Girlfriend: Do you still talk to your exes?
Boyfriend: I keep in touch with one of them. We stayed friends after our breakup, so sometimes we talk.
Girlfriend: What!? Are you serious? Do you guys talk like everyday?
Boyfriend: No, not everyday, but a couple of times a week on the internet, yeah.
Girlfriend: A couple of times a week!? That’s a lot. I expected it to be like once every couple of months…
Boyfriend: Look, we’re just friends. It’s not like we even hang out. We usually just talk on the internet.
Girlfriend: Well I don’t talk to any of my exes. If I asked you to stop talking to her, would you?
Boyfriend: Umm… why would you ask me to do that? That wouldn’t be fair.
Girlfriend: Well it’s not fair that I have to compete with your ex-lover either. I don’t think I can handle this. I’m asking you to do this for me. Will you stop talking to her?
Boyfriend: I’m not going to do that, because there’s no reason I can’t be friends with her. You can’t ask me to destroy friendships for you.
Girlfriend: But if you know it bothers me, why can’t you just do it for me so I don’t have to think about it? You’re willing to sacrifice our relationship for her…?
Boyfriend: Look, we can make rules about my relationship with my ex, like: no hanging out alone, or, no drinking with her, or no calling her. But, I’m not going to just stop communicating with her just because you feel uncomfortable about it.
Girlfriend: If that’s how you feel then, we can’t be together. If you can’t do this one thing for me, which you know will make me feel better, then I don’t know why we’re even together.
The above excerpt is an actual conversation that took place between two people I know, and at the time of witnessing it, I said nothing. I just sat there staring down at the table, hoping that a meteor might strike the parking lot outside, if only to dispel the unbearable awkwardness of the moment. When I came to realize that an apocalyptic scenario was too tall of an order, I settled for excusing myself to the men’s room instead, where I sat in an empty stall to pass the standard amount of time allotted for people to take a “Number 2”. (I also brought a pen to write down a friend’s phone number on the stall walls and answer a few important questions scrawled there: Who wanna get f*cked up tonight and bang hoes? I signed myself up).
If you’ve been taking notes thus far, you can put your pencil down and face the front of the class: for this test, you either get it or you don’t. That being said, let’s administer the questions then shall we?
1.) Of the scenario above, which partner is in the wrong?
2.) Which partner best represents your attitude toward the situation?
While your degree of comfort with a partner’s ex-lover in the picture may vary, asking that your partner completely destroy the relationship for your sake is—to put it mildly—kinda psycho. I purposely chose this particular scenario because of its emotional implications, but also because of how common this conversation is between lovers. Exes come up in conversations between partners for various reasons, with the most common being an assessment of risk: Are there still feelings between them? How likely is their friendship to ruin our relationship?
These are all valid questions, but they often obscure the true message we send to our partners when we ask them to do things, solely for the purpose of easing our discomfort. Discomfort— this is the key word here. In romantic relationships, and indeed, all relationships between human beings, there is discomfort. In the case of our lover, we find discomfort in our perception of outside influence encroaching upon our territory.
“Who’s that?” We ask. “Who is commanding the attention of my loved one?”
And so, we panic when we perceive a loss of engagement with our partner. When they spend their energy, concern, and time with others (which may include ex lovers), we feel we’re losing them, that we’re not enough. This is a perception inside the mind, an insecurity, which then becomes projected out into the world. We blame our lovers, and we blame their ex for their lack of contribution to our feelings of safety.
“How dare you jeopardize our relationship to be friends with your ex. How dare this person think that they are entitled to a connection with my lover”
The problem isn’t that such feelings are “insane” or “ridiculous” per say (though in some cases they are). Let it be said that jealousy is normal, that anger is normal, and that our desire to protect relationships that are dearest to us, is completely normal. The problem comes when we place demands on our lover to do more than their fair share. Point being: It is not the job of your lover to do 100% percent of the work. As a partner in a relationship, you have to be prepared to handle (at least) some of your own discomfort. Demanding that your lover take actions that would relieve you, 100%, of your insecurities, is not only wrong, it’s impossible. There will always be insecurity and discomfort. However, we must find ways to bear at least some of the load. It is not our lover’s responsibility to cope with 100% of our moods and feelings.
Surprisingly, you see this a lot in relationships. If one partner feels angry or sad, they have expectations that their lover should make them feel better. And, when their lover fails to pull them out of some negative mood, they get angry at their partner. The expectation here is that: “You should make me feel better, and if you don’t, then you don’t care about me, or you’re not sensitive enough, or very simply, you’re not trying hard enough”. We must be able to take responsibility for our own emotions and discomfort, making sure that we are trying to feel better by way of our own actions.
In the above scenario, you’ll notice that the boyfriend wasn’t suggesting that his girlfriend’s emotions were irrelevant. He was saying that the actions she demanded he take to cut-off his ex were not fair. Cutting off his ex would be doing 100% of the work to assuage his girlfriend’s insecurity/jealousy. It’s not his job to handle both his emotions and hers. She’s got to be able to live with at least some of her discomfort. So, the boyfriend offers ways to distribute the burden of his girlfriend’s discomfort, by making rules about the boundaries of his relationship with his ex. In this case, the boyfriend would not be 100% responsible for his current girlfriend’s feelings of insecurity, but he would be taking some actions in order to make her feel better; she’s got to take care of the rest on her own.
So, the next time demands are made between you and your lover, stop and take a minute to discuss it. Find out how both of you can take on actions that compliment one another’s efforts, so that neither partner’s emotional responsibility exceeds their fair share.