I can’t say he didn’t warn me. On our first date, he told me that she wanted him back. She is his wife; they’ve been separated for almost two years, but she’s still a large presence in his life. And always will be, as she is also the mother of his three young children.
I think what he said was: “If she knew where we were tonight, she’d turn up.” He wasn’t boasting – it was clearly a warning. “I hope it doesn’t put you off me,” he said.
I laughed, and told him I had a mean left hook and could defend myself. I was high on the spark between us and thrilled by the potential of what might be. It was no laughing matter, but I didn’t know that yet. On our first date, and then our second, and our third, we skimmed the surface of our respective relationship histories and hinted at the baggage we both dragged behind us.
I am also separated, soon to be divorced. I co-parent with a man who once loved me, then despised me, and is now what I would tentatively consider a friend. Fairly light baggage, like a rucksack that slots neatly into the overhead compartment. By comparison, my boyfriend’s baggage is closer to what the Kardashian family might take on holiday.
It’s not my place to delve into what went wrong in their marriage. But I do know how it has affected our fledgling relationship. I am in love with this man. He is in love with me. Yet after three months of dating, I still feel like the other woman. They may have separated a long time ago, but I am definitely dating another woman’s husband.
Before she knew I existed, her hold over him was digital. She would send him 30 to 50 text messages and emails a day. Messages that ranged from accusatory to begging to threatening, messages that came again and again, regardless of whether he was responding. Messages that made his phone vibrate at all times of the day and night. Messages that interrupted our breakfasts, dinners and our most intimate moments.
Messages that, once or twice, I read because they flashed on the screen when the phone was on the table between us. Messages that made me cry – frustrated, embarrassed tears that I did not want him to see after three months of dating – and made me question everything I thought I knew about this wonderful man.
At my most insecure, anxious moments – after too much wine and far, far too many messages – I would worry that he was going back to her, wonder if he still had feeling for her, if everything he was telling me was a lie. Why would she pursue him so relentlessly, if there was no chance of a reconciliation? Why hadn’t she moved on after almost two years? Hadn’t he made clear that he was moving on?
He told her about us, but it made no difference. In fact, she ramped things up. He and I returned to his house one evening to find a thick handwritten letter on his door mat. The letter sat on the table for an aching number of minutes before he removed it from sight. “I’m not going to read it in front of you,” he said. “I don’t care what it says. But regardless of everything she’s done, I need to respect her privacy.”
“Of course,” I said. I didn’t want to know what was in the letter. My imagination was more than able to fill the pages. They had a long history together. They shared three incredible children. They had memories, and some of them were good. He and I, on the other hand, are new. We are just beginning to make memories. And so far, too many of them are tainted by her.
Her letter was yet another attempt to win him back, and I was nowhere near confident that it wouldn’t work. Not because I doubted his feelings for me – when I am my rational self, I have complete faith in the bond between us – but because I could never doubt his commitment to his children or fail to recognise the guilt he has felt since he walked out of the family home all those months ago.
Many couples stay together for the sake of their children. I know couples who have, who do. Who accept that they are married and that means forever, regardless of how unhappy they are. Do I know him well enough yet to know that he is not one of those people? Perhaps not. I’ve wavered a couple of times, told him I can’t cope with baggage that is so active in his everyday life.
We all have past relationships. Our exes lurk in the shadows of our hearts and minds, never completely forgotten. A slip of the tongue might bring them into conversation; an old photo album might cause an awkward moment; a song or film or poem might take us back to them. But when an ex insists on planting roots in the present, demanding attention on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, the past threatens to destroy the future.
The Washington Post