What Happens When Your Ex Becomes a Stranger

“He was everything. For three years, he was what I knew best – and now I couldn’t even tell you what city he was in.” With a pang of sadness, and another ache of loss, that thought crossed my mind several months ago, immediately followed by the harsh reality that this was not the first time I’d felt this way. 

The first time an ex became a stranger, I didn’t realize it was happening – that it had already happened – until it was too late. I had held on for so long, certain our outcome would eventually change. Years ticked by, and suddenly he was just that: a stranger. All of the details of what his love felt like, what it looked like, were gone. This time around I felt determined – obligated even – to retain the memories, to stash those intimate details deep where they wouldn’t get lost. I couldn’t just let my brain overwrite three years of data. The brain and the heart have a curious way of helping you to mend, though. No matter what memories and details you try to hide deep and lock beneath layers of birthdays and holidays, first times and other big events, your body cleanses and recovers from the hurt and promptly deletes whatever it can. Your brain reclaims that space for new love. 

In any relationship, there is a gradual process of getting to know each other: the goals and aspirations, the bad habits, the quirks and pet peeves and all of the infinitesimal nuances that create intimacy between two people. The making of a stranger is much less gradual. A while after we broke, all at once, all of that vanished. Sure, I can remember the big things like the fact that he lived and died for Chicago Bears football and hated scallops after a particularly bad bout of food poisoning. But what was the first thing he did when he woke up in the morning, or the last thing he did before bed? I couldn’t recall. The routines of my former partner, the routines that had shaped and balanced my own practices, were simply lost. How had I adapted since the split? And how had I been so unaware of it? I had grown into the spaces he had once occupied without hesitation or much effort at all. 

Nearly a year apart has dissolved anything remaining. There’s the bittersweet realization that I don’t know what his current favorite song is, what his current apartment is like or what his go-to weekend T-shirt is anymore. He is a stranger. I used to know him, but I don’t know him now. Not anymore. Bits and pieces of the hurt still linger. Unexpected things will still draw up the insecurities and rejection from that most recent spell of heartbreak and set off a downward spiral, albeit a short lived one. As their frequency and intensity wane, I cherish those spirals to remind me of why I had to leave him behind and why he has to be a stranger again.

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