The Stories We Tell After Death

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

A relationship dying is like a person dying, in some ways: a unique thing has vanished, and can’t be recreated. Even if you manage to get back together again, you’ll both have been changed by the experience of walking away.
And I think of the stories we tell ourselves after death.
After a relationship dies, we enter the “grave dressing” segment, where we ask ourselves the question: *What did that person really mean to us? Where did things go wrong?* And we look down into the coffin, bringing our friends over to help us conduct the autopsy, asking, “What have we learned?”
Sometimes we learn that your lover was the enemy.
Or – more accurately – that you can’t survive without turning your ex-lover into the enemy.
And what frequently happened was that the ex had the wrong communication style – which happens. Two people often speak different love languages, but hardly anyone talks about how bad translations can wreck your self-esteem. There’s a reason they call them “toxic” relationships, because what you need is nutrition and what you keep getting looks like healthy food but you’re getting poison.
This relationship is killing you.
And what people frequently need to do is to turn an unwitting provider of bad food into a poisoner. This couldn’t have been a mistake: They knew you were strong, and were trying to destroy you. They were unhappy, and you were happy, and they made you unhappy so they must be bad.
The ex attains near-mythic status, a supervillain sent to ruin your life. What had once been a troubled relationship between two equally fucked-up people becomes the shining beacon of What Must Never Be Done Again. You think about how you’re done with that person’s bullshit, and you’re glad, because you’re never falling for *that* again.
They led you away from the One Truth.
And like all grief, I can’t condemn someone for working through it in their own way. People change inevitably change facts in the aftermath of a breakup – I know I do it – and I think, Whatever you need to get through this. And there are definitely people out there who are purposely trying to undermine your well-being to foster their own comfort.
But sometimes, what happened is this:
They were happy, and you made them unhappy too.
You didn’t set out to make them unhappy as part of a nefarious scheme – you simply had a well-defined set of habits that you needed to function properly, and your needs were at odds with theirs.
That happens all the time. Someone needs financial stability to function while another could live happily in a slum so long as they felt like a priority. Someone needs their partner to act independently, while the other needs guidance to feel good about where they’re going. Someone needs to never open up because they can only feel strong if they conceal their weaknesses, while the other only feels comfortable when they lay all their concerns out in the open.
There’s all sorts of personalities that unravel each other.
And when those two get together, they slowly pick at each other, because their fundamental needs are in conflict. It looks like a purposeful undermining of their One Truth – but what’s actually happening is that there’s several One Truths, a.k.a. “Whatever gets you through the night,” and sometimes those two realities cannot coexist.
And bad things happen.
Then you’re staring down into that casket, looking at the shards of a relationship that cut you deep. And it’s useful to make supervillains out of that, sometimes: if you learn the lesson that ANYONE WHO WANTS TO HIDE THEIR FEELINGS FROM ME IS EVIL, then hey, you won’t date the sorts of people who undermine your self-esteem. And it works.
But there’s another lesson you can learn, sometimes: this person poisoned you, and it hurt, but they had a way that worked for them. Their crime was that their way didn’t work for you.
Some days, people ask me, “How can I stay friends with my exes?” And I think that’s a terrible question, because often that question is a variant on “How can I keep myself wedged into their life until they agree to fuck me again?” and yeah, the answer to that is “Don’t.”
But if you really want to stay friends, recognize that supervillains do exist – but they’re much rarer than, say, people whose fundamental chemistries don’t allow them to survive in your environment. What they offered was poison to you, but it’s manna from heaven to others.
If you can keep that in mind, you can remember what not to eat. And you can be friends. Maybe. Some day.

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