I had a conversation last night with a good friend about how different He and I have approached our relationships after a breakup. He is friends with, and contacts regularly, most of his exes; whereas I don't normally have an ongoing friendship after a breakup. What's interesting is we both thought our own experiences were "abnormal" in the views of society. I have, at times, wished I was able to approach relationships more like him, and vice versa; yet in practice neither of us really do. It made me wonder what we consider normal.
I've often been lauded for my ability to be "all-in" with how I've romanticized my relationships and put so much focus on commitment. I'm a little more sensitive than most. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that I bought into love at an early age, probably brought on by pop culture, movies, and music, resulting in an outlook that puts emphasis on relationships, the story of “us”, and who I am with and without a significant other. My preference, obviously, would always be in a relationship. You could call it my default setting.
Saying that out loud seems very counterintuitive with today’s society. Maybe it’s just my social media feeds, but “kids these days” seem to prefer things to be more casual. Gravitating towards self-love and exploration when it comes to relationships. Millennials are getting married later in life, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and there’s less onus on finding “the one”, as my generation tends to fight against the lessons that Disney originally taught us.
To be clear, I’m A-O-K with all this, in contrary to my tone.
However, I feel like I knew what I wanted at an earlier age, but because of the counterintuitive nature of the millennial generation, it’s as if I was born in the wrong era. I focused on lasting relationships. The significant others I found myself with took up a large portion of my life — and maybe my identity. Whereas I never stopped to notice that my way of thinking was no longer the norm. I was being left behind. My girlfriends, possibly, were going through the same changes as the rest of society, so their emphasis on the relationship were probably far different from my own. At least moreso in recent years.
My refusal to change has left me in some sort of metaphorical dating wasteland. I saw others my own age find their “person” early on, get married, and ascend to the oasis of accomplishment without me. But because I was unable to replicate the same success, earlier in life, the opportunity now seems much more impossible than it ever was. How does one discover their mate in a world that prefers “the self” over “the one”? You don’t.
Instead, you adapt.
I think that’s what my friend did, along with everyone else I know. We all found ourselves in an apocalypse, where adaptation was the only possible solution. I think that’s why he and I struggled with determining what was considered normal. For those of us who remembered the world as it once was, it’s more difficult to accept the world as it has become.
The pendulum has swung the other direction. “OK, boomer*” is a direct representation of how our generation has rejected the ideals of our fathers and mothers. If the boomer generation was about the nuclear family, putting marriage as a “life task” that represented success, then our generation instead went the opposite direction. We collectively saw most of those “successes” end up in divorce. We grew up in broken households. Saw marriages dissolve into resentment and wondered how two people so mismatched could ever end up together. We vowed we wouldn’t be like them. That our identity would become our own before we ever put it in someone else we weren’t even sure we loved. We wouldn’t make the same mistakes — and we wouldn’t screw up future generations because of our hubris. This didn’t just include relationships, but career paths, educational choices, financial decisions, living situations, and politics — clearly — are all the result of our pendulum swinging.
I digress — What does this have to do with our discussion on being friends with exes? Absolutely nothing. Whereas we both went in believing WE were the outliers, in our respective perspectives, on how we approach relationships after a breakup, we didn’t necessarily come out with any new revelations. We were still weird, in contrast to how we viewed the rest of society, but ironically our experiences couldn’t be more different from each other.
Is it possible then that neither of us was the outlier? That we were just. . . different? Or were we just voicing the ongoing struggle that every individual might be dealing with in their own, unique way?
Our world is dealing with some catastrophic changes, and I think our different ways of handling relationships are a result of a world we no longer recognize. Our conversation was born out of that confusion. Yet I still couldn’t tell you what’s normal or healthier.
One of my favorite character archetypes in popular culture is the older, cynical, antihero with a past. They’re typically the mentor or friend to our main protagonist, but often their ideologies are counter to the hero’s own because they’ve “seen things, kid, and life doesn’t always work out that way” or something of the sort. They believe themselves to be wiser, not moved by the childish optimism and uninhibited passion that our main characters normally exhibit; instead opting for a more “realistic”, “logical”, and skeptical outlook on life, based on past experiences.
Of course, as is the case with most of these characters, we tend to find out that this way of doing life is often the result of something deeper. A broken heart, maybe? Only revealed when someone from their past decides to show up in the story. The old flame. The one who got away. The only person that ever truly understood them.
“You haven’t changed one bit,” she’ll say, after proving that she can still get under his skin after all this time. And we, the audience, know that we’re about to witness one of those “will they, won’t they” type of storylines that we hate to love so much.
But we DO love it, don’t we?
It’s no wonder then, after every one of my breakups, I find myself writing a new one of these characters into my screenplay or novel ideas. These jaded, maybe grumpy, very capable and often supportive characters that are really just wishing things had worked out differently. Waiting for that ONE person to come back into their life. Hoping for another chance.
Because I feel like I’m slowly becoming one of them.
Which is probably toxic the more I think about it.
Depending on how the relationship is written. We’ll root for them to get back together at first, yelling at the screens (or pages) for the first couple of seasons (books), “Can’t you see you two are meant for each other?!” Only for them to remember why they didn’t work out in the first place as they fall into old routines, bring up old arguments, and overall push each other’s buttons worse than they ever have before.
Sometimes they’ll have found that they’ve both changed. They’ve grown — significantly — from who they were when things originally ended. Perhaps they’ll discover that they were, in fact, meant for each other, and all it took was time and experience and growth for them to come to that conclusion.
The reason I’m not friends with any of my exes is NOT because of some romanticized notion that we might get back together one day. That would be stupid. Unhealthy. The reason I’m not friends with my exes is because they will always hold that portion of my heart. I chose them for a reason and that reason simply doesn’t go away because things didn’t work out. Because I put SO MUCH into my relationships, my mind simply doesn’t want to erase the significance those people have had on my life.
I know “letting go” is not the same as erasure.
I know “moving on” doesn’t mean forgetting.
But apparently, once a person holds a particular space in the image of my mind, it doesn’t like to remove them from said space. The synapses in my brain still light up the same as the day we first met, and separating that image doesn’t seem to be an option for me. I’ve placed that statue on its pedestal. It’s difficult, therefore, to tear it down.
Friendship is still possible, albeit after a long time apart, but I’ve often found that any ongoing connection isn’t realistic in my own life. If the relationship meant anything, in my way of thinking, then it would be disingenuous to try and be anything else.
Maybe that makes me weird. Perhaps it means I’m going against the grain. If dating really is this apocalyptic wasteland, where relationships are secondary to survival, then I’m clinging to the past while everyone else is adapting. Or I’m the lone idealist holding onto the hope that casual dating doesn’t have to be our only way of life. That our stories are not altogether finished. That believing in commitment is not the same as losing thy sense of self, and that loving someone is not as dangerous as people think.
I’ve taken those risks. I’ve learned some lessons along the way. Kid, things are not always going to go the way you believe. I may be cynical about it now, but I will never regret having loved and lost.
Sometimes those people are never really lost.
*To be completely transparent, I’ve never heard anyone actually say “ok, boomer” and I don’t really know when it started.