The AfterEllen.com Huddle: Lessons Our Ex-Girlfriends Taught Us

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Every time someone breaks your heart, or you break theirs, or a tragic mix of both, it’s easy to think that all of the effort and energy you both put in—a week, a year, a decade—was a waste of time. But no matter what your relationship was like, chances are you learned something. In fact, I’m pretty damn sure you took some nugget of truth away from your ex or what you shared, whether it was something positive, negative or just plain honest.

So I posed this question to our writers, and I ask the same of you: What’s one thing you learned from an ex-girlfriend?

Grace Chu: My exes taught me not to compromise on my standards, no tea no shade.

Chloe: My exes taught me:

  1. Car, apartment, and job are the three absolute non-negotiable.
  2. If you go through her phone, be prepared for what you find.
  3. Never memorize phone numbers.
  4. Easy come, easy go.

Dara Nai: Just having exes teaches you a bunch of stuff. What kind of person you are. What your deal-breakers are and what you can let go. How to live with someone without killing each other. But the one thing I learned that really stuck with me is this: Check the house to make sure no one is home before deciding to take a shower together.

Marcie Bianco: This is such a loaded question….here’s my loaded response: What my “exes” have taught me is that sex is non-negotiable; it is quintessential to the life force of a relationship, and to intimacy in particular. This means that I can’t deal with all that “queer identity politics” rubbish in bed, which, frankly, means I can’t deal with “queer people” in bed. (i.e. I am a lesbian in that I am a woman who wants to be with another woman.) I agree with Chuey in that I’ve learned not to compromise my standards; as well, in terms of self-worth, I’ve learned that being physically and emotionally abused is not OK, and that I’m a fucking superstar.

Valerie Anne: I learned to be brave; to tell someone how you feel before it’s too late, to stand up for yourself when you’re not being treated right, to say goodbye when it’s time. And that if you’re too embarrassed to introduce them to your friends (or worse, embarrassed after you do) it’s probably a bad sign. I say “learned” but I’ve been single for quite some time now, and I imagine these lessons will fade as fast as the ones from my high school physics class (exhibit a: the bruise on my hip from where I misjudged a corner and walked into a desk).

Jill Guccini: Nobody—whether it be an ex-girlfriend, an ex-friend, or just an acquaintance who isn’t worth your time—should make you feel like you’re a bad person, or selfish, or wrong, or not smart enough, or anything less than worthy of goodness and light. Someone who loves you should be able to point out your flaws, but love you for them—not manipulate with them, not try to change them. They should make you feel like you are awesome, special, and beautiful, and that you always have been and always will be—no hesitation, no doubt.

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Ali Davis: Offering your whole heart to someone can get you hurt like nothing you’ve ever felt before. But turning yourself into a person who can offer her whole heart to someone is worth that risk.

Eboni Rafus: My high school sweetheart introduced me to Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. An ex-girlfriend showed me the difference between camping and “glamping” and proved to me that, although I have no desire to sleep on the ground, cook over a camp fire or carry my own poop in bags,“glamping” can be fun—especially if it’s done amongst the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Yet, the best gift an ex has ever given me, are the lessons I learned about relationships after ours was over. I could write a long essay on this topic, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll narrow it down to three main concepts:

1. “When people show you who they are, believe them” — Dr. Maya Angelou

When a relationship is new, people are usually on their best behavior. Your date may be sweet and charming to you, but the way a person treats someone one they are trying to woo is only a small window into their true character.  Pay attention to the way they treat the server who is overwhelmed with the Friday night dinner rush and takes a lifetime to bring you the check. Listen closely to the way they speak to their family members or talk about their friends. Because when the wooing phase has ended and the honeymoon is over, the person they are with the co-worker they don’t quite see eye to eye with is the person you are going to be sleeping next to every night. If someone shows you that they are selfish and narcissistic or insensitive and cruel, or disloyal and immature believe them. Don’t make excuses for their behavior. It doesn’t matter how crappy their childhood was or how poorly they were treated in a past relationship, that’s no excuse for them treating you poorly now.

2.There’s a big difference between loving someone unconditionally and enabling them. You can understand where other people are coming from while still knowing your worth. It is generous to accept someone’s flaws, but you should never accept less than you deserve.

3. I have realized that sometimes having your worst fears realized can be liberating. You no longer have to worry about something horrible happening. It did. And you lived through it. What else is there to fear? When you go through your worst nightmare and come out the other side, it doesn’t just make you stronger, it sets you free.

Karman Kregloe: I learned that when their ex tells you “She’s your problem now!” it’s probably true!

Dana Piccoli: I learned the importance of a good love letter. To never pass up an opportunity to kiss in a photobooth. That a well-crafted mix CD (RIP) can open up my world to music I’d never thought I’d love. To not be an asshole who just disappears when I can’t deal. To open up my heart time and time again, even if it meant I needed a dustpan and broom to gather all the pieces. To forgive. Oh, the blessing of forgiveness.

