In “Both Sides of a Breakup,” the Cut talks to exes about how they got together and why they split up. Lena and Joe, both 42, knew each other from high school and reunited as adults, each with their own grown-up baggage.
Lena: Joe and I went to high school together in New Jersey and then we reconnected on Facebook about 20 years later. What I remembered about him back then was that he was kind of like a crazy person, but in a lovable way. He was very volatile and emotional … like I remember he ran his car into a car wash after a girl broke up with him. There was also something about a microwave being thrown out a window.
But he wasn’t a total fuck up. He was from a really nice family and he was pretty smart. And he was also a real “guy” — tall and muscular and running with a tough crowd, always kinda covered in dirt and wearing a ripped T-shirt. So he didn’t really fit into a box. Back then I found him mysterious, sexy, a little bit dangerous.
Joe: What do I remember about Lena? She was popular. Her parents were both teachers so she was kind of a goody-goody. She was pretty but a little bit hard to reach. When she Facebook requested me, I was in the middle of a divorce and really happy to hear from her.
Lena: I had just turned 40. At 39, I ended an eight-year relationship with a man who was never going to marry me — he was an extremely driven investment banker who had a certain lifestyle that wasn’t conducive to marriage. I never caught him but I’m pretty sure he cheated on me. He didn’t treat me the way I deserve to be treated but it took me a long time to open my eyes to that. I’ve dealt with low self-esteem issues my entire life. I Facebooked Joe and asked him if he wanted to get a coffee and catch up. Mostly I did this because he still looked really hot and he had posted something about splitting with his wife, so, why not?
Joe: I have two girls with my ex wife and my girls are everything to me. So I just wanted to move slowly with dating anyone new. I was happy to meet up with Lena, though. I was like, “Fuck coffee, let’s get drinks.” When she showed up for drinks, she was all dolled-up and I immediately had this feeling that this woman was going to want more from me than what I could give her. But I also was happy to see her again and very attracted to her.
Lena: Super sexy. That was my first thought when I saw him. Super fucking sexy. We had a great first date. He told me about his business, which is like landscape design for big companies, and I loved that all these years later he’s still getting his hands dirty. He didn’t really tell me about his divorce but he talked a lot about his girls, which was sweet. I really wanted kids at this point, and I would have been happy being a stepmom too.
Joe: My ex-wife and I had a lot of problems, and I’m not proud of how we handled them. We were both guilty of certain things. I don’t really want to say much more about it. I own my mistakes. Do I like talking about this stuff? No. Is it what I want to mention on a first date? Hell no.
Lena: We started dating. I really liked him! Dinner once or twice a week. A lot of laughs. He reminded me of a young Anthony Bourdain, which he says he gets a lot. We started sleeping together after the second date. Amazing sex. It felt a little bit like high school … all that horny energy and nervousness. He would always pull out, but I would have been fine if he hadn’t.
Joe: I’ll be very honest. The Lena thing felt like a sexual affair more than a romantic affair. I honestly thought that’s what we both wanted … and then one night she drank too much, and said she loved me and told me to get her pregnant. I was pretty surprised. She hadn’t met my kids, we weren’t even “official.” I got spooked by that.
Lena: I felt like an idiot the next morning. I was wasted. After that, we both pulled back a little. I froze my eggs without telling him. We started hanging out every two weeks. I wasn’t dating anyone else but I was also trying not to fall for him. This went on for six months or so and during that time, I met his girls once or twice and I adored them. I think he turned a corner when he saw how I could blend into his life with them.
Joe: I was really happy watching Lena with my girls. It was a beautiful thing to see how mature and gracious they were toward her. I only introduced her as a friend but at 8 and 10, I think they got the picture. Then I got more serious about Lena. I started telling myself that she was someone I could fall in love with. I wasn’t seeing anyone else. I felt ready to get more involved with her.
Lena: The craziest thing happened next. I started telling friends from home that I was dating Joe and all this gossip started coming out of the woodwork. That he had anger-management issues … that he’d been in prison! My parents had even heard the rumors. I personally hadn’t seen anything of the sort, and he certainly hadn’t been forthright about any of it, so I confronted him about it.
Joe: I knew the day would come when she’d find out about my track record. I’ve been on such a great path for years, but I do have a history and I did do a little time. Lena was sweet in her approach but she also seemed scared of me. I told her the truth about everything, hoping we could move on, but she dumped me that night. She did it over the phone. The sad part was, I was ready to let her know the real me … I really was. I wasn’t trying to keep anything for her, I just had to feel ready.
Lena: I knew as soon as he confirmed certain things that I’d end it with him. You have to understand, I wasted eight years with a shitty guy. I couldn’t risk wasting any more time with someone who had red flags. Could I have been more understanding and supportive? Sure. But I’m at a time in my life where my entire future is at stake. I can’t mess around. I have to put “me” first.
Joe: I thought it was … kinda cold. It was like she wouldn’t allow me to be human with flaws and a history. I was disappointed, but I ultimately didn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t love me for who I am. And I didn’t want my girls getting close to a new woman who isn’t sure of my character. We all make mistakes. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life apologizing for myself.
Lena: It was a bummer. Joe was different and I liked that about him. The sex was the best I’d ever had, and his girls are extraordinary young women. But I put myself first and I’m comfortable with that.
Joe: This happened about a year ago. I’m dating a little bit but just enjoying my family and my work. I’m a little bit afraid of getting close to someone again after all the judgment that came from Lena. I wish her well though. She’s asked me for coffee a few times since she kicked me to the curb, but I don’t want to see her and, like, start feeling bad about myself. She wants someone with a zero risk factor. I’m not him.
Lena: I very often wonder, and maybe even regret, closing the door on Joe just like that. I’ve tried to reach out but he’s not interested (I’ve even drunk dialed him). Men don’t receive typically rejection well. I miss the sex, I really do! I’m actively dating others now. I’m online, I have a matchmaker. So we’ll see if my hard work pays off. I really want to meet someone and get married and start a family, and I do feel the clock is ticking.