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(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)
(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson's Generation Ex

You can't get away from the exes when you marry the divorced Add to ...

It didn't help that the CN Tower actually looks like a finger with a ring on it.

"And it's often lit up!" cries a 29-year-old woman who found the Toronto landmark to be a constant and painful reminder of her new husband's divorce history. He had proposed to his first wife there. "The tower was like God saying, 'He's been married before!' "

When divorce is as common as a cold, up go the chances that someone has a romantic history more complicated than a crush on a boy in Grade 6. And with that comes the need to figure out how to handle such information. And live with it - should you decide, like CN Tower Girl, to marry the person and find peace with not being First Wife.

"I never met her," she continues of her 34-year-old husband's First Wife, to whom he had been married for seven years.

She knew his character well. They'd been friends before they started dating. But that didn't make acceptance of his previous marriage any easier. "I had to find a rationale for his decision."

And even though he was making her his priority in life, she felt like second fiddle. "It's really wonderful when someone says, 'You're beautiful' and that he loves you and wants to spend the rest of his life with you. But it sucks when you know he's said that to someone else too. For me, when I said it, I said it with 100-per-cent confidence and honesty. This was my first, big, crazy relationship. But for him? I was mad at him for marrying her."

In her book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert describes ex-spouses as "phantoms who dwell in the corners of our new love stories, never entirely vanishing from sight, materializing in our minds whenever they please."

Some people say that just because a marriage ends, the connection between the two participants, however faint, never ends. There are four minds in the bed of a divorced man who marries a divorced woman, states a fourth-century Talmudic script. Talk about group sex.

One couple I know each had one marriage that ended in divorce and one that ended when a spouse died - the latter situation being one in which the absence of the former spouse is even more present. Imagine the psychic participants and spectators in that bedroom. All I can say is, "Pass the popcorn."

In divorce, the tricky part is that a partner's ex exists not just as someone he once loved enough to marry but as someone who also felt about him as you now do. And then, for whatever reason, she didn't love him any more or he didn't love her any more. She knows stuff about him you don't, in other words. She proves that either he couldn't make someone he once loved happy, or she could no longer make him happy.

Exes are physical evidence of your partner's failings, the very thing a hormone haze of heady new love can prevent you from seeing. And don't, while we're on the subject of hormone-induced euphoria, believe the object of your desire when she says that her failed marriage was all her ex's fault and that she was not understood. Marriage is rarely a state in which one person doesn't understand the other. Most often, it's a state in which one person actually comes to understand very well what the other is all about. And that's why they leave.

"For me, the fact that my husband was married and divorced twice before gave me pause," a friend of mine says. Divorced herself, she was in a relationship with her current husband for six years before she decided to commit. She came to see her husband's previous, failed marriages as "stages or rings of growth" which he needed to leave as he evolved in his life and work. "He is constantly growing as a person, and that's what I love about him," she realized.

She began to see that there was a positive aspect to his failed marriages. "The good side is that he's good at commitment." There were also valuable insights into his character if she looked at how he handled his previous divorces. "You see signals for how a person handles conflict. You see if he's fair. If he holds grudges. If he is able to forgive."

For others, an understanding of a person's previous relationship is a way to build a positive future. "You get a better idea of your new partner's values and where things broke down. There are red flags, too, which are important to pay attention to. But you have the opportunity to get closer and, ultimately, you can build a better relationship," says a midlife man who has been married and divorced twice.

Still, there are some investigations into a partner's previous relationships that are unhelpful. "I wanted to know everything," CN Tower Girl confesses a tad sheepishly. "I was grilling him. I had this vision of their romance and marriage as perfect and very Hollywood, and I wanted all the details so I could look for flaws."

Her partner complied, thinking that the more information he gave her, the better she would feel. But soon, they had to avoid restaurants he had told her he and his ex liked or frequented. "He doesn't think about his ex, but I was thinking about him thinking about her. It was more about my issues," she says.

Eventually, she realized that she loved him so much "it was an insult not to trust him." My friend said the same thing about her twice-married-and-divorced husband. "At the end of the day, you have to decide if you love him and if you can build a life together. You have to let go of his past and your own."

Recently, CN Tower Girl went on a date with her husband - to the top of the needle overlooking Toronto's harbour. "He said, 'Let's create memories here of our own.' "

Sarah Hampson's memoir on midlife post-divorce, Happily Ever After Marriage; There's Nothing Like Divorce to Clear the Mind , was published by Knopf in the spring.

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