No One Wants to Be the Bitter Ex… But Sometimes We All Are

teal bowl and saucer filled with lemons

Photo by liz west / CC BY

A fifth reason came to me as to Why So Few Polyamorists Write in Great Detail (aside from through anonymous or near-anonymous outlets, as PolyLogGal so astutely pointed out in her comments on yesterday’s post). I also thought this might be a good opportunity to talk a bit about my mistakes and times where I’ve been the villain in someone else’s story, something I also mentioned in yesterday’s post that I’d like to do. Normally, friends and lovers don’t let me actually do this aloud. They will stop me, interrupt me, argue with what I’m saying, and tell me to stop being self-deprecating. But on ye old blog, we will surely give it a go! (I do love you guys though and get where you’re coming from – I’d probably interrupt me, too.)

The most treacherous ground it would seem, by far, in poly circles writing-wise is discussing contentious breakups.

Breakups happen a lot in poly circles – if there’s more love, more relationships, more connections, more beginnings, it naturally follows there are more breakups. This was the world’s biggest surprise to me, that more love could (and often does) equal more breakups. Working from a monogamous model and being kind of an idiot about relationships despite having had quite a few of them, I thought that poly meant never having to break up. I had really internalized the idea that people were broken up with because they were replaced with an upgrade, and while this can happen in mono and non-mono contexts both (although game changer relationships can look like this, especially one where a new partner opens your eyes to how you should be treated and possibly even exposes mistreatment by other partners, even if that was absolutely no one’s intent going in), aside from being a really unkind way to treat people, it is really a ridiculously flawed and incomplete list of reasons why people can and should break up. And 2011 happened, my poly web burned, and I went through a domino chain of 4 breakups in a matter of 3 months (one of them involving legal separation and divorce from my first husband), and I realized that my former (implicit) model was very wrong indeed.

So as a poly person, you may very well end up with a pile of exes. And because poly communities can be so interconnected, you may very well see and interact with your exes a lot in the future. Even if this is not the case, and you and the ex work out some sort of mutual avoidance system (note: I generally don’t mind seeing or talking to my exes, although there are a few I don’t talk to because of concerns from trusted friends about the potential emotional and psychological safety of those interactions as well as a couple who really don’t want to talk to me – still I don’t dread running into them in passing, it has happened, and it was fine), it’s very likely that you’ll interact with people who know them and are friendly with them – potentially even dating them.

Reputation is key in poly and kink circles. Let’s say you leave a relationship with a pile of (probably justified) grievances and mistakes everyone made, and you want to process publicly or semi-publicly about it. Lots of people don’t. They don’t want to be the “bitter ex.” I was actually discussing the frustration of this with a friend whose partner of many years broke up with her in a way that deeply troubled her. Trouble was, this partner was well liked and considered expert by many in the realm of all things poly, and so she felt as she wouldn’t be believed and everyone would chalk it up to “bitter ex nonsense.” And I get that. She had the doubly obnoxious situation where people came to her asking for character references on the ex because they were interested in him themselves, and she didn’t know quite what to say. I’m glad she didn’t ask my advice on how to handle it because I honestly have no fucking clue what to tell someone else in that situation (I’d be doing mental calculations particular to my circumstances to be honest but not badmouth, and MAN can THAT be a tightrope walk).

I have many days where I’m amazed I haven’t become a leper in my own poly community because of how openly critical I have been of some exes’ behaviors. I commonly hear poly folks advise, “You can learn a lot about how a person talks about their exes. That could be you someday.”

It’s a wonder, given this, that anyone ever dates me.

Now I have plenty of folks I’ve been with that I’m not with currently where we’ve drifted or the timing was wrong or the match was a bit off or we wanted different things or a million other things where we’re friendly, and it would be a delight to see them (you know how it goes, over the years, people move away to different cities, and everyone you’ve known from the “old days” has relocated somewhere else). I’m not a big proponent of scorched earth breakups, the block, the shun, etc. I’ve done it only a few times – the aforementioned scenario where trusted friends were like “we are concerned for your safety here” and briefly during my divorce. There were a few reasons for this: The most pressing was that my ex-father-in-law was quite litigious and moneyed, and I wanted radio silence on both sides so that my ex-husband couldn’t use anything against me in the court stuff. Nothing happened, and I never really thought Seth would do anything like that, but I didn’t trust his father (the guy openly threatened to sue an elderly relative over relatively petty matters in the past, there’s a precedent). Seth and I these days talk ever so occasionally, and I tell him the haps in Ohio and he tells me the haps in Maine (he briefly lived out here as well and knows a lot of the same folks here that I do). He knows I write about him but doesn’t care about it (he didn’t read my writing when we were married either so it’s not really shocking).

