In marriage there’s a slow unpacking of baggage, and occasionally one of the items we pull out is a person: an ex, to be specific. Whenever exes surface from the storage trunks of our past, there’s the question of what to do with them. Should we stuff them back down, buried forever under the mothballs of other memories? Or should we pull them out for our spouse to see, an out-of-date fashion that’s a reminder of a particular time in life? As we’ve been discovering in our own marriage, there’s no one right answer.
In January, we had the opportunity to visit New York, Constantino’s adopted home town. For him it was a chance to relive the formative years of his adult life and reconnect with the people and places that were so meaningful to him. For me it was an opportunity to experience my husband’s history through tangible people and places rather than through the second-hand accounts of his own storytelling. Part of that history involved one of his exes, and we struggled with whether to invite that part of his past into our present.
Constantino has had a couple of long-term relationships, and there’s one ex from New York with whom he only occasionally keeps in touch. When Constantino asked if I wanted to meet him while we were in town, my initial response was swift and decisive: no. I wasn’t threatened by meeting him, despite being a little jealous: He’s financially successful and owns a great apartment in a desirable part of town. And it wasn’t that I was afraid for our marriage; Constantino’s ex is also happily married and the couple recently became fathers. My resistance was more about whether I was prepared to make his former relationship more real by meeting his ex, and whether it would be healthier to simply keep that relationship relegated to Constantino’s memories. I felt as if we might be dredging up the past for no good reason.
After thinking about it for a day, though, I changed my mind. Shakespeare concisely describes my reasoning for wanting to meet my husband's ex: “What's past is prologue.” Our present is built upon the foundation of a past that has, in essence, set the stage for our current lives. Our wounds, our values, our character—all of these are a product of the lives we have lived. In choosing to marry Constantino, I have chosen to go deep with this one person in my life, and part of going deep is working to understand as much about him as I can. By knowing the people who were once meaningful to him, I can get a better sense of who he was and where he came from.
So we all met. And it was fine. Constantino got a chance to hold their new baby. I had the opportunity to put a face and a personality to someone who once held a place of importance in Constantino’s life. It was mostly anti-climactic; the ways in which I had built up Constantino’s ex in my mind quickly deflated. When we parted ways after an hour or so, I was glad we had gotten together. I felt as if our meeting helped me to peel away another translucent layer of my husband’s past, allowing me to see him a little bit more clearly.
What was important to our decision was that Constantino followed my lead. He allowed me to be the decision-maker over whether we met. He would, if I asked it of him, never see or communicate with this person ever again. The other vital aspect is that we’ve made a habit of sharing honestly and openly about our pasts, the good relationships and the bad. I know about the people in Constantino’s past and what they mean to him, and he knows about mine. It’s this kind of open communication that has built enough trust where we’re not threatened by each other’s exes. As part of that trust we’ve set boundaries. Neither of us would, for example, meet with an ex without first asking permission from the other.
That doesn’t mean every ex is a healthy person to allow into your life. People exist in Constantino’s past whom I would not want him to meet again, and he would say the same for me. There may be casual flings, unhealthy relationships, or partners you never fully got over. Those kinds of exes deserve to be buried forever in the bottom of your baggage. It doesn’t mean you never talk about them or share the ways in which the relationship shaped you; it simply means the person would not be an edifying addition to your current life and marriage.
We’ve learned that it’s important to let the spouse have the final say in whether an ex occupies any space in your shared present. Your priority is to upkeep the health of your marriage, not to maintain the relationships of your past. Sometimes that means honoring a request from your spouse that seems unreasonable. He or she may want you to delete phone numbers and unfriend exes on Facebook, even if you haven’t talked to them in ages. You might even have to cut ties with a partner-turned-friend with whom you’re close. An action that severe may point to deeper trust issues in your marriage that you need to work through, but we believe, ultimately, in spousal prerogative in these circumstances.
We all hope to find that one partner who’s the right fit for us. And once we do, should we forever lock the trunk of the ill-fitting exes of our past? Not necessarily. A careful, cautious search through each other’s baggage is sometimes the best way to understand the prologue to your shared story.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.