“Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” ~ J.K. Rowling
I have a little confession.
I don’t typically call my ex-boyfriends by their names. Among my friends, the people I’ve dated—however casually—often received a nickname. From that point forward, whenever we talked about those people, we used their nicknames rather than their actual names when referring to them.
It started out as a coping mechanism when I was recovering from a particularly tough breakup. If I didn’t invoke that one name, I couldn’t miss him. So we began calling him “The Marine.” It felt like it took away some of the power and created just a little more distance for me. He was a job, not a person, and I could deal with that loss a little more easily.
Then it became a bit of a joke because not all of the nicknames for the men I dated were flattering—”The High Functioning Alcoholic,” “The Con Artist,” “The Mansplainer.” Some of the names developed organically from various situations, but I noticed that I stopped using their first names altogether.
And I’ve been thinking that by doing this, instead of taking back my power, I was actually giving it away. It seemed like it would be healthier not to invoke the names of people who were no longer a part of my life, but I think by using nicknames instead of actual names I gave those situations power over me. I was still protecting myself from hurt by giving myself this distance when what I needed to do was to feel the hurt and move on. I needed to relegate those names to all of the other names that make up my life story rather than giving them special significance with a nickname, however apt.
When I went through my divorce, my parenting class taught us to refer to the other parent as the child’s father (or mother) rather than “my ex.” Because, the instructors reminded us, they were no longer our anything. They are simply the parent of the child we share. Nothing more and nothing less. Using the word “ex” to describe someone might be accurate in its own way, but doesn’t it once again assign them a special significance when the part that many “exes” played in our lives is now over?
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~ William Shakespeare
Maybe this is true, but it still seems to confer a certain amount of power when we avoid using a particular name—and not just in relationships.
In the last year, the feminist movement took back several words and phrases, and reclaimed them. We rebranded hate-filled language and took it up as our rallying cry. When we heard the vile words, “Grab them by the pussy,” from a then-presidential candidate, we took up the cry, “Pussy grabs back.”
When we heard a senator try to silence a female colleague with the words, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” we took to social media with the words, “Nevertheless, she persisted” to demonstrate our strength and perseverance.
When a female presidential candidate was referred to by her competitor as a “nasty woman,” we owned that, too. We took back the power of every ugly expression by owning it and turning it into a battle cry for equal rights.
What if we’re giving away our power by refusing to use our exes’ names? What if the nicknames or the names we don’t invoke actually make those memories stronger than if we simply used their names? What if we’re standing in the way of our own healing in this effort to protect ourselves?
Names are powerful. But not using them also creates a transfer of power. So we must learn to take them back, to use our language to break down hate, and to lift others up. We must learn that avoiding names doesn’t help us in the end. So we begin to use them, to break down our own resistance.
Maybe if we stop calling someone an “ex,” we can figure out how to put the past completely behind us. Maybe we can let it serve as a reminder that they aren’t our anything anymore. Not our exes. Not ours at all. And with that knowledge, we can take back the power to move on and live the incredible lives we’re capable of living.