The Ex-Girlfriend Experience
New York's Most Exclusive Club: Breaking up with me
The funny thing about girlfriends is that while you’re usually only ever a girlfriend to one person at a time (heteronormatively), you are always an ex-girlfriend to many, everywhere all at once. And while the term boyfriend or girlfriend feels very so what, the term ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend is always loaded with intrigue and mystery. Introduce someone as your girlfriend and it’s very oh nice to meet you, but introduce someone as your ex-girlfriend, and suddenly it’s who is she? What has she done? Who hurt you?
I’ve been the girlfriend many times, all of which have led me to rack up significant experience points in my career as a serial ex-girlfriend. I’ve learned so much! I’m getting quite good at it. In fact, most of my ex-boyfriends like me so much more as their ex-girlfriend (the feeling is reciprocated).
To date, I am friendly with two exes, civil with one, and truly there’s really only one that if encountered in the wild would elicit hostility. I’ve done the long-term relationship (~5 years), the cohabitating relationship (~4 years), creative partnership relationship, long-distance relationship (~2400 miles), rejected one marriage proposal, been carnally betrayed at least one time (that I know of), and done the on-again-off-again thing (3 seasons). After all of that, the only sound deduction I’ve made is to try my best to choose future partners who are least likely to become problematic exes (and also to never engage in an argument via text).
There is a rather brutal entry point into the Ex-Files. It’s usually never an easy transition, and the acclimation period can be rough, especially if you did not agree to it initially. But there’s no need to rush — I mean, you’re in for it for the long haul, so may as well take your time getting comfy (unless you’re planning to overstay your visa in Girlfriendland, which I don’t necessarily recommend).
I totally get it — being an ex-girlfriend is a lot of responsibility! There are so many things to keep track of: places to avoid, people to avoid, accounts to block, teeth to clench, axes to grind. You always have to look hot in case you run into an ex. Plus, you’re unwittingly serving as some inscrutable benchmark for your ex’s future girlfriends. They are mining all publically available data about you and projecting comparisons onto them at the level of their own insecurities. A lot of people are depending on you. It’s so much invisible labor.
There’s quite a lot of stigma about being an ex-girlfriend, but honestly, once I got over the wobbly parts, it’s actually pretty great! I don’t have chronic insomnia from relationship uncertainty. I don’t get big sad at any moment because I was once again casually reminded that they don’t care about me the way I care about them. I don’t have to field abusive texts from anybody. And most relieving of all, I don’t have to be embarrassed by a man any longer.
That period between boyfriends (BBF), when you’re not feeling salty over anybody, you’re not pining over anyone new, and you’re content in your independence, is perhaps the most clearly you’ll see things. As I find myself settled snugly in there, allow me to report the things I’ve found most helpful in my tenure as a seasoned ex-girlfriend:
There’s no such thing as ‘no strings attached.’
If people really want sex with no strings attached, they should hire a sex worker. If you want a transactional experience, do the transaction! Nobody wants to label things because it makes them Real™ and there’s nothing more annoying than reality. But it’s embarrassing to earnestly insist upon the term “no strings attached’ (or NSA) — it reveals one’s ineptitude for sexual consequences (like Plan B or feelings). Grow up lol. Labels are important — that’s how we tell the sugar from the salt. And in this context, labels allow for defined boundaries. Any intimate dynamic between two people is a string (especially if it can result in spawning a whole-ass person). But also, those “strings” are what make sex Sex™. At least to me, and to most people I’ve talked to about this. The chemistry, connection, and all those delicate quirks and vulnerabilities we exchange in the name of intimacy are some of the most satisfying parts of sex. Sex without intimacy is mostly choreographed friction. Why wouldn’t you want strings? They’re the best part of a symphony.
Everyone Always Tells On Themselves (Eventually)
Generally speaking, if it sounds like a country song, it’s probably onto something. The ‘getting to know you’ period is when everyone is their most unreliable narrator. You simply don’t have enough comparison data within enough contexts to get an accurate picture of who a person is in those early horny days. But it helps to know your own weaknesses. As someone who swoons for some well-calibrated self-deprecation, I’ve often been charmed by a warning. People love telling on themselves. They simply cannot help it! If you’re not properly listening, intercepted by your own projected ideals onto them, that’s on you. It might take 3 weeks, 3 months, or 3 years, but everyone always tells on themselves. It’s in everyone’s best interest to believe them.
