Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Recently, my fiancé decided to back up all his photos from the past 20 years. It seemed like a pretty harmless project to me as he wired his external drive to his laptop, but watching what turned up on his screen, I found myself growing just a little bit uncomfortable: His ex-wife smiled in the background, foreground, all over the place, in too many pictures for me to keep up. With each new cluster of flashing images, their three children changed and grew at the pace of an animated flip-book.
Alan was careful not to pause when photos of other exes popped up, unless there was something else in the picture that he wanted to show me: an old beloved mutt; his deceased father, alive and vivacious; a younger version of himself. But otherwise, he didn’t hide what was happening. He paused when he saw his daughters cradling purple bouquets at a dance recital. When his infant son smiled at him through the screen, Alan smiled back. I watched him relive the joys he knew before he knew me.
I was happy for the chance to peer into parts of his life that I hadn’t experienced with him. But the whole thing also made me uneasy.
“You’re going to save all of those photos?” I said. I’ve never been one to save mementos from my own failed relationships — when they end, I clean out all the photos of our time together, a move I’ve always considered a key step in the process of moving on.
Alan, apparently, didn’t see it that way. “Am I supposed to pretend relationships before you didn’t happen?” he replied. “If they didn’t happen the way they did, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Sitting there, I tried to wrap my head around the concept. In my late 20s, when the man I thought I would marry at the time unexpectedly broke my heart, I asked him: “What do I do with the love I have for you? I can’t ever see it dying.” He didn’t have an answer.
After he left, my friends and family told me to delete every trace of him. “Do it for your survival,” my oldest sister urged. They assured me he was a jerk; they declared repeatedly that any woman he would date was in danger of abandonment, just like I had been. For a long time, I agreed with them. I know now, though, that at least for him, we simply weren’t a fit.
And maybe, I realized, that meant that I didn’t need to destroy every reminder of him to recapture my sense of self. Anyway, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Seven years later, even though the pain of our breakup is gone, I still find certain snapshots of our love are hard to let go of. When I hear a Mahler symphony, for example, I’m immediately reminded of him.
Alan has those moments, too — triggers that transport him back to camping under the stars in Yosemite with his ex and kids, or adopting a street cat named Fang with his first love. The difference: He carried them comfortably, as things to hold onto rather than things he just couldn’t shake.
As he continued uploading his photos, I started to think I should try his way of doing things. What if, instead of letting past loves create distance between us, I could start to see them as reasons to more intimately connect? Instead of mentioning only negative aspects of past relationships, what if we could both share what we liked about them? If our own relationship was truly secure, wouldn’t this make it stronger?
The first time I saw a photo of Alan’s first adult love, a dark-haired beauty with pale blue eyes, I felt jealous. Of course I felt jealous. He had loved her in a way that felt like forever, similar to how I imagine he loves me now. I stared at the image Alan had taken of her soon after they met in college; I pictured him, decades younger, admiring her in her best light. Had she not broken his heart, I knew, he might still be with her.
But I also know that 20 years later — following three brief reunions, a change in location, and a marriage to someone else — the love Alan shared with her has become an essential part of his makeup. It may even be a reason why I love him.
In the same vein, my exes are integral parts of me. They’ve all helped shape how I love: the psychologist who shattered my heart, the musician who wasn’t quite over his high-school girlfriend, the philosophy instructor who bought a dog for me. There are memories I love with each of them, and photos — long since deleted — where my exes and I looked at each other in moments of genuine love.
I didn’t have the love anymore, but maybe the moments were okay to hold onto. Whether I liked it or not, they’re evidence of some of the most important experiences I’ve ever lived. Evolving out of these loves didn’t make them null and void; it just meant, with each one, that I was growing out of an old life and transitioning into a new one, building a trail of past romantic lives as they stretched out as one long continuous line.
As Alan finished backing up his photos, I let go of my self-doubt. I could look at his past lives with a genuine curiosity and an admiration of how he’s loved. In discovering new sides of my partner, I was getting to know him all over again. Since then, whenever our pasts have come up, I’ve made a conscious effort to let them in. It means embracing not just how I love my partner today, but acknowledging that things were real and meaningful with every ex I’ve ever loved.
Before we went to bed that night, Alan said, “Seeing these photos of my past does not take away any of my love for you. Seeing them makes me love you more.” I got it now.