Have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend, and felt like their ex cast a shadow over your relationship? It can feel like you’re living with a ghost. Even if they don’t want to get back together, the ex can still feel like an unbeatable rival.
I’ve got two stories about this.
The first was with Balthazar. When I met him, two years had already passed since he last saw his ex-girlfriend, Polly.
However, from early on, I knew he wasn’t quite over her.
They were together for 8 years, and they bought a house together. When they were going through a difficult time, in the last year of their relationship, she moved out, to give them both space.
They would meet up for lunch. He gradually saw her less frequently. The last few times, he thought she had put on weight. His birthday came and went, and she didn’t see him. He stopped being able to ignore the fact something was badly wrong.
After being in denial for months, he finally wanted to find out the truth. He went to the address Polly had given him, but he found two old man playing on a PlayStation. She didn’t live there.
He went to Polly’s mother’s house. She gently told him Polly was living with another man, and had been for some time. She thought he knew.
Everything suddenly fell into place. “She’s pregnant, isn’t she?” He said.
When Polly’s mum nodded, he folded into two.
He told me he spent two weeks lying on the sofa, and ate nothing but a packet of mini cheddars.
When I met him, they still jointly owned the house he lived in, so they were occasionally in touch about the mortgage, but they hadn’t seen each other for years.
In some ways, the house felt like a museum to Polly. She moved out gradually, and had not completed the process, so her abandoned things were still everywhere.
She liked animal print, and lots of things in the house were animal print – the broom, the sofa, blankets. There were still notepads with her handwriting at the start.
I never doubted for a moment that he loved me, but for a long time, her ghost haunted our relationship. Even though 2 years had gone by, I think he didn’t need to do the last bit of getting over her until he got into his next relationship, and had to love and trust someone again (me).
I knew he didn’t want to get back with her, and he didn’t even want to see her again, but it seemed like he felt something for her which he didn’t feel for me.
I was so jealous of her. I was a more jealous person when I was younger. I thought about her all the time. I was angry that she hurt him and I was angry she still had this hold on him, even if it wasn’t anything positive, or anything to feel threatened by.
I did things that were out of character. One day I punched the leopard print sofa. I was frustrated because we were trying to move it to paint the wall behind it. I broke my hand and had 6 weeks off work.
One evening we were playing hide and seek and I came across a photo and that had gone down the back of something. I asked Balthazar who it was. When he said it was Polly, I instinctively tore it in half.
I remember one night, during this time, I had a dream about meeting her. I didn’t really know what she looked like – I had only seen a couple of photos (they were together in the years before Facebook) which weren’t very clear. So, in my dream, her appearance kept changing. There was some reason we had to meet, and we got on well. It felt like such a relief to let go of all the jealousy, I felt disappointed when I woke up. The dream stayed with me.
Things gradually got better. I think over time, he finished getting over her and whatever I had picked up on at the start, it wore off.
When I moved into that house and redecorated, it definitely helped. In the end, I think I was right – he did feel something for her that he didn’t feel for me, but that was hurt and pain. He also felt something for me which he didn’t feel for her – massive love.
Years later, when I broke up with him, it became clear that if there was ever a contest, I won. He might’ve been broken by their breakup, but he told me ours was worse.
One of the last times I saw him, he said “this is what people mean when they talk about heartbreak – it’s this.”
He also said our breakup had made him feel alive. He said “it’s like God’s shaking me awake, and he’s tapping his watch.”
Neither of us knew how little time God would give him.
I met Polly at his funeral.
She came up to me outside the church, introduced herself and gave me a hug. She said what I said about him during the service was perfect.
She was everything I had expected. I never expected to meet her.
The day after he had died, I had spent ages trying to find a way of getting in touch with her. She still jointly owned his house with him, and I had no idea if she knew her house had burnt down.
It turned out she did know – her Mum had seen it on the local news. We had already exchanged a few Facebook messages by the day of his funeral.
At first I had wondered if I’d find something in her that I couldn’t find in anyone else. I thought maybe she’d be a kindred spirit, a friend.
Balthazar was so different from his family, but he was more similar to her, and to me. She had once loved him the same way that I did.
We were in touch a lot over the next few weeks. She owned the house, and a lot of my things were still there, albeit fire-damaged, so we were in touch about that.
Then she really upset me during one of these conversations – she put him down a lot when she talked about him. I know she was pretty aggrieved he had stopped paying his life insurance.
She wasn’t really like me, or him, after all. I started to keep my distance.
Then, a few weeks later, she managed to get onto the lower floor of the house. Until then, the living room and kitchen had been impossible to access, because the stairs down there had been completely destroyed by the fire.
My fish tank was in the living room. The police had told me there was no way my fish would have survived.