Connections > Attachments
How many times have I carried on too long with some negligent bozo who did not care whether I lived or died because wE hAd SuCh A cOnNeCtIoN? I mean, I get it. That feeling is the horniest form of optimism, hence its addictive qualities. But it is not self-sustaining. So many times I’ve had a connection with someone only to discover that while they may share the same feelings as me :) they’re just not in the space to care for that connection :(
Attachments form when you hang onto degraded connections. They’re like the connections’ tethered. You’re more worried about what you’ve got to lose than what you’ve got to nurture. They are the Fyre Fest of playing yourself.
It’s rarely personal.
When I was 23 or 24, a man broke up with me one afternoon by listing out every deficient trait and perceived flaw of mine, as I sat calmly on his living room sofa, thinking This better be so funny one day. That day came a year or 3 later when I was listening to some episode of RadioLab about break-ups and the guest described his breakup using the same exact verbiage and terminology that that fucker said to me in his Warby Parker-ass Williamsburg 1BR. At first, I was incensed. And then I was relieved. Because it meant that he plagiarized our breakup and none of those things were about me! I’ll see you in court!! 😎
Many people will not choose you the way you want to be chosen, and that’s not because you’re deficient or anything like that. Many times it’s because that person is looking for something else that has nothing to do with you, they don’t know what they want, they have a lot of other stuff going on (mentally) (emotionally), they are insecure, they have anxiety, they are a prick (see above). It’s any host of reasons that were there before you and will remain there with you and possibly even after you, and there is nothing you can do about it because it’s not yours to do anything about. I mean, it’s disappointing, sure. Romantic love is inherently triggering. But when you can wipe the emotional residue from your hurt, you learn a lot about why that pain is so important to you, and then hopefully can let it go (or enact revenge, up to you).
You’re always teaching people how to treat you based on what you’re willing to tolerate.
There are lots of folks who are all too pleased to cash in on your energy. The currency of partnership dynamics is all energy exchanges to some degree, innit. People pleasing and being too chill to speak up for your needs is ominous behavior. Do not invest in your own grief by setting a precedent for it. It breeds resentment and resentment is a fast track to not having a good time. Good times only!
People can only give you what they’re willing to give.
My favorite therapist was one of my college counselors. She had the ideal balance of maternal nurturing and dry, humorous logic that was a soothing balm for my upset psyche. I saw her once a week for my last semester of senior year because I was heartbroken for the very first time and not doing well at all. I was all, if he wanted to, he would. And she countered very patiently with a wise and entirely simple anecdote that still rolls around in my brain to this day: It doesn’t matter what you think they’re capable of, how they’ve treated people in the past, or what you think you deserve — People can only give you what they are willing to give. It’s something I’ve only learned properly after giving people only what I’m willing to give, despite them wanting more from me as well. She also had the gentlest Hindi accent, and now whenever I hear one I am instantly soothed.
For too long, I would love people the way I want to be loved and then get disappointed when they didn’t reciprocate (I was also probably not great at communicating those wants). This is why people are into love languages, I suppose. But I am suspicious of anyone who seeks comfort in the simplification of love dynamics into five categories, or however many there are. You can’t make assumptions about human behavior based on your own beliefs about love. Love is chaotically undefinable; it yearns to be held and yet also cannot be contained. But it is also a self-renewing resource and I think that’s pretty neat.
Love and relationships are not the same things.
Love is not meant to be reserved only for romantic relationships, and if that’s the only place you’re spreading it, you’re missing out. It’s like sriracha — that shit’s good on everything. Love is the only type of nonsense that’s universally endorsed. Acting up? Bad at work? Not texting back? Missed your estimated income tax payment deadline? Oh, you’re in love — that’s a pass. It is a solid anchor for all this otherwise existential uncertainty that could easily be a big bummer, were it not for those little crushes peppering our days, or the group chats providing round-the-clock emotional sustenance. (Romance dupe!)
