A few years back, I was going through a box of old photos and came across some pictures of my college sweetheart. They weren’t photos of us—they were photos of him as a young boy with his mom. We were together for a good while in my early 20s, so I guess at some point a few of his things had gotten mixed up with mine.
Looking at them 15 years later, having a young son of my own now, I saw them differently than I would’ve back then; I saw them through the eyes of a mother. I recognized the look his mom was giving him in the picture of them on an amusement park ride together, his toddler hair blowing in the wind and his mouth gaped open with joy. That look on his mom’s face is one I’m all too familiar with now—it’s the look of a kind of happiness that doesn’t come from your own joy but from witnessing your child’s; the deepest kind of happiness.
I knew as I looked at these pictures of precious moments that they were not mine to keep—that these somehow needed to get back to her. I tried looking her up every which way I knew how with no luck. So, though I felt a little uncomfortable doing so, I thought I would try private messaging him to see what he’d like me to do with the photos. I sent a short but cordial message inquiring about the pictures but did not hear back. That is until yesterday, four years after I sent the message.
He seemed most concerned not with the pictures, but with letting me know that he had somehow missed the message and wouldn’t have intentionally not responded, thanking me for reaching out. He congratulated me on my beautiful family and shared that he had a few kids of his own now. Like my message, it was short but sweet, as it should be. There was an unspoken understanding that we’re both exactly where we should be and that connecting to say a quick hello and “hope all is well” doesn’t have to have any ulterior motives behind it. And it got me to thinking about how strange it is that it should ever be otherwise.
In our female friendships, we spend time and make precious memories together and it’s expected that these times will not only be cherished, but that we’ll be loyal to them forever. Yet, in romantic partnerships, it’s very different. In fact, it’s often considered disrespectful to the new partner to keep any contact with a former one or, in some cases, to acknowledge this person ever existed—even if you spent many years of your life together. Don’t get me wrong, I get it on a respect level and, believe me, I’m not yearning for my husband to be in contact with his former flames. But it is interesting how we can go from loving someone we spent years of our lives with to pretending he never existed. It’s as if we prove the strength of our current relationship by diminishing any that came before.
Despite the strong connection I have with my husband and a happy marriage, I don’t believe for a second those who came before me never cross his mind. My husband and I didn’t meet until we were 29 and 34, so accepting that he not only had loves before me but actually made some really great memories with them doesn’t diminish our own love in any way, it’s just our reality. He’d never admit it for fear of hurting my feelings, but I wouldn’t doubt for a minute that a song’s come on that made him think of her . . . or a certain smell . . . or an old movie we put on that used to be their favorite. And that one or all of those memories might feel special to him still.
And you know what? Even though it’s tough to think about, I’m OK with it. Shutting those memories out or downplaying them doesn’t elevate the strength of our bond. Loving my husband means loving who he is today, and that was undoubtedly shaped by the love, heartache, and lessons learned from women who came before me. There’s a line in one of my favorite songs that says “I don’t care if I’m your first love, but I’d love to be your last.” I think that’s pretty fitting for us.
Yes, the relationship I have with my husband far outshines any I had before him by a long shot. But to downplay the three loves I had before my husband as “the frogs before my prince” is to greatly diminish them and the influence they had on who I am now. They were a part of my training ground for the marriage I have today; they helped me to refine the qualities I was looking for in a partner and to refine myself. At times, they were a mirror showing me things about myself I wasn’t able or willing to see. That’s helped me bring a better self to my marriage, and for that, I’m very thankful.
It’s tempting to want to wrap up all our past failed relationships in a neat little box with a pretty bow and label them as the “Mr. Wrongs” that brought us to our “Mr. Right”, but in reality human relationships just aren’t that simple to reduce down to all good or all bad—whether it’s a relationship that didn’t work out or one we’re still committed to working out daily, love is a complex, beautiful mixture of both the sour and and the sweet.
My high school sweetheart taught me to value sensitivity and creativity. He is the sweet memory of the first flowers I ever received from a boy and handwritten letters in the mailbox over summers because he was grounded but “still wanted to make it work”. He was first car rides with friends at 16 and late-night concerts and other kinds of innocence. But his sensitivity also made him feel life a little too much and that took some of my innocence, and eventually his life.
My college sweetheart was long distance and off-and-on as we muddled through our early twenties, trying to figure out what future life would look like and the unspoken wondering if the other would be in it. He was good laughs and loyalty and integrity but we were a little too much like sister and brother. There was no dramatic ending; he simply looked me in the eye and gently said the hard thing that had needed to be said for some time: “Don’t move here. I love you and you love me but I don’t think we’re in love.” He was right. It felt like sadness and respect and relief all rolled together.
My last love before my husband taught me that I’d taken the loyalty in the previous two for granted—and that it should be highly valued. He was talks and laughs on the front porch over drinks until the sun came up. He grabbed my hand and took me out of my comfort zone again and again. He was passion and adventure and mind games and heartbreak. He opened my eyes and toughened me up.
And my current love? Our love is too rich and layered and complex to simply call my “happy ending”.
We are works in progress who have an appreciation for each other that comes from past loves that didn’t work. He is secure enough in himself and in us that he’s OK with me writing a piece like this, allowing me to be me. We are the deep, rich kind of love born from the bittersweet and complicated . . .
The kisses nearly a decade later that are just as passionate as the first one.
The fights I wasn’t sure we’d come back from.
The glances exchanged when our son does something that makes our hearts burst and I know we’re both thinking, “How’d we get so lucky?”
The strength with which we locked eyes and held hands when I wasn’t sure I’d make it through his birth, and the way he showed up with the same level of strength when the doctor couldn’t find our second son’s heartbeat anymore
Still wanting to do this thing after seeing the worst parts of each other in all their glory.
We may not be each other’s first bittersweet and complicated, but I’d love for this to be our last.