Last week, I grabbed drinks with an ex-boyfriend. It's been years since we were together, and even when we were, we were so fundamentally different that it was always clear that there would come a time when we'd split. When our relationship ended a few weeks after our first anniversary, we agreed we wanted to remain friends—and actually meant it—which grew into meeting once a year for a drink.
Nate* is one of three serious boyfriends I had before Jonah, but he's the only one I felt compelled to stay in touch with. In the years following our breakup, our annual tradition outlasted so many others—going home for Thanksgiving, watching Gossip Girl on Monday nights, even rituals with subsequent boyfriends. As I was getting ready to meet Nate last week, Jonah asked, genuinely curious, "Why do you think you still grab drinks with him?" And while, to his credit, he's never intimated that I shouldn't go, I wished I had a clear answer to give him. But the truth was: I'd never really asked myself.
In speaking with the women in my life—girlfriends, coworkers, and my mom—I've realized that every single one of them has some version of a Nate in their lives. Even after meeting other partners, getting married, having kids, climbing career ladders, and being truly happy, there's always that boyfriend or crush they never completely stopped thinking about. You know the one: When you see him on social media getting married or having a kid, it literally takes your breath away. In many cases, I know the names of the people my friends once loved as well as I do their current partners' names.
Years ago, when my mom saw her high school boyfriend's name followed by "Jr." in the credits of a movie, she Googled the name and confirmed her suspicion: It was her ex's son. It had been decades since she'd thought about him, but learning he had a family of his own shook her, despite her loving 30-year relationship with my dad, and her own children.
During drinks with Nate, I felt distracted and wondered why I keep meeting him, the same way many of my friends keep tabs on their exes via social media. Is it simply curiosity? Is it because it feels unnatural to go from knowing everything about a person to knowing nothing at all? Is it to prove just how well-adjusted we are without them? (If so, why do we care?) For me, I think the answer has changed over the years, but here's my best guess: The same way seeing friends and celebrities on Instagram can serve as a distorted mirror of our own lives, so can that one ex. They represent an important time in our lives, often one that was a turning point, and seeing them can either make us feel great about our accomplishments since then, or shed light on our own insecurities. They serve as a reference point from which we can measure our own lives, independent of our current relationship status. Since you both began at the same starting line (the split) your accomplishments since then are like mile markers in a race.
For a long time, I needed those markers to understand how I was doing, especially when the direction I was heading in felt unclear. I invited Nate to beers at moments when I was just starting my career, living in a brand-new city, and realizing that my relationship with Jonah was growing into one that would last my entire life. This time, he had invited me, and by the time I finished my beer with him, I had a newfound sense of clarity, as I usually do—except this time it was that I wouldn't be meeting him for drinks again. At some point between this beer and our last, I'd realized that I no longer needed the reference point he provided. My friends—the real kind, who I didn't decide to "stay friends with" after a heartbreaking split—are the only reference I need to know how happy and fortunate I am. Nate was once among the most important people in my life, but he doesn't know me anymore. And, truthfully, the person he is now is someone I barely recognize, as is the value of the reference point he used to represent. But that isn't to say I won't stop short the next time I see his name on a screen.
I'd love to hear—do you still meet up with, or keep tabs on, exes?
*Nate's name has been changed.