I like to think I’ve been blessed with a roster of decent, charming and perfectly lovely ex-boyfriends. Until I get to talking to some of my friends who have known me throughout the years. The moment we start chatting about the past, they begin staring at me like I’ve got four heads.
“Oh my God, him?” one friend nearly choked on her gnocchi on our dinner date one evening after I insisted a specific ex was a great guy. “Are you kidding? He was the worst. I couldn’t wait for you to realize you had been temporarily brainwashed.”
So it’s possible time has made me very soft.
As someone currently happily married to a man I feel is my equal and, frankly, one of the best people I’ve ever known, I find it difficult to come to terms with the possibility — no, let’s call it “reality” — that I compromised my standards a few times as a younger person. Yep, I dated a few jerks.
But here’s where I part ways with anyone content to dismiss past partners as “losers,” “ruthless monsters,” “narcissist nitwits” or fill-in-the-blank. Few people are one-dimensional cardboard poster children for everything bad in the world. If you don’t at least try to see the good, interesting, mystifying and human in your exes, you’ll start to feel like you wasted a lot of time instead of attempting to understand why that relationship was important, what it contributed to your life, and how it maybe changed you in some significant way that made it possible for you to be here right now, as you are.
Perhaps you’re shouting at your screen at this very moment, “Lady! You don’t know my ex! He was Satan. Satan, I tell you!” Believe me, I know. But I wouldn’t lie to you — the sooner you make peace with your past and accept your exes and their flaws, the sooner all of their positive qualities will begin pouring right out of them and straight into your heart. You’ll feel an appreciation for them that you never thought possible. You may even start to like them again, though you should never, ever confuse that with permission to date them again because, remember, jerk.
Allow me to demonstrate how this can be done using examples from the most blatantly disastrous of my past relationships. For obvious reasons, all names have been changed. Except for you, Patrick, but that’s because I eventually married you.
The bad: Oh, John. On our first date, you were a slightly older guy I dated in my twenties who had recently broken up with a woman you had been living with for a few years. Sure, I wondered why you had never taken the plunge and gotten married, but as someone living with four girls I barely knew and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, I was in no position to get all judgy. By date number five, my supreme investigative skills helped unravel the truth: You had recently divorced, though it wasn’t finalized, so thanks for not telling me I went on five dates with a married man (what a dream), you had a young child your wife was trying to “pry” away from you, and — cherry on top — you were currently living in the attic of the house where your family still lived until all divorce details were finalized. Thank goodness for both that attic and my floor mattress because they kept me from sleeping with a married man, which would have made it very difficult to find the good in you.
How I’ve made the bad good: John was a lonely, confused person searching for an escape route from his bad marriage and eternal youth through a younger woman. Granted, he went about it in a dishonest way, but he taught me that love and relationships aren’t black and white and that I would never take marriage for granted. After all was revealed on our fifth and last date, he prattled on about how marriage changes women — I feel bad that John didn’t know “change” needn’t be a negative thing and that accepting his ex-wife’s changes and maybe even changing with her might have kept them together. I also owe him for strengthening my BS detector and stalking/investigative skills, all of which come in handy as a writer. Good job, John!
The bad: Can I even call you my ex? Were we in an actual relationship or was that six months and 13 days just target practice for you? Ours was a lust-filled, empty vessel of a relationship in which you constantly sent me cryptic snippets of poetry that could have meant you’d love me until the end of time but probably meant you were practicing mind control. Neither one of us wanted to “define” our relationship, at least that’s what I said but didn’t mean, and I spent months chastising myself for any emotion that popped up because I didn’t want to be such a “girl” about it all.
How I’ve made the bad good: It wasn’t Jacob’s fault. I wanted to pursue a relationship the way I imagined a guy did — and, in the process, I denied who I was and put my own needs aside. Thank you, Jacob, because I never made that mistake again. I am emotional, passionate, totally in love when in love, and I can be all of those things and also be rational and logical in the face of something that isn’t working out. You also introduced me to really great music — the same music my husband loves, so that gave us a lot to talk about on our first date. So, thank you for bringing me closer to my husband.
The bad: We were 21 when we went on our first date. You were in a band and wore glitter T-shirts and green nail polish. Everyone knew you at The Continental, you got us drinks for free, and you had “groupie” friends who sized me up every time I was around. I liked you too much, so I kissed you and then never called you back. I was terrified that your stupid popularity and those girls would be the death of me and I was determined to walk away before you did. The truth is, I never forgot about you.
How I’ve made the bad good: Yeah, I was the bad ex in this example, but I am also the lucky ex because, six years later, Patrick and I reconnected. He was hotter and more intellectual than I had remembered, still played music but without the groupies and glitter, and had remembered the “good” in me — even though I was a total jerk to him. Fast forward a few years and we’re married with two children.
We’re complex and confused beings. There are always other sides to the story. And forgiving and accepting your exes, even if they hurt you or allowed you to hurt yourself, is just another way to grow.