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Lithium We're different people now: on getting back with exes

Nov. 27, 2020
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When I was younger, I swore I would never date an ex. I’m not even sure why I thought this was a horrible, irredeemable idea; at the time, I had never so much as kissed someone. Love, I thought, was a now-or-never situation, and I despised reading about insufferable on-and-off relationships in celebrity magazines. Getting back together seemed like an admission of weakness, the destruction of resolve and self-respect. To be honest, I didn’t exactly have good examples of healthy romance, either; most of the adults in my life were staying in marriages and relationships out of obligation, and condemned those who left and subsequently took back their partners. But everything changed when I fell in love with my first girlfriend; all the cynicism and bitterness went out of the window. We dated for over a year until we drifted apart, and almost three years later, I found myself in her car, confessing the resurgence of my feelings teen-dramedy style. 

After we got back together many of our shared friends laughed, saying “again?” over a Skype call. Almost everyone knew we had never truly “gotten over” their former flames, but I still had this feeling that it was innately wrong to date an ex. There are countless articles, TV shows, and movies all promoting this idea, after all. Maybe it was these influences or just a manifestation of my insecurity, but I was afraid of what I wanted. Three months into our relationship, we’re healthy, happy, and deeply in love—so why is our rekindled relationship still stigmatized?

It seems like everyone has a “sad ex” story and wants to graft it onto ours. Getting back with your ex is portrayed as an endless, toxic cycle of enabling and codependency. Our friends and family have waffled back and forth between claiming that we’re doomed and asking if we’re getting married—go figure, Alabama. Because of this, when we decided to try again, there was an immense pressure to achieve long-term relationship goals and a happy ending. “Making it work” to beat the odds loomed over us, especially in an environment where people marry young or lock themselves into abusive relationships. And yes, while lesbian U-Haul jokes about “moving in” are comedy gold, we don’t want to be constantly confronted with the choice to spend our future together or not. Starting over and trying again isn’t an immediate happily-ever-after, and it shouldn’t have to be. 

I think many people shout from the rooftops about “clean breaks” because they don’t want to revisit past relationships tied to the younger, dumber, less-polished versions of ourselves. When I first dated my girlfriend, I was obsessed with time and permanence, clinging to her until I eventually squeezed too tight. Then, when we got back together, I was terrified these toxic habits might resurface—that I would drive her away all over again. We often joke that we are each other’s time capsules; we’ve known every version of each other since seventh grade, and we’ve been everything from soulmates to bitter rivals. At one point after we first dated, we downright despised each other because we were reminded too much of our past selves. We know each other’s crutches and shortcomings by heart, which made starting over feel nearly impossible. Somewhere along the line, though, I learned to stop looking for a reflection of my old life in her and start looking ahead. 

A few months ago, I stopped to wonder how much we’d truly changed. I’d been worrying that there was something wrong I hadn’t noticed—last time, last time, last time was the mantra in my head. How could we keep from hurting each other again? Finally, I caved and asked my girlfriend how she felt, if she wanted to bolt or slow down—not out of a need for reassurance, but out of a desire to provide for her. She considered the question carefully before answering, “This is the best relationship I’ve ever been in, including our last one. I just feel so safe and supported. I’m my own person, but I still have a home base to come back to. I’m not defined by an us, and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.” I had become convinced that our past would repeat itself, but that simply wasn’t the case. My younger self would have asked for reaffirmation five more times, clinging desperately to the time we had left together. Now, I’m content to just spend time with her. We’re different people now, and we don’t have to carry that old baggage with us into the future. 

I don’t know where we’ll end up a year from now, but I’m happy to have found my way back to her. One of the best parts about dating an ex is the pure, wonderful sense of fates aligning; if I can open myself up to this person again, who knows what else the universe has in store for me? If I refuse to become cynical about love and second chances, life will never feel like it’s me against the world. I like the blissful idealism of soulmates—finding each other over and over. Though that might not be necessarily realistic (and we won’t be getting married after graduation), it doesn’t have to be.

Illustration by Gabriella Shery