My ex grew her hair long for the new guy

I begged her to grow her hair long when we were together, but she kept it short. Why has she grown it out now?

By Cary Tennis

Published June 19, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My first wife and I married in our early 20s; she was pregnant with our child when we married. We stayed married for some time, but she broke up with me when our child was a preteen. When we were married, she wore her hair very short, even though I wanted her to grow it long. She also used to bite her nails, a habit that annoyed me.

Since then, I have remarried and had more children; I have been married to my second wife for over 10 years. My younger children and their now-adult sibling are very fond of each other. My first wife remarried recently, maybe two years ago.

Lately, I've seen my first wife a few times, just in passing. She now has long hair, which looks very nice. In the past, she claimed that she couldn't get her hair past an "awkward stage." She also has very nice nails; it seems she was able to quit biting them.

I don't understand why she decided to let her hair (and nails) grow after she and I broke up. I really wanted her to have long hair, but she never took my request seriously. If she still had short hair I would assume that's just her style and not think about it. Should I ask her why she wouldn't grow her hair long when we were together?


Dear Wondering,

There is a story here about regret, about the way things could have been. All that time you were with her, you asked her for something and she refused. You thought, if only she would grow her hair, maybe things would be different. If only she would stop biting her nails, maybe things would be different. She didn't seem to hear you or would not give you that thing you wanted; finally you gave up, you moved on, the thing ended, and now you see her, and she's got a new man, and she's finally done those things you always wished she would do and you feel regret for a past you could have had.

I, too, am curious why she finally grew her hair. But it's tricky.

Before you ask her anything, ask yourself something: What do I really want from her?

I note that you do not propose asking her why she decided to grow her hair long, but why she wouldn't grow it long before. Think about the difference. If you phrase it that way, it may sound like you are bringing up old grievances. Another way to put it would be to compliment her on her hair and ask her if there is any particular thing that made her finally decide to grow it long. Did her hairdresser, for instance, suggest it?

Do you see the difference? Asking her why she never would grow her hair long when you were together takes you back to the past; asking her about her hair today places you in the present. Here you are, now, today, she with her hair long and her nails unbitten and you with your new wife and your new kids.

And you really do need to know what you want from her. Otherwise, nothing she says in reply will satisfy you. She cannot answer your real question if she does not know what it is. Maybe you want to ask her, Why didn't you give me what I wanted when we were together? Or, What does he have that I don't have? Or maybe your question is not even a question but a statement, like, Seeing you now, I feel this awful regret that we couldn't get things right before. Or, Seeing you now, I see the confident, sensual, relaxed person I'd always hoped you would become.

So take some time with this and look at all sides. It's a beautiful, poetic and moving vignette, the kind of thing we might make into a short story. Whole worlds are contained in her hair.

What else do you feel in this regard? Do you have a nagging suspicion that some other man has accomplished what you could not? Among us men, that can be an unpleasant thing to admit, as it is envy, and envy is unpleasant.

But it is worth looking at briefly, because it points to a larger truth: Sometimes we fail to see our partner as she really is, because we view her as some sort of project we are trying to perfect; when she does not satisfy us, we draw up schematics and devise makeover plans. And to the extent that we are successful in carrying out our plans, we measure the success of the relationship by our own success in persuasion, our own acquisition of power within the relationship. That is essentially a narcissistic enterprise. To the extent that we succeed, we grow farther from a relationship with the other and closer to a hermetic relationship with our own projection.

So remember: It's not as if some other man came along and got her to do the things you had always wanted her to do and to give him what she would never give you. The truth of it is that she made a decision. She changed. She did this. She did this on her own. It is her life. You were a part of it but she has moved on, and so have you.

I am happy for both of you. You came out of a difficult situation OK. Your kids are doing OK. You've both moved on. Of course there are lingering doubts and memories. I sense a kind of melancholy, a tendency to wonder why it couldn't have been different, and her hair and her nails represent those earlier hopes you had.

But this is how it is today. She's grown her hair long and stopped biting her nails. Congratulate her. Be glad for her. Admire her long, beautiful hair.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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