How I probably fucked up: At about the same time that I shut Seth out, I also temporarily cut off contact with a lot of my Maine friends who were critical of my leaving Seth, afraid stuff would get back to him and just not being able to emotionally deal with explaining myself and defending my actions over and over, including my one-time girlfriend Megan (we dated her together in the past, she’s still Seth’s girlfriend, they continue to date):

Ok, when you said you and Seth were in a slump, I didn’t realize you meant you were going to give up on him all together. I almost feel like by telling me that he’s got those other girls interested in him, you were trying to justify what you were about to do.  That’s not compersion, that’s avoiding the issues that are coming between you. If you don’t want to work it out, you don’t have to work it out, but throwing away 6 years of marriage is a very different thing from wisking from one boyfriend to another.   I know it’s none of my business, but I care about both of you, and this seems like a really uncharacteristic thing for you to do.  I’ve seen you support each other for a very long time, and you’ve always been completely dedicated to one another, no matter what, even (especially) when things were difficult.   

I know you’re going to do what you’re going to do, no one has ever been able to change your mind once you’ve made it, but I really think you would be wise to take a hard look at your priorities and figure out why this is suddenly ok.  Is it because you’ve changed, or because he has?  

I didn’t reply to this communication and unfriended her on Facebook – not terribly mature, but lots of other people were crawling out of the woodwork questioning the wisdom of the decision and my thinking I was being hasty and that it came out of nowhere, and I was pretty offended by the way she had put everything, well meaning or not (as she’s also my ex and we have a bit of history in addition to the long friendship, that complicated things further)

So I immaturely and abruptly unfriended her without saying a word, my emotions crying “AMPUTATE,” and then Megan sent me this followup:

I’ll keep this brief. We’ve been friends for 6 years. I tried to let you know that I’m worried about you because you make the most life altering decision in all those years, seemingly out of the blue.  You can’t be bothered to give me an explanation, or even a “I’m fine, I know what I’m doing, please mind your own business” (which really would have been reasonable).  Instead you chose to unfriend me (and apparently everyone else this side of the Appalachian trail) with absolutely no communication.

Whether or not I agree with what you’re doing is irrelevant, I’m sure you have your reasons, and you certainly have the right to do as you see fit. But to do it in this way? I feel like you’ve slapped me in the face. It was just plain rude.

And from my response (I’ve edited out the parts where I describe a lot of how Seth and I had gotten to that point, things I’ve blogged about extensively elsewhere including here, here, and  other places):

A lot of the behaviors and financial problems that have caused problems between us have been going on for years. I never told anyone because I wanted things to get better, and I didn’t feel like it was anyone’s business, really. Why burden my friends with the stress within my marriage? …I’m sorry if it hurt you when I cut off communication in that way. Honestly, a lot of times when people get divorced, friends feel a need to side with one party or another, and for a variety of reasons, I’d much rather Seth have the love and support from all of you back home than if I have it. There are many reasons. Seth has always said that he has trouble making new friends, and he *really* needs friends right now as it’s a rough time for him (understandably), and there’s the geographic distance complicating everything – so it seemed preferable to cut off communication, make you all upset with me, so that I could be “the bad guy” so that you could support Seth 100% without worrying about the shades of gray, the nuances, the fault that he and I both share for this relationship ending.

Also I want Seth to have a clean break, to help get over me, and mutual friends, social networking, etc, all have the potential to rip up wounds anew as he reads the minutiae of my life or it filters in through friends who have done the same. We are also going to be divorcing so legally it’s a safe course for Seth and I to be as separate as possible and not talk to one another.

This is all added to the fact that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It is much harder breaking up than remaining married, and I wouldn’t be doing this unless I absolutely felt like it was the best thing for us both. My emotional and financial support has enabled Seth to have no motivation to grow and learn and explore himself. I don’t think I’m good for him.

I still love Seth, deeply. I don’t think he’s a bad person any more than I’m a bad person. The combination of the two of us is the trouble.

It is what it is. I don’t expect you to agree with what I’m doing or to even understand (as it’s taken me a long time to personally accept it’s what needs to be done – even being in the center of things), but it is what it is.

And it’s true. I was glad to sacrifice half of my support system and fall on the sword rather than airing Seth’s deplorable behavior all over the place. What ended up happening, in spite of my best efforts, is that my old friends refriended me, and I ended up having to explain myself a bunch anyway because they were unconvinced that I would behave in such an illogical rash way, despite the fact that I can be (as Megan has indicated here), quite stubborn once I’ve resolved to do something. Most of them were nicer than Megan about it, but it was still really overwhelming.

