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When Your Ex Haunts Your Marriage

How one woman finally got over her former flame

  • via ELLE.com/Columbia, courtesy of Everett Collection

    Sometimes in my dreams I see him: his gym-trained arms filling out a worn-in T-shirt, his eyes bluer than a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, his lips pink and full. It's always the same dream. We're in a room full of people—people who I know from one part of my life or another—but we only have eyes for each other. The chemistry is magnetic, raw, and I can feel it pulsing through my body like gasoline. And then I wake up. For a moment I feel bereft. Where, oh where, has my baby gone? I wonder, my head still heavy with sleep. And then I remember. Oh yeah, I married someone else.

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    Missing an ex this vividly is something most married people don't talk about. And no, my ex-boyfriend didn't die. He's alive and well, tending bar in my hometown. I saw him a little more than a year ago and aside from some extra fullness around his waistline and a slightly receding hairline, he is still movie star gorgeous—a baby-faced bad boy. We only dated for a year, almost a decade ago, but it was the first time I experienced the kind of love that occurs in Channing Tatum movies. We met when we were both teenagers. He was a few years older and had the kind of kinetic energy that comes with having disinterested parents and your own two-door.

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    We made out only once in high school. It was one of those creepy late night parties where something like three guys and two girls ended up at someone's house with a case of mismatched beers. We slept on the same sheetless bed, but, despite his pleading, we didn't "get naked." After he nodded off, I just stared at him in disbelief. How had I gotten lucky enough to share a scene let alone the same bed as him? Just to see how it felt, I slipped my small puffy hand into his large, square one. It felt perfect. God, it felt perfect.

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    I saw him again the next time I was home from college for Christmas, and even though I had a boyfriend, we hooked up. The next morning, on the way to get breakfast, I got my period. I'll never forget the way he calmly offered to grab me tampons at the nearest Exxon. As he jogged back from the convenience mart, a cardboard box of Tampax in his hand, I tried to slow down my breathing. I was a total goner. But again, we didn't start dating. We didn't even keep in touch. It was all on hold in some sort of tailor-made vacuum. Six months later, when I was home from college for the summer (and single), my friend encouraged me to call him. He didn't sound remotely surprised to hear from me. We met up that night and then spent something like 26 out of the next 29 nights together. And when I left to study abroad that fall, we talked every day, often crushing a $50 International phone card in a single call. Every time my loaner cell phone would ring late at night, a hummingbird of emotion rattled in my chest.

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    The second my feet hit American soil, we were inseparable all over again. I pardoned his every wrong step: I saw his controlling nature as masculine; and when he accused my best friend of being a lesbian, I was flattered that he thought more than one person could be in love with me. I didn't even really care when he called my mom "the devil." But when I got back to school that spring, the phone calls became more erratic. And he refused to visit me. He would guilt trip me, then apologize. Say awful things, and then blame it on his own raging insecurities. I was too good for him, he'd say, his crystal blue eyes welling with tears. He was just so afraid that I'd realize it, too. Soon enough, I did. And we broke up. But we stayed in contact of some sort—a curious rotation of "best friends," bad-for-each-other lovers, and vitriol-spewing enemies—for nearly a decade.

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    Over those 10 years, I started dating someone new. We broke up a few times—and each time we went on a break, I fell back into my ex's arms only to be perplexingly, heartbreakingly disappointed by his inability to be a good guy—until the good guy and I finally figured it out, moved in together, and eventually got married. Our wedding day was the happiest of my life. And though it contained other emotions—anxiety, doubt, and nervousness among them—the primary thing I felt was an overwhelming sense of contentment. I knew the man I was marrying. I knew he would never throw a cellphone at my head, convince me my friends had hidden agendas, or make fun of me for just being myself. His love wasn't boastful or loud. But a few weeks ago, while my husband was away on business, I had The Dream again.

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    There we were, at a bustling café, and I was stealthily trying to dodge friends and acquaintances to find my ex. When I did, he was waiting for me patiently, like Leonardo DiCaprio at the top of that swelling staircase at the end of Titanic. I woke up in tears. And without thinking, I did something rash. I texted him that I had been thinking about him a little bit, and that I hoped he was having a good holiday. Moments later, despite it being late at night, my phone buzzed. I stared at the name, a familiar mix of dread and excitement hurtling through me as I typed in my passcode. But despite the thousands of hurtful things he'd texted, e-mailed, or said straight to my face over the years, I was still surprised by the cruelty of his message. "'A little bit'??" he had written incredulously. "Tell that husband of yours that I have mad respect for the kind of stalker who waits on the sidelines until the girl finally gives in." I was stunned, but I wrote back any way. "What the f--k? I guess it serves me right…"

    I turned the phone on silent and forced myself back to a dreamless, fantasy-free sleep. In the morning, when my alarm went off, it all felt like a distant memory, until I saw that I had a new text from him. I took a deep breath and read it. "What did you expect? Movie recommendations?" he had written. "Okay fine. American Hustle has some of the best cinematography I've seen in years. Safety Not Guaranteed is probably the best-written movie no one's ever seen or heard of."

    Oh yeah? I thought. I saw that one. And I hated it.

When Your Ex Haunts Your Marriage
How one woman finally got over her former flame
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