Why is it you rarely meet the exes who are responsible for the breakup? Where are all of those defective exes hiding? You almost never hear ex-lovers, ex-business partners or ex-team members say, “Yeah, we split up because they realized I’m not a nice person.”

All of us say what we think we need to hear. When we’re extricating ourselves from partnerships we tend to tell the stories that give us a boost up and out. It’s hard leaving a partnership. To offset the reasons for not leaving we put a thumb on the scale. We tell a story that rewards our decision to leave: My ex is unkind, inconsiderate, selfish, mentally unstable, dysfunctional, incorrigible.

Parting partners’ stories are worse than oil and water, they’re oil and fire. They don’t blend—but when they come in contact they’re incendiary. They don’t blend because they’re not meant to. They’re designed to touch on the former partner’s vulnerabilities, exactly what the former partner would not want to hear. They’re incendiary because they exaggerate the vulnerabilities, which means that former partners who hear them can tear them apart.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


He says she’ll never change, and yeah, maybe she would like to change though she’s not sure she can either. His discouragement amplifies her doubts, but he’s also exaggerating the reasons why she can’t change. She’s stung by his story, but it’s also obviously his self-serving distortion. He’s busy convincing himself she’s hopeless just when she’s trying to muster hope. She retaliates in kind.

The stories exes tell are mutually exclusive, designed for maximum polarity, mutually anathematic, irreconcilable. They’re stories that are at their most stable and useful when we don’t share them with each other. She has her story; he has his. Better never to talk about it, or for that matter never to talk to each other again.

In contrast, the stories we tell when we’re within a relationship are the glue that holds us together. In relationship we say what we need to hear to make the relationship harmonious. For the sake of the relationship we work out the differences between our stories. Stability in partnership is largely a product of the stories the partners hold in common about the partnership. Partnership therefore entails engaging with each other over the discrepancies between stories. If he thinks she talks too much and she thinks he does, they try to work it out, seeking a story they can agree on or changing their behavior until the stories are reconcilable.

In short, when you’re in a partnership you try to share one harmonized story, when you’re an ex-partner you tell your own polarized story. And in between? Here’s the real dilemma. Do you tell the story that serves the partnership or the one that serves yourself? And when your maybe-partner tells a story that’s different from yours, do you open your ears or close them? Is he telling a story to stay by or a story to go by?

If it’s a parting shot on a partner’s way out, then usually by trial and error we learn to ignore it. Blundering trials, stinging errors—we engage in debate, we wonder if maybe the accusations are correct. We oscillate wildly between listening and closing our ears, between deliberating jointly about what we’re going to do and rehearsing separately the stories that help us each answer the question “what am I going to do?”

It hurts, like trying to cram your round head into a square container, like trying to listen attentively to harsh dissonance. These are the dynamics in the wrenching, growing gaps that cause so much pain and polarization and take too long and look like wasted energy in retrospect—leaving us wondering if all of our most satisfyingly intense collaborations are doomed to fall apart—leaving disaffected strangers, cordial at best.

Stories on the edge are painful. And yet sometimes we need such stories in order to paddle ourselves away from each other against the current of our bond. And sometimes they’re even true. It’s doubtful that all the exes who think they were cheated by their defective one-time partners really were, but surely some of them were.

How best to manage the potential for parting shots at close range? Here are some ideas:

Awareness: As usual, to name it is to tame it. Simply acknowledging these dynamics and recognizing that you are not exempt from them will help you manage them better. You won’t, for example, be able to rationalize credibly to yourself that your parting shots are merely your way to give your ex constructive feedback. And you won’t buy it if a parting partner tries that sort of rationalization on you. You’ll also expect a mess at the transition from in-partnership to out-of-partnership (search Flail Blazing), so you’ll be more forgiving of yourself and others when even your best efforts leave you both with hurt and anger.

