Life on Marsden: The inexplicably threatening charisma of your partner's ex

They can't possibly have experienced enjoyment before me, could they?

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It's never a good idea to talk about former partners with your current partner. But sometimes you'll find yourself doing so, despite alert tones pinging in your head and "abort" error messages whizzing through your nervous system. 

As you hurriedly insert some disparaging adjectives into your tale, the person on the receiving end will have adopted the classic "ex-chat" expression: a raised eyebrow coupled with feigned nonchalance. But our digestive and nervous systems aren't nonchalant – they swing into fight-or-flight mode as we mentally wrestle with the inexplicable emotional threat from someone who we've never met and who proved themselves to be incompatible with your partner years ago. They've long gone! You're together now.

But we still find ourselves regarding the moment we met our partner as their sexual and emotional year zero. They can't possibly have experienced enjoyment before then – or, if they have, it's a pitiful enjoyment that compares very badly with the enjoyment you're currently having, ie, sitting together on the sofa watching Peter Kay on DVD and eating a lukewarm takeaway.

The inexplicable charisma of the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend can feel bizarrely threatening. (Actually, if you've just been dumped by someone, you can console yourself with that thought. In six months' time your ghostly presence will loom horribly over that person's next relationship like an upset poltergeist with rejection issues.)

Hilariously, the name of my partner's ex-boyfriend is currently plastered on billboards around the UK, and that's proved to be a useful emotional exercise. It's a reminder that no matter how wildly successful, witty, wealthy or well-endowed your partner's exes may be, you will never have to physically stand alongside them in a ludicrous identity parade where your inadequacies are laid bare and your assets compared. It doesn't work that way. It's not about who's best; it's about who's last. And as the final person standing in that parade, you've won. Whey-hey!

But, of course, as the current custodian of that person's love, you're also the most vulnerable. And that's why ex-chat can hurt; it's not even about jealousy – it's just a grim reminder that you're just like all the others. You just happen to have the best timing.

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