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Stop Being In Relationship Purgatory With Your "Kinda Ex"

Breaking up can be hard to do. But...

Love & Relationships

Live on this earth (and wanna learn from it) long enough and you will probably come to the conclusion that if two things are a process, it's forgiveness and breaking up with an ex. What I mean by that is, just because you verbally declare that you've done either one, just because doing so may truly be good for you, that doesn't always mean that they automatically transpire, fully, the day that you make the decision to do it.

On the forgiving tip, there are still people who I am going through the stages of forgiveness in my mind and heart in order to fully and completely do it (hmm…one day, I should probably expound on that because if grief has stages, forgiveness definitely should/does). As far as breaking up goes? Well, I've shared before that it took me over two decades to really get over my first (everything—check out "6 Reasons Why You STILL Can't Over Your Ex", "Why Running Into Your Ex Can Be The Best Thing Ever" and "Why Every Woman Should Go On A 'Get Your Heart Pieces Back' Tour") and even the last boyfriend that I will ever have in this lifetime (check out "Why I'll Never Call Someone A 'Boyfriend' Again"), we were "officially together" for four years—and then breaking up for two more (and yes, that included having sex). Lawd, that is a lot of time that I can never get back.

It's precisely for that reason that I thought it was so important to write this. It's because time is precious and pretty much non-refundable. Know what else it is? Limited. So, if you've broken up with an ex of yours and yet the relationship doesn't feel fully finished—whether it's because you're still hanging out, still having sex, still communicating on some level or even just still hung up on him—I want to share a few points that can help to get you out of that relational purgatory that you seem to be in.

Why Did You Break Up in the First Place?

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When I reflect back on my past break-ups, if there is a commonality, it's the fact that it was easier to move on when I ended the relationship rather than when the guy did. While, on the surface, that might seem like an ego thing, it really isn't. It was because, if I ended the relationship, I was usually really clear that it was time to. On the other hand, when he did, either I was still caught up in him or I didn't fully understand his reasons. As a direct result, my codependency tendencies (at the time) made me want to try and stick around and make things work anyway.

The only real exceptions were the two men I mentioned in the intro. My first? We never really broke up. Like the movie The Notebook (which is a movie…don't try and make your real life be some damn movie), we would just kinda fade in and out of one another's lives without ever really saying "goodbye". And my last boyfriend? Well, we had been besties before he convinced me (quite literally. I may share that at another time too) to put a romantic spin to the relationship. So, what I realize, looking back, is I wasn't struggling with not being together anymore; I was trying to keep our friendship intact.

Y'all, it took me a lot of years of journaling and article-writing to understand all of this; yet remember that I'm trying to save you some time.

So yeah, if you're in a weird spot with your ex, the first thing I recommend you do is really get clear in your own mind on why the two of you even are exes in the first place. Did you want something that he didn't (or vice versa)? Did he really not treat you all that well? Are you in too much of an unhealthy place to even be in a relationship? Are the both of you just not as compatible as you need to be? Has one of you discovered that you just don't feel the same anymore?

Listen, the fact that y'all are exes at all means that something was not working. So really—why stay? Still, it's hard to get the courage to fully move on until you really get why you should. That's why knowing why it ended is my first suggestion. Let's move to the next point.

What’s the Benefit to Keeping Him Around?

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Look, I tend to side-eye Dr. Phil, just about as much as the next guy. However, if there is one thing that he has said that I apply to my life on a regular basis is we stay in things that have a payoff. What he means by that is, it doesn't matter how counterproductive, toxic or even just stagnant a person, place, thing or idea may be in our life, if it didn't serve us on some level, we wouldn't keep it.

Take my first, for instance. He's fine (lawd). He's really smart. He's witty as hell. And we click. To this day, if I were to call him up, I'm pretty sure we'd be on the phone for 6-8 hours. We always do that. And so, what I finally had to realize is, what made it hard to let him go, was the familiarity of the relationship. I like how much we really "get" one another. At the same time, the more I come to heal from past traumas that happened even before he came along, the more I have come to the conclusion of what I deserve (and how sometimes that's far better than even what I want) and that no relationship should take over 20 damn years to get somewhere—I see that the payoff of witty banter and sexy attraction isn't as big as it used to be.

I don't care if it's good sex, the fact that you've been with ole' boy a long time, or you're afraid to start over (we all know I could go on and on with other examples), if you really want to get out of relationship purgatory with your ex, you've got to compare and contrast why it's best to leave him alone vs. how it's benefitting you to keep him around on some level. Oh, and make sure that the benefits are holistically benefitting you. Like, if it is because of the sex, is the physical pleasure worth the mental anguish or emotional gymnastics that you are constantly sending yourself through? Is. It. Really?

