I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “Ex” lately. It’s a harsh word, full of sharp edges and pointy things that scrape and hurt. It’s a word that in two simple characters defines so much, especially the word that may follow it. As a language major I have always had a love affair with words – often regardless of their origin or linguistic domain, and for the past few years at least, have earned my keep with the art form of joining words to express a myriad of ideas and emotions.
If you look up Ex in the dictionary, among the definitions you will find:
Not including, without, removal, out of, to delete, to cross out. Even if you never opened a Latin text book, or snoozed your way through English classes, you know what Ex means and how it was derived. It’s one of the first words that small children recognize and understand: Exit. The way out. The escape route. The door.
It is a simple word, Ex, yet so full of meaning and context. Placing it before the word Spouse, Husband, Wife, Partner, you inherently change not only the person’s status, but frame an entire relationship. Referring to someone as my “Ex Wife” rather than my “Former wife” or my “First wife” speaks volumes as to the existing, and particularly the previous, nature of the relationship. You never hear someone refer to their “ex-lover,” for example. There are too many contradictions in that moniker. One of my friends told me she was once referred to as “the then wife…” which is almost as hard an antecedent as ex-wife. But as it is grammatically incorrect, “then wife” is somewhat softened, if only by the stupidity of the speaker.
I notice when thinking about or speaking about my prior relationships that the word Ex as a modifier tends to be used or not used depending on the prevailing wind of emotion and situation. In moments of softness and reverie, he is the father of my children, or simply identified by his given name. Other days he is just The Ex. It took a number of years, but one day I realized that my first “ex” husband had seamlessly morphed into my “first” husband. I think at that point the wounds had healed and barely a faint scar remained, but until then he was always “ex.”
For the past several years I have been in a significant relationship. It was big and meaningful and full of adjectives that make for great writing and reading. Like any relationship it ebbed and flowed, and had blissfully wonderful and epically devastating days. And as with the tides, some days waves come along and crash on the shore and take down all the swimmers, soaking the towels and chairs, leaving claw mark scars in the sand. Sometimes you get up and keep swimming, or find a new dry patch of sand, and other times you walk off the beach away from the water, taking your soaked towel with you. I guess it all depends on the prevailing winds.
I think about the word Ex in this context – as in an ex-relationship or an ex-lover or an ex-friend, and the word doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s because I’m still on the beach, uncertain of my destination, wondering if this wave was the one that will end the day, or if I simply move to a different place and continue on from a different perspective. Or perhaps it is because ex is indeed too harsh a word – too full of meaning and innuendo to delineate something that could never be fully defined.