A friend recently asked me how many exes I have. Confidently, I replied, “2.87.”
Of course, I am no King Solomon and did not halve my last “ex” - or, more likely, quarter her. (We’ll define an ex in a second here.) Instead, exes can be defined on a weighted scale. We assign a weight of 1 to the person who you probably should’ve and maybe did call your “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” By that, I mean the person lasted (probably) three months or more and the duration of romance included mutual confessions of affection and possibly some public hand-holding or kissing (maybe more!! Insert winking emoji). Fiancé(e)s are given a score of a 2, and ex-spouses (or partners that lasted over half a decade) are given a 3. Naturally, the scale is sliding and up for debate in philosophical circles.
To accumulate my whopping score of 2.87 exes, I summed the skeletons of some half-dozen flings over the last decade (it’s frightening when I can speak of my life in decades). I have never had a complete ex; that is, an ex-girlfriend whose weight would be 1. My highest assigned value would be given to someone who I do conversationally call my “ex” because she is, in fact, the most significant ex of my past…but ex- what? Her score is a 0.66. We dated, yes, but we didn’t date date. She meant a lot to me. In fact, she meant 0.66 to me of what a theoretical actual girlfriend would mean to me. (I’m half-joking.)
My mom (and many other Baby Boomers) have inquired of peers and myself what do millennials call dating. They have detected we are a commitmentphobic generation. What our parents might have called “being serious” in the ‘70s is what we call “hooking up” in the 2000s.
I define the life cycle of a relationship in several phases: flirting, talking, dating, being exclusive, boyfriend/girlfriend (perhaps we now need a gender-neutral term), engaged, RIP. Somewhere between “talking” and “dating” is where I usually crash and burn – and where others are ghosted.
A few years ago, the acronym DTR popped up in some conversations, at brunch tables and happy hours. “Defining the relationship” became the bridge between “dating” and “exclusive,” and possibly “exclusive” and “boyfriend/girlfriend” territory. (I hope there is no ambiguity when couples enter the engaged arena. There is either a ring or there isn’t.) When I say relationship, I mean a big R relationship.
But, again, what is a Relationship? This isn’t just a generational conflict. Peer-to-peer, hookup-to-hookup, most of us can’t see eye-to-eye. I’ve had friends tell me they’re dating someone and, then come to find out, they never kissed; they just hung out and had multiple deep conversations under the stars for months on end. I roll my eyes at some of these anecdotes, but then I know this could be dating for some. Two friends who participated in this unusual rite are now dating – and do more than have conversations under the stars and about the stars. But they didn’t for so long that I dared suggest, “Perhaps you’re just friends?”
Then there are others who rip their clothes from each other’s bodies before the stars have even risen and continue doing so for many fortnights, but would never risk defining their affinity as a relationship, big or little R. Neither are they “friends with benefits,” so they claim.
I guess everyone is friends with benefits in loose vocabulary. Friendship is a benefit, right? (I don’t know of what.)
The label and the definition of a relationship (everything is relational; what is up for debate is whether you capitalize the R), inevitably, falls on the couple and where their eyes align on the scale. Sometimes the definition comes in hindsight—and brings comfort when it initially brought confusion and resistance. When my ex and I finished our whatever, I was surprised and reassured when, months later, she offhandedly called our experience “a relationship.” I did not press for whether she would capitalize the R. I probably wouldn’t. But that didn’t lessen the experience. Our time together was still defining for me (though not defined!).
My most recent ex (her weight is a 0.43) asked me if I had ever been in love. I told her, with as much confidence as I declared the sum of my romantic history to be 2.87, that I had not. She seemed astonished at this assertion, though I expressed no doubt: I have never been in love. I think? For her part, she was a divorcee who also recently exited a long-term Relationship (big R!), so she had brushed against the chemical/sentiment/magic (???) that is Love with a capital L several times more than me.
When I recounted this conversation to my roommate, including my ex’s bewilderment at my historically unbroken heart, my roommate remarked, “What, does she want someone damaged?”
Indeed, did she?
I have, of course, come close to Love. There was “Anna” in middle school who had me under her spell for maybe three years; an extended something in college with an artist (or art major to be more precise if we’re talking definitions); and then more recently, the thing with my 0.66 ex. I like to say I’ve tasted Love and I choked it up.
But, seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in love. For several weeks, I pondered this, between alone time in grocery store aisles, road trips on I-95 that approached quarter-life crises, and long runs among national monuments at night. While I pride myself on being objective and rational, there are many other more analytically-brained people who have tragically been toppled by the whims of romance. What separated me from them and made me immune? Am I as immune as I claim to be, especially as I nurse at least a crack in my heart (but not a schism!)? And what of all my high school classmates on Facebook who have suffered through multiple fractured marriages or relationships that lasted longer than some legal unions? I suspect anyone who comes close to marriage, engagement, or the like has felt love—and lots of us have felt Love more than once for more than one person. We’re all human. Love may be the greatest harm in both Pandora’s box and the serpent’s apple. (Send an au revoir to the fairytale concept of soulmates!)
I began to think, maybe I have been in love. But just as we all define relationships differently, with small and big R’s, love is the same: a spectrum where each of us denotes an individual threshold which separates Love from rudimentary affection and attraction. Arguably, I hold my threshold higher than most. Some have approached the entryway, but none have dared pass (or, my mom would say, I haven’t let them pass). This would explain the multitude who have been in love and the minority who say haughtily, “No, I’ve never been in love. I’m not damaged.”
But we are. We just rate our damage differently and our exes with smaller weights.