Love & Sex

How I Measured Myself By My Girlfriends’ Exes

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Linda was the first. She was breathtaking, one of those implausibly exquisite California creatures that makes one wonder whether the West Coast isn’t producing more than hyper-potent medical marijuana in its grow labs. Her ex, my immediate predecessor, was a poet, and, though my soon-to-be girlfriend did her best to disguise it, still had a hold on her. Like a ghost, he lingered at the perceptible edges of our budding relationship, stoking a faint wistfulness that I could sense running behind her smile like an undercurrent. I knew that in order for things to progress between us, an exorcism was required.

This one took the form of an interrogation.

It started out well enough. I asked Linda about her feelings for her ex, and for me, and about the ambivalence our latent love triangle ginned up in her—things I thought I had a right to know, given the frequency with which she was spending the night. She agreed, and did her best to wrangle her slippery, tangled emotions into something approaching coherent answers. We talked calmly, like reasonable adults on the precipice of something significant, as I’d hoped we could and would.

But then something shifted. Unchained and let out of its pen, its appetite whetted with teasing morsels, my curiosity started grasping. I began asking for details about her relationship with her ex, then about other relationships she had been in, before wading into her broader dating and hookup history. My questions became more pointed, more precise, and soon I found myself pacing the floor with my hands clasped behind my back as I delivered them. I didn’t notice when the sun set, or the darkness that spread over the room after, even as it gradually obscured Linda’s features and reduced her to silhouette.    

Finally, sometime after the moon had settled into its perch, she broke.

“God,” she groaned, startling me out of my trance. “I can’t believe you’re this insecure!”

All at once, whatever was in me left. I went quiet and plopped down onto the bed. Linda reached for the light. We sat for a long minute collecting ourselves, me staring through the sliding glass door at the gray Capitol building, Linda with her face in her hands. When she swept her hair back and looked up to speak, her voice was barely a whisper, almost beseeching.

“Seriously,” she said, reaching a hand out to me. “What does it matter?”

It took me awhile to come up with answers to Linda’s question. Years, actually; years during which I questioned other girlfriends about their pasts, refining my technique from the ham-fisted attrition method Linda experienced into something subtler, more oblique, if no less invasive. In reflecting on these experiences and associated feelings, and talking with other not-so-grand inquisitors about theirs, I’ve honed in on two main explanations for why we dig the way we do.

The first is simple curiosity, one born of a genuine desire for intimacy. Put plainly, I like to know my significant other to the same degree that a best friend would. I don’t want to build a relationship with my girlfriend’s heavily-edited representative, the fictitious version of herself that she thinks I want. I want the human being hunched behind that cardboard cutout, the vibrant thing with the crooked smile. And given the extent to which our love lives are our lives, I don’t see how that’s possible without knowing the ways in which a person has been undermined and uplifted by Eros. Some people think of this stuff as baggage, but when the desired destination is a place of shared vulnerability, I don’t see any way around bringing it along.

That’s the easier explanation to deal with, the one that can usually be forgiven for the good intentions behind it. Its hairier counterpart is harder for me acknowledge, let alone accept, and fits uncomfortably under the label Linda lobbed at me all those years ago.

I usually cringe whenever I hear one person attribute another’s actions to some undefined, all-encompassing “insecurity.” Like calling a woman a slut, it usually doesn’t add much to a discussion besides shame—flattening complex feelings and circumstances in an effort to coerce behavior. But just because the tag gets abused doesn’t mean it’s always inaccurate. It just needs unpacking if it’s going to be useful for anything more than scoring cheap wins through humiliation.

For example, insecurity was obviously at play when I put Linda in the hot seat over her ex. Her residual feelings for him made me insecure in what was blossoming between us, which still doesn’t strike me as unjustified. But what took me so long to realize, and what renders that insecurity less defensible, is that it wasn’t so much the prospect of losing Linda that made me anxious as what that loss would say about my worth relative to her ex’s. The object of my affections was just that: an object used to measure my masculinity/suitability as a mate/whatever against his. It wasn’t really about Linda at all, no more than checking one’s weight is about the scale.   

The same holds true for why I went fishing around in the shallows of her love life, the situations in which the poet was nowhere to be found. As with grilling her about her ex, drudging up half-forgotten dalliances and flinging the Five Ws at her about them was a valuation exercise. I needed to know how others had treated her in the past to know how I—a man at least equal to them in…some machismo metric or another—should treat her in the present. To put it crudely (down to the mixed metaphor) but honestly, I didn’t want to get caught taking meticulous care of a car that every other guy in town had treated like a heavily-insured rental, because if their trash was my treasure, then what did that say about where we all stood in the Testosterone Tribe pecking order? (Mature answer: nothing.)   

Relatedly, I also wanted to avoid ugly surprises. There are few nightmare scenarios that cinch my sphincter as tightly as imagining a friend sending me an email with a link to a revenge porn site and the subject line: “Is this your girl?” A close second might be attending a party and having drinks with a guy that everybody in the room knows bedded my girlfriend but me (possibly resulting in fisticuffs, a la Scott Pilgrim, if he decides to share the news and crack wise). Again, it’s the imagined power dynamic: I don’t want my lover weaponized against me in the great war of all against all that is male status jockeying. That the weapon is a person, that her history has nothing to do with me, and that the war itself is childish and demeaning can be easily forgotten.  When dicks are involved, they will be measured, regardless of the consequences.  

And consequences there are. As I learned with Linda, playing the ruler game long and hard enough (pause) inevitably leads to self-sabotage. It turns out that scrutinizing another’s past and cherry-picking the tawdrier findings to focus on is, in addition to being hellish for all parties involved, a brutally effective way to abort relationships. Though we might couch our questions and concerns in all sorts of tenuous pretext, it’s really about ego preservation. Loving flesh-and-blood human beings is hard and fraught with emotional peril, and if we constantly use the past as an excuse for not doing it—that is, if we consistently discard real people with real lives for falling short of our ideal—then we never have to risk being crushed by the experience. We won't have our conceptions of ourselves as superior beings and superlative catches disturbed.

This is a safe position, sure, and certainly understandable. But ultimately it ends up costing more than it preserves. It robs us of one of the essential ingredients of a full life: the opportunity to grow that comes with putting something—especially our egos—on the line.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not putting on the cape to advocate anything like actively seeking out promiscuous people to couple with, or saying that the past doesn’t matter. On the contrary, I still think knowing something about a significant other's dating and mating history can provide you with indispensable insight into the evolution (or stagnation, or devolution) of that person’s values, perspectives, and ability to be part of a healthy relationship. But getting to that understanding requires emphasizing narrative over quanta—how over just how many—and employing an empathy as difficult to maintain as it is to develop in the first place. And in all my struggles with trying to do those things, I’m only just now starting to understand that, when rummaging around in other people’s closets looking for skeletons, as much as you may discover about them, oftentimes the most illuminating thing you can find is a mirror.