How My Ex-Boyfriends Saved My Marriage

In order to fix her relationship, one woman had to confront her complicated past.

man and woman on a couch
(Image credit: Archives)

In 2004, I WAS IN the middle of what I called my "no book, no baby summer" — rejections from potential literary agents and negative fertility results from my gynecologist were threatening my five-year marriage — when my hunky college boyfriend Brad suddenly called. Not to say, "I'm sorry I lacerated your heart," "I can't forget you," or "Nobody has ever replaced you." No, after a decade of silence, Brad was seeking me out — to get him press for his book.

"It's a business meeting. I'm writing a piece on this science book he's publishing," I told my husband, Aaron, though he didn't seem to care that I was lunching with one of the biggest loves of my life.

Instead of whisking me to Paris for our wedding anniversary, Aaron was leaving for a six-week animation job in Asia with several female colleagues. He was ambivalent about parenthood, didn't offer me a plane ticket beside him, and refused to even discuss doing a project with me. He was stressed out and preoccupied with his work. I pretended I didn't miss spending quality time together, romantic dates, or our dwindling sex life. As a 39-year-old journalist wearing a wedding ring, I felt broke and more lonely and confused than I'd been when I was single. During what was becoming a full-blown midlife crisis, I secretly feared I'd pledged my life to the wrong man.

When Brad showed up, he offered me the attention my husband wasn't giving me, saying I looked exactly the same as I did at 18, and quoting articles of mine he'd looked up and seemed to have memorized. Could Brad have been The One? Interviewing him for a newspaper profile on his sociobiology theories, I wound up asking what really went wrong in our steamy off-and-on relationship. He shocked me by apologizing for screwing around and confessing that he still couldn't commit, which was why he was now dating a 24-year-old student.

At home, seething with envy and rage, I typed: Brad was a biology major. Why did he get a book deal? I used to write his papers for him because he was illiterate. His longest letter to me read: "If I was capable of loving someone, it would be you, but I'm not, so I don't."

Sharing the reminiscence with my writing workshop, the toughest critic proclaimed, "Wow! You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago because this rocks." I sent it to the agent about to give up on me. "Hilarious! Got any other former flames you can fan?" she prodded. I did! I was now thrilled that before I got married, my heart had been slaughtered five times.

"It'll be a love, sex, and marriage memoir called Five Men Who Broke My Heart," I pitched, desperate for a hit. "I'll remeet my top heartbreaks and conduct exit interviews to ask why they dumped me to see if I chose the right groom."

"Now that I could sell," she said.

Excitedly, I tracked down my beaus from high school, college, grad school, and beyond. I didn't want to jump back into bed or rekindle anything, just inquire pointedly the reasons why they'd really left me.

"Stop stalking your exes!" Aaron screamed long-distance from Tokyo. "And you're not allowed to write about me — or our marriage. I forbid it!"

I realize now that researching my lust-littered past could have ruined our future. But at that point I wasn't even sure we had a present. Aaron's commands seemed selfish and sexist. He never consulted me about his work. Instead of being encouraging, he was interfering with the only passion I had. I knew Aaron was a private person who wrote fictional scripts. But he knew that long before Carrie Bradshaw, I'd chronicled my love life in print. Aaron always gave me space when I was on deadline; that was a big reason I'd married him.

Before I tied the knot, my therapist had warned: "Love doesn't make you happy. Make yourself happy. Then you find love." Deciding to follow my (broken) heart backward, I revisited one-time boyfriends I'd seen as selfish and immature, asking for their side.

I dined with Tom, a handsome but aloof California lawyer I'd pushed toward the New York bar. (He admitted he'd found me too rigid and geographically inflexible.) I lectured at a Brooklyn school to "bump into" George, a flirtatious theater teacher. (He'd found me too opinionated and imposing when I'd pushed him toward Broadway.) Richard, the famous biographer I'd fallen for at 24, resented my ambition, especially when I'd approached his agents and editors (reminding me I hadn't wanted to marry him — I'd wanted to be him).

The last heartbreak was my first love, David, now a sardonic dentist in Toronto. When I asked if he'd rehash what happened in high school, David e-mailed his memory of me as demanding, overly dependent, and lacking my own world. Ouch! It was painful to hear but illuminating. Post-therapy, with better perspective, I got it: Although I considered myself an independent, self-sufficient woman, expecting a guy to please and fulfill me had destroyed these affairs. And here I was, repeating that needy, narcissistic pattern with my spouse.

"When in doubt, do your life," a successful friend advised. So I stopped waiting for Aaron to provide me with fun, fame, or a family. Instead, I immersed myself in making my book dream a reality. By the time he returned six weeks later, I had a rough draft. Handing him the early pages to read, I said, "I was never the type of girl who had bride dreams. I always wanted to be an author. You can divorce me, but you can't censor me."

Hours later, he returned from his den, the manuscript tucked under his arm. "OK, I won't."

When the book debuted, Aaron was proud of my Today Show appearance, great reviews, foreign editions, and film deal.

I worried my newfound success might make Aaron feel threatened. His ego survived, but my accomplishments did change our dynamic. I became too busy to chase Aaron, no longer needing him to bring me domestic bliss. When I'd felt empty, I'd hoped being a wife and mother would fill the void. Now, doing what I adored gave me joy and inspiration daily. I signed more publishing deals, fulfilling my maternal instincts with teaching, charity, and mentoring. Ultimately, I've realized I'm better off having books than babies, and Aaron often comes home to find me out at readings and literary soirees. Instead of being passive and playing victim, I started making myself happy. If Aaron wanted affection, he had to chase me, which was so much sexier.

But it's not just that getting my own life brought us closer. I pondered the kaleidoscope of old lovers, and I couldn't help comparing how much of a better fit Aaron is for me. Unlike Brad, Aaron slept only with me. I wouldn't have enjoyed California with Tom or settling in Canada with David; Aaron and I both had New York blood that thrived on hyper East Coast energy. While George had resented my employment suggestions, Aaron took my advice to become a tenured television and film professor, and he loved teaching, a passion we could share together. Like Richard, the biographer, Aaron was older and well-connected. But instead of spending decades chronicling famous people's familiar stories, Aaron wrote idiosyncratic, original scripts that blew me away.

When Aaron was hired as a writer on the staff of a popular one-hour television drama, I feared we'd be too busy for each other. But the mutual support and excitement made us fall madly in love and lust again. Touching base with my previous paramours had taught me how to stop ruining romance. I quit waiting for a man to make my world thrilling and worthwhile — that was my job. Despite my husband's initial resentment, remeeting my old boyfriends saved my career and, more importantly, my marriage.