It is said that knowledge is power. It is also said that power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Both statements make sense in and of themselves, but when taken together, they send a terribly mixed message, especially as far as relationships are concerned. When we first get to know someone, we ask a lot of questions and get a lot of answers. In the beginning, these questions might remain on the surface, light and easy. It's enough to know that we're asking them, that we're interested in the other person's life. The same is true for what is asked of us. What and how much to reveal, when to reveal it - all of this says as much about us as it does about the nature of the question itself. How leading is it? What lies beneath the question about our family, about our past relationships, about what kind of man or woman we usually go for?
In answering our potential lover's questions honestly (or dishonestly), we immediately set up the framework for the rest of the relationship. That initial question and answer period plays out in all sorts of ways - from deepening our conversations to stopping them cold. One misplaced answer can result in a terrific upset, causing far more damage than good. Though perhaps the most leading, most dangerous question of all is about The Ex.
We all come with baggage, though this word alludes to the entirety of the contents in the suitcase rather than the suitcase itself. In professional situations, we are asked to leave our personal problems at home. Though more times than not, this is a Herculean task. We carry our pasts with us everywhere we go and are really nothing more or less than an amalgam of our histories, both distorted and enhanced by the people who come into and out of our lives. Love might make us better people, but love cannot change the essence of who we were before we met and fell for the PhD or the lingerie model. More times than not, love simply masks our day-to-day fears, of abandonment, loneliness, worthlessness. It can't and won't contain the baggage we tote around, from one failed relationship to the next. Rather, it sets out to undo the locks and lift up the lid, so that we can peer into those cramped, untidy spaces, where our jeans and T-shirts lie wrinkled and bunched.
Coming to any new relationship without expectation is hard and made all the harder for the knowledge that we were not the first in his bed and, most likely, will not be the last. He's had his share of exes, as has she, but to compare one to the other, the ex of five years ago to the current boyfriend of today, is just plain wrong. Though we are nothing more than the impressions we make and leave behind on one another, to mention to a new girlfriend that she reminds you of your ex might seem like a compliment, but in reality, it's about as insensitive as you can get. We all want to feel as if we're unique and special, that this other person sees us for who we really are. This is impossible if we are set beside the one who got away or if we make constant reference to our ex's glowing attributes. The message then is a clear one: you are not her and will never be good enough.
And yet, if she, your ex, was so super, wouldn't you still be with her? If he was such a standup guy, why didn't you marry him? Chances are your ex isn't so spectacular, but this new person might be. Why risk running him off with long discussions about your ex? Why chance a good thing with him by bringing up how alike you guys are (or aren't)? And, more to the point, why do you feel the need to let him know that your ex won the Pulitzer Prize or that he couldn't spell his own name? Either way, you're setting up a situation rife with insecurity and hurt. After all, how would you feel if the love of your life still pined for the fantasy of someone who didn't measure up to begin with? It seems to me that anyone who talks about her ex in the company of a new romantic partner isn't only still too emotionally invested in the past, but someone who doesn't really get that he became an ex for a reason and that if she not careful, she'll be staring another ex in the face, trying desperately to figure out why.