This is often the kind of advice we give to our friends after they break up with a boyfriend: “Don’t call him back. Don’t let him know you are upset. Don’t let him have control over you.”
Yes, we should never assert our power and control over other people because it prevents them from having agency, the ability to make their own choices, and express their voices. Often times, in relationships, this begins when “privileges” are slowly taken away from you, and you start becoming isolated. Your significant other doesn’t let you hang out with your friends and family, they keep you away from big social gatherings, and you only do what they want to do. This is wrong and in these situations, of course you should not allow someone to have control over you.
But, when it is the case of a break up, I think its sometimes disastrous that we tell our friends to “pretend like the relationship never even happened” because that is ignoring a huge piece of ourselves. I don’t care who you are–there is something universal about being human, and no matter what kind of break up you went through, whether you were the dumper or the dumpee, or how consensual it was or not, there are still emotions you have to deal with. You still have to adjust to a schedule without them. You still have to answer to your friends, family, and co-workers about why it didn’t work out. You still have to go through the process of changing your relationship status, potentially deleting or taking down pictures, perhaps driving different routes, taking different classes so you don’t run into each other. You will still have to undergo those emotions of grief and loss, no matter how minor they may be. You BOTH have to undergo a shift (even if it doesn’t appear on their end that they are).
We never like to admit to ourselves that we are in some kind of emotional turmoil, because that signals we might be vulnerable, and people might “be able to take advantage of us” (Read Happily Never After for more thoughts about vulnerability), and ultimately, that someone else has “power and control” over us. For example, I am always a little embarrassed when I wake up in the morning, and realized I had some dream about a parent, an ex-boyfriend, or a student, and I never want to tell anyone about it because it “must mean that person holds some kind of power and control over me”. However, I can’t really help what pops into my brain while I am laying there unconscious, and since I believe our brains use dreams to help us re-configure situations, there must be something about that situation my brain is trying to work through, and if I just shove it to the recesses of my brain, I am neglecting some kind of cognitive shift that my subconscious obviously wants to undergo (there is more about dreaming in Happily Never After as well), and the person popping up in the dream could actually be arbitrary, but my brain is using that situation for some kind of purpose.
We have this misconception that by “talking about it”, we are “giving someone power and control over us”. In some situations, this could be true. Constantly stalking their Facebook so we can find pictures of them with another girl and then calling our friends sobbing is probably allowing them to have control over us. Wallowing in our rooms, skipping out on work or school, not showering for days on end is probably allowing them to have control over us. Desperately responding back to their messages and late night phone calls is probably allowing them to have control over us because we are not allowing ourselves to move on, but rather, get stuck in a rut. However, in other situations, perhaps its necessary to address these issues and these emotions.
Here’s where I think the problem is: because we just “date”, we look at these relationships as “insignificant”, and therefore, we tell people not to talk about it. In Happily Never After, I talk about this guy I dated for about six years. That’s a long time and completely ignoring him is also ignoring a huge chapter of my life; much of who I am today is impacted by that relationship, and those times spent together, and “not talking about it so he doesn’t have power and control over me” is neglecting a huge part of who I am today. People sometimes get weirded out when I tell them I wrote a book about a break up, I think, in part, because of this idea of “not letting him control me”. One person told me once, “You have to let it go! Quit talking about it! You are giving him power over you!” But, if you read the book, that’s not really what its about; its more about claiming these pieces as part of my identity. So much of who I am today resides in that relationship–both the positive and the negative. I am really, really good at giving back massages, and I know how to stretch out any sore muscle because of that relationship. I also know that marrying someone who (a) doesn’t brush their teeth, (b) likes to spend all weekend relaxing, and (c) hasn’t undergone any significant life event will never work for me–due to that relationship. I can’t just cut those six years out of my life because those college stories are still about ME, I still took part in those stories about graduating and getting jobs, and making sure everyone survived the keg race, and I still witnessed those games, those friendships, that break up. So, by talking about it, and writing about it, its not really about giving him power and control over me; its more about me understanding myself and why I am the way I am.
And, if we have a strong sense of self, our lives are always much happier…