Sex and the Smithie: The Ex
We all know Smithies, and we agree we’re all wonderful people. We code apps, crank out theses and post about our angst on social media. We go on to be activists, artists and leaders, and yet, we’re clueless on how to maintain healthy social lives — especially romantic relationships. I get that we want to be treated as practical-minded and capable people, but do we really have to push so extremely far that we lack the emotional skills we’re supposed to have?
In "Sex and the Smithie," I'm going to explore issues of sex and relationships using the best sources I have: my friends and Smithies I meet around campus.
Recently I was puzzled by a situation with my friend Leonora. Jesse, her girlfriend of six months, broke up with her on the phone. Before the breakup, there had been some unresolved issues regarding each other’s maturity, and they had both confessed that they felt uncertain about their future together. As these conversations continued, Leonora sensed a change in Jesse’s behavior: she became distant and less involved. Leonora felt things would get back on track and didn’t think much of this weird distance. But three days later, Jesse called her and ended things.
Jesse’s choice was so out of the blue and didn’t seem to make sense. To me, everything had seemed fine. Leonora and Jesse had the kind of deceptive relationship dynamic I had always dreamed of: one dominant figure, one submissive, but equally giving in their private lives. The first question Nora asked me on the phone was, “Should I reach out?”
My immediate answer was no.
Before you assume that I don’t have any authority to discuss this issue, you should know that I, too, was broken up with recently at the beginning of fall semester. I had experienced an extremely painful period of confusion and longing to contact my ex but wasn’t sure when to reach out. “How much time should I have waited?” I wondered. A day? A week? Would he come around by then and take me back? Should I wait longer? A month? Two months? Will he even want to see me again? Has it been too long? Would talking to him be awkward after waiting for so long?
I told Leonora what I knew best: Do not reach out to your ex immediately after a breakup. There has to be a period of time that you two spend apart. By the time Nora was broken up with, I had finished going through my breakup and could look at her situation more clearly. I knew what worked for me and figured this idea of space was a universal concept that everyone agreed with.
I was quickly challenged.
Soon after Leonora’s breakup, I met up with my friend Florentina at Woodstar. Florentina — also a friend of Leonora’s — and I started weighing in on the breakup.
Me: I’m worried about Leonora. She wants to reach out to Jesse but obviously that shouldn’t happen.
Florentina: Why not? If she thinks it’s gonna help…
Me: What do you mean, why not? They just broke up. They both need time to process without the attention of the other.
Florentina: That’s not obvious though. Nor is it necessary.
Me: What, you think any two people can go from being in a relationship to being friends immediately after a breakup?
Florentina: I mean, yeah. I did with all my exes.
Me: Are you joking? Not even with Francesco, who you were in a relationship with for three years?
Florentina: No, I’m not joking. And no, he and I didn’t have time apart.
Me: So you mean to tell me that you were with Francesco for three years, which is a super long time, didn’t stop talking and are able to be friends?
Florentina: Yes. Taking time apart just never worked for us. Like, we tried not talking and we just couldn’t do it.
Me: Does either of you still have feelings for the other?
Florentina: I mean, yeah. I’m pretty sure he still has feelings for me.
Me: And you’re okay with that?
Me: Don’t you see the issue here? He never got to move on from you because you didn’t have time apart!
Florentina: Look, A. Muscaria. Every relationship is different. You think you know everything about people’s relationships, but you don’t. It’s completely individual.
Florentina is wrong. There are universal truths to all relationships. Among those many truths is that you must give your ex space before you can insert yourself back into their lives. Whether or not you were broken up with or did the breaking up, you both are in extremely vulnerable places where you are still very much invested in the relationship.
Obviously this idea of space is easier said than done. Breakups can be painful, harrowing and debilitating. A breakup is a time of grieving. The one thing almost everyone wants after a breakup is to reach out to their ex. It feels natural. Not contacting them is like having a disconnect between you and another part of yourself; in a lot of ways, your partner has become a huge part of your existence, so once they’re gone it’s as if you’ve lost a part of yourself.
Space ensures two things. One, the ability to grow individually without reliance on your ex. Two, the ability to react to the breakup indifferently without saying something you may regret later. I am a huge fan of closure and definitely think it’s necessary. But one cannot get closure fresh out of a relationship. It’s impossible. In order to get closure, you must be at a place in your breakup where you’d feel okay with whatever your ex says or reacts to. If you don’t feel like that, it’s probably not time to reconnect.
There are two cases that were brought to my attention where there is some leeway in these truths. The first is a short term relationship where neither person was truly involved. In this case, it is possible that two people could transition from dating to friends. The second case (that never crossed my mind until a source brought it up) is if the breakup is because of one person’s realization of their sexuality. For example, if you’re in a long term relationship with someone of a different gender and you decide to break it off because you don’t feel a romantic attraction to that gender, it could be possible to transition from dating to friends. In this case, the love is obviously still there, and there’s no question of the relationship dynamic.
Attachment to another human being is challenging when you have to let them go. Creating space can be one of the hardest things but shows great strength in any two people who can undertake it. Not creating that space makes a transition to friendship unsettling and leaves room for unresolved problems. In the long run, a relationship between two people will have the ability to grow and change — if there is also time to grow and change separately from one another.