“I used to think that life was too short,” I said to my friend Taryn, “but I realized that actually, it’s too long. Life is too long, and too lonely and miserable, not to hang tight to every shred of love we get, in all of its shapes and forms.”
Taryn and I were sitting on the sofa of my living room having one of our philosophical conversations by candlelight, our bellies full of home-delivered Indian food. She gazed at me thoughtfully.
“I agree,” she said.
That night, the topic of our conversation was the grey area concerning our exes. Taryn and I were talking about how we girls—and guys—shouldn’t judge ourselves or each other for hooking up with our exes, or for rekindling some sort of ongoing sexual relationship with them. When we do the latter, are they even still our ex?
I didn’t have my first relationship until I was 20 years old. Prior to that, I watched my friends in their off-and-on-again relationships with something akin to disdain. If it didn’t work the first time, I wondered, why were they trying again? The problems that broke up their relationships were still there. I listened as my girl friends sobbed their hearts out to me, butchering their recent exes on a guillotine of hatred, the kind of hatred that only burns as hot as the love it still is. The boyfriends they broke up with were no longer the sweet, thoughtful guys they imagined marrying; overnight, they turned into mean, insensitive jerks. Feeling pressured to agree with my friends, I would, too young and inexperienced to understand the complexities of erotic couplings. I backed up every vented word that came out of their anger. Their exes were bastards, assholes of the -nth degree. Even if they came crawling back on their knees, they were never to be given a second chance.
When my girl friends guilty admitted that they had gotten back together with the demonized ex, I lost respect for them. After everything they told me about what an awful guy he was, how could I respect them for going back and allowing themselves to be treated in ways they themselves said were unfair, disloyal, and heartless? (I didn’t take into account that my friends were probably exaggerating the worst of their boyfriends’ flaws, simultaneously failing to own up to their own nastiness and shortcomings that had contributed the relationship’s demise as well.) I was still friends with these girls, but I silently judged them. You deserve what’s coming to you, I thought, since you know better now and you chose to get suckered back in again.
Then I fell in love.
My first boyfriend and I were officially together for a year and three months before we broke up the first time. When I hooked up with him two weeks later, shame overwhelmed me. When we got back together, I was as hard on myself as I had been on my girl friends. Now I was the one going back to the man I knew wasn’t right for me. I was the one that swore, “Never again,” with self-righteous indignation and a wounded ego, and I went right back. That ex and I were off and on for years. After every break up, I told my friends it was the last time, but when our real last time finally came, I didn’t even announce it. I felt so embarrassed by how many times he and I had put our friends through the saga of our off-and-on-again relationship that I muscled through my first two weeks of singledom alone.
Since that relationship ended, I’ve had one other “official” boyfriend. Nick and I were together all of two months before we broke up. But we still kept seeing each other. A part of me wanted to hide it from my friends, since I was afraid they’d judge me. Even though we’d all been there time and again by our mid-late 20’s, there was still an air of sheepishness around any ongoing involvement we confessed to having with an ex. I decided our timidity was serving no one, and in fact, was pertetuating the guilt we felt that I didn’t really believe was warranted anyway. I was going to come out of the ex-closet, guilt be damned.
Still, I didn’t know how to describe what my relationship with Nick had become. I didn’t plan on getting back together with him in an “official” sense, but I loved him and continued to be romantically involved with him. I tried explaining it to my friend Jeff. He smiled at my floundering, understanding completely what I meant.
“You’re hangin’ and bangin’,” he said.
His humor diffused all of my analytical anxiety. Was it really was that simple?
Amongst friends, I came to refer to Nick as my companion, or my lover. They knew our history, so the present definition of our relationship didn’t need much explanation. When Nick and I were in public in our unofficial state, at a party for instance, introductions became more awkward.
I tried saying, “This is my friend, Nick.”
Whenever I did, I winced inside. Even though he put on a salutational smile, I know the word stung Nick as much as it stung me to say it. He was so much more than a friend, but to call him my boyfriend might have given him the impression that I wanted to get back together; to call him my ex would be too cold, and eyebrow-raising to the party I introduced him to. So I found it simplest to say, “This is Nick.” A hand squeeze never hurt, either.
Nick and I relaxed into our undefined-ness. We didn’t fit into any socially recognized relationship mold, but we were okay with that. When people we weren’t close to tried to make our relationship their business, but we deflected their nosy inquiries. Between us, we both knew what we were and what we weren’t, and that was all that mattered. I found myself calling what we had an “arrangement.” The term felt more accurate than anything else I tried, and I thought it had a scandalously romantic ring to it. Nick was my lover; nothing more, nothing less.
Earlier this year, it seemed everyone around me was going through a break up at the same time. One by one, my friends and I told each other that our relationships had officially ended, even the ones that weren’t official to begin with. Like a “Sex and the City” episode, we consoled one another, telling each other that we deserved better. (“Deserve better.” What does that even mean?)
My friend Lana and I were sharing a meal of green curry and crab cakes when she made a confession.
“Kyle and I are still hooking up.”
Her tone was apologetic. Her eyes were downcast, then she tilted her head up at me to gauge my reaction. I heard a voice in my head, the reaction Lana expected. It was one of disappointment, of judgment. Where was this voice coming from, I wondered. Then I recognized my ego, and I was humbled. Was I, the pot, really calling the kettle black? Because I was still hooking up with my ex.
I laughed at myself, at the hypocrisy and self-induced guilt I immediately let go of. I discerned that I was only judging Lana because I was judging myself. I told her about my epiphany and she laughed, too, because she realized she did the same thing. But why were we judging ourselves? Why is there a sense of shame, of guilt and admission, around hooking up with an ex, or getting back together entirely? Why do we judge ourselves and each other for continuing to see someone we once loved deeply, and in many cases, still do? (What love is, is another blog entirely. For now, let’s assume we know what love means to each of us.)