We did have some further back and forth. Megan sent me a follow-up thanking me for my explanation and acknowledging that she had been worried about Seth as well and urging him to get on a better path (friendly though we were prior to my divorce of Seth, we weren’t comparing metamour notes) and even offering that she actually understood how it could happen since Seth wasn’t ready to process anything he was doing and it was clear a lot was falling on me.

And I had so many of these intense, agonizing conversations with people. This is just the one I remember best because it was the hardest one.

I’m sure my exes say critical things about me, and that’s fine. I know I did things that were pretty questionable. Michelle told me that she and Rob were struggling with my newly dating Skyspook, and I did it anyway. Rob has publicly pointed to my having “psychological issues” as a potential factor in our breakup and how badly it went down. It’s totally true that I had/have psychological issues. I do have PTSD and dependent personality disorder, verrrrry well treated these days, and actually I think it was getting to the point where I realized I needed more HELP for them than the diagnoses themselves that led to my leaving that relationship. Still, I hurt him pretty badly when I left, and a large portion of Rob and Michelle’s group of friends were angered on my behalf by their treatment of me and stopped being friends with them, whether I wanted them to be or not (I didn’t ask or really want or need that, I just wanted to leave). There was the lurking specter of a big old movie of the week allegation of some non-consent, but that big bad boogeyman didn’t occur in a vacuum. Others had witnessed and/or suspected them being really shitty to me in a number of insidious ways leading up to that point. The thought expressed by many was if a) you’re a person dating a couple (since the 2 on 1 dynamic contains a built-in power imbalance) or b) you’ve moved cross country to be with a lover/lovers — that they need to be extra special considerate to make that person feel welcome and safe. Both of those scenarios applied in my case. And not only did they make no real overtures to make me feel welcome within the first month I was in Ohio (or actually ever, really), they were seriously a pain in the ass when I lived with them in about every way imaginable, to be quite honest, Michelle especially (see this, especially the Google calendar policing). Devil’s advocate disclosure: Rob and Michelle were new parents and Michelle had a lot of unresolved baggage from earlier relationships and friendships that didn’t seem quite sorted. Rob had been let go at his long-standing job about 8 months prior to my moving in and went from earning about 55% of their income to becoming a stay-at-home dad and attempting to expand their side business. This left Michelle in the position of being the only real breadwinner, not at all an enviable one. Rob and Michelle also had some anxiety/depression issues of their own and had gone through some medication changes within the last year or so – Rob because he didn’t like some side effects of his longstanding medication and Michelle because she became pregnant and then breastfed (pumping because she had to work full time) and wanted it to be safe for the baby.

All the negatives aside, I will say freely that there were a lot of things that I liked and enjoyed about Rob in particular. I was with him for a reason. He, like basically everyone else, is not some 100% evil entity. He’s very charming and funny, and I was very much in love with him before I moved to town and realized that the brochure for him (our long-distance relationship) was a lot better than the actual resort. I was definitely sad that we stopped being friends, though I get everyone’s reasoning why it was a terrible idea. And I’m sure if I’d been in my friends’ shoes, I would probably have the same reaction that they did. Michelle, on the other hand, I’m quite glad to be rid of even as a friend. To be 100% frank, she’s not very interesting to talk to and a cold person who also needs a lot of reassurance and emotional consideration and turns quite controlling and cruel if it’s not provided to her desires, the kind of person who makes it very hard to be friends with her and then wonders why all her friends keep leaving her and responds by becoming more controlling to future people she meets (she was like this prior to being a mother and the stress described above). Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds. I never should have gotten as enmeshed as I was, but I was so loony about Rob and overconfident about my ability to happily be close friends with anyone that I ended up quite involved with her before I quite knew what had happened. It was a huge mistake, and it hurt a bunch of people, including her.

So yeah, I’m the crazy ex. And I suspect I’m the villain in some other people’s stories, judging from just the things that have drifted back to me through third parties (I’m not nearly deluded enough to think that there’s plenty said that I won’t ever hear).

You can’t control people’s perceptions of you (as much as some may try). For a while my ex-husband Seth was going around telling mutual acquaintances that I just gave up on our marriage, and I didn’t care enough to try to fix it (I know because the acquaintances came to me confused, saying that didn’t sound like me at all).  In a way, I’m not at all surprised. I half-planned for it to happen since part of my initial intent by unfriending most of our Maine group of friends was to set myself up as a fall guy to make it easier from them and Seth (of course this backfired, and I couldn’t weasel my way out of those horrendously difficult processing conversations with friends so easily). But still, I thought it was an odd Bad Guy Story for Seth to have decided on. Still, he gets his self-story, and I get mine, and I can live with it.

