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Ex marks the spot - but relationships are always of value


Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

A friend of mine has a curious habit of reflecting on my past relationships on my behalf. These monologues often conclude with "all that time you wasted...", followed by an emphatic sigh.

It's a mindset I've never understood. It suggests that I backed the wrong horse or made the wrong call. At the very least, it suggests poor judgement. Yet, it's a mindset shared by many. These are the people that consider any relationship that ends a failure. They either entirely erase that period of their life, or they choose to only remember the bad times.

They generally see their ex as the villain and themselves as the victim, and rarely do they consider their role in the breakdown of a relationship.

They can't see the lock and key mechanisms at play - the fact that those with low self-esteem tend to attract cheaters, while those with addiction issues often pair off with co-dependent "rescuers".

A sort of selective amnesia sets in. Instead of taking responsibility, they rewrite their past and fantasise about their future with Prince Charming. Therefore, anyone that came before is instantly deemed a frog - if only not to ruin the fairytale ending.

These types think a lot about endings. Cliched Hallmark card platitudes like "Until the end of time" and "For the rest of my life" mean something to them. They forget that relationships generally don't last and that love isn't associated with longevity. Marriage is - but I don't need to tell you how many of them end in separation.

People evolve - sometimes they devolve - and it doesn't always happen in tandem with a partner. As W Somerset Maugham put it: "We are not the same person this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person."

When you accept that you can't control the life cycle of a relationship, you begin to see past relationships not as failures, but as learning curves. You begin to see past partners not as lovers but as teachers, in the same way that you appreciate all the jobs (even the dead-end ones) that led you to the one you have now.

The relationships we embark upon, like the jobs we take on, generally get better with the passing of time - something to remember next time you're nursing a broken heart.

If you consider every relationship a stepping stone towards something better, then you will begin to imbue the end of a relationship with a sense of possibility, excitement even. It's the end but also the beginning, a fresh opportunity for personal growth. We attract and are attracted to people that reflect how we feel about ourselves. So to remember your exes is to chart your self-development.

When you have the maturity not to consider them persona non grata, you can establish patterns and discover the mistakes you're making over and over.

Or the 'types' you're attracting again and again: men that need to be mothered; women that need to be needed. Liars, cheaters, losers and whatever you're having yourself.

It is through others that we learn about ourselves, and there is no better example than that of an intimate relationship. Romantic partners are button-pushers - they celebrate our strengths and expose our weaknesses.

Ultimately, they lead us towards a healthier and more nourishing relationship - with or without them. They were all 'The One', in their own way.

Author Marianne Williamson writes about this in A Return to Love: "Looking for Mr Right leads to desperation, because there is no Mr Right. There is no Mr Right, because there is no Mr Wrong. There is whoever is in front of us and the perfect lessons to be learned from that person."

If we can come to respect our exes for the life lessons they taught us, we can come to respect our partners' exes too.

Some can't even bear to hear the name of their partner's ex, but have they considered that they fell in love with a little bit of that person too?

We leave relationships with more than just a broken heart and a black sack full of memories. We take with us the lessons that we learnt, along with the character traits we adopted along the way - social mores, turn of phrase, maybe even a few tricks in the bedroom...

Like it or not, you leave a relationship as a slightly different version of yourself, ready for someone else to fall in love with. So what about eternal love, soul mates and twin flames? We are all enchanted by the idea of finding a love that is more celestial than terrestrial.

I've seen this kind of love, and I've observed that it is a gift to those who have found inner serenity and who have entrusted the relationship to something higher than themselves. Those who have this love respect their past relationships. They've never uttered the words "psycho ex-girlfriend" or "mad ex-wife". They don't harbour anger; they aren't bitter about the past.

They know that rewriting or erasing their past is simply a device for not dealing with it. They have forgiven their ex partners, just as they have forgiven themselves. They are all about the journey, not the destination and, crucially, they know that their romantic relationships mirror the relationship they have with themselves.

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