I Don’t Like My Ex Anymore. So Why Do I Care So Much?

(And other similar, infuriating thoughts that don’t make sense but can make us wonder why we weren’t “good enough”)

02.14.17
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Humans like tidy answers. It is the only explanation I have for those who enjoy math. One and one equals two. That’s the way it has always been. Tomorrow it will be, too. We are curious by nature and logical by design; the sky cannot just be blue — there has to be a reason.

The problem is that we want tidy answers for every situation, but life isn’t always tidy. Per the parental response to our childlike whys, sometimes, “it just is what it is.”

That response is infuriating. It is unhelpful and apathetic. If there were a dragon running around your apartment lighting fire to your furniture and you couldn’t figure out how to stop it, would you really shrug and be like, “It is what it is?” No. You’d grab the nearest dragon hose. But when it comes to singed egos from burned hearts, this hands-off form of acceptance can be a thick, rich salve — a soother of emotional ailments.

“Why not me?” It is the dating question that my friends and I ask anytime someone who we chose did not choose us back. Why was I good enough to hang out with, hook up with, dine with (add your own) but not (add your own) made into girlfriend, fiancé, life partner, wife? 

We do not ask these kinds of things for reassurance or compliments. We ask them, in part, because we are self-described masochists, blacksmiths who sharpen that question’s curved punctuation into a self-inflicting weapon. Even if the diagnosis confirms our fears, a tidy answer holds the promise of treatment. Of getting better. Except there rarely is a diagnosis, or when there is, it’s insignificant.

A game I like to play when this question comes up is to make a mental list of everyone who I did not choose. I have my friends do this, too.

Half fall under category one: Perfectly Nice People & People Who Were Actually Perfect…I Just Didn’t Like Them.

The other half fall under category two: People Who I Couldn’t Stand (Though Sometimes It Took Me a While To Realize) For the Following List of Exhausting Reasons.

And in category two, after I’ve relished in being hypocritical and evil for writing out a million different flaws of dismissed potential companions, I realize that — apart from the true douche lords who don’t deserve the energy of anyone recounting their crap — so often these ticks, neuroses and turn offs that I couldn’t stand were, ultimately, irrelevant. Because think of those who you have chosen and their various defects. When you like or love someone, you work through their baggage and you ignore their ugly pants.

Once you remember all of this, it’s easy to flip the scenario back. It’s definitely not you, but it also isn’t them. It just is what it is.

Heather Havrilesky once penned something for The Cut’s Ask Polly column that I have never forgotten. A reader asked what she was doing wrong with men. Heather-as-Polly responded with the following:

“They aren’t stupid or bad for not liking you. They aren’t mysterious or important for not liking you. They simply exist. You are repeatedly imbuing them with power, pretending that they hold the key to your true identity and your true mistakes, when they just don’t.”

“They simply exist” adds tangibility to the shrug of “it is what it is.” It turns that phrase into Sims characters who pass one another by unaware, each focused on his or her unique and uniquely flawed path. We are all going about our days, every day. We are focused, distracted and busy. It takes something very special, but not impossible, to cause a mutual crash.

When this question comes up — “Why not me?” — and we are in dire straits, when my consolee is inconsolable and convinced of eternal solitude, when I have worn through every unproductive “Fuck him!” and sincere “You’re brilliant! You’re beautiful! You’re TOO GOOD!,” I tell an anecdote that throws the very best man I know under the bus for the sake of a medicinal laugh: My dad, at age 23, broke up with a girl because she looked at him too much.

It is so ridiculous. And it is today what it was then: ultimately, irrelevant.

Being honest doesn’t mean you’re being crazy.  Related: Defining the relationship at 27 is complicated.

Photo by Jamie Hodgson via Getty Images; collage by Emily Zirimis.

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