When it comes to Seth’s surprise that I stuck to my guns and filed for separation, it probably doesn’t help that I’m not really a conflict escalator, and so sometimes people also miss the memo when I tell them calmly that I need to see XYZ things happen over the next however long or else I’m out. I’m not a screaming in anger type of person. If you yell at me and insult me (“I used to love you before you became such a bitch” was my personal wake-up call) for 4 hours multiple times in the same week for doing things like responding to your “Fucking Netflix is acting up” with “Well, at least we have Netflix, that’s good, right?” (as happened with Seth near the end of my marriage), and come back with apologies later, and I tell you that it’s not appropriate to do that to me and you need to go therapy or we have to get separated – that I’ll be glad to pay for it and attend with you if you want, but professional outside help is required here – and you haven’t done it 6 months later, despite repeated urging, including an instance where I literally show a door to a therapist’s office where you can go talk to someone and you refuse to walk through it (this happened!), and after all that, I proceed with the separation that I told you I would if you didn’t make some observable, concrete, spelled out steps to try to do better, well. That’s me. That’s how I am. I don’t threaten to do things I don’t intend to follow through with. Not a big yeller, not a big fighter, not a big games player.

Now, you might not always like what I have to say. I’ve been told I can come across as uncaring when I’m leaving relationships or if I “check out” because I’m really hurt and don’t know what else to do. Part of this is that I get so calm seeming when things are falling apart.

I also tend to set a personal boundary with people that I’m breaking up with that they aren’t entitled to my walking through everything with them for closure, especially not on a tight timeframe. Sometimes compatibility doesn’t seem quite right, and *I* don’t know why or how we emotionally got there. So at a certain point, I need space and time to think and don’t feel up to processing a ton or defending my decision. This has historically gone over badly on occasion. Here’s something someone said about me during a breakup:

“If you don’t feel like setting my mind at ease is important you’re saying a lot about your ability to maintain a friendship. I hope someday you can honestly ask yourself how you can hurt someone’s feelings, make it their problem, and then throw it in their face when they try to make it right. That’s some serious kind of fucked up.”

Granted this came from GC during the 5-day breakup saga to rock the ages in which I told him on day 1 that the physical chemistry was off and that I needed some space and he spent the next 5 days and 10000 words of IMs asking for answers. GC was someone I dated (and never officially) for about 3 weeks.  Five days of breaking up for a 3-week relationship/not-relationship. Given those terms, that level of intensity is ridiculous.

To some, I might very well appear to That Bitch Who Gets Over People Too Goddamn Fast Not to Be Dead Inside. I accept this. I’ve made leaps and bounds towards being more assertive and direct, while still maintaining my composure and getting to set boundaries (like being like “hey, I don’t think I can do this processing with you, I’m exhausted because breaking up with you actually hurts me, and it’s extra weird to help you process pain that I am the cause of, please use other supports including your spouse and other friends” — that sort of thing).

Now it’s not all doom and gloom. CC and I broke up last year, and when I checked in on him some time after we took a mutually agreed on space from one another, this is what he said about what it’s like to break up with me (I initiated, as I did in all of these circumstances – I am usually a breakup initiator, although I have been on the other side of things):

“I think you’re pretty great, as well as greatly pretty. And I regard you with fondness. That was probably the cleanest breakup ever. No hard feelings.”

And this is generally how it mostly goes for me, aside from the ones I’ve outlined here and a few in the distant past (15 and 20 years ago, respectively). I have great rapport with lots of people I’ve been intimate or involved with in the past.

Nowadays, I totally see the error of trying to be the “Bad Guy” with Seth and the Maine friends. I don’t even think of it like that anymore. (So I was stupid, but at least I learned some good lessons, right?) I don’t think there’s a good guy or a bad guys in breakups – I think that relationships are a lot like groupwork. Like my old therapist said, “you’re 100% responsible… for your 50%.” I’d also add that it takes two to break up well.  I’d like to think I’m pretty okay at it – but then again, it’s not like the drama-laden partners are necessarily BAD at it (although I guess they could be). It might be like there are certain breakup styles that don’t dance well together, so to speak.

And that is really okay.

*

For what it’s worth, while it was rough in parts, and it hurt us both a lot, Seth and I had a hell of a good divorce in the end. The last time he and I spoke actually, we talked about how happy we were that we’d moved on and reflected that it was not so bad as divorces go, as painful as it was.

*

This is arguably the most honest thing I’ve ever written. It took forever, it’s really long, and I’m sure, even so, that I left a bunch of stuff out without really meaning to.

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