Have You Ever Really Processed What “Purgatory” Means?

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Ah, purgatory. Even as a marriage life coach, I am constantly learning what it means to love someone and be loved in return. Based on where I am now as a "love student", I would have to say that I've genuinely loved four men. One of those men, we spent several years knowing that we had a truly uncanny connection; however, because he was (and still is) a super commitment-phobe, we could never really get…there. And by "there", what I mean is marriage. Towards the end of our emotional roller coaster ride, he said something to me that clicked in a way that nothing else really had prior to—"Shellie, I care about you. I also feel like I'm in marriage purgatory."

Call it an occupational hazard yet something that I am big on is really paying attention to word definitions. Since purgatory isn't a word that I personally use often, I assumed he meant that he was in limbo. Yeah, not quite. Purgatory means "any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like". Oh OK, Black man. You feel like you're in emotional purgatory. We're good. No, really…we're good.

All things work together. While, in hindsight, considering how close we had become and how much he had benefitted from our connection, I kinda think he was an ass for saying that. Still, his reality is his reality and I've gotta give him the space to feel that way. Besides, because of that little gem (side-eye), I can encourage some of you to ask yourself if you're in something similar. When I think of break-up purgatory, there is actually a song that immediately comes to mind. Any of y'all remember who I consider to be one of the best R&B singers ever? Ms. Lisa Fischer? If so, do you remember her GRAMMY-winning jam "How Can I Ease the Pain"? Talk about some damn purgatory.

Every time that I let you in

You take away something deep within

A fool for love is a fool for pain

But I refuse to love you again

How can I ease the pain

When I know your coming back again

How can I ease the pain in my heart

How can I ease the pain

Love isn't some Disney film or rom-com. It consists of two flawed individuals who care about each other enough to try and make a relationship work, so that they can become better people as a direct result of caring about each other on a deep and profound level. And yes, that can be mad challenging. Listen here, though. What it isn't supposed to do is make you feel like you're in a constant battle between sometimes feeling good and sometimes feeling in some state of mental or emotional anguish—or even like the Universe is somehow punishing you or wanting you to suffer for sticking around.

Again, "he's" an ex for a reason. If you feel like you in any level of purgatory for staying, that is reason enough to shift out. ALL. THE. WAY. OUT.

What Is “Riding the Fence” Holding You Back From?

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Last summer, I wrote an article for the platform entitled, "You Love Him. You Prefer Sex With Your Ex. What Should You Do?". In some ways, pardon the pun, being in that kind of place is like riding a fence. Fences are stationary. They don't get you anywhere. That said, I have talked to countless women over the years who do remain in some sort of one-foot-in-one-foot-out state with their ex. A part of it is because they feel like if they rip the Band-Aid completely off and call it quits that it could be their last chance at being in a serious relationship.

There are a couple of times when I've been in that headspace before. Here's the flip side of the coin that I want you to consider—if he's not good enough to officially be with and yet you allow some sort of "in between" to remain, not only are you sending a very clear message to him that he doesn't have to do more or better, you're always not clearing the path for you to process, heal and better yourself so that you can get into something that is better for you. Something that is on a very clear side.

Listen, healthy men? They are attracted to healthy women. Mature men? They are attracted to mature women. Emotionally available men (and yes they do exist)? They are attracted to emotionally available women and the reality is, if you're still in some-kind-of-something with your ex, you're the one who is unavailable. And there's no telling what kind of possibilities that could be holding you back from.

Be Honest: Is “the Middle” Wasting Your Time?

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I mentioned the importance of valuing time at the beginning of this article and I'm gonna end it here. You know, there's a Scripture in the Bible that says that God is someday gonna spew the lukewarm church out of his mouth—the collection of people who are neither spiritually hot or cold (Revelation 3:16). If you believe that you are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-28), a part of what should come with that is accepting that you also were made to reject "lukewarm" experiences; that you deserve to be in situations that are totally and completely "on". Otherwise, they need to be totally and completely "off".

Women aren't perfect (some of us need to quit acting like we are). Still, when it's coming from a real, genuine and non-needy space, there is absolutely NOTHING like the way we are able to love a man. And the more I have learned to love myself, the more I have learned to fully value what I bring to a relationship—and the time that it takes to nurture it.

That said, that ex of yours? Just like there's a reason for why the two of you broke up, there's a reason why you got together in the first place. So maybe, just maybe, up the road, the two of you can revisit things. For now, though, if things are lukewarm—you're better than that. Let it go. Put all of that super precious time, effort and energy into what can make you a better person—so that the next time a relationship comes along, things can be defined as paradise (bliss). Not purgatory (some level of suffering).

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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