When women talk about the current romantic lives of their ex-husbands, it's common to hear refrains along the lines of "I couldn't care less who he's with. What a nightmare, she can have him, good riddance." And they usually add "As long as she's nice to my kids, that's all I care about."
Really? You don't care at all? No twinges of jealousy? You're not curious? What if she's prettier than you? Younger? Wildly successful? Or maybe she's just nicer, a more balanced person, a better fit, someone who can make him happy where you couldn't? None of this stings at all? I don't believe you.
I want my ex-husband to be happy, I do. He deserves to have a life, right? I have one, after all. It's better for the kids to see him settled and partnered than sitting home alone every night, like he did for ages. And we're very much through, over four years divorced at this point. But I can always tell when he's dating someone new with whom he might be serious, because he gets ever so slightly hostile to me for a brief period of time. Almost like an adolescent, it feels as though he needs to push me away in order to connect afresh.
So two or three months ago, I realized that there was a new woman on the scene, and now, for the time being at least, she seems to be a fixture. And she's about my age, pretty enough but not threateningly so, seems to be smart, has a couple of young kids. My children say she's totally nice, and when we scoped her out on Facebook, I was left with a perfectly likeable, if innocuous, impression. All good.
So why do I feel uncomfortable -- slightly bereft, like I've lost my footing -- when her name comes up? Why does my knowledge of her existence give me any pause whatsoever? Do I want Peter anymore? No, definitely not. Do I miss him sexually? No again, even though I liked him sexually. Do I suspect she's getting something I want? No, I know for sure, surer than I know anything, that he can't give me what I want.
Is it about my kids? Am I worried they'll like her more than they like me? No. I think that's a fear that you get over soon after you get divorced. Once you see a few boyfriends and girlfriends come and go on both sides, you realize pretty quickly that what matters to kids are their parents. Unless the new step-figure is a monster, which is obviously disastrous for everyone, these people are rarely going to become figures of monumental importance in your kids' life. Particularly once they are teenagers, which mine are.
But there is something about the kids, something about the idea of Peter and his girlfriend being with my children and hers, acting like a family, that can sting. The physical intimacy, that my kids might see this woman naked, or see her making out with their dad, that feels weird. In those moments I just have to pinch myself and remember what it's like when I'm with my boyfriend Joe's daughter, or my kids are with Joe. Is it threatening? Would anything about it be objectively unacceptable to Peter? No, not remotely. It's just life, everyone trying to fit slightly awkward puzzle pieces together. Never quite right, but not bad.
Another helpful mind-game is for me to visualize being in the shoes of the new girlfriend -- being there on that vacation, at that dinner table, by his side romantically wherever -- and it takes about three seconds of recalling what I know so well for me to think "whew, there but for the grace of God, go I."
Here's what it is, what the jealousy boils down to: this guy was my lover, my husband, my father figure (sorry, it's true), for sixteen years, the bulk of my adult life. Since we split up, he hasn't yet "replaced" me. He had one rebound relationship with a woman I couldn't stand, and then I think lots of adventures with women he'd never bring home to meet the kids. I've still been the only woman, aside from his mother, who really looms large in his life, for better or worse. And now that's changing. So it tugs at the wound. It makes me feel a little more alone; it's a reminder of the loss.
That's the crux of it: even though we've been separated for years, and we've both "moved on," the process of disentangling continues. My complicated feelings about a serious new girlfriend are about me being replaced (as opposed to no one filling that position), someone taking over the emotional slot I long held, about us all taking yet another step apart. It's not about her in particular; she could be anyone. It's about the sadness of divorce, of one family unit ending and morphing into something else.
Which is what it needs to do. This is inevitable, and healthy! And these twinges won't kill me, not by a long shot. But I do hope they go away soon. Hopefully I'll meet the new girlfriend before long. I imagine I'll like her well enough, and in the flesh we'll both realize how human (and thus flawed) we all are. And that will further break down any of the curiosity we both must have, and make it all that much easier to bear.