Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Ex Files

Breaking up is hard to do, but it's also one of life's inevitabilities. Sometimes, things end in a way that leaves the door open for a friendship, but the road between Break-Up County and Friendshipville is a perilous journey, fraught with hidden emotional booby-traps. It's also a road you have to walk with purpose: it's nearly impossible to just kind of, like, stumble into a friendship with an ex. Deciding to stay friends is an act of bravery, but it's one that attests to the fact that, even though you and your ex are no longer in love, it's still possible to like each other.

Almost everyone, in the early moments of a break-up, says, "But I want to stay friends." The dumper uses that line to assuage guilt, while the dumped considers friendship a useful tool in winning them back. In both cases, the friendship isn't a result of two people genuinely liking each other; there's a hidden emotional subtext that's covered in dirt, bad feelings, and weirdness. "But I want to stay friends" isn't a binding contract. Feelings will change, and a friendship that seemed impossible in the first few days after a break-up will slowly start seeming like it has a chance, and vice versa. If you've said, "But I want to stay friends," you're under no obligation to stick with that.

Also, take some time apart. Some folks set the clock at six months without contact, other say "half the total time you were together." Whatever formula you use, there's no denying the benefits. Refocus on what's important to you - not for the relationship, but your own needs and wants. If, after a few months, you and your ex get together for a coffee, you may decide that pursuing a friendship is a good idea. Awesome! Or you might decide that this person is a human trashpile. Also totally fine! This transition is rarely easy, and putting pressure on yourselves to get over the relationship and into the friendship doesn't help. Being alone helps you ask yourself: how much do I like this person? How much do I like myself when I'm with them?

There are a few different forms a post-relationship friendship can take. You might go through some, or all, of these before you settle. Take your time.

Friends With Benefits: losing your sex life can be one of the most daunting things about breaking up. In an effort to avoid celibacy, some exes never stop having sex. On the outside, this looks an awful lot like dating, but both parties insist that there's no romance - they're just getting their rocks off. Unfortunately, this makes it tough to move on, grieve, or meet new people. Many exes who try this find themselves back together, and because the focus in being Friends With Benefits is willfully not on the emotional connection, the re-couples usually encounter the same issues that forced their first break-up. It's possible to avoid that by talking frankly about boundaries and expectations, but it's also complicated by the emotional hangover of the break-up. Seriously: take some distance.

Neutral: Best described as "friendly, but not friends," this requires almost no work and zero maintenance. These people exchange small talk when they run into each other on the streetcar, wish each other happy birthday on Facebook, and basically have no real communication. There's no ill will, per se; they just don't want to be a part of each other's lives after the break-up. This is pretty easy to accomplish after a short, breezy relationship, and doubly so if you don't run in overlapping social circles (did someone say, "internet dating?).

Hate: In the weeks after my first real heartbreak, I made an effort to spend time with my ex in a misguided attempt to prove that, despite being brutally dumped, I was still awesome. He couldn't care less; he had already started dating someone else. After a few months of misery, I realized that I was angry. Like, really angry, and being around the source of my rage was eating me alive. I cut off the "friendship," because the benefits of staying in touch were not outweighed by the drawback of having to spend time with him. It may take a while for you to realize that, after the relationship ends, you don't actually like your ex all that much - betrayal or infidelity has coloured your perception of them to a degree that you can't pretend to like them. Friendship? Off the table. Don't feel bad about it.

The Faux-riendship: When exes get together, conversation consist of things that don't get said. Fake friendships aren't built on real openness, but a mutual desire to shove things under the rug and pretend everything's fine. If there's a lot of sexual tension, or if one ex brings up "the good old days" a little too often, or if you avoid talking about new partners (theirs or yours), or if you have nothing to talk about but keep hanging out anyway, then the faux-riendship has you in its grasp. It's not a tragedy - with more openness, you can upgrade into an Actual Friendship, and with less, you can slide into Neutral territory - but it's tough to maintain for long.

The Actual Friendship: This is the real winner: when there's no (or few) residual feelings from the relationship, when both people are integrated into the other's post-break-up life, when hanging out isn't fraught with sexual tension or words unsaid. These rare friendships take months or years to develop. There are boundaries - every friendship has areas that just aren't really talked about - but the mutual affection dwells in the present, rather than trying to preserve the past.

Monday, February 13, 2012

We Need To Talk About Chris Brown

Can we talk about Chris Brown for a minute? I've never really followed his career, although I did, like 72 million other people, watch the "JK Wedding Entrance Dance," and I'll admit it: I like that song. But the rest of his stuff has been overshadowed by the time he beat the shit out of his girlfriend.

Remember that, guys? It was like, three years ago. Three years ago, when Brown was nineteen years old, he was involved in a "domestic dispute" that resulted in felony assault charges. The media reaction was mixed - instead of condemning Brown for hitting, punching, and biting his girlfriend, stars spoke out about how "they didn't have the details" and "they knew both of them, and it was a sad situation." Very few celebrities took a stand and said that Brown was despicable, and those who did got shushed. Fans came out to say that they would gladly get punched in the face if it meant a lifetime of Brown's music. The mainstream media framed it as a question - does Chris Brown deserve a second chance?

There were regrets. Tears. A softball Larry King interview. Later, there was a Good Morning America piece that enraged Brown, causing a public temper tantrum that was widely reported. Brown's media now always included a qualifier - "bad boy," "controversial" - and reviews of his albums mentioned his personal life.

And then three years later, Brown was back. Back at the Grammys - three years ago, he had to cancel because he had attacked his girlfriend and was too busy dealing with the fallout to attend, but last night he was there, accepting an award and smiling and dancing and generally acting like it was his comeback. Music fans were divided: Twitter erupted with sardonic and angry comments every time Brown was onstage, but the industry seemed fine with him being there, fine with him sharing the room with his victim.

Oh yeah: his victim. Rihanna. She's doing fine now, isn't she? She poses in bikinis and has number-one albums. She's a success story. So why are we still talking about her assault? Why does it still matter?

Because Rihanna is lucky. Not lucky she was beaten - that's not "bad luck" or any kind of luck, because luck has nothing to do with it, since it's always somebody's choice to be an abuser - but lucky she survived. Lucky that she had friends and family around her. She's lucky that the public doesn't insist on remembering her solely as a victim, so she's been able to create a persona of empowerment. Because she's an entertainer, we've been privy to that transformation. That's the right of the victim: to reject the label, or to say, "I was that person for a minute, but I'm not there any more." To live forever under the shadow of someone else's mistake doesn't have to be your fate, and Rihanna has embraced her success and refused to allow Brown's assault to define her.

But Brown? Oh no. The privileges of the victim don't extend to the aggressor. The internet got buzzy around the idea that Brown deserves a reprieve from being branded an abuser. As though that's something he's grown out of, like an old pair of jeans. But he's proven time and again to be aggressive, resorting to tantrums when he doesn't get his way. He's shown little remorse. His persona - smooth lover, cool guy - is directly at odds with his proven public life, and he shows a shocking lack of awareness at how that reads to the general public.

That the music industry even acknowledges Brown, let alone awards him, is baffling. I know there's money and politics involved, but frankly, Brown shouldn't be here. He is repugnant. And we know that, make us all complicit in Brown's continued success.