If I’m being completely honest, I’m embarrassed by how thirsty I am for information about my boyfriend and his ex. He dated her for almost six years — up until a month before he met me, in fact — and as I fell in love with him, I became jealous of all the history they shared. I was insecure and saw the longevity of their relationship as a threat, a powerful force that could break up things for us at anytime. Thankfully, this jealousy eventually broke down and was replaced with trust.
That, however, didn’t stop me from grilling him about “their song” one night after drinks at Jumbo’s Clown Room. I wasn’t sad he shared this kind of intimacy with someone else; I was grateful he was a better partner because he had done so. If anything, my desire to know this kind of detail was because of how obsessed I was with our own intimacy, enough to want to know about everything that informed his past, especially the good stuff. Plus, I didn’t see the big deal in talking about this kind of thing.
But that changed the moment he told me what the song was — “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’” by The Pharcyde.
It’s one of my favorite songs — as well as one of my favorite bands. The Pharcyde’s music is just so good and so pervasive. Again, if I’m being completely honest, I wanted badly for them to share a shittier song. Totally irrational, I know, but also, not totally a foreign feeling. “For a while, I refused to dive deeper into Bowie and Prince because I know my partner and his ex both really like them,” MEL’s art director Erin Taj tells me. “When I first met him, he was openly nostalgic about what her favorite things are. For example, I know she’s a double scorpio. I know her favorite color is purple. You get the gist.”
“But you learn and you get older and you accept that people aren’t connected to the things they like,” she continues. “Liking a band or a place isn’t an identity unless you make it one. I love Bowie and Prince, and now when I listen to them, I don’t feel her. I feel him.”
It cuts both ways, too. That is, Taj isn’t done listening to the music she shared with her ex either. “My ex and I used to have a shared playlist on Spotify that I copied into a new list and edited down. I mostly avoid bossa nova and certain funk/disco mixes on SoundCloud, but I’m a sentimental sap sometimes, so I still have them archived. The weirdest thing is listening to an old song that I loved and feeling nothing for it anymore. It’s cathartic, but also sad. Like saudade. Great, I’m thinking about them again.”
This is another reason why conversations about exes tend to be avoided: Even among people who are happily split and satisfied in new relationships, the recognition that something they shared so strongly no longer exists can still feel shitty.
Meanwhile, other times, these shared relics from the past just feel outdated. “My girlfriend and I are moving so I was going through my old stuff, and I found this collection of love poems my ex-girlfriend gave me. It also contained some love notes and whatnot that she had written. I didn’t even realize I still had it. I’m tossing it, because she’s long gone, but my current girlfriend decided to flip through it,” MEL staff writer Ian Lecklitner says. “I thought that was a little strange, and I kind of asked her not to, because I don’t think she really needs to see that stuff. It’s not like I didn’t want her to read it, but it wasn’t necessary.”
Lux Alptraum, a sex consultant and writer, says, as a rule, she isn’t “a particularly nostalgic person or really someone who holds onto the past.” And so, for her, these things only have as much importance as you give them. That said: “I’m also not particularly prone to jealousy about experiences my partner shared with an ex. If we go somewhere that they went with an ex, the experience isn’t tainted because of their past experience. I’m not particularly worried about measuring up to an ex or competing with them, because I’m aware that there’s a reason why my partner is with me, rather than their ex. Ultimately, I see my exes — and my partner’s exes — as important parts of our life that helped us become who we are and brought us to the point where we’re choosing to be together. They don’t feel like something that needs to be avoided, anymore than any other past relationship or experience needs to be avoided.”
Not to mention, sometimes those memories are fuzzier and far from the indelible love language you — the curious, sometimes jealous current partner — believe them to be. Or as MEL staff writer Miles Klee tells me, “What’s funny is that my [current] partner has a somewhat unreliable memory — so sometimes she’ll be like, ‘Remember when we saw that weird movie, or made out in such a such place?’ And I’ll be like, ‘No?’ And then she gets a little embarrassed and says, ‘Oh right, that was [ex’s name].’”