Lana and I mulled these questions over, arriving at no solid answers, but giving ourselves the space to self-reflect together. Ultimately, we agreed that we’d both try to have more love and grace for ourselves, and therefore have more love and grace for one another. Who really cares if we’re still hooking up with our exes? We didn’t, but we both felt like we should for some reason.
After my conversation with Lana, I did some further contemplation on this whole ex-stigma. On the night Taryn came over to my house for dinner, I shared with her what I’d been wrestling with.
“Why do you think we judge ourselves, and each other, for continuing to hook up with an ex?” I asked her.
“I think it’s because we sometimes talk so poorly about our exes when we break up,” she said, “that when we rekindle something with them, everyone assumes they’re still the same piece of shit we made them out to be. Then it looks bad on us, and that’s where our guilt comes from. That’s why I try to be very careful about not trashing any of the guys I’ve dated.”
It was true. Taryn never speaks slanderously of her ex-boyfriends. In fact, she covers up their faults with empathy and grace. She’s also the first to own up to her faults.
“Do I trash talk my exes?” I asked her, suddenly feeling remorseful.
She assured me that I didn’t, saying she noticed that I, too, was careful not to speak disrespectfully of the men I once loved (and still do). But I know I probably have.
I think Taryn’s insight hit the nail on the head, taking me back to my 20-year-old, pre-relationship self: our guilt and judgment about staying involved with an ex comes from our demonizing them as soon as we break up with them, which I think we do in effort to convince our hearts to move on. There may be other reasons, too, but I think this is a big one.
When contemplating why we judge ourselves for lingering with an ex, I think it’s also important to consider why go back in the first place, whether it’s to get back together entirely or just keep hooking up. Maybe we’re lonely, or too scared to get back into the dating game. Maybe we’re afraid we won’t find anybody better, that there is no one else out there who will understand, love, and appreciate us as much as the last person did (even if there wasn’t much understanding, love, and appreciation at all). Maybe we keep hoping they’ll change. Maybe our self-worth is lower than we’d care to admit. Maybe the sex is incomparably good. Or maybe, despite the differences and incompatibilities that might have broken us up, we keep going back to our exes because we just love them, and we have the sense that the relationship hasn’t run its full course yet.
Only we know our motives for going back to an ex, and I don’t think any of them are worthy of judgment or shame. If we keep going back because of a motive we decide for ourselves is unhealthy, beating ourselves up for it doesn’t accomplish anything. Feeling guilty does nothing but make us feel miserable about ourselves. If we want to change, I think that change starts with self-acceptance. When we have compassion for our weaknesses, we will have compassion for others’. I think that self-love breeds self-worth, and when self-worth is nurtured, we will outgrow anything that doesn’t benefit who we are. When it takes longer than we expect, we need to have grace for ourselves. We help no one by condemning ourselves and each other.
Together or not isn’t as black and white as I once wanted it to be. As I’ve been talking about the grey with my friends and chewing on it in my own mind, I find I’m mildly astonished to acknowledge that I have, in fact, come to prefer the undefined. I used to be a stickler for clarity, an all or nothing kind of girl. Even when I put my exes aside, I realized that my current worldview on relationships has evolved in ways I wouldn’t have seen coming a few years ago, but also in ways that I find are more in line with who I really am and what I really want at this point in my life.
I quite like the idea of continuing to have “arrangements,” whether with an ex or someone new. Some might chalk it up to a friends with benefits situation, but in my experience, it can be a bit more invested than the casualness that phrase implies. Like my arrangement with Nick. I still see him. He’s somewhere between my fuck buddy and my boyfriend. Sometimes we’re sexually exclusive, sometimes not. Sometimes it feels like we’re broken up, but when we weren’t really together, what does that make us? That’s why I don’t have rules for myself, and I don’t plan on making any, since it will all depend on the guy and what he’s comfortable with, too. Fuck labels. I am embracing the grey. Hell, I’m embracing the rainbow.
A lot of friends ask me why, if a lover and I are exclusive, we don’t just call it a relationship. I always answer that, to me, the word ‘relationship’ implies a commitment, a sense of heading in the direction of marriage or a similar partnership. I don’t see the point of being in a relationship otherwise, as it feels like a waste of everyone’s time and emotions. I know there are a lot of people who find value in exclusive relationships that aren’t necessarily headed toward marriage, but I’m not one of them. I’m comfortable with my “arrangements,” which are headed nowhere but the present. That way, no one is led on; no one is hoping the other will change their mind about a further commitment down the road; and my lover and I are both free to meet other people who might be more suited for our long-term goals and lifestyles, while still being able to enjoy steady companionship and sex.
One could say I’m a commitmentphobe, and it wouldn’t be entirely untrue, but I like to think that I’m just really patient. I imagine I’ll settle down one day, living with a mate and raising (adopted) kids together, but I don’t intend to be in an “official” relationship unless I see true potential for that to happen.
I realize my arrangements are somewhat controversial. But not really. Many of us are in less-than-clear, romantic sorts of relationships. The only thing making them controversial is the guilt we put on ourselves and each other for them. I think it’s high time we celebrated finding companionship and sensuality in all of their forms, because, like I told Taryn, life is too short—and too long—not to bask in every shade of love we find. When we judge ourselves for the grey relationships we have, and when we judge others, we suffocate one of life’s precious, free gifts: connection. So many people go lonely through life. So many of us don’t need to. Those of us who choose the lonely route because we are too proud, stubborn, and fearful to allow ourselves to color outside the lines miss out on a chance to relish happiness, on the chance to make life a little easier, a little sexier, a little kinder.
Let’s silence those judgmental voices in our heads and make more love.