Worrying About Your Lover’s Ex-lovers?

If you are the sort of person who is inclined to worry.

Nowadays young men and women are likely to settle down at a later age than they used to. For that reason it is rare—and probably not particularly desirable—that someone you have become seriously attached to has not previously been attached to someone else. Chances are he, or she, has fallen in love before– probably more than once. Perhaps he, or she, was married. You would like to think that your relationship will be different than all those others. It will be special, you hope, and it will last.

But, unless you are supremely self-confident, the lengthening shadow of all those others will still be visible in many ways: a chance encounter with that person in the street, a mutual acquaintance reminiscing about a previous time when that person was there and you were not, a casual, even careless, remark by your beloved. The right way to react, no doubt, is with aplomb, with a pretended indifference. Smile graciously—if you can.

Of course, someone inclined to cheat has thousands of fresh opportunities, whereas even a very assiduous man or woman is not likely to have more than a handful of ex-lovers. Statistically, it would seem that a more likely rival would be found among these thousands than among those few who have already failed to connect permanently with the man, or woman, in whom you are interested. Still…

I remember: a husband who left his wife of 17 years despite participating in conjoint therapy for the previous six months. By that time he had met another woman. They were planning to get married after his divorce. Just before he left, his wife, who had been very angry over slights that occurred many years before, suddenly seemed forgiving. Abruptly, her husband left the woman he was seeing and returned home. (The couple stayed together at least for the next two years.)

I remember: a young man who had been separated from his girlfriend of a number of years and had been living since then with another woman and her child by a previous marriage. Without warning he returned to his previous girlfriend and remained with her for a number of months—only to leave again and take up again with the other woman. A few months later he went back to the first woman still again. He apologized all around.

I remember: a woman who returned to her ex-husband “because of the children” despite having lived with someone else for a year.

Everyone can recognize the married woman or man who resents his or her spouse’s continuing involvement, for whatever reason, with a previous spouse, although the suspicion of a continuing affair is unusual—because such an affair is unusual. Continuing sexual relations between couples separated by divorce is not unusual, but it rarely continues into the next marriage. Except sometimes.

I remember a woman who slept with her previous husband whenever he current husband treated her disrespectfully. She told me this was a way of getting even with her current spouse, even though he had no knowledge of her infidelity.

Most memorable of all was a man who entered into a surreptitious relationship with a previous wife whom he had not seen for 17 years! By that time he had adult children by another woman.

It seems that the ready familiarity of a former partner is more tempting, or perhaps less threatening, than someone new.

I am not suggesting that anyone should be especially vigilant in order to prevent a loved one relapsing into a prior relationship. In general, I don’t think that being vigilant to prevent an infidelity is worthwhile. Jealousy is unpleasant and unattractive, and the attempt to guard against a lover’s possible infidelity is unrewarding and usually unsuccessful. Also, it is demeaning. And most of the time there is no good reason to be suspicious. Despite the examples I give above, most people are disinclined to betray someone they care about. I think infidelity is not rare, but it is more the exception than the rule.

As far as previous lovers are concerned, chances are the past will remain in the past. What broke up that previous relationship is there still as an obstacle between them; and the break-up itself is likely to have worsened their regard for each other and pushed them still further apart. Still, worrying just a little seems natural to me. (c) Fredric Neuman  Author of “Caring.”