My Beloved Friend often finds themself anxious that they haven’t been in a relationship, kissed or been kissed by a person.*
Here is some imaginary dialogue distilling our conversations.
Beloved Friend: I haven’t even had a bad relationship! Not even a horrible boyfriend!
Me, interjecting: But you don’t want a bad boyfriend, you want someone who’s nice to you! Who you like!
Beloved Friend: A bad boyfriend is an EXPERIENCE. At least if I’d had a bad ONE, I would have had ONE, and I could learn from it.
At this point, another of my friends (omg, I have so many friends! two!) injects, agreeing with my Beloved Friend. They say that a Bad Boyfriend can be important to test what you like and dislike. To test an idea of a relationship against a relationship with a real person, and consider what you might actually want from one.
This reminded me of a revelation I had in about year eight – that people generally act the way they do because they think it’s right. People who I think are Bad generally believe they are Good, and act accordingly. I know that I experience this same sort of subjectivity myself – this morning I thought it was Good and Efficient to stand on a windowsill to arrange some fairy lights, but now I think it was Bad and Unwise to stand on barely dry gloss paint, which now has fluffy sock footprints in it.
Therefore, it is possible that things I think are Good now, I might consider to be Bad in the future. To take my analogy back to a place of Boyfriend – the ‘Bad Boyfriend’ only becomes ‘Bad’ in hindsight. While it was happening, the relationship wasn’t a ‘test of values’ or an ‘experience’. It was just happening.
To interrupt myself briefly: I want it to be clear that I am not talking about ‘bad’ relationships which are abusive and harmful. If you have been disrespected so fundamentally, I am not suggesting that you view that person with respect, or warm sympathy.
What I AM talking about is when you look back on relationships and cringe at how mega excited you were to receive ‘good morning babe’ messages from someone who, if you passed them in the street now, would not conjure ‘babe’. Relationships that are amusing because they’re soooooo not you now, or were ill-matched despite your perseverance and many, many trips to Cineworld.
In my case, the only ex I can label as ‘Bad Boyfriend’ is the only ex I have, who was neither MALICIOUS nor EVIL, but very kind and caring to me while we were together. It can only be said to be ‘bad’ firstly because it is a catchy hook for an article, but crucially because the relationship operated on values that I no longer hold, and desires that I now don’t feel so strongly.
Yet I will defend these values. I found myself recently, in retaliation to comments from my friends, defending his appearance, interests and behaviour, which I quickly realised was really me defending my past self. I knew, even in my defensiveness, that in the relationship I spent most of my time deceiving myself into thinking that I was interested. Frankly, I was flattered by the attention. It’s easy with hindsight for the self-deprecating girl to think, ‘o! Why was I with this person! Why did I like them? Did I even like them? Were you leading him on, you heartless wench?’
On the contrary. By defending my ex, I was really defending my 16-year-old-self’s choices, what I considered important, and what I wanted most: to be desired. Duh!!
Over the Christmas holiday, I found a spoof letter I wrote to Boris Johnson in lockdown, the scene of my first relationship. It was unsent of course, and it asked if I could see my ex. Like reading your own poetry, this was Shambolic! Diabolical! Disgusting! to even scan. I binned it out of respect for the present, but I was struck with how, despite me not wanting to spend time with this person anymore, the letter was still very much me. I had taken great pride in the handwriting – I had tried to be witty – there were too many rhetorical questions. It was definitely by my hand and partially by my present mind.
In CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the titular devil Screwtape writes about the power of the mere word “phase” in discrediting the strength of experiences and beliefs in the past. A person “always feels superior and patronising to the ones [phases] he has emerged from, not because he has really criticised them but simply because they are in the past.” Of course, privileging the present is necessary because we live in it – and, one would hope, you value your present relationship (if there is one) more highly than previous ones. This is as it should be – what person has ever met another person and thought, ‘we should get together, because when we are together it is worse than being with my last partner’? NOT me. But privileging the present doesn’t require you to actively devalue the past.
Even if I insist on reductively labelling my past relationships as ‘bad’, I will not make them, in my memory, purely a learning experience – it happened, I wanted it – it was led to, leading. It is unfair to judge book characters at the start of their stories when you have already read the end – by which I mean the present – which is itself a beginning. I don’t think there’s a constant trajectory of Better, but maybe one of knowing, definitely of experiencing, until we have run out of TS Eliot poems.
Is the memory of my past self only to be read anachronistically, judged by the filmy knowledge I hold in the present? Or will I respect my present self more by remembering my past in its own colours?
So when I argue for respecting your ex, I mean that respecting them is a way of respecting yourself and the choices you once made. For soon this present will become past, and what then? I find that with every passing six months I was wrong about the last six months, and that is FINE. I expect it will carry on forever. I hope it does, this learning, changing, experiencing. I’m trying to stop this sense of ‘being wrong’ from meaning anything other than ‘experience’ – it won’t suggest that my past selves, or ways of thinking and acting, were any less clever or perceptive. They only learned from their experience, just as I do now; I proceed from them, and my present ‘I’ will make my future ‘I’, which, in its turn, will be present.
* Irrelevant to my point but interesting nonetheless is my response that THINK OF ALL THE PEOPLE YOU’VE CRUSHED ON EVEN FOR 5 MINUTES and then imagine all people ever doing the same – many people will have been attracted to you, even if it hasn’t fruited.