Lucy Hallowell: OK, so I’m the weirdo who has zero ex-girlfriends. The closest thing I’ve got is a girl I was stupidly, impossibly in love with in high school. She taught me that under the right circumstances I am a tolerable human being and that girls really like it when you bring them hot chocolate chip cookies.

Jenna Lykes: Well, Lucy, I guess we’re both weirdos… I’m probably going to sound like a bit of a freak here, but I don’t really have any exes. (Let’s just chalk it up to being a late bloomer and then meeting my soon-to-be wife at the age of 20, OK?) However, my one semi-ex from college (“semi” because I maintain that we were never really dating) helped me realize the importance of getting out of my own head every once in a while.

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Heather Hogan: My first girlfriend taught me like a zillion lifehacks you can do with ice cube trays. She was a savant with those things. Like, OK, if you freeze red wine and white wine in little cubes and then store then in (separate) Ziploc bags in the freezer, you’ll always have wine on hand for cooking. And if you crumble up Oreos and freeze them in little blocks with milk, you can put those cubes in coffee for one of the most delicious treats of all time. You can freeze herbs in olive oil for amazing seasoning cubes, homemade tomato sauce cubes for soups and sauces, Jell-O shots with real fruit. If you freeze your fruit into cubes, your smoothies will be thicker and more delicious. (Also good for frozen cocktails that aren’t watered down and look super cool.) You can make little mini-popsicles with real fruit and mini layered cheesecakes. You can freeze chocolate and add it to regular milk! She also taught me that if someone is a dick about your favorite TV shows, you’re doomed.

Kim Hoffmann:

  1. My first-ever girlfriend was in the army, and she was stationed overseas for 90% of it. I learned how to love-hate Skype, ask questions that needed answering right away (because if not then, perhaps I wouldn’t get the chance for weeks while she went on mission), prepare for the worst, send a kick-ass care package, and come to grips with the cluster fuck of emotions I, nor maybe anyone, is quite prepared for.
  2. Dating older does NOT necessarily mean wiser/better/healthier/etc.
  3. Verbal abuse is abuse. And when you’re grinding your teeth in the night, and your stomach hurts in the morning, you better believe your body is trying to tell you something your mind doesn’t want to admit—listen to your body, your gut.
  4. Compassion, grace and dignity—never lose those things, especially in arguments. And if you do, recognize that the person you’re with will either love you and forgive you anyway, or they’ll resent you and feel a fucked up level of success in driving you to your weakest points. Dust yourself off and examine how you feel and be honest. Don’t keep a running list of issues you have, don’t take stock of every little fight, communicate it out as it happens.
  5. Love yourself first, then others.
  6. Post-breakup etiquette with exes means no phone calls, no letting them cry to you, no guilt trips or pity parties.
  7. Never apologize for someone else. Saying “sorry” doesn’t fix things if they can’t see their harm or bad judgment.
  8. Most importantly, my exes taught me to be strong. Fuck it if they didn’t like my story-telling, my work, my friends, had jealousies and bruised egos, had high expectations of me that couldn’t be met, or felt I should do things THEIR way or no way. Being independent and having your autonomy is crucial, and someone out there DOES get you, wants you to tell stories ’til you’re blue in the face, respects and admires your dark parts, and admits to their own faults.

p.s. Confidence is sexy. That’s an important condition to be aware of, always.

Erika Star: Time and time again, my exes remind me of the relationship golden rule: The only thing better than dating is being single.

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Elaine Atwell: Oh goodness, my relationship with my ex taught me everything. In my pursuit of her (which took years. Literally, years.) I learned that your heart knows things that the rest of you can’t understand, but that the expression “follow your heart” is dangerous, because your heart will lead you up the steep side of a mountain on your hands and knees. I also learned that Domino’s will deliver pizza to the wall outside a girl’s house while you wait for her to come home so you can tell her you love her.

In our actual relationship I learned that the best romantic gestures are the little things, that meteor showers never start on time, and that you are capable both of giving another person great joy and of causing them great pain. I started to learn what it meant to be responsible for someone besides myself, but I don’t think I’ve finished learning that yet.

At the end, I learned the hard way that someone else can pour love and faith on you but it’s no substitute for doing the hard work of earning love and faith in yourself. Also, if you’re going to hide your diary, HIDE IT GOOD.

Even now, I still feel like I’m learning from her. The last time we talked she told me “if you’re not doing something that terrifies you, then what are you doing with your life, really?” And I was like “Goddamn it, you know me so well.”

Trish Bendix: I learned that no matter how many things you have in common, and how much of your life you want to share, you have to keep some things for yourself. You are your own person and so is she. Don’t let that change or you’ll both lose yourselves.

Also, I need someone who can cook.

What did you learn from your ex?

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