The Ex factor: Is raking up the past a good idea?
If you've ever wondered what went wrong with your former lovers, a new website offers a way to find out – without all that emotional drunk-dialling?
"He did feel the same, Elinor – for weeks and weeks he felt it. I know he did, and nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have done it, I was as dear to him as my own soul could wish." The words spoken by Sense and Sensibility's Marianne Dashwood are just as relevant today as they were 200 years ago in expressing the confusion many of us have felt after being dumped with little or no explanation.
If Marianne was a) not fictional and b) alive today, she could seek solace in searching her e-reader for self-help books, scrutinise her ex's Facebook page for coded insights into his feelings, or, from this year, turn to the website wotwentwrong.com, which claims to offer a "socially acceptable" way to find out why past relationships have failed.
It works by sending a questionnaire asking about the reasons for the break-up to your ex-partner or a one-time date, essentially giving them the power to criticise the relationship and you. In the month since it launched, the site has had 50,000 visitors. Its creator, Audrey Melnik, says it's useful for people looking to move on from the past. "Many people are scared to find out what went wrong, but when they do they are relieved that it's not their worst fears," she explains.
I am not good at relationships. At the age of 28, a number of my friends are settled, yet I haven't ever even got to the cohabiting stage. Perhaps it's because my relationships have been, at worst, a sly form of psychological warfare in which each party attempts to undermine and ultimately destroy the other, and at best, moderately dysfunctional. Fun though this is, it might be time to confront the horrifying concept that the reason I can't manage to have a proper grown-up relationship is that it's not them, it's me. So I've used Melnik's website to contact my exes and ask them what went wrong.
It's a reassuringly formal, almost corporate approach to a break-up. If you're on the receiving end of the "feedback request" you get an email saying, "so-and-so is hoping to understand what went wrong with your dates." You'll get to see how your ex rates your kissing technique, sense of humour and other aspects of your personality. To encourage a reply, you only get to see their answers once you've filled it in. I'm sceptical; can you really work out the reasons for a palimpsest of relationship failures using a few tick-boxes? I swallow my pride, send off some requests, and wait.
The first to reply is Peter*, my ex-boyfriend from school, who I'm still friends with. Nervously, I click the link to his response. He has ticked "I don't feel like I'm a priority" and written, "I think the theme of priority fits in with the change of life we were going through. We were teenagers." Then there is a separate message, "My mind is firmly trained on the laughs we had: our attempts to dye my hair (and my shorts), trying to print fake IDs on your printer, taking you to the ball and feeling all grown up!" and a long list of ticked attributes, designed to cushion the blow of the feedback, such as, "you are creative", "you are adventurous", "you are funny" and so on.
So far, so good. On a high, I send out some more requests that I'd been putting off because I was worried the answers might be more brutal than Peter's. I feel fairly sure I'll take their criticism – I mean, "feedback" – in a balanced way and not crumble, sobbing, into a ball of recrimination and self-loathing. But even so, is your ex really the best authority on why things didn't work?
Susan J. Elliott, the author of the blog Getting Past Your Past and the book Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You says, "asking your ex what was wrong is actually the opposite of what I recommend. Closure is something that has to come from inside you." But what if you obsess over a break-up and you can't move on? "You have to train your mind. Say to yourself, 'I'll think about it for 20 minutes and then call a friend or go for a walk.' Also, people can sift through the remains of the relationship and decide what was wrong or right for them. A person who's either angry or sad will polarise and fixate on the things that justify that feeling, so you have to look at the good and the bad together to get over them."
Jay is the next to reply and it's not pleasant reading. We were together for eight months in a volatile relationship. Jay has ticked "inflexible", and "not flexible enough" and also "too inconsiderate". He hasn't written anything to explain, but there is an automatically generated advice box saying: "Perhaps you've read one of the many dating books that encourages you to be b**chy if you want your guy to stick around... but it has more to do with standing up for yourself and refusing to put up with B.S. than it does with being selfish, unkind, thoughtless, or rude."
I tell Melnik I found her site's advice a little bit harsh. "Thanks for your feedback," she says, "some of the advice is from products and some of it is from our relationship counsellor."
I spend the next few days trying to demonstrate my flexibility and considerate nature to workmates, friends and anyone who'll put up with it. Jay has hit a nerve.
Victoria Alexander, the programme leader of the MSc in therapeutic counselling at the University of Greenwich, makes me feel slightly better. "If your ex has said you are inflexible that's your ex's perspective. Perhaps he or she was highly controlling," she suggests. "Any relationship advice that's one-sided and supports one person's judgment over another feels rather unhelpful. In a relationship where one partner is controlling and the other is compliant or submissive, for example, it just colludes with the difficult patterns that were already in the relationship and probably caused the break-up." So this journey into the past might actually do me more harm than good. But I plough on.
Another reply says I'm inflexible! This time from a guy I went on a few dates with years ago. He got together with someone else, whom he is now about to marry. "I was looking for 'too flexible' but it wasn't listed," he writes and follows up with a Facebook message, "By the way, I wasn't asked to rate you with numbers. Too obvious to say I'd give you one?" I'm quite relieved he didn't take it too seriously, but it didn't resolve my curiosity about him.
On Twitter, I ask about other people's reasons for breaking up, and get a deluge of replies – everything from "too tall" to the eye-wateringly honest: "It was because the way you licked your lips during sex made me want to be sick" and the downright worrying: "I'm just grateful I didn't have a pet bunny!"
I'm beginning to see that there isn't anything I can do to make myself into an ideal girlfriend. Trying to work out a formula is just too simplistic. One overriding theme, though, is that there's nothing particularly wrong with me or them – but that we didn't work well together.
An email from a Twitter follower sums it up: "The reason I gave was the usual, 'It's not you, it's me'," he writes, "the actual reason was – I needed you for companionship until somebody more suitable came along. And now the right person has come along: if I don't take this opportunity now, I know I'll regret it."
I suppose I knew it wasn't working in each of those relationships – and the reasons why don't ultimately matter. What's important is moving on, and you don't need a website to tell you that.
*Some names have been changed
Independent News Service