How to deal with your ex (Day 14)

In just about every episode of The Golden Girls, someone rings the doorbell.

What’s on the other side of the door looks like the opening line of a joke: There may be a priest, a rabbi, a girl scout, a cross-dressing baseball player, a police officer, a stripper dressed as a police officer, someone who’s been lured to the house by an ad in the newspaper, or Rose’s date (who happens to be a little person, except no one mentioned that—and hilarity ensues).

But every fourth or fifth time, it’s Stanley Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband—sometimes wearing a toupee, sometimes not, sometimes down on his luck, sometimes enjoying a short-lived high. He’s there to ask for help, to ask for money, to share a business opportunity. And every time the door swings open and Stan is standing there, the first thing out of his mouth is, “Hi, it’s me, Stan”—and the response ranges from, “Oh no,” to “Who cares,” to “Call the police.”

Stan is a two-timing, unreliable, shallow-minded, overgrown manboy in a leisure suit who sells fake vomit for a living, dates women half his age, and will never, ever get over Dorothy—and she knows it. She has been with him since he got her pregnant in high school. She is his mother figure; he is her cowardly lion. 

In the series’ finale, Dorothy is on her way to the church to marry Lucas when her limo driver takes a detour.

“Driver? Driver! Stop! I said stop! Who the hell do you think you are?” she shouts. The driver stops, turns around, and removes his hat.

It’s Stan.

She worries he’s kidnapping her; he’s not. He says he’s there to say goodbye, and to chauffeur her to the church in style.

He points to a single hair on his forehead. “See this hair, Dorothy? It’s the only one on my forehead. The other cowards retreated years ago, but this proud and loyal sprout clings desperately. It is unrelenting. It is true.”

Dorothy looks at him suspiciously. What about it, she says.

“Don’t you see? I am that hair, and you are my big crazy bald skull.”

“Alright Stanley, the truth,” she says. “As Freud said, our beds are crowded. When I sleep with Lucas I’m not alone. There’s this phantom of you there. I can’t pretend you’re not a part of me.”

“I love you Dorothy. I’ll always love you.”

“And I love you, Stanley.” Then she yanks the hair out of his forehead. “Now drive.”

This is one of my very favorite scenes in all of television.

It’s funny and surprising and heartfelt, and happens, as some of the most meaningful conversations do, at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

As I’m writing this, it’s Valentine’s Day, a time when, whether or not you’re in a significant romantic relationship, you’re probably recalling the other people with whom you’ve spent this holiday, for good or ill. It’s a kind of a bookmark, isn’t it, for the loves of your life. The last time I was in a relationship, it ended exactly one day after Valentine’s Day. Because that’s when you know the fanfare is over. Sometimes it’s clear as day.

A few years ago, I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxStLouisWomen about how I believe it’s time to rethink our approach to romantic relationships. Why? Because the way we think about them now is that they either last, or they fail. It either was a good idea, or a bad idea. Talk about a zero sum game. It occurs to me that the only real condition for a truly “successful” relationship in our culture is that you die while you’re still in it. That’s it.

The fact that women can live longer, fuller, more varied and more independent lives now means that as a woman you really can do anything you want—you can decide to partner or not, and you can decide to move on if something really isn’t working. You can survive, even thrive, on your own if you choose.

And there’s a good chance that even if a relationship is fantastic and fulfilling for a while, maybe a long while, you very well might outlive it.

If you decide that anything that doesn’t last was a mistake, well, that means the future is just a disaster waiting to happen. I don’t choose to look at life or love that way. Do you?

Learning to really know and love another person is never a waste; it’s that effort that defines us as people, and shapes the landscape of our lives.

You can choose to live in a world where love is suspect and dangerous and the precursor to regret—or you can decide to spend it all, every time.

Yes, our beds are crowded. We aren’t just who we’re with today, but who we’ve loved along the way. The thing that all your past relationships have in common: They had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And chances are, you learned something about yourself that you couldn’t have learned any other way.

Dorothy doesn’t have to hate her ex in order to move on. She moves on knowing that love persists in surprising ways, and that there’s more life and love ahead of her, too. Same goes for you. Maybe your ex won’t pick you up on a limo on your way to your wedding. But wherever you go, all the love you have shared is along for the ride.  

Watch my TEDx talk on rethinking happily ever after. 

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