The Ones Who Get Away | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 28, 2022 News » Cover Story

The Ones Who Get Away 

How Utahns hook up, break up, reconnect and find ways to get over their dreaded 'ex.'

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Once a year, Dustin Gregory celebrates the anniversary of breaking up with his "toxic" ex. He calls it Liberation Day, an event he commemorates with balloons and treats.

Gregory admits his ex was gorgeous, "little and stunning with a cool personality." He first glimpsed his future love in junior high, where she drew much attention. Later, they would date for roughly a year and a half "before the cracks showed, and I discovered she was 'cuteness weaponized,'" he recalls.

Gregory claims his ex constantly kept him in a state of wanting to be with her. Yet, she also punished him when he couldn't spend enough money or time to do the things she wanted. As a result, they had several minor breakups before a big one that "really hurt."

"We burned out quick—that's when she told me she was already seeing someone else," he said. "It was one more big fight for control."

He researched the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM—the textbook used by health-care professionals as the authoritative guide to diagnosing mental health. And what he saw looked familiar.

"It showed a wheel of how a narcissist chooses different control methods—it was like [my ex] was checking off every box," he said.

For example, Gregory says his ex once called the police to tell them that he was suicidal. "They came to my work to pull me aside and talk to me," he said. "She did that to embarrass me and get me in trouble at work."

Another time, she insisted that a car salesman had been inappropriately hitting on her. "Her claims weren't accurate—she only wanted to make sure she got a deal on a car," Gregory said. "She constantly wanted me to defend her. But I was her boyfriend, not her attorney."

But despite all the conflict, Gregory still feels attached—as exes often feel when recalling better days. That chemistry hasn't completely gone away. "It's only been tainted by a considerable portion," Gregory said.

His ex tried all kinds of things to keep the relationship going—everything from contacting Gregory's other ex-girlfriends and his parents to friending his mutual Facebook friends so she could spy on him. He intentionally counters his lingering attachment with his annual Liberation Day, which includes "remembering all the bad qualities I am free of." He feels he couldn't survive another relationship with her. "I'm now liberated from a bear trap," Gregory said.

Like Gregory, many ex-partners must find a way to manage their mixed emotions of grief, distress and (often) relief. People are forced to rebuild who they are and separate from their partner. This adjustment is hard work.

Intermittent Exes, Part I
Lindsay's secret relationship was counter to everything her parents taught her. A practicing Latter-day Saint, she did everything that was expected of her—except for finding a husband.

Lindsay graduated from LDS seminary, served a mission in Australia and worked in the LDS temple every Tuesday. She graduated from college and owned her own business. Yet, despite her accomplishments, she asked herself, "Why am I not happy? What needs to shift?"

As time ticked by, people kept telling Lindsay she should already be married. "I was 23 years old. I had never partied or had a relationship," she recalls. So when Josh (both names in this story have been changed) walked into her graduate-level class at the U of U, something about him put her on high alert. "If I sense that someone is going to change my life, I push against it and get sassy," she says. While she's since controlled that impulse, back then, she and Josh initially butted heads while working together as leaders on a big project.

But then, Lindsay decided "to be the bigger person—to be kinder," she said. "He softened a lot when I did that."

One night, Lindsay saw Josh walking alone across one of the school parking lots. Lindsay felt compelled to approach him, "this man who I knew lived a different lifestyle."

At first, Lindsay said, "he was very coy and reserved about everything. But then we started talking. We went from hating each other to connecting in a universe-shaking conversation."

They were like two souls who knew each other deeply in another life. Lindsay learned that Josh had left the LDS Church as a teenager. She perceived some bitterness toward his former faith but, Lindsay recalls, "it was an interesting dynamic—him who left the church, and me who stayed on the 'right' path but still needed to see a different lifestyle to determine how I wanted to live my life."

Over time, Lindsay said, she and Josh created a "situationship." "Half the time," she said, "we called it friends with benefits."

click to enlarge Loni Harmon says informal relationships can lead to leftover feelings. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Loni Harmon says informal relationships can lead to leftover feelings.

Loni Harmon is a licensed clinical social worker in Utah with more than 10 years of experience helping singles create secure and lasting love. She is known, professionally, as The Dating Counselor.

Harmon explains that it's widespread and common for people like Lindsay and Josh to create "situationships." The word defines a relationship that isn't precisely a committed, traditionally romantic relationship but is ongoing and unique to a person's circumstances. "It could be two co-workers, or a couple who are in the same place during a summer holiday, or any other convenient connection because of the situation that you are in," Harmon said.

