For the first time in nearly two decades, I am talking to my ex-girlfriend.
Suzanne (not her real name) is on the other end of the phone and is just as nervous as I am about this first discussion in 18 years. Our apprehension quickly fades, though, as the banter flows casually and unforced. This comforting familiarity comes long after each of us has gotten married to other people and had children, long after things in our relationship went spectacularly wrong, long after I squashed any chance of ever speaking again.
It's easy to talk to her. Her voice is as crisp and confident as I remember.
“I truly am sorry for putting you through all of that pain and all of those things that followed," she says. "It was certainly not my intention and I don’t know if I ever said it before, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I never meant to put you through any of that."
“Even though I agonized over the breakup, Drew, I cared so much. I felt so horrible,” she tells me.
We had dated for two years and I believed we would marry. Then, in the waning days of 2001, she dumped me, saying she didn’t want to be weighed down by a boyfriend while she spread her wings and saw the world.
We never had a throw-a-glass-against-the-wall kind of fight. We never called each other names. We never did anything to achieve any sense of closure.
Months later, she emailed that she was getting married.
The relationship had been so good for so long and the ending so non-confrontational, so polite, that her engagement sent me into a tailspin.
How could she move on so quickly after saying she didn't want a boyfriend?
The question gnawed at me, but I eventually moved on.
Now, well into my 40s, I've gotten to an age where the siren of the past calls me. I know I'm blessed. I've known my wife for 15 years and we’ve been married for 11. I have two children and enjoy a hectic and rewarding life.
But I have wondered what happened.
"Nostalgia's really powerful,” Zach Brittle, a Seattle-based marriage therapist with The Gottman Institute and host of the Marriage Therapy Radio podcast said. “When you are young or younger, when you form meaningful relationships with people it does something to you. It does something to your soul, it does something to your mind, your heart.”
“The desire to want to reconnect, the desire to want to revisit another period, the desire to remember? That’s OK,” Brittle, the author of "Marriage Therapy Journal" told TODAY.
After the breakup
A pall of self-doubt and self-loathing cloaked over me. My opinion of her fell somewhere between robocalls and root canals.
Our relationship had been healthy — she the gregarious yin to my socially awkward yang. We were two 20-somethings from similar backgrounds looking to make our mark on the world. We immediately hit it off, navigating that time of life when you are an adult, but actual responsibilities haven’t yet surfaced and the future was the infinite possibilities we imagined, spread out like stars in the summer sky.
There had been signs of trouble, though. She yearned to get out of what she called a rut.
After Suzanne told me about her engagement, we exchanged a few emails that ended with me telling her how confused I was and that we shouldn’t remain in touch, even though there was so much I longed to say.
“When I was shut out, I was just so crushed,” she tells me now, almost 20 years after that final email. “I’m not kidding when I say you haunted my dreams. I would be having a perfectly normal dream and then you would be there upset with me and angry with me and I’m a terrible person.”
“I hated that you hated me so much,” she adds.
Her new fiancé was related to her sister’s husband and they met around the time of her sister's wedding. I was there, too, a few days before we broke up.
The engagement made me question her honesty. I was humiliated that I witnessed those first sparks, feeling like a footnote in someone else's love story.
To Suzanne, though, the rut had been real. In her eyes, we had been drifting apart and the breakup was not done on a whim. She regretted some mistakes and the split was hard on her, even if it turned out to be the right decision.
“I agonized when I would think of you and the situation, but my life became very amazing in what I was doing and what adventures that I was on. But every time I would think of it, I’d be like, ‘Nooo!’” she says.
Closing the loop
Her fiancé is now her husband of 17 years and father of their three kids. But she, too, has felt the tug of nostalgia.
“I’ve talked to other friends who have never cared or been curious about exes and I always would be,” she says. “I’ve always been curious about you, hoping that you’re doing awesome.”
Any hostility that existed is long gone and we both repeatedly say we enjoy speaking again, even as voices rise because we don't agree about how she handled the breakup.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because there is no longer anything at stake. But, as we wind down, Suzanne chides me for creating the fiction that our relationship meant nothing to her because she moved on so swiftly.
“The time we were together, I always thought of as positive,” she says. “You have made up over the years that I didn’t give a s--- about you and that I hated that whole period of my life."
It’s a tense moment as I explain that I felt like a fool for becoming a supporting character in her story.
“For a long time, I defined our relationship by how it ended,” I tell her. “But now, I look back on it in the context of what was happening in my life at that time and you were such a big part of it.”
The time period means something to her, too. “It defined me,” she says, and it’s here that a wave of appreciation washes over me. For so long, I thought the end meant I never mattered when, in fact, I always did.
Life experience enables us to now look at the past with wonder instead of resentment. I found joy with my wife and stopped missing Suzanne.
What I didn't stop missing was the time of my life she symbolized: the discovery of what I wanted to do, the fun of going after it and the promise of youth that you fully understand only with age.
“There’s something about wanting to feel young again,” Brittle said about talking to people from our past as we get older. “Maybe there is a higher incident of wanting to revisit the younger, fresher, hipper you.”
Suzanne and I know each other so well, yet hardly at all. Time didn't necessarily heal the wound as much as help us realize that we are lucky we got to know each other. While she’s gone on to have a wonderful life and fulfilling career, I'm surprised to hear she thought about contacting me over the years.
The breakup and what followed dogged us in different ways, but led to the lives we each have now.
“We both meant a lot to each other. And I think that is really satisfying,” Suzanne says.
Eventually our call wraps up, neither one of us knowing exactly what happens from here. We throw out the line of getting together sometime with our spouses, neither of whom minds us closing the loop. It's the thing you say that sounds so genuine in the moment, but most likely doesn’t come to fruition.
We say our goodbyes and I walk into my kitchen. My wife and kids are eating and I've missed the beginning of dinner. I sit down because I don’t want to miss the end.