Our views on romance are kind of intense — hence why we construct these elaborate vessels called relationships to contain them. You can love people and also not pursue a relationship with them. You can have a crush and just not fuck with it. Sometimes that’s even for the best, especially when it’s someone who simply isn’t available in the ways you need. Loving someone doesn’t entitle you to any kind of relationship with them. But mostly, loving someone just because they’re amazing and adorable is such a wonderful feeling! Maybe the most freeing feeling (for me) is to love a person and not feel compelled to possess any part of them. And what a relief because honestly, the best part of falling in love is how the world expands before you in ways you probably haven’t met before (drugs dupe).
“There is no democracy in love, only mercy.”
This is a Gillian Rose quote about love dynamics that I think about a normal and healthy amount. Fairness in relationships has a limit — usually at the threshold of what the relationship can bear. You can be right, or you can be happy, right? Compromise is a constant ebb and flow, and also (ideally) it teaches you how to appreciate generosity. What’s fair can’t always satisfy everyone’s needs or wants. Sacrifice is often overused where grace would suffice. Sometimes that’s fine until it’s not fine. Mercy is always on the table, even for yourself.
Your partner doesn’t have to be your best friend (and they probably shouldn’t be).
I think a lot about how overall well-being and happiness is greatly determined by the quality of your relationships. It’s not the number of friends or social connections, but the depth of those connections. They require nurturing and patient commitment, two things not very well tolerated in the culture we’ve created for ourselves. As someone who loves spending time alone, this is something I have to remind myself to attend to. One person can’t be your whole community, regardless of ‘til death doing you part. It’s bad math. Usually, I worry that many more things will end a relationship before death does. So far, they have.
You can just break up!
The last person who broke up with me (official) did so by coming over to my apartment one evening, taking my hands in his, and saying point-blank to my stupid little face, “My feelings have changed and I don’t want to be in a relationship anymore.” When someone tells you in the most definitive way that they are 📢Dumping You📢 there are absolutely no further questions. You never forget those words! The only thing I could think of to say was, “OK, I guess, but this is gonna be really sad, you know that?” Gotta respect a firm boundary.
Not enough people know how to break up properly (myself included). A lot of grief could be avoided if they did. Or if they did it a lot earlier. Sometimes I think our resistance to ending romantic relationships is directly related to our fear of growth. It has a way of making you feel so small and agoraphobic in all that extra space. And that’s not to say that relationships aren’t worth working on and cherishing and all that — just that sometimes that work becomes a sunk cost fallacy. Well, no longer! Chronically fretting over the whole what are we and the where is this going of it all? Call it off! You don’t even have to be dating to break up with someone. You can do it whenever you want just for the rush! In my experience, it doesn’t have to be official for you to break it off with someone. Often, it still feels the same anyway.
I think what makes me most nervy about love is that I know that it is not enough to keep anyone around, a relationship intact, or even for satisfaction to be sustained, which is why I’m constantly trying to expand it beyond the confines of romantic dynamics. It’s a self-preservation thing in a way. Grief is so annoying to deal with, made even more isolating by our lack of cultural protocol for it (which is why community is important!). I’ve left people, rueful and ashamed of the pain I’ve caused them. I’ve been left many more times, horrified at the futility of my love, as I frantically recollected my humility like the candy conveyor belt bit in I Love Lucy.
These days, I’m finding that the easiest way to teach people how to love you is by demonstrating how you love yourself. Take it from a seasoned ex-girlfriend: I, myself, have maxed out on self-love, the levels of which are too formidable for most applicants. At this point, anything short of profound admiration, care, and respect just doesn’t send me any longer. I am in no rush to be taken for granted. But even when I slip into yet another existential episode, I remind myself that love offers profound meaning to mortality (another thing we tend to take for granted). It’s a reliable switch felt in the dark. And its chaos and wonder are always a humbling zoom-out for any limiting beliefs I may have had about what I matter or what’s it all about — I’m simply a recycled spirit, housed in an electrified skeleton manually driving a meat suit running on bacteria and hormones. It’s my favorite feature at the mortality theme park. The rides are unlimited, even if the duration of your visit isn’t.