But then, out of blue, I got a message from Polly asking if I knew anything about a fish she’d found, that looked like an eel, about the size of a Twix.
Oh my god! My loach!
It was a miracle. Somehow my fish had survived.
I got him for my 17th birthday, so even before the fire, it was impressive he was still alive, as he was 11 years old.
I can’t believe he survived the fire. The water in the tank must have been close to boiling. The fire made it so hot in the living room, that even two floors up, CDs that were touching the walls had melted. Some things in the fish tank cracked because of the heat.
Then, he had survived about 6 weeks of not being fed, because no one knew he was alive and no one could get to the living room.
She got him out of the house in a leaky watering can, and looked after him for a few days, until I was able to set up a new fish tank and go and collect him.
It was really weird going to her house. I had a cup of tea with her and her boyfriend, who she left Balthazar for, and her little boy, who she had been pregnant with the last times Balthazar saw her.
I’m so grateful to her for reuniting me with my fish, and I do feel like I have a special connection with her, in some ways.
Now our relationship mainly consists of occasionally liking each other’s Facebook statuses. I never thought we’d get here.
(That fish is still going strong! He’s 17 now. He’s a weather loach, and they usually live 7-10 years. He’s a special fish. When another fish is sick, he always lies next to them on the gravel. I like to think Balthazar looked after him.)
My other ex story is about my ex-boyfriend, Rob. We went out when I was 17-22. We were each other’s first serious relationship.
After me, he went out with a girl called Olivia. I liked the sound of Olivia.
She looked a lot like me. So much so, that when one of our mutual friends saw photos of Rob and Olivia, they thought for a moment that Rob and I were back together.
Rob and I stayed friends, but hardly saw each other as we lived in different cities.
I saw him at one of our friend’s weddings, when he had been with Olivia for about 2 years, and I was with Balthazar.
I remember asking him how Olivia was, when we were milling around at the reception, while photos of the bride and groom were being taken. I had got drunk quickly, having had too much champagne and Pimms on an empty stomach.
He told me Olivia had just finished her degree at uni. He said “she nearly didn’t finish uni, as she’s had a really tough year.”
“Oh no, what happened?” I asked.
“Her best friend committed suicide.”
“Oh fuck!” I said. Tears sprang into my eyes, partly just through imagining how awful that must be, and partly because I was a bit drunk. “I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He said.
“Oh no, I’m just a bit pissed!” I said, wiping my tears away.
We talked a bit more and it turned out Olivia did Psychology at uni, like me. I said I’d be happy to give her advice about careers in Psychology.
They went out for about 4-5 years I think.
Then, they broke up. A few months later, her Dad committed suicide. Although they weren’t together anymore, she called Rob when she was at the hospital with her Dad and family.
Rob was close to her family, and her father’s death had a big impact on him.
This happened around the same time Balthazar died. Rob and I kind of bonded over our experiences of unexpected, horrible bereavements.
I found that Rob understood how I was feeling, in a way that most people couldn’t.
One day, we were talking about bereavement, and Olivia and me.
“I was thinking – would it be weird if I sent her a Facebook message? I just feel so sorry for her. Some people weirdly contacted me on Facebook, like Balthazar’s friends from earlier in his life, and it meant such a lot to me. I just think death can cut through all the usual social convention bullshit and allow you to say stuff that matters. Obviously, what she’s been though is totally different, worse probably, but she could talk to me, if it would help to talk to someone who kind of who gets it?”
He said actually, Olivia had said exactly the same thing about contacting me.
“OK then, maybe I will.” I said.
He had a funny look on his face.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s just… Olivia and I had so many conversations about you… I just never imagined you’d end talking to each other like this!”
I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but I suddenly realised that I’d very much been the Polly in their relationship – the ghostly rival from the past.
I did write a few drafts of messages to her, but I could never find the right words. I assume she didn’t manage to find the right words either.
Rob is married to someone else now. He doesn’t talk to me anymore, which is a shame, but in our last phone conversation, a few years ago, we spoke about Olivia’s dad and Balthazar.
Rob had just met his future-wife when he suddenly cut off contact with me. I suspect those two things are related. Maybe she had a zero-tolerance policy on ghosts.
There are two things I’ve learnt from my experiences with Polly and Olivia.
When absolutely awful, tragic things happen, an unexpected, moving side effect can be the way it unites you together with people you’d never expect.
Also, you have a lot more in common with your rivals than what separates you. Exes that seem like perfect, unattainable, intimidating figures are just vulnerable, flawed girls with loads in common with you.
If I end up in this situation again – in a relationship with a man with a ghost – if the exorcism fails, I’ll try the next best option – making friends with the ghost.