The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You have more in common with your partner’s exes than you might think


We had been talking for hours, and there were hours left to go.

He stepped out of the apartment to walk the dog, and I stepped into a hot shower. As the water poured over me, I cried as if my heart was breaking, because it was. When I finished, I wrapped a towel around myself, not bothering to pat my body dry and walked to our bedroom, dripping water across our long, narrow apartment. I curled onto my side of the bed, soaking water through the sheets and into the mattress.

My partner and I were deciding if we had broken apart or if we could try to bend toward each other again. We had arrived at our crisis, at the moment in many intimate relationships that feels like a great reckoning. This is when every true feeling you’ve hedged or couched is finally spoken out loud; when every insecurity and frustration you’ve had with yourself, the other, and your relationship is kicked up and faced down. It is the State of the Union that was a long time coming; the one when you say or scream, “What have you done?” Or, perhaps, “What have I done?” And definitely, “What are we going to do?”

The specifics of our crisis aren’t important, but they were a culmination of a difficult year. One that was marked by the death of a parent, academic stress, a job change and career uncertainty, financial anxiety and depression.

As we began to drift apart from each other, we became painfully polite with each other. It was as if some hand had started to tighten the spigot on our conversation. He used single-word sentences, and I stopped asking about his day, his class, his work or telling him about mine.

If you have been in love, especially over the course of years, you and yours will have experienced some version of this moment. And if you haven’t yet, likely you will.

Your critical moment may stem from her insistence, once and for all, that she doesn’t want children and never will. Or perhaps it will begin on the morning he tells you wants to move again, this time for a job faraway from any place you’d like to be. Or maybe it came when you realized the extent of their debt, his addiction or her kink.

During that endless afternoon, our moment of reckoning began, and I wondered how my partner and I were going to navigate this crisis. Where would we end up? How would I figure out what I needed to do? Who could help me? Who could see both his goodness and his flaws? Who could understand how angry I was, how sad, and how hurt?

There were two people in this relationship, and I needed a third.

There is a truth we never talk about when we talk about monogamous love: The only person who might be able to understand the specifics of your current relationship is your partner’s ex. Or, indeed, their exes. I realized the only people who could understand the specifics of what we were arguing about — and how we were approaching the contradictions and complexities — were those who had been exactly where I was. Those who had loved my partner as deeply as I did, who reached a similar crisis and made their own choice.

You might think no one could make your partner laugh so hard as you can, or feel as seen and understood. That only you know what they look like furious or filled up with joy. Only they know the you you never show to the outside world.

Though, of course, this isn’t true.

Our current relationships are shaped by our past loves, losses and choices. Our exes have shaped us, and our partner’s exes have shaped them. The shadows of these past lovers sit around our relationships like a cast of ghosts, each one waiting to be called forward to provide precedent for our emotional reactions. His response to grief and stress is to retreat into himself and stop talking. My response to uncertainty is to give my anxiety free rein: make bad jokes in the morning, cry in the afternoon, and watch TV in the evenings.

And usually, we are socialized to stand in judgment over our partner’s exes. They are the crazies, the jerks, the vapid. They are to be loathed or pitied. We are supposed to feel a jealous sense of ownership over current lovers, and if we do not, it is called rising above and we feel smug about it.

But there are few people outside our family with whom we have as much shared knowledge as we have with our partner’s exes. The same way no one can truly understand what it was to live with your parents except for your brother or sister, no one but an former flame can understand what it means to share a life with your person. There are only a few people in the world who know what it is like to have been hurt by this person, to want to throttle this person, and to be loved by this person. Likewise, no one but the guys I loved before could know what it was like for my partner.

A younger version of me would have chosen to leave that day, but that afternoon, as I thought about our past loves. I thought about the women who don’t know me, and I was somehow comforted by knowing they came before me. That they had reached their own crisis with this same man, they made a decision and everything turned out all right.

My partner and I had our hearts broken, and we healed; both we and our exes moved states and found new loves. By thinking of those we both loved before, I chose to imagine their current lives as being pretty close to the pictures shared on their social media feeds: filled with happiness and family.

That’s when I remembered how well a heart can mend after it’s broken — it can, with care and fortitude, become stronger, more resilient and more fearless.

At the end of the weekend, I considered my choices: leave or stay. My younger self, the one who loved those other men, would have packed my bags and left. My older self might yet agree with her, but my current self decided to be a different kind of brave.

Thinking of our exes gave me the courage to stay through our crisis, to batten down and see what the damage was after the storm passed. Did we had enough grit to weather this? Did we have the fortitude to rebuild together?

Our exes teach us many things, but two are these: The reckonings will come, and they will lead you to something new.

At the end of this one, my partner was certain of us, while I needed more time to parse my feelings. He didn’t push; I stopped crying in the afternoons. We talked for hours, over the days and then weeks. We laugh a lot.

I haven’t left, though I know if it comes to that, I could.


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