Illustration: Olivia Fields
A few months before the pandemic struck, my partner and I decided to play hooky. We went on a date, wandering our town, doing those activities that locals never get a chance to do. First we sat down for an unhurried cup of coffee. Then we strolled through a mostly empty museum, stopping to read the captions and descriptions for the artifacts in each exhibit. We capped the evening with dinner at a restaurant in a newly opened luxury hotel.
Again, there were lots of vacant tables (where was everyone?), so the maître d’hôtel immediately led us through the bar area toward the dining room. After a day of moving slowly and laughing at inside jokes, I was completely relaxed and a bit giddy as I walked ahead of my partner, holding his hand. And then, before my brain could even transmit the information, I felt a chill run up my back and the hairs on my arms stand up.
Sitting a few feet away from me — and getting closer with every step I took — was my ex.
We’d been apart for many years by this point. And we were still great friends. We share two daughters, including a teenager, so we communicate all the time. I’d just spoken to him that very afternoon about summer camp options for our youngest. So why was this different?
Completely letting go of a relationship and watching that person move on to someone else is like watching a child grow up. They change, move on, and need less and less of you.
Well, it was different because my ex was sitting at the bar with a first-date smile on his face. And sitting across from him was a woman with a matching nice-to-meet-you smile on her face.
He was on a date. I wanted to throw up.
Keep in mind: I’m on a date too, with my actual boyfriend, whom I’d been dating for about six months at that point. (We’re now engaged to be married.)
But still, me and this guy sitting at the bar were together for more than a decade. As I approached, I saw his twentysomething self back in the ’90s, when we’d sit across from each other at Manhattan bars like Madame X, where we’d pool our meager spending money for after-work drinks.
It was super weird. And as these thoughts raced through my mind, I realized there were about 10 more steps until we were literally walking by my ex and his date. I had to think fast.
I called out his name. He saw me and looked like he was about to fall out of his chair. I waved, introduced him to my dude, and said hello to his date, all without stopping. Once I finally sat in my chair, across from my partner, I apologized for being so weird.
“Hey,” he said. “I have an ex-wife. If I saw her sitting at a bar with a guy… Well, actually, I’d just be really happy for her. Aren’t you happy for your ex?”
I opened my mouth to say yes. Or no. I wasn’t exactly sure.
When was the first time you realized that your ex had moved on — not just from the relationship, but with someone else? Depending on the factors, whether it was a brief relationship or a years-long marriage, how you feel about seeing them with something else can range from shock, fear, despair, relief, or nothing at all.
Except for that last one: No one feels nothing at all.
In my case, it was mostly the randomness of the bar scene that threw me off. Had he told me he was dating someone and we’d formally met, it would be different. Still tough, though.
Completely letting go of a relationship and watching that person move on to someone else is like watching a child grow up. They change, move on, and need less and less of you. Eventually, they’re completely their own person and don’t need much of you at all.
Because my ex and I are still in touch and cordial, seeing him with someone else was a bit of a jolt. And then I felt silly for being jolted. I mean, I was on a date too! And what did I expect? We’d been apart for years. Was he supposed to remain single forever?
Here are three things I now know (and what you should, too).
- Mind your business. It’s literally none of our business when, how, or why our exes move on. No matter how cool (or not) you two are, don’t ask questions and don’t expect answers. Leave it be. You’ll likely get answers you don’t want to hear anyway. And before you know it, you’ll be asking your ex to make petty comparisons between you and the new guy or gal.
- It’s not about you. This is a tough one. Allowing your ex to move on means you’re allowing yourself to move on. I realized that even though I’m in a whole new relationship, there are parts of me that I need to work on. I still have hang-ups as they pertain to my ex. And that’s completely fine — and exactly why I see my therapist every Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
- All feelings are valid. Are you in love with someone new but still pining for your ex? Are you angry that your ex seems happier without you? All of those icky feelings you don’t want to admit to are valid, simply because you have them. What you do with those feelings are up to you. Not sure how to handle them? Refer to numbers one and two. And then keep it movin’.