Before she became The Dating Counselor, Harmon herself experienced a situationship that ended as they often do—with leftover feelings. "I did not want to be friends with him," Harmon recalls. "He married a casual friend of mine. I unfriended her, but she kept popping back up."

Harmon later chose to browse her friend's profile and remembers seeing the photos of her quasi ex.

"I was so angry, so mad," Harmon said. "I felt all the unsaid things. All the things I wanted to say came back. I'm not mad that he is happy. But you get flooded emotionally with that fact."

Situational Relationships
In a situationship, Harmon explains, a person can lack the credibility or formality of being able to call someone their "ex." And yet, the feelings can easily be as strong as any traditional relationship.

"A relationship today often isn't about needing someone to put a roof over your head and help provide food," Harmon said. "It's more often about companionship, building a life together. It's a pattern you develop with the person you are interested in and how you do life together."

Looking at an ex's social media can provide a dopamine hit, Harmon said—similar to the way an addict craves another fix. Through sites like Facebook, says Harmon, a person can look in on people they maybe shouldn't be in touch with.

"It's effortless to click a button and send a message," Harmon said. "You don't have to think it through and ask yourself if this is a good idea. You don't have to tell your mom you are thinking about calling your ex, and she doesn't have the chance to say, 'You better not.'"

However, continuing to love an ex is also normal and OK. "It just means that you are processing the emotions that come with being in a relationship," says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a psychologist and media adviser for Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

Psychology Today conducted research showing that 40% to 50% of people have reunited with an ex to start a new relationship. And "lingering feelings" manifested a lot during the pandemic, when around 1 in 5 people reportedly reached out to an ex while in quarantine, according to new research conducted by the Kinsey Institute. Moreover, nearly half of those who contacted a former partner reported reaching out to multiple exes.

When asked about their motivations, participants in the Kinsey research said they just wanted to check on their former partners, wrote Justin Lehmiller, the study's lead author. "Specifically," he said, "they usually wanted to ensure that their ex was safe and healthy, or to see how they were coping emotionally."

But a smaller number admitted they were testing the waters for a potential hookup or wanted to see if their ex was dating someone new.

"There's a general curiosity about where they are now," said Harmon. "They give them a 'like' every now and then as a way of keeping tabs. They don't want to date them, but they don't want them to date anyone else, either."

She said that some people craft their social media in ways designed to make an ex jealous. "They could be ambiguous in posts, saying 'here's me with a guy,'" Harmon explained. "Those words will generate curiosity. They say, 'See? I'm with someone else,' when the guy in the photo could be a cousin or gay best friend. But it still makes it look like you are with somebody."

Harmon adds that rather than completely breaking up, couples often will "take a break," using time apart to decide if they want to get back together. For example, she has counseled a couple who were good friends before they started dating. "They had a couple of rocky first years," Harmon said. "Breaking up every six months is hard and upsetting."

When reconnecting after a break, Harmon said, couples might ask themselves what they are going to do differently, or what they and their partner are bringing to the table that's new.

Real Romance
Celebrity jewelry designer and Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Meredith Marks can relate to the experience of breaking up with the same person multiple times. She initially saw a few hitches in the arrangements for her first date with husband Seth Marks.

click to enlarge Married for more than two decades, Seth and Meredith Marks’ first date was  a Chicago Bulls game. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Married for more than two decades, Seth and Meredith Marks’ first date was a Chicago Bulls game.

When Marks was 23, a friend who was planning to set her up with Seth told her that she was also interested in him. "Wait—you have a boyfriend," Meredith remembers telling her. And by the time they got around to having that first date, Seth was already seeing someone else.

Meredith said she was initially invited to meet Seth for drinks after he attended a Chicago Bulls game with his friends. She declined.

"Then, I guess he woke up," she said. "He called me and asked if [my friends and I] would like to go to the Bulls game. So we did, and we had a great first date."

Seth told Meredith he was seeing someone else but added, "I would rather date you." She responded that he should figure it out and get back to her.

"He was very respectful," she said. "He didn't even try to kiss me on the cheek until he broke up with the other girl. I saw he was loyal by how he treated this other woman."

She also discovered that Seth Marks was intelligent, kind, quirky and very funny. "He likes to make people laugh," she said. "Sometimes, his jokes aren't in the best of taste, but I think humor is a major positive."