Jerk-insurance: When the partnership is going well, it’s hard to imagine or talk about breakups, but there are advantages—even preventative advantages—to preparation. First, partner with people who are temperamentally predisposed to handle exits with care. Don’t partner with escape artists, people who tend to overindulge in exit stories and parting shots. And within a healthy partnership cultivate an awareness of breakup dynamics. Partner with fellow romanticynics who can love with an open heart and still analyze their own involvement in the universal dynamics of give-and-take, come-and-go.

Keep your exit stories to a minimum: Not only because it’s unkind to harbor negative caricatures of the ones you once loved but also to preserve and maintain your powers of discernment. The more incredible things you allow yourself to believe in order to feel good about yourself in a breakup, the weaker your powers of discernment become. Self-deception is a virtue up to a point (search Optimal Illusion), but it must be managed carefully. The world’s worst man-made nightmares are the product of people who got too good at believing self-serving, unbelievable stories. Every time you comfort yourself by subscribing to an improbable caricature, it compromises your mind-reading skills. You can’t afford to grossly miscalibrate your instruments of self-orientation.

Keep your exit stories to yourself: We tell discrediting stories about and to our exes in part to keep ourselves from slipping back into relationship with them. But sometimes, after time passes, reconnecting with an ex is useful. After the tensions die down, you can talk again, and learn. After all, partnerships are a huge investment. Partners get to know you pretty well. The inability to talk sometimes means missing out on a potential bumper crop of insight into yourself—useful lessons that will help you grow and improve your future partnerships. Sure, you’ll share some of your frustration with your ex and your friends. What are exes and friends for? But be aware of the costs, if not to them, to your own flexibility.

There’s a strong knee-jerk tendency, in the anger, disappointment, and hurt of a breakup, to pile on as many reasons to leave as possible. But with too many reasons too often vocalized, you end up with a reciprocally vilifying partner who won’t speak to you ever again, and a chorus of friends who think you’re dangerously irrational. Or they’ll think you’re absolutely right about your ex, and therefore won’t let you reconnect to that evil, evil person, even if you change your mind.

Check in six months later: Several times in the heat generated by fission I’ve written people off as incorrigible when they really weren’t. After a hiatus, when I’ve calmed down, I’ll write back—not to rekindle old passions or debates but to check in. At the other end I often don’t find the monster of inconsiderateness I left behind but actually a normal person with good, natural reasons for the breakup-generated behavior. I discover misunderstandings and ways I triggered my ex’s responses. I learn. We patch things up a bit. I recover some of the lost sunk costs invested in the relationship. By softening a bit, I regain some faith in humanity and our ability to come and go in the square dance of life without becoming strangers or enemies.

How long to wait depends on many factors. Wait at least long enough for ingestion, suspended animation, and digestion to take effect (search Ingestion; Suspended Animation). If you find yourself eagerly counting down to when you’ll be calm enough to reopen the conversation, it’s still too soon.

When someone checks back in with you long after a conflagration, be gentle. Move into conversation at a pedestrian pace, as it’s hard to tell where the land mines might be. If a residual parting shot is issued, let it pass. No need to tolerate a torrent of them, but recognize how difficult reentry can be. Don’t allow yourself to feel vindicated by your ex’s efforts to reconnect. That someone got in touch does not mean they’re desperate or ready to eat humble pie. To the extent possible, meet them with fresh eyes.

This may seem an unusually inapplicable essay. Really, how often do you end up caricaturing an ex anyway? No enemies, no vilified exes, no playground fights since first grade—perhaps you have had only stable, faithful, friendly partnerships and collaborations for so long you can’t remember the last mean and painful breakup.

Fair enough—but, to put it in a broader context, most of the world’s unnecessary woes are caused by sloppy management of parting shots, hard feelings, and grudges. This stuff applies at a tribal, sectarian, and partisan level too. A lot of attention is devoted to peace in principle, and peaceful settlements in particular situations, but far too little attention has gone into the universal, generic features of breakup dynamics. Maybe it’s because in breaking up, we don’t think it’s the dynamics that cause the problems. Nope . . . it’s all the fault of that jerk we’re leaving.