Dear Hypocrite: An Advice Column
“Dear Hypocrite” is a monthly advice column, with questions answered by a rotating cast of hand-picked counselors. Got a problem? Send it our way: hypocriteadvice AT gmail DOT com. The theme of the next advice column will be “Furniture.” Discretion guaranteed.
Dear Hypocrite Advice,
Since early 2012, I have been in regular contact--via e-mail, letters and Skype--with an ex-boyfriend. He and I had broken up and gone our separate ways in 2008, but when I was traveling a lot overseas, in spite of the vast distances that separated us, we began communicating again. Our conversations involved a lot of catching up, what our relationships at the time were like, our respective intellectual projects, and about life in general. I do think about him a lot, and I still send him a gift/card for his birthday every year, yet I wonder what I really expect from this communication. At present, he is still more memory, perhaps more fantasy than a reality in my life. Our present "relationship" (if that is the right word) is based on intermittent communication, sometimes after a long stretch of several or more months, and so we don't know each other on a daily basis, and yet, this situation does not prevent me from wondering, can he and I make a relationship work again? Could he and I start over--older, more experienced, with more knowledge of what is fair and acceptable of two people in a relationship? The other part of me wonders if I should consign him to my past and just move on and, in turn, let him move on. I guess my actual question for you is, in a situation like this one, is it best to progress beyond expectations or to continue the communication, the "relationship," and accept that, like some adult friendships, it plays out over years and is often intermittent?
Many thanks for any advice,
It’s strange, isn’t it, the way as you get older more and more of your friendships are anchored in the past? It’s not just that they’re sporadic or intermittent—it’s that they can be, because the real substance of the friendship is not shared life but shared history. The friendship becomes a sort of time capsule: you revisit your past by revisiting the person you were when you were close to this person, and then you go back to being the person you are. That’s true even if you don’t talk about the past much with such a friend: the shared assumptions, the way you’ll speak and listen, are themselves a memory. And it’s always possible to wonder whether this friendship is (as you say) more fantasy than reality, because it seems to entail a sort of double misrecognition: you’ve changed and he’s changed, but in each other’s occasional company you get to revisit who you were when you knew each other. Maybe this sort of friendship requires that one hold the present at bay in a certain way; maybe it’s haunted by the suspicion that if you could be everyday friends again, as you were when you were in the same city at the same school in the same social scene, you wouldn’t really want to. You’re not the same.
If that were true would it be so terrible? I don’t think so. There’s a kind of privacy adults have that children don’t have, a castle of significant memories that gets more expansive every year and that no one you know knows but you, but they’re important—and incommunicable to new friends. Everyday adult friendships acknowledge and respect a kind of privacy in this domain: there are people my friends used to be that I’ve never met, and vice versa. It can be nice or even necessary to revisit the memory-castle in company; it’s not “less” than a live friendship, just different.
But yours is a special case of course because your old friend is also an ex-lover. That makes things harder and more important.
Consider our historical situation in relation to exes. Time was, everyone was trying to get married; the ideal relationship lasted forever, and anything less was a failure. An ex was an instance of a failure. But things are somewhat different now: we’re mostly still monogamists, but serial monogamists. Most of us seem to think that having a whole series of fairly serious relationships is a very important kind of experience; marrying your high school sweetheart is, if not simply condemned, at least suspect. How could a person hope to settle down successfully without knowing what it’s like to be in love with more than one person? And wouldn’t such a person be missing out on something, well, essential?
These developments have two major implications for the history of exes. First, there are a lot more of them—an ordinary dater might accumulate half a dozen serious exes by the time they’re thirty. Second, the traditional way of dealing with exes doesn’t make much sense anymore—you can’t just hate their guts anymore as our parents could. After all, it wasn’t necessarily supposed to last forever, so the fact that it didn’t isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, or even a bad thing. You went to the logical conclusion of what you had to give each other, at that time in that place, and then it ended. The ending was probably ugly, sure—relationships are like that—but that doesn’t make the relationship a failure. It ended, that’s all.
The result of all this is that your quandary is a surprisingly common one: what to do with an ex you’re still close to—or rather, what to call whatever it is you do. Is it a friendship? It’s not a friendship: the intimacy you have has everything to do with having once been lovers. Is it a relationship? It’s not a relationship: you’re not together anymore. So what else could it be? Aha, you think: perhaps it’s a failure. And a double failure at that: a failure to “move on,” to accept that you two failed and go try something else.
I don’t buy it. You’re doing something that’s working for you, and since it’s sort of new there aren’t words for it yet. What the heck is a friendship grounded in the intimacy that existed in a relationship that used to have a future and now doesn’t? No one knows; the terminology isn’t there yet. You’ll have to accept it on “its own terms” until the terminology catches up.
In my experience its own terms are as follows: lovers know you absolutely, as friends don’t, but friends respect your separateness, as lovers don’t. The relationship with an ex-lover has a little of both: they know you absolutely and they know your separateness. It never stops being a little melancholy, but between the right two people it can be sort of beautiful. Attend to that beauty.
As for whether you should try to get back together: frankly I doubt it would work. You’re both older and more mature, sure, but you’re also different in ways you don’t suspect. But such questions are best answered through experiment. Next time you see him, split a bottle of wine and sleep together; see if it feels like coming home.