They kept dating, were engaged a year later and celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary on Aug. 31. The couple has a residence in her native Chicago, and they travel to Park City—where her jewelry store is located on Main Street—for roughly four months out of the year.

Meredith said she and her husband have separated on multiple occasions—and were recently on the verge of divorce—and that she missed him while they were apart.

"Fortunately for us, we were able to work through our differences and come back stronger than ever," she said. "We had a lot of stuff we needed to resolve individually."

click to enlarge “Learning how to communicate is everying in a relationship,” says Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Meredith Marks. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • “Learning how to communicate is everying in a relationship,” says Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Meredith Marks.

Marks said she and her husband completed a lot of couples therapy, and she recommends that couples get a really good marriage counselor.

"Learning how to communicate is everything in a relationship," she said.

At the end of the day, says Marks, most people share some of the fault for why a relationship starts to deteriorate. "There is always going to be mutual responsibility—relationships don't break down single-handedly," she said. But also, she says, "Sometimes you need that time apart to realize you have respect and mutual understanding and still want to be together."

Their latest separation occurred during the first season of filming Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Marks said the couple had already experienced ups and downs by then, with underlying issues built over years but also had communication tools to help deal with those challenges. She noted that with their three children now adults and out of the house, it's all the more critical for their relationship to be healthy in and of itself.

"By now, it's do or die for us," she said.

Intermittent Exes, Part II
Josh and Lindsay continued to relate on many levels while developing their situationship. "I knew him in a lot of ways better than he knew himself," she recalled.

Josh began dating another girl they both worked with and, at times, there was a love triangle. "The dynamic shifted, and it got messy," she said. "There were many ends and starts, yet there was always this connection that we shared throughout the years. We would get sucked back into each other."

Lindsay and Josh's relationship began and ended intermittently from when she was 23 to age 30. Today, she is 34, a single homeowner, a business owner, a favorite auntie and wanderlust aficionado.

Looking back, she feels that God led her to an unconventional relationship with Josh that was utterly different from what she would have imagined for herself. She asks, "God, are you serious? Why would you lead me to this man and this relationship, allow this exploration and still stay with me and love me as a woman?" Today, she says the relationship taught her immense lessons and "so much of what I am today, I attribute to it."

But how did she navigate his not being a member of the LDS Church? "I just got the feeling I should go ahead."

Dating these days is like preparing to go to war, says Harmon. "If you go to war without a strategy for how to get out of the war, there will still be a war—and you will be completely unprotected." She is one of several local experts who offers a dating course to give people the tools to find a safe person to date.

Harmon said it's gratifying to see her students' transformations and growth as they move from something like "I don't have anything to offer, and men suck" to feeling empowered and in control. But, she concludes, "I want you to be your authentic self and show you how to change how you date so you can get the results you deserve."

Harmon suggested that people set boundaries after breaking up. She said dating shows like The Bachelor boosted a trend of post-breakup conversations, but she encouraged waiting at least six weeks to let the dust settle before any attempt to get back together and debrief.

"Don't try to be friends. Don't follow each other on social media," Harmon said. "Create new routines. Surround yourself with people who think you are awesome."

She also recommended that married couples who break up make their divorces final rather than lingering in legal ambiguity. If there are reasons why it can't be finalized, resolve those reasons, she said.

Harmon said it's common for the newly singled to present themselves as available because they have been separated—for years even—but their divorce isn't final. She cautions that dating such a person can lead to harsh realities when it becomes clear why exactly the marriage remains intact.

"[It's] for many reasons," Harmon said, "and you are walking into a mess."

Refurbished Relationships
While Harmon doesn't recommend seeking out a relationship with an ex as the optimum route to finding love, City Weekly discovered many instances where exes maintain harmonious—if not unusual—ties with each other after their romantic relationships ended.

After separating three years ago, state Sen. Derek Kitchen and his former partner of 11 years, Moudi Sbeity, continue to maintain a cordial and professional relationship. "We started two businesses together, and we have continued to operate them for several years," Kitchen said. "We can do that well, and we have close family ties to each other."

Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen maintans a professional - relationship and close friendship with his former partner. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen maintans a professional relationship and close friendship with his former partner.

Kitchen added that while their relative harmony can't be fully explained by their same-sex relationship, he did credit his and Sbeity's willingness and experience bucking expectations and trends. Before they were married, they successfully challenged the state's prohibition on marriage equality in court and when they decided to end their relationship, Kitchen said, "we were able to embark on a different format."

