It sort of scraped against my insides and felt unnatural as it escaped my mouth. I can’t remember the exact sentence, but I do know I used the word “whore” and as soon as I released it into the universe, I wanted to take it back. Which was odd, really, because I’d used that word probably dozens of times over the last year to refer to my ex-boyfriend’s (not so new) girlfriend, and it never seemed to bother me before. But this time was different and I can only assume I should attribute the difference to my being awake, whereas before I was mostly asleep and unwilling to let this particular pain in for a visit.
I’ve since decided the scraping sensation I felt was the burgeoning feminist in me, dragging her nails along the chalkboard of my subconscious as a not-so-subtle reminder to stop participating in such a nasty ritual. The feminist in me, the seeker, the student, the light, the love…my harsh words felt like the antithesis of all I’ve learned. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this all-too-common exchange for awhile now and I’d be willing to bet you’ve experienced something similar.
Imagine you’re sitting with a friend. She’s talking about how her ex-boyfriend is dating a new woman. She’s expressing the special type of vitriol reserved for this particular kind of heartache. What do you do?
Here’s what you do. I know this is what you do because this is what I do and this is what I’ve repeatedly witnessed over the past 15 months or so. You search through social media to find a picture of her or them together, and then you make a twisted, sort of disgusted face. And then you say something malicious about her body or smile or hair or job or education or whatever…and because you haven’t quite proven your point, you throw in a ‘whore’ or a ‘slut’ or a ‘cunt’ or a ‘bitch.’ Relieved, your friend feels encouraged to release the viciousness she’s been carrying around since the moment she found out about this new woman.
You say to your friend, “I wouldn’t worry…she’s a major downgrade.” Or “What a slut!” Or “She’s not even that pretty.”
You’ve entered a kind of bubble where the rules of political correctness and human decency cease to exist. In a no holds barred free-for-all, you and your friend spend another few minutes verbally ripping this woman’s life to shreds: physical appearance, dating history, reducing the new relationship to an insignificant fling, postulating reasons for her ex’s interest in this clearly sub-par human…it’s really pretty ugly.
Oh and by the way, I’m the friend with an ex-boyfriend who’s dating the new girl. Though I’ve been on all sides of this equation at some point in my life, I’ve most recently played the role of friend…feeling momentarily satiated by my friends and family members who take it upon themselves to insult a woman they’ve never even met…all in an effort to make me feel better (isn’t that sweet?).
A few weeks ago when I found myself partaking in this bizarre female-bashing tradition once again, I couldn’t shake the knowing I felt. It suddenly all seemed so thinly-veiled and vapid…so lacking in integrity…so void of truth. Where the word “whore” had once slipped so easily from my tongue, I was now all but choking on it. The slew of insults hurled from the mouth of someone very near and dear to me, who, under normal circumstances is an extraordinarily kind soul, did nothing to quell the sharp pain of reality.
The tearing down of her used to give me at least a few seconds of relief. But not anymore. Fuck.
If you were to make a list of all the different kinds of pain one must eventually work through following a break-up, this one would be (and has been) at the very bottom of my list. Whenever my thoughts wandered into “his new girlfriend” territory, I metaphorically stuck my fingers in my ears and sang, “la, la, la, la, laaaaa.”
But Pema Chodron explained it most eloquently when she said:
“…nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
I found out about my ex and his new ‘significant other’ well over a year ago, but I’m quite an accomplished emotional procrastinator so I didn’t really actually ever deal with that. The day I found out, my entire body became engulfed in rage and fear and heartache and it was all way way way too much pain so I sent it away fast. I barely allowed it to exist on the furthest reaches of my periphery. When he or she or they came up in conversation, I participated in the ceremonial verbal beating of this woman…and then shoved it to the back of my consciousness as quickly as possible.
I haven’t figured out yet if my having known her makes things better or worse. She was a friend of ours when my ex and I were dating…I knew her through his fraternity. It’s been about two years since I last saw her when my boyfriend and I went barhopping with her and some other people. That night, she was seated next to my boyfriend, who sat across the table from me, so I snapped a picture of the two of them and posted it to Instagram with the caption, “J and his favorite girl! ♥” (I shit you not. Who says the universe doesn’t have a sense of humor?)
My point in relaying that story is to sort of undermine my own callousness and hypocrisy in calling her a bitch or a whore. We all know those things are entirely untrue. For crying out loud, there exists photographic evidence of our once having shared an enormous bottle of wine, laying wrapped around each other on the floor at a friend’s house, laughing so hard it’s a wonder we didn’t pee. I liked her. A lot.
But that’s never the point when your heart is broken and your ex is creating memories with someone new. It all hurts the same. And to look at it closely is to invite the pain into your living room for a cup of tea while it teaches you what you need to know. This pain was going to be different and I knew it…so I ran away from it and stuck my fingers in my ears and closed my eyes and managed to invite all sorts of other pain into my life…to work through each one methodically and to learn the lessons, but please please please not the new girlfriend; not yet.
“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know” apparently means, if you avoid something long enough, it’s going to stand at your front door knocking incessantly with increasing volume until you answer the damn thing. The knocks at my door came largely in the form of dreams. An obnoxious number of dreams. Dreams ranging from the mundane (avoiding them in a grocery store) to the bizarre (forced to travel with them in some kind of post-apocalyptic world) to the heart-wrenching (he proposed to her in my living room on Christmas day).
One morning I actually woke up, sprang out of bed, and startled my cat with a boisterous, “YOU’VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME” after approximately the 9th dream. It was infuriating. I’d managed to hardly think of “them” (as a couple) for over a year and suddenly, I couldn’t escape them. They were everywhere…overwhelming me with their togetherness and dammit, I didn’t want to deal with this.
And then came the irksome, sickly, wrong I felt when I called her a whore…knowing it was so untrue. And so unfair. And so in direct violation of everything I’ve come to understand and believe.
So that was the first step and the easiest and a challenge I will gladly take up and encourage you to do the same. Let’s stop trying to comfort our friends by verbally beating innocent bystanders to a pulp. The message lying in wait at the base of all that, anyway, is “I’m with you, sweet friend”…that’s all. I’m with you. Especially as women and especially now, this is so important. We needn’t attack the physical appearance or dating history or occupation or anything about another woman…for SO many reasons. The first and most obvious being, it’s simply not true. My ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend, from what I recall, is lovely. And hilarious. And educated. And beautiful. And she’s a sister because we’re all sisters and we’re in this together and because “we’re all just walking each other home.”
It’s easier said than done. But if you find yourself in a situation and your instinct is to comfort by way of insult, stop yourself and just say this: “I know it must be so hard for you to see him with someone else…I can’t pretend to know how you’re feeling. But I’m here for you; I’m on your side. I’m with you.” That’s all I ever really wanted to know – that in the midst of this thing we call a breakup but that actually feels like a battle, I had people who would rally around me and lift me up – that I had not been abandoned.
The other stuff (the working through my feelings about their relationship stuff) is ego work and it is slow, slow going. It certainly hasn’t resolved itself in a matter of weeks.
At least I finally opened the door, stepped aside, and let the pain in. It breaks me open a little bit every time I let it, in the best way possible. There’s a lot to be said for the slow and methodical processing of the human experience…to take what you can when you’re ready for it, to work with it, to let it move through you and to change you. And though it may not feel like it at the time, it’s a gift – all of it, even the pain. And it’s not going away until it teaches you exactly what it’s supposed to.
Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in. -leonard cohen