If you date actively in the poly scene for long enough, ex-lovers will accumulate at your feet like drifts of autumn leaves. You’ll date, discover they’re not right for you, probably have a couple of seriously nasty and hurtful arguments before some final stab from hell’s heart causes you to flee the premises.
Now: What do you do with all of these exes?
If the answer is “Ensure that everyone knows what shitty people they are so that no one will ever talk to them again,” congratulations! You may have just helped shatter your community.
Before we continue, let’s set some guidelines: if you broke up because s/he physically abused you or raped you, then that’s something your community deserves to know about, because those sorts of missing stairs go on to rape and abuse other people. I am by no means suggesting that you stay silent on issues of abuse so we can draw the quiet curtain of “Don’t cause drama.”
Yet most breakups involve some level of ugliness. While there are the occasional breakups that are cool-headed, mutual partings – “Why, yes, I believe we are incompatible, let us share a final cup of tea and depart as friends” – most breakups occur because at least one person thinks they’re being reasonable and at least one other person doesn’t.
As such, most relationships involve being aggrieved for weeks, months, before you come to realize that not only are they hurting you, but they believe they’re entirely justified in fucking you over.
So when that final trauma comes smashing down and you realize that this asshole is never going to stop hurting you, some people’s first inclination is to run around ensuring that this nefarious villain will never harm anyone again! And their friends, who’ve bought into this weird idea that “loyalty” means “backing your friends blindly,” will immediately ostracize and trash-talk the ex, and snub them at parties, and do their best to cut this cancer from the community….
Which ensures you’ll never really have a community.
Look, if this was a group of monogamous people, maybe that behavior could at least reach some stable point where everyone was happily dating and no new relationships could come along to form schisms.
But you’re not. You’re a poly group. You’re this incestuous bunch of folks dating each other, and there will never come a point where someone isn’t having a falling-out with someone else.
As such, what I see in a lot of poly communities is this complete inability to actually have a community. What you have instead is this constantly shifting tide of allegiances, where Sharon can’t be in the same room with Candy, and we like Sharon better, so fuck Candy, she’s not welcome at this party, which means that Candy’s friends won’t come either. Yet oh Christ, Bob just broke up with Sharon and who doesn’t like Bob, and…
…next thing you know, you have several warring factions, each constantly regrouping as new breakups bring a fresh wave of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and Jesus the drama never stops.
So my rule is that I’ll be civil to your ex, whenever possible.
I’ll be civil to my ex, whenever possible.
If you consistently can’t stand in the same room as your ex, you’ve probably got some issues.
And again, some caveats: I don’t expect you to be immediately good with being in the same place as your ex. Nor do I think you should watch avidly as they smooch on the couch with that new lover. There needs to be some cool-down time while you readjust to this new reality.
Nor do I expect you to act like everything’s okay. You don’t have to go over and make happy conversation with them. I’m not asking you to be best friends again, I’m asking that you learn to just exist in the same space.
Nor do I expect you to thumb the “mute” button on your issues. Bitching to your friends? Fuck, that’s the reason you *have* friends. Don’t spew toxic hatred to everyone you meet, but if you gotta vent to a buddy, I say vent away. People get down on gossip, but a) you can’t really stop gossip, and b) in some cases it’s an accurate way of determining who’s worth dating. If I’m as cruel as my ex-girlfriends think I am, well, that’s something y’all should take into account when I ask you on a date.
But asking everyone around you to restructure their parties just so you never see evidence of this human waste you used to love? That’s a bit over the top.
And yeah, I hear terrible things about exes. But I also know that breakups are where people are at their worst. If you judged me exclusively by the things I did in the waning weeks in a relationship, I would be a screaming rant-monster.
The truth is, people love hero narratives. It’s a lot easier to say, “Oh, I was so perfect! She was a monster!” And those narratives are neat and clean, because you’ve got a hero (and coincidentally, it’s always you!), and you’ve got a villain, and if you get enough of your friends to agree that this ex is a jerk then you can vote that villain off the island and feel good about it.
There are relationships with clear monsters, no questions. (Let’s harken back to that “rape and physical abuse” thing earlier.) But that’s not most breakups. Most breakups involve some jerky behavior that arises because two people have differing needs.
Most breakups involve both people acting a little jerky. Yet when you’re hip-deep in the Hero Narrative Of Breakups, you dismiss all the petty stuff you pulled as entirely reasonable, and amplify the mistakes of the Evil Ex.
Yet you do not have to make every ex into a villain. Try these magic words: “We had differing needs.” Those differing needs can cause a lot of hurt; if you’re allergic to wheat and I bake you a fresh loaf of bread, that’s gonna drop you straight into the Land O’Gastrointestinal Hell.
But that doesn’t mean that the baker is some criminal mastermind out to destroy the gluten-intolerant. It means that he loves baking, and he dated someone who couldn’t deal with that, and after a lot of anguish they decided this wasn’t going to work out.
It is worthwhile to be able to see a breakup as not the result of targeted cruelty, but rather the friction caused by two differing personalities. It is worthwhile to be able to see your own part in a breakup. It’s worthwhile to see your ex as someone who is simultaneously a decent person and yet someone who will cause you endless misery when you date.
That’s chemistry, baby. Some compounds are just volatile.
And it’s super-worthwhile not to drag everyone you know into taking sides in this battle. You don’t have to rally round the circle, punish your ex with all the ostracization and demonization at your disposal for every slight, haul your friends into this war you have created.
Me? I’m going to be civil to your ex. I may think he’s a jerk for what he did to you. I’m not going to be best friends with him, nor am I going to invite him to parties at my house that consist exclusively of my friends.
Yet if I see him at a club or a convention or at someone else’s party, I won’t be offended by his mere presence. I’m going to say “hello” and make my excuses and move on to someone I do enjoy talking to. Just as I would do with one of *my* exes, if I saw them at these places.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.