Charlie, (Christopher Abbott) remained steadfastly in love with his ex, Marnie, (Allison Williams) in the series Girls despite dating a handful of lovely women. Photo: HBO
I suppose that in the vast expanse of human experience, falling in love with somebody who is still in love with somebody else is statistically common. Not unique. But like any and all tropes of the romantic inclination, knowing that it’s happened to other people doesn’t really make it hurt any less when it happens to you. It’s like someone quoting the ever increasing divorce rate at a person who is just about to file for one, as though they should have known better in the first place. Nobody wants to be a statistic.
Maybe to begin with you didn’t even recognise the landscape. Too caught up in meeting somebody wonderful, you trip through the new-relationship milestones of meeting friends and family, learning their history, the way they sleep, what makes them laugh. It might take weeks or even months before you realise something askew in the way their friends, their family, their history skirts carefully around one issue, one person, in particular.
Or maybe they let you know the very first time you meet ‘I guess I’m still not totally over him’.
It’s a small enough sentence to dismiss when you really want to. Again your selfish, foolhardy heart chooses what it wants to hear and what it doesn’t and your ego is all like ‘Pft whatever, that guy. You just hadn’t met me yet!’
I’m not talking about the full-blown, broken hearted, mournful and pining situation. People at that point aren’t going to be falling in love with anyone new and are really easy to pick - they’re the ones who break off a kiss because their tears are getting in your mouth. It’s the ones who spend 90% of the time fully present in being your mutual crush but 10% of the time dancing with ghosts. It’s when everything else is on track, when your person-of-interest is falling at the same rate you are, when it isn’t a brick and a feather racing each-other from a tall building. It seems impossible they could have any room left for anyone else. What the hell is ‘Somebody that I used to know’ doing in the soundtrack to your shiny new relationship! That’s not supposed to be how this works!
Again with the statistics and rules. We're all so obsessed with avoiding pain that we use numbers to make rules everybody is supposed to love by. Relationship maths ‘It takes half the time you were with someone to get over them, you were together three years and it’s been 17 months – in one month you’ll be over him!’ your friends sagely intone, ‘You were together five years and you’ve only been broken up for one so you are definitely not ready to meet someone else yet'. The absurdity of this idea that we can use numbers to divine people’s feelings is almost touching in how humanly misguided it is. Just like assuming that because you’re in love with someone and they’re in love with you, that they aren’t also kinda still in love with someone who came before you.
I’ll save you time on Wiki-how and tell you a few things I know. Yes, you can love two people at once. Yes, it can take certain people years to dissolve the watermark left by someone else– even after honestly and genuinely falling in love with a new person. Yes, it totally sucks.
When you finally work out this is the situation you’re in, ugh, it’s the worst. It’s like realising you caught the wrong train an hour after you got on then, like, getting punched. In the heart.
Whether they tell you or it just becomes evident over time, it can invade every aspect of your relationship. Every time your partner mentions she likes a song or a movie or poached eggs you’ll think ‘Because poached eggs reminds you of him? Did he like poached eggs? I HATE POACHED EGGS.’
You want to talk about it with them, you want to ask what was so great about this other person, you want a Powerpoint presentation and graphs and numbers, goddamn it! This, perhaps unsurprisingly, rarely goes well. They probably don’t much like being in this situation either and will say things like ‘It’s not a big deal, he was just such a big part of my life…’ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t love her like I love you. It’s just…’ There will be a lot of crazy-making trailing off of sentences your brain can fill with worst case scenarios ‘It’s just…that she had much bigger boobs. I really miss them’.
You can’t compete with the past because the past isn’t real. Time smooths away sharp edges; nostalgia coats memory’s lens with a cheap Vaseline. Every fight, every annoying habit, every night they went to sleep with their stomach tight from hating their ex falls away, one by one, like broken teeth.
So what do you do? It isn’t like grabbing their face with both hands and yelling ‘Stop it! Stop loving someone else! Just love me!’ will work. I know because I already tried that.
Your options are like a twisted ‘Choose your own adventure’ book. The tide of your partner’s affection for their past will eventually go out, if you’re around or not. The one break-up bon mot that is definitely true is that it takes time to heal a broken heart. Stupid maths aside, it takes everybody a different amount of time depending on what needs to be sorted out and worked through and the only thing that really affects the process is how much a person chooses to dwell on things. Whether you stay with them while they do this or not has got to be up to how much it infringes on what you have together. If you’re fighting about it constantly, if it feels really present in your relationship or if they are being shady and you’re compulsively looking at their ex’s Facebook then I would say you need to put your grown up pants on and end things.
Try and keep your focus on you and on the present and above all really listen to what your person is telling you – if they’re worth their salt then them saying ‘It’s no big deal’ probably actually means the size of the deal is not that big. Listen to them and believe them. I hear that 50% of people in this situation live happily ever after.