After a breakup, we often support our friends by vilifying their ex. But assuming that one person is the victim and one is the perpetrator minimizes the complexity of a relationship, says Kristen Forbes.
Do me a favor and picture a little boy in his childhood home. Do you see him sitting on his bedroom floor? Look at the notebooks and pencils spread all around him. He’s been sketching for hours, drawing mazes for his parents to decipher. His math homework is complete—he finished it hours ago—and there’s a soccer ball in the corner of the room, muddy and warped from being kicked so many times.
Do you see that fire inside of him? He’ll grow up to be an architect. He’ll draw the designs for some of the buildings you know well. He’ll remain at work hours after you go home to eat dinner. The focus and discipline so clearly visible in the little boy version of him will cling to him in adulthood. So, too, will the passion for soccer. He’ll become the captain of his recreational team.
Look at him one last time. Watch the way he taps his fingers against his lips. Watch the way his eyes scan the room. Do you notice his shyness? It’s as big as his creativity, and he’ll carry it with him into adulthood, too.
Here’s what else he’ll carry into adulthood: Patience. Kindness. He will be gentle and quiet, polite and respectful. He will teach you how to play Cribbage and he’ll spend hours making you a salad that has sliced grapes and little balls of goat cheese rolled in pistachios. He will come to all your readings. He will get overly competitive while playing lawn games and he’ll kiss you under a waterfall. He’ll never drink too much. He’ll show up to a party with a cake to give the hosts. He’ll keep his place spotless and he’ll send you sweet texts and he’ll read your overly personal essays and like you anyway. It will be difficult to get through to him because he’s shy and you’re shy and he wears a shell and so do you, but you’ll see him be silly and you’ll see him get mad and one day you’ll see him break your heart.
Now, tell me what you think about him. Tell me what you really, really think about him.
“He’s an asshole.”
“He’s a douchebag.”
“He’s a fool.”
“Someone should punch him in the face.”
“I hope he suffers.”
“Tell him I own a gun.”
These are all direct quotes. They came from conversations in-person, over the phone, via text or email with real people I know. They came almost exclusively from women. They came entirely from my friends. These well-intentioned, typically thoughtful friends all operated under the same basic assumption: The correct way to respond to a friend’s breakup is to belittle the guy, threaten him with bodily harm, and turn him into a caricature so terrible that it makes no logical sense why the girl, the heroine, me, was ever with such a brute in the first place.
How, exactly, is this helpful?
Where does this idea come from? I understand there are certain situations that merit this kind of response. If he cheated, lied, manipulated, disrespected, or otherwise mistreated me, I may appreciate you coming to my defense and calling him out for his asshole ways. But aren’t most relationships—and most humans—more complex than that? Yes, I can tell you the reason why this particular relationship ended, but only if you have three hours to spare, and only if you’re willing to hear as many painful truths about me as you are about him. I can’t summarize it in a sound byte, and I certainly can’t break it down into the He sucks/I’m awesome/what else is there to say form we’ve all come to know and love and overuse.
Stop trying to tell me how terrible the person I dated is. It’s insulting for a variety of reasons, but mainly for these: 1.) You don’t know him, and therefore have no idea what kind of a person he is. 2.) I do know him, and I’m a bit occupied mourning the loss of him, and this grieving process isn’t made easier when you reduce him to a jackass in need of a kick to the nuts. 3.) If we want all the nonsensical, vitriolic hate toward women to stop, we might want to start by not acting like it is absolutely OK to direct this kind of intense hostility toward men.
Do me another favor and switch the pronouns and tell me how it sounds.
“She’s an asshole.”
“She’s a douchebag.”
“She’s a fool.”
“Someone should punch her in the face.”
“I hope she suffers.”
“Tell her I own a gun.”
It sounds a little sickening, doesn’t it? Yet it’s somehow become our go-to way of communicating with each other in post-breakup situations. How do you show support for a friend? Tell her you hope her ex dies, of course. How do you be there for someone going through a breakup? Make her feel like she made the worst mistake of her life by ever occupying the same space as someone with the capability of being a monster, of course.
In these scenarios, it’s important not to ask many questions. For example, do not ask your friend how she is doing. Do not ask her what happened, or if she wants to talk about it. There’s no need to do this, you see, because you can simply make assumptions. Just by knowing that a breakup has occurred, you are allowed to cast the guy as a villain, to assume he is the exclusive perpetrator of the breakup, and to then cast your friend as a helpless waif who is aimlessly flopping around on a cold tiled floor while her asshole of an ex is out spreading his douchiness in the world.
Can we all pause for a moment and acknowledge the fact that this kind of automated hate response is insulting for men and women alike?
It’s so much simpler to think this way than to acknowledge the real complexities of human relationships. Though it can happen, it’s rare that relationships end because one person is a sweetheart and the other is a monster too damn stupid to see her sweetness. It’s rare that relationships end because one person is doing everything right and the other is just too big of a jackass to care about anything.
Relationships often end because humans, together, try really hard and fail. Or humans, together, act dumb or scared. Or humans, together, take all their best intentions and make a huge shitstorm mess out of it and by the time they try to figure it out, it’s too late. And when that happens, it can be really sad. When a person you care about goes away, it can feel like you’re facing a death.
But we don’t treat breakups like deaths. If my best friend just died, and your response was to tell me how much you wish you could punch him in the face, would we remain friends?
The “He sucks; I hope he falls down a flight of stairs” reaction is absurd. And yet, it’s what we do. We do it under the guise of friendship. We do it with sweet intentions, and we do it without fully thinking.
As your friend, let me tell you: It’s not helpful. Going through a breakup is hard enough without the added drama of constantly feeling like I need to defend my ex and explain how he’s not an asshole. When you say something like, “I hope he suffers,” I want to get all kindergarten teacher on you and encourage you to treat others the way you’d like to be treated. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but knock it off and remember we’re all human.
There were stacks of pencils and notebooks in my childhood bedroom too, only mine were filled with stories and scenes. I carried my passion for writing and my shyness and awkwardness and sincerity into adulthood, too. Somewhere across town, when the grown-up architect tells his friend that it didn’t work out between us, I’d like to think that his friend doesn’t say, “What a bitch. I hope she dies.” I’d like to think he instead says, “I’m sorry, man. She’s cool and I know you liked her.”
I wish all my friends had offered me a similar response (and thank you to those who did). As humans, isn’t “I’m sorry, man, he’s cool and I know you liked him” all we really need to hear?
Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon whose articles, essays, and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem Magazine, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, Crack the Spine, Modern Love Rejects, Bartleby Snopes, and other publications. She holds a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University.