Something must have been going on with the planets because in the span of about 2 weeks recently 3 of my girlfriends confided in me that they still think about their ex-boyfriends. Two of those confessions were in the context of “Really, he was the love of my life,” past tense. Both have nonetheless moved on: one to a lower fireworks kind of guy and the other to the wrong guy from whom she is now divorcing. The third friend simply brought up her ex in the context of “Do you ever look yours up? Do you ever wonder how life would have been different?”
And to both questions I answer Yes. I have looked them up. I have been curious about what they are up to now. (In one case, with an unexpected delight, I even realized that for the life of me I couldn’t remember the guy’s last name as I typed in my google search.) I have thought about how life would have been different with them, and I imagine the following scenarios: Divorce. Lunacy. Asylum.
I suppose it says something about what kind of guys I had gone out with if a future with any of them would make me shudder like that. But it’s true, and I don’t even blame the guys; they did not yo-yo me around without my permission – nay, my groveling. “Disrespect me, please! Walk all over me now, c’mon! I don’t deserve any better!” I was a much different woman in my 20s.
Though at times I might have regretted dating some of the men that I did, I’m also aware that with each relationship I learned something about who I was and about the personalities and values that fit me best. I also tried to learn to express love and fear and anger and to build a mini-life with another person. Each failed relationship led me to Max. If I hadn’t dated the other ones, would I have been able to appreciate Max? Would I have built up the skills and self-awareness necessary to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship?
I remember those hungry, anxiety-ridden days of my 20s when my biggest worry was Will I get married. Though I was active in my career and in community activities, nothing meant more to me then than the hope of meeting the right man. But deep down I wasn’t ready. Maybe I knew I still had some growing up to do. Maybe I still wanted to hold onto my independence. That lack of readiness combined with too many messages that I “ought” to be married translated into my pursuit of impossible relationships. I was attracted to slippery men who couldn’t give me commitment, because it wasn’t even what I had wanted deep down. When I finally realized that, I gave myself permission to be single and to feel at peace with that, and it felt great. I worked on myself, on my personal goals. That is when I got promoted in my career, when I started working out and taking dance, and when I started to build a circle of very close and good friends. I realized I could be happy and fulfilled even without a man propping up my self-esteem (and to be honest, when you look for someone to prop you up emotionally, you always end up with abusers).
A younger friend of mine with whom I had lost touch for years recently got married. She is not in love. I am not sure if she is even in like. And I wanted to tell her, But you don’t have to get married. Maybe this is coming from me now, in my early 40s, after nearly 10 years of marriage and another 10 years of dating. Is marriage absolutely necessary? Isn’t it better to be single and happy than commmitted and miserable? But I remember how she had felt. I remember what it was like to think that if you don’t take the guy now, then there may not be any other guy later let alone a better one. And the fear of being alone or being different from your friends or being a societal outcast is so, so strong when you’re single.
I think about the irony of how life has turned out. I struggled for so long in bad relationships, drowning in tears and self-pity. By the time I had healed I then spent more time beating myself up over the choices I had made. But ultimately there was a purpose in everything: the blessings that came disguised in all that heartache of the 20s were the lessons that brought me to my true love, the one that didn’t get away.