We’ve all done it. It doesn’t matter how confident you are, how secure, how much you wear self-love on your sleeve for all to see — if you’re a woman with a pulse, chances are you’ve thought about your lover’s ex (and in the worst of cases, wished upon her a lifetime of misery).
I am no different. The “exfactor” has shadowed me, chased me, found me even in the happiest of circumstances. It has become my pattern. In each of my relationships, however loving and monogamous, there she is — her name slips in during a casual conversation, her forgotten belongings lurk in closets and drawers. And her flaws (of which you hope she had many) are stored in your partner’s brain — heaven forbid you have one of the same flaws, because right then you might as well be “her.”
For some, the exfactor is but a nuisance, an afterthought, a fly buzzing in your ear on a quiet summer day. In my case it led to the biggest heartbreak of my life.
His name was John. We met in dramatic fashion — I dragged myself to an event I had planned on skipping, our eyes met from across the room, and three cocktails and some heavy petting later, I was seeing stars. We became inseparable. Each day blurred into the next, a kaleidoscope of bright flowers, passionate debates, sugary layers of sweet nothings, and the best sex I’d ever had.
I became addicted. To his eyes, his smile, his laugh, his smell, to every damn song on the radio with the slightest mention of that lovin’ feeling. I broke one of my ironclad dating rules and dropped the L-word before the six-month mark. He said it back, and with fervor. We were happy, invincible, floating above the mere mortals who populated the daily grind.
Then, and I can’t say exactly when, it all started to unravel. There were whispers around the room when he brought me to parties. There were traces of an ex-girlfriend around his house — an old letter here, a lost earring there. And there were the ill-disguised looks amongst his friends when he introduced me to them.
I became curious about her, and after a little research (and by research I mean gossip), I discovered that I had come along at the tail end of a five-year, first-love relationship that had ended abruptly and without closure. Blast. How was I supposed to compete?
Suddenly she was a fixation of mine, a historical figure that needed to be outdone and outperformed in every way imaginable. I couldn’t be the rebound; there were too many feelings involved. He was the love of my life! So I became the super girlfriend: too loving, too giving, too understanding, and too available. He responded so positively that I was sure everything would turn out okay until the day she stormed through the front door of his house.
I couldn’t believe it. One minute we were cuddling on his couch and the next she was standing in front of us. The rest was a blur. He was screaming, telling her to leave; she refused. She wanted him back — she’d made a mistake by breaking up with him; she wanted them to get an apartment together. I could barely stifle my laughter. How could she possess so little restraint? How was she not embarrassed? Didn’t she see me sitting there?
As if she could read my mind, she suddenly focused her verbal assault on me, spinning a much-thought-out scenario in which she and John were the main characters and I merely an intruder. My head began to spin with the insanity of it all. How could this bleary-eyed, frizzy-haired monster think that she was the primary lover in his life? How could she suggest that he’d leave me and our plans together for a crappy one-bedroom in Hicksville, New York? She couldn’t possibly be telling the truth...
Then she dropped the bombshell: They had slept together just a few days before.
I think the pain on my face must have been satisfying to her because she retreated abruptly, leaving me to digest what had just happened. I felt blank, numb, as if I had just watched the night’s events unfold as an outsider. Like I hadn’t truly been involved.
But I had to know the truth. After two hours of weak denial, John finally owned up to the infidelity — an admission that shook me to the core, and I silently cursed the exfactor and swore off men indefinitely. “It was a mistake,” he said, “a one-time lapse of judgment” that happened only after she’d fed him the tales of her regret and her renewed desire. He swore that it was me he wanted — our future, our plans, our passion — he didn’t want to lose it. He couldn’t live without it.
I broke up with him. I drove home in a strange state of half gloom, half amusement, knowing that I had just experienced the break-up from hell, almost the stuff of a Hollywood dramatization, an incident that I would one day be able to write about without wanting to crawl into the nearest crack in the floor. The night was endless.
In the following months I went back to school, graduated, and moved to California — as far as I could possibly go without having to renew my passport or cross an ocean. I was bitter for a long time, but it was not thoughts of him that filled my mind, it was this exfactor. I wondered what she was like, how she dressed, how she laughed, how she moved. What about her had driven him to risk losing our torrid love affair? I dated around but dropped each guy the second there was mention of his previous love life. I was a woman scorned and scarred.
Then I got an email that was more enlightening than it was satisfying. It was from him, saying that he missed me, that he had never stopped thinking about me, that he had also moved away and gained a new perspective on life. Then came the exfactor update. They had tried getting back together, but his feelings weren’t the same. After he moved away she dated a buffoon of a man and had an oversized baby out of wedlock (okay, that part was a little satisfying).