Kitchen and Sbeity initially met online when both men were in college. Today, Kitchen said the two see each other as something like cousins, brothers or loving friends. "We don't talk daily, but we will meet for dinner to catch up on life," he said.

What advice does Kitchen give to former partners who wish to maintain a social connection? "Be forgiving of yourself and your partner," he said. "Just be gentle—we all make mistakes and grow and change. ... Leaving the door open for each of us to evolve should come with a certain amount of grace for each of us to be our own person."

Kerry Clift Spencer agrees. The author of I Spoke to You With Silence said she knew her husband was gay long before he knew that she was also LGBTQ. Anxious about whether or not to come out, she remembers asking a friend, "What are we supposed to do with this? What does our marriage even mean?"

click to enlarge Kerry Clift Spencer, left, in 2000, posing for a wedding photo with her now ex-husband. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Kerry Clift Spencer, left, in 2000, posing for a wedding photo with her now ex-husband.

Her friend suggested that Spencer's situation was a positive, as each would be in a position to help the other. The remark caught her off guard but also swayed her thinking.

"We could do whatever we wanted," Spencer said. "It was so freeing."

Today, Spencer says she should have been able to choose to date women when she was younger, just as her former spouse should have been free to choose male dates. And after marrying in 2000, the Spencers gradually redefined their relationship as time passed.

"There's this idea that a successful marriage does not end," she said. "Steve and I had a great marriage, and it ended."

The pair are now close, longtime friends. "It still feels like we are first-degree relatives—but not married," she said. They officially marked their separation when he moved into their basement apartment. And after their divorce, her girlfriend Heather moved into the Spencers' home with them. Then, the two women married.

Today, Kerry and Heather's bedroom is upstairs, while Steve lives in a mother-in-law apartment. Their two teenage children hang out wherever they want.

click to enlarge “There’s this idea that a successful marriage does not end,” says Kerry Clift Spencer. “Steve and I had a great marriage, and it ended.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • “There’s this idea that a successful marriage does not end,” says Kerry Clift Spencer. “Steve and I had a great marriage, and it ended.”

Steve and his boyfriend just celebrated their first anniversary. And Kerry says Steve may move out sometime in the future. "We've always shared the goal of raising the kids," she said.

Spencer said it's nice for her two kids to have three parents, as well as multiple adult incomes contributing to household expenses. She says their relationship experience is something they've all gone through together—and maybe the reality that both she and Steve were gay simplified things.

"Every family needs to have two moms," she says.

Jessica Frew's podcast, "Husband in Law," often features guests and listeners whose lives didn't turn out as expected. And Frew's life embodies that description.

Days before their wedding, Frew's future ex-husband told her he was struggling with pornography. Six months later, a flood of pornographic pictures popped up when she logged onto their computer—all the photos depicted men.

When Frew confronted him with the possibility that he might be gay, "He was in denial," she recalls. Her husband told Frew that he chose male pornography because he didn't want to disrespect women.

Later, he confessed that their verbal exchange was the first time the former LDS missionary and active LDS husband had thought about what he considered the worst possible scenario—that he could be gay. When he ultimately came out to Jessica, they were also undergoing fertility testing. "Our hopes didn't change," she said. "We decided we still wanted a baby."

Jessica Frew (center) co-hosts a  podcast with her current and former husbands. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Jessica Frew (center) co-hosts a podcast with her current and former husbands.

Their daughter, Penny, was born five years into their marriage. They divorced a week after their seventh wedding anniversary.

Walking away from the life that he thought was the right path was challenging to the point that Frew's ex-husband became suicidal. "I slept with my phone on, and he would call me at 2 or 3 in the morning," Frew said. "I would talk him down and say, 'We need you. We love you. Please go home and go to bed.'"

While driving together to visit family in December 2011, they set out plans and hopes for their future. "We talked about what we wanted for Penny and hopes for what our future partners would be like," she said. "I wanted him to find a spouse who was loving and accepting of him."

Frew said her ex-husband is not just her daughter's father, he's also one of her best friends and something like a brother. While not the future they originally planned, their daughter has two loving parents who care deeply about each other.

Frew remarried, and together with her ex-husband created the "Husband in Law" podcast, which shares stories of love, marriage, children, divorce, religion, remarriage and co-parenting. The episodes are meant to help people going through challenging situations to not feel alone.

"I can't help but think how much something like this would have helped me when we got divorced," Frew said. "Sometimes your life doesn't go how you think it should, and it helps if someone gives you ways to think about it differently."

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About The Author

Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.

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