The Ex Factor

You could be best friends, cordial acquaintances, or never speak again. What type of relationship should you aim for with an ex? And how do you get there?

Love and Hate American Style

American culture is full of stories about good and evil. So is love.

There is something about American culture that makes it impossible not to tell stories about good guys and bad guys. Not surprisingly, we are products of our culture. That’s why when it comes to our romantic relationships, there are the good guys, us, and the bad guys, our exes. We have very little choice but to tell these stories about our own lives. After all, we are swimming in a culture of believing in good and evil. But maybe it’s time to rescue ourselves from these dangerous waters because culturally speaking, the whole good and evil thing isn’t doing much for us. And I suspect that a personal level, believing we’re the good guys and our exes are monsters isn’t really a great strategy either.

When it comes to foreign policy, such thinking has led to one disaster after another. Bad commies in Vietnam. Bad dictator in Iraq. Now bad Vladimir Putin in the Crimea. I'm not suggesting that these leaders or our exes weren't "bad," but rather that it’s too simplistic. Viewing foreign policy or relationships as a contest between the good guys in the white hats and the bad guys in the black hats makes all conflict "worth fighting for" rather than the messy and complicated affairs that require careful study, empathy and negotiation. It also absolves the United States and us of any black hat behavior since one can only be good or bad and obviously the intentions of the US or us cannot be bad.

Perhaps we Americans see the world in black and white because of slavery and the way white supremacy continues to structure our collective consciousness. Certainly the black/white thinking plays out on the bodies of black Americans with depressing regularity. Whether it is the shooting of black teenagers by frightened white men or the way in which black children are far more likely to be punished than white children even in preschool, we as a culture believe some bodies are good and worthwhile and pure and others are bad and destructive and evil. In the same way that white supremacy is bad for everyone, including white people, I am guessing that romantic supremacy also leads to a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. After all, believing our exes are deserving of punishment isn’t exactly going to get us out of jail.

 Or perhaps it is the domination of religious traditions that also construct an absolute Good/God against an absolute Evil/Satan? According to Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, it is precisely this inability to see Satan as part of God that creates an inability among certain religious followers to see the world as complicated and messy. American Christians tend to see God as all good, Satan as all evil, and thus demonize those with whom they disagree. The recently deceased Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, certainly saw the world this way. But as a broader level, this religious tradition has infected American politics, which have also descended into a fight between good and evil (and depending on which side you’re on, you know who is good and who is evil). Translate this religious tendency to our relationships and suddenly it’s not God Hates F*#s, but rather God Hates My Ex. This sort of righteous rage is not a very good description of the metaphysical, let alone something as rooted in the material world as love.

Whatever the reasons that we are drawn to stories where there are good guys and bad guys, us and our exes, it is perhaps time to start telling different stories. Rather than getting ourselves into a quagmire of a war with our ex, an unending cycle of violence and hate, or a righteous crusade, it might be time to claw our way out of America’s dangerous culture of black and white thinking and ask ourselves to embrace the complexity of ourselves and our exes as both fully good and fully evil, black and white, God and Satan. 

Unless of course your exes are as evil as my exes. In which case, excommunicate them, invade their territory, and punish them at every turn.

The Ex Factor