We ran smack into each other at my gym. I couldn’t hide my indignation.
Her jaw slightly dropped as she visibly flinched. We held each other’s gaze longer than you should with a complete stranger. Because we each knew who the other was.
She was the ex-partner of my ex-lover: the mother of his daughter. A woman I’ve never met or spoken to, yet had despised for years.
Suddenly, her expression changed, catching me off guard. Brushing past, I escaped into the locker room.
The entire confrontation couldn’t have been more than seconds, but it replayed in my mind for months. My brain wouldn’t allow me to register the look on her face.
We had encountered each other only once before. I was laughing with pals when she walked by me a little too closely. As my eyes followed her, I met my ex-lover’s stare, who stood by watching.
I was never his partner. I had told him for years I didn’t want to be with him because of their situation. I didn’t resent him having a child, but felt guilty getting involved when their daughter was so young – she was only four when I had met him. I was afraid to be collateral damage after what I assumed would be their eventual reunion.
Her face hadn’t relayed shock. He must’ve told her I was a member, but there was something else. Was it pity? Had he also disclosed that my mother had recently died? Her own mother had passed not even two years before. I closed my eyes and replayed the encounter: her jaw dropped, she flinched, but then she ever so slightly stepped forward, quickly closing and opening her mouth before I turned away. I couldn’t put my finger on what her expression conveyed but something did click.
The years-long, deeply held animosity I felt for her was gone.
“That’s profound progress”, my therapist said.
I had been in therapy for months prior, specifically to get over him, and to figure out this irrational hatred for her, hypothesising both as the source of my depression. Missing him terribly, I was filled with immense regret, which was exasperated by lockdowns.
A relationship with him would mean a constant struggle to contain my resentment over her steadfast presence – resentment sparked from being lectured growing up to never involve myself with a man who had children from a previous relationship. My nana had been engaged to my papa for three months before he confessed he was married with a child. My grandmother’s resentment lingered in her old age.
It wasn’t only inherited resentment that spurred my animosity for his ex.
I didn’t feel negativity toward the women after me. I’ve always wanted him to be happy. But when it came to his daughter’s mother, I was adamantly against their close relationship, maliciously nagging him over their lack of boundaries, cutting him down for it, and especially her, any chance I could.
“Why do you hate her so much?” he would ask. “You’re punching down.”
It infuriated me that he seemed to have an elevated threshold for her while holding me to a higher standard. Still, when he admitted I was justified in highlighting their blurred lines, I couldn’t find it in me to relent, knowing I should appreciate his intent on loving his daughter’s mother.
I once told him I thought we should try a relationship, as I do truly love him.
“It’s not enough”, he replied. “Nothing will change”.
He was right. Aside from not wanting to micromanage their boundaries, it’s hard not to be seen as “just a girlfriend” to a man who’s been married or has a child with another. I didn’t want to be just his girlfriend.
But this hatred was not founded in internalised misogyny. Something was intensely triggered in me the moment I found her on social media; in therapy, I realised she reminded me of my estranged mother. Odd to admit, yet very much true. Through her content, I recognised similarities: the same struggle with motherhood; the change of appearance resulting from losing a sense of self. This was confirmed as he began to confide in me.
Using their situation, I was able to work through my mother wound: healing the deeply buried, lifelong pain and anger I held since a child. After not seeing my mum for nearly 20 years, I found space in my heart to forgive her, relating to her as a woman, before she unexpectedly died – something I would not have been able to achieve if not for the existence of my lover’s ex.
With a grateful heart now open, I discovered empathy for his ex – something my lover had always implored of me.
Had my awareness and maturity come earlier, I could’ve used our mutual love for this man to forge a friendship, reached out to her when she was struggling; in turn, supporting him and putting their child first.
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How much heartache could’ve been spared if I had introduced myself when she was so clearly making her presence known? Risen above to become her sister instead of allowing my animosity to deteriorate my relationship with him to the point of estrangement?
If given the chance to revisit this relationship with him, my lesson learnt would be to start with her.
Recently, while lying awake at night thinking of him, my brain finally allowed me to register the look on her face when we saw each other.
She had wanted to speak to me.