It doesn’t feel great to admit, but I used to bitterly dislike anyone my current partner had dated in the past. This boiled down to five reasons. The first four of these were fairly conscious reasons, ones I was aware of. The fifth one, not so much. Here they are:
1. They hurt my partner.
This one’s kind of a no-brainer. If someone hurts my partner, of course I’m not going to look kindly on it. With some exes, there was active mistreatment.
The worst example that comes to mind: I used to date a guy who had an ex-girlfriend who cheated on him with another guy, but instead of coming clean about it, she initially lied and said she was raped. However, when the affair continued and was discovered to still be happening, she confessed to my partner that actually, no, the sex had always been consensual.
This was a double whammy. She’d treated my partner terribly and she had essentially made a false rape accusation, which as a survivor of sexual assault is one of the worst things I can imagine, since such things threaten to undermine the credibility of all women coming forward and make it more difficult for people who have suffered such crimes to be taken seriously. So she’d not only been horrible to someone I loved; she’d also managed to violate one of my core values in the process.
However, other situations were a lot less terrible than that one. There were plenty of scenarios where my partner had been the one dumped after a relationship that had been fine while it was happening, and the only real pain they felt was the one of social rejection. Even in those circumstances though, I would still feel some enmity towards the ex, for breaking my partner’s heart.
2. If the ex had been the one to initiate the breakup, I presumed they thought they were better than me.
In addition, if the ex had been the one to dump my partner, I presumed that the ex thought they were better than me. Because I was the person who was currently dating their “reject.” Not an equal to them in any way, but instead a person only fit to dine upon their leftovers.
In those days, I had a far more simplistic and hierarchical view of relationships — and of people, in general. I really thought that some people were universally more romantically desirable than others. That there was a kind of score that other people could see that determined your global worth. And that people tended to pair up based on this, basically always opting for a person with as high of a “score” as possible.
Now, I also felt like other people could see the score but that I myself was oblivious to it and didn’t have the first idea what mine was. However, my overall feelings of worthlessness during those years made me assume that my personal score was rather low. So my dating strategy was essentially to date anyone who asked me first. Just say yes. And then do whatever I could to make that relationship work. Even if it involved ridiculous and unhealthy sacrifices.
I had a lot to learn about how compatibility actually worked.
But yes, in those days, I took all of this as a sign that my partner’s ex would of course look down on me, and despite the fact that I often looked upon myself with disdain, I didn’t feel great about someone else doing it to me.
3. I worried they’d get back together.
They’d dated once before. Clearly there had been a mutual attraction at one point in time — and something that kept them together. Who’s to say that this flame had actually died down? And if it had, who’s to say that it couldn’t flare up again given the right environment?
I could easily envision it happening, and I could also imagine myself getting kicked to the curb as a result.
In my mind, this possibility placed them as a direct adversary.
4. I worried my partner was comparing me to them and that I was coming up short.
This was huge for me. Just as in #2, this was especially common for me if the ex had dumped my partner and not the other way around (or even a mutual parting).
And it certainly didn’t help that I knew one man (a friend of a boyfriend) who would openly talk about how inferior his current girlfriend (the mother of his children!) was compared to his ex-girlfriend. Sometimes in front of her.
Sure, that guy was a jerk for doing so, but it did make me realize that anyone I dated could be thinking the same thing and just having the tact not to say it aloud.
5. Hating your partner’s exes felt normal to me, just what people did.
Even though these days I’m known as being a polyamorous writer, I wasn’t one of those people who has always known that they were destined for non-monogamy. While I did have some unorthodox arrangements in my youth, I didn’t view myself as being fundamentally different in the way that I conceptualized relationships.
I’d internalized a cultural script about monogamy and romance that was very all or nothing. I’d learned that you had to be someone’s One and Only for a relationship to be valid. And not only did you have to be their One and Only right then, but you also had to come out on top when considering their connections with others throughout their life. To be someone’s One True Love, you had to be the only person your partner ever really loved.
Because of this, acknowledging that my partner’s ex had any good qualities (let alone that my partner ever loved them) seemed like a very dangerous premise. It was safer to diminish and invalidate that former relationship in my own mind — and at my pettiest moments, aloud.
Why These Days I (Mostly) Don’t Hate My Partners’ Exes
I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the past decade or so. Challenging old beliefs. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone. And building up a sense of personal security that’s resilient to setbacks and life changes. One that’s not based on pushing others down so I can feel bigger or better.
I’m not perfect at it by any stretch of the imagination. And at times, it’s been rather ugly work as I was forced to confront aspects of myself I didn’t really like in order to try to progressively become a little less awful to myself and others.
But I’ve come a long way! In general, sure, and also when it specifically comes to not hating my partners’ exes. Which is a good thing. Because I’ve found that automatically hating and shunning exes is a lot more difficult to manage as a polyamorous person. Our social circles are smaller, so I run into exes fairly often (both my own and my partners’). This lived experience is consistent with research that’s found that polyamorous people are less likely than monogamous folks to cut off contact with their exes after a breakup.
That said, I do still struggle sometimes with bitterness towards partners’ exes. The big difference is these days it’s mostly confined to times when I know they’ve hurt my partner (as per #1). And these days, the pain of being broken up with doesn’t meet that standard. I have to know of some active mistreatment.
However, in those cases, when a partner wants to redate someone I know was actively horrible to them the first time they had a relationship, it’s always difficult for me emotionally. Now, I don’t stand in the way or anything. But I do usually end up worrying quietly on the sidelines that my partner’s going to experience a repeat mistreatment. And that’s one instinct I don’t think will ever go away.