to bemoan after all. Why don’t I take a sense of pride in it?
Let’s think about the alternative: If a guy and I part ways, and he continues to be an immature or unsupportive partner to others, isn’t that worse? If we can’t make it work with someone, shouldn’t we at least take comfort in the fact that we’re setting a former paramour free into the world a little better off from our influence?
Of course I’ve been the beneficiary of this improvement as well. I have dated men where it’s clear they learned long before me how to be a giving and loving partner. One guy had married and divorced young but was extremely open about what he felt had been a failure on his part to communicate well with his ex-wife. This translated into a determination to be more self-aware going forward. And for the duration of our relationship he was very attuned to my needs and always willing to talk things out, even enlightening me at times with his thoughts on how couples need to understand that unexpected individual growth affects the dynamic of a couple successfully evolving together. A fact that he didn’t consider before marrying young. And yes, maybe it sounds a little arrogant to take responsibility for the positive changes someone exudes after a breakup, but we’d be remiss not to acknowledge how people we care for imprint our lives going forward. A former partner does not make up the entirety of a person’s growth, but I believe it’s an integral part. (And I was very grateful to that particular ex-wife!)
It took me a long time to get to this mind-set. (And it in no way applies to a former abusive partner.) There were several times I rolled my eyes and shrieked to friends that an ex was doing everything with a new partner that I had constantly asked him to do when we were together: look for a new job, propose, or just get a decent tailored suit. Did his new girlfriend nag better? Did he love her more?
I deserve better than feeling like a stepping stone! But I’m grateful that I learned to stop allowing these events to poke so many holes in my self-esteem. Instead I’m now focusing on the more satisfying conclusion: It’s about damn time he got his act together! And I can smile, knowing I was part of that transformation.
My mother has long been one of those people announcing that someone would settle down with the very next person they dated. Not just about my exes, but also when I’d regale her with stories of my friends’ breakups. And she was often correct. But her addendum to that annoying statement and response to my shouted “but why does this ALWAYS seem to happen to me?!” became far more interesting to me as I got older.
She said: “Sometimes it’s easier for people to start fresh with someone else, rather than wade back into their past messes in an attempt to do better.”
Which she then followed up with the question: “Would you be able to trust that this person had truly changed if they came back?” It was a valid question, because there have been a couple occasions where exes of mine have come back and apologized, or sought an opportunity to rekindle. I did that enough times to know it doesn’t work for me.
The appeal of the fresh start is easy to gloss over when I just wanted to be mad about an ex’s new girlfriend who seemingly brought out all his best qualities (according to mutual friends and social media providing abundant examples). It’s easier to get into a self-righteous huff about a stranger reaping what I sowed than it is to accept he and I were not right for each other.
People can change and mature, and that’s a great thing! We shouldn’t hope for the people who disappointed us to remain unable to be good partners. We should want them to evolve and be capable of a successful, balanced relationship. Even if its not our own.
After all, the wonderful guy I choose to share my life with one day just might be someone else’s one before The One.