Opening the Ex-Files

I don’t know whether you were aware of it or not but the 3rd of November marks a very important event in the calendar: it is international ex day. Well at least it was for me this year. I finally made a date to meet up with the partner I was with for the longest (he of the appallingly tough break-up two and a half years ago), and then my very first serious boyfriend got in touch and said that he was in my area and did I want to meet up for coffee? Feeling that there was some kind of crazy purpose to all of this I decided to go with it. I donned my best ‘look what you could have won’ outfit and headed out to spend time with the exes. On the way back from a surprisingly pleasant day I had to ask myself: what are the break-up rules, and is it them that maybe need to be broken up?

If we are to believe my favourite oracle on ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships, Sex and The City, then the rules of break-up are these: The break-up should generally take the form of an explosive argument where you admit all of the things you secretly despise about that other person. The dumper should be wracked with guilt and the dumpee devastated and the object of much sympathy (unless it was their adulterous behaviour that instigated the break-up in which case this is reversed). Afterwards, neither partner should speak to each other for months, years, or – ideally – ever. If you do have the misfortune to bump into the ex (which seems particularly common in New York City for some reason), you should look stunningly attractive and be in a new, perfect relationship in order to ‘win’. At this point you should pretend that you want to stay in touch but never actually do so.

I felt an element of the Carries (as I call them) creeping in to my ex-fest as I spent far too long on my appearance than usual that morning and, as I mentioned at the start, entertained some thoughts of who the winners and losers were in these scenarios. I don’t think I really wanted the exes to regret passing me up, but I was concerned that it was a case of either me having won by moving on to this new bi poly existence or them having won by sticking with more standard monogamous heterosexuality, and I didn’t want it to be the latter.

Ex day reminded me again that life seldom follows these simple either/ors. I decided to take the risk and to be open about the roughs and smooths of the identity-shifts and life-experiments of my last few years. I realised that I didn’t feel anywhere near as defensive as I’d feared, especially because both exes had experienced just as many personal peaks and troughs since we’d last met as I had. Heterosexual monogamy, it seemed, was no shield against the tough stuff of life, and we had all been plunged into uncertainty and despair at times over what we were doing with our lives and whether the risks we were taking (in relationships, in having children, and in the work we were doing) were too dangerous or beyond our abilities to cope with. Plus, I was reminded that unconventional relationship structures are not confined to the kinds of groups I hang out with: both exes mentioned friends who were living or working with ex-partners, in order to care for biological or adopted children together, whilst also managing new relationships.

One of the best things about ex day for me was the prospect of two more exes that I could now count as friends. I have never understood the tendency for ex-partners to delete each other from their lives following a break-up. It is certainly understandable if the relationship has been abusive in some way, and I can also see that a break from contact can be necessary while feelings are very raw and painful. However, in my experience, just because a relationship didn’t work out on a romantic, sexual, or living-together basis, does not mean that I want to completely lose this person with whom I’ve had such a connection, and so many shared experiences.

I have one very dear friend, N, who I feel uncomfortable even describing as an ex. We stopped living together a decade ago, but we’re still very close. The word ‘ex’ consigns our relationship to the past when it is actually very much here and now. N always jokes about my preference for saying that we ‘changed the nature of our relationship’ rather than breaking up, but I think that is a better way of understanding what we did. Sadly, N is in danger of drifting out of my life after all these years of friendship because his new wife finds the idea that he close to his ex unbearably threatening. She, and all their friends, regard our relationship as suspect and abnormal, because it is so unfamiliar to them to stay friends with an ex.

Couldn’t we change the rules of exes and break-ups? Certainly lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are known for maintaining close ex-relationships in a way that is rare amongst most heterosexual people (perhaps partly because the communities are too small for too many acrimonious break-ups). A difficulty with being able to do things differently is that the cultural rules around break-ups are so heavy. Every time I have had problems with a partner in the last few years I’ve felt forced into a corner I don’t want to be in. I try to think and talk about how we might shift our relationship into a form that works better, given the differences we’ve become aware of in what we want and expect. However, I’m aware of a pressure on me, and on the other person, to read such conversations as break-ups. Other people around us have assumed that moving out of shared accommodation, or spending less time together, or deciding not to be sexual any more, equates to having ‘broken-up’, even if other aspects of the relationship (such as emotional closeness) have remained the same. Sometimes this also means they must ‘take sides’ and decide which of us to support and which of us to blame. I’ve equally found myself trying to figure out who is the ‘bad guy’ in the situation, drawing on an unhelpful but common assumption that one person is inevitably at fault when there is a relationship problem. I’ve then either felt guilty or resentful, neither of which has been terribly helpful to the situation.

Some of this comes back to something I’ve talked about in past columns: the distinction in our society between lovers and friends, with the former always being privileged over the latter (as in the phrase ‘we’re just friends’). I’m trying for a life where I have multiple friends at various levels of closeness, some of whom I have sex with and some of whom I don’t. But it still often feels that those I’m sexual with are a different category of thing (a partner or lover) and that altering those relationships is a lot more dangerous than altering my friend relationships (which often vary a great deal over time and geographical location as to how much time we spend together, what kinds of things we do, and even whether we live together or not). Attempts to alter the way I do a sexual relationship have ended in conflict many more time than similar alterations in friend-relationships.

I want to close this column with a metaphor from Martine Batchelor which I think can be usefully applied to relationships. Martine imagines that we have an object in our hand, and our human tendency is often to grasp it tightly. But this means that we can’t see it, and we’re unable to do anything else with our hand. With relationships I think we often grasp very hard through fear of losing this thing that is so precious to us. But sometimes the grasping is in danger of damaging the thing itself. Because we can’t see what we’re holding very well we might start to worry that it isn’t actually something we want after all, and we might decide that the only thing we can do about this is to fling it away from us as hard as we can (break-up). Martine suggests another strategy: we could open our fingers slowly and have the object sit in the palm of our hand. That way we could see it for what it is, we could hold it gently without damaging it, we could decide to put it down or pick it up again if need be. It’s this strategy that I’m now trying hard to use in all of my relationships, of whatever type. I’ll keep you posted…

Feel free to E-mail me with any suggestions, questions or thoughts you have on this topic. I’d love to hear how other people answer the ex-question.