Our lives are littered with exes: ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, ex-wives, exes of our own, and exes of others. Yet, “the ex” remains a taboo topic, off limits in conversation. A potential threat to be monitored in every relationship. If exes are so common, why are so many people uncomfortable with their very existence? I have never understood those ex-related hangups. Exes just feel like a part of life. Rather than be threatened by my partners’ exes, I am comforted by them. Rather than feel jealous, I feel grateful. Not because I am a superior human, because I’m certainly not. I have simply learned through experience that being jealous of exes leads absolutely nowhere and that the exes in our lives are essential to understanding our pasts and why we make the choices we do. One of my favorite quotes hangs in a frame above my dresser: “Our lives are shaped by those who love us and by those who refuse to love us.” For as long as I can remember, that quote hung on the wall of my parents’ house, then my mom’s house, and now mine. All of us are defined by our past, and that includes the people in it. My past relationships shaped who I am and helped me learn what I wanted in a partner. Following that logic, I am grateful for my partner’s past relationships in shaping who he is.
It’s no great mystery how I got this way. It started before I was even born, when my dad’s high school girlfriend, Jan, tracked down his address after years of being out of touch. She wrote him a long, lovely, friendly letter, which my dad let my mom read. My mom took one look at the letter and said, “Who is this person? I must meet her.” My mom and Jan struck up a correspondence and met in person a few years later. After 40-plus years, Jan is one of my mom’s dearest friends, and a friend and mentor to me. Then we have the curious case of my divorced parents. My parents split up when I was 12, but they have stayed friendly even 25 years later. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we all get together — me, my brother, my mom, my dad, my stepmom, my two stepbrothers, their wives, and their cumulative kids — like it’s no big whoop. When I tell people this, I’m met with puzzlement and astonishment. To me, it feels completely normal.
My mom’s life is richer thanks to her friendship with my dad’s ex-girlfriend. My life is richer because my parents have stayed friends. And similarly, I value the relationships I have made through exes. Two years ago, when I met my boyfriend’s high school girlfriend, we hit it off immediately. We share a sense of humor, a love of My So-Called Life, and, I recently learned, a crush on Jeff Goldblum. I am entertained by her ability to give my boyfriend a hard time, and hearing stories of their high school relationship reminds me of my own past. Though I don’t really keep in touch with my high school boyfriend, I’m friends with his wife on Facebook, and she’s one of my favorite funny commenters. Honestly, my life is full of these people, including the ex-girlfriend of the guy I lost my virginity to. I don’t set out to make these friendships, but I appreciate the surprising joy that comes from them.
It’s pretty much inevitable that we will cross paths with our partners’ exes, especially as we get older. We often don’t have a choice. But we do have a choice in how we approach these encounters. We can be jealous, or we can not be jealous. Rather than fall back on the instinct to be jealous, remind yourself that those relationships ended for a reason. Your partner ultimately wasn’t a match for his ex, but she still thinks he’s a good guy. She’s a cool girl, and she thinks you’re cool too. You might get along famously, which shouldn’t be a shock. After all, it’s likely that you share some qualities, since you have both chosen to surround yourselves with this person That’s not to say I have met all my partners’ exes. Many of our exes have vanished from our lives, usually for good reason. I also haven’t liked all of the ex-girlfriends whose paths I’ve crossed with, and thus I made no effort to get to know those women.
I also recognize that sometimes jealousy is warranted. If, for instance, your partner has a tendency to sleep with her ex when she’s drunk or if the two of them recently started texting again and she didn’t tell you about it. Jealousy prompted by suspicious behavior is very different from vague and unwarranted jealousy due to an ex’s mere existence. In most cases, exes aren’t the ones we should be worried about. Assuming you’re in a happy and healthy relationship, the idea of getting back together with your ex or even sleeping with your ex probably seems incredibly unappealing. It’s safe to assume your partner feels the same way, as long as the relationship ended cleanly and for a reason. My biggest problem with jealousy is that it’s completely purposeless. Most people waste countless hours and emotional energy on needless drama and suspicion. When I see people consumed by jealousy about their partners’ pasts, I feel bad for them. Jealously doesn’t make your relationship more stable or build trust in your relationship; in fact, it can erode trust in a poisonous way. So resolve to fight your jealous instinct, because your life will be fuller without it, and you might even make a friend along the way.