The ‘psycho ex’ trope: why is it so gendered?

Words by Stefanie Ferguson and Florence Reeves-White

For centuries women have been called ‘hysterical’. From Salem to the Suffragettes, women’s feelings have been invalidated and ridiculed in the name of silencing them. The ‘psycho ex’ trope is repeatedly cemented in public discourse, with the bunny boiler in ‘Fatal Attraction’ providing an iconic example of how ‘crazy’ women can be when faced with the loss of a man’s love. Women do, of course, act in unsavoury ways after the dissolution of a relationship and should be liable for behaving as such, but why does there seem to be such an imbalance in the way we treat typical break up etiquette? 

It may not feel like it at the time, but when a romantic relationship comes to an end it’s generally for the best. It can seem tacky to preach clichés like ‘when one door closes, another one opens’ or ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,’ but they may come from a place of truth. The notion that all heartbreak will eventually bring about a positive change is thrown at you from all angles, usually from loved ones fancying themselves as advice athletes, convinced that their shot’s the one that’ll really stick. But what if the light at the end of the tunnel is tinted a healthy shade of regret? What if you’re faced with derogatory labels that you can’t live down, simply for fighting for someone important to you? 

Everyone copes with a broken heart differently and we all have the potential to become what may seem like the worst version of ourselves in that time. Some of us mope and don’t leave the house, or we dive headfirst into work or a new hobby. We can eat too much or not enough. Our parents may have had voicemails and polaroids to sob over, but as millennials and Gen Z’ers we have smartphones and social media — there are only so many avenues to explore when staring at a printed picture, but the internet allows us to obsess over past lovers in a uniquely agonising form of torture and self-deprecation. We’re blessed to have the boundless capacity to peer into the new, shiny lives of our former partners and their new beaus, or drunkenly text to say that we miss them over a contraband kebab in our Uber home.

Some perhaps take a more dignified approach to the big split, but ultimately we’re all entitled to indulging our broken hearts in some capacity. It takes time to mourn our former lovers, it takes patience and a steady hand to thread the remedial needle, it takes strength and perseverance to stitch shut our open wounds. 

This is a period of frantic emotion and our behaviour is often unfairly gendered. Men are entitled to and capable of the same range of emotions as women, yet it hardly ever seems to be them portrayed as hysterical or wild in a tale of two ex partners. Have we not all heard a man referring to a woman in their past as crazy? While women are brandished as such, a possessive male is often deemed ‘caring’ or ‘concerned’ — while his avid interest in the whereabouts and actions of his partner evoke a sense of his undying love, a woman expressing similar interests is often seen as controlling and unyielding, the old ‘ball and chain’ mentality.

“From Salem to the Suffragettes, women’s feelings have been invalidated and ridiculed in the name of silencing them.”

So, as we all stumble forward, attempting to navigate heartbreak, who is shaming our male counterparts and holding them accountable for their actions when they behave in the exact same way? 

I have an ex who contacts me every time he’s drunk to tell me that he misses me, all the while he’s in a relationship with somebody else. Having been on the receiving end of such messages for years, I’ve grappled with the moral conundrum of whether to tell his girlfriend. Here lies yet another double standard. Should I decide to share messages with her, would I not be the crazy, jealous ex-partner who’s taken things too far? So, in my peripheral he stays, subjecting us both to emotional infidelity, my fear of seeming green-eyed with envy enough to stop me from protecting another female from the pain of wasting time on a tainted man. Once again, the man is left unscathed.

It’s possible, of course, to be regarded as a favourable female ex. As a ‘cool’ ex you’re expected to walk on eggshells around your old partner in social settings, bite your tongue and not speak out against them, all in an attempt to avoid any awkward important conversations. Typically discussions that may offer some slice of the foreign, pined-after notion of ‘closure’. We’re expected to reserve our feelings in order to avoid being brandished with the ‘crazy’ brush and the connotations that come with it. 

In Femme faTales’ book of the month ‘Three Women’, Lisa Taddeo provides an insight into why we may be so desperate to tarnish the romantic reputation of our past lovers:

“Even in love [we] understand there is competition — a frantic need to be the one who will hurt less than the other.”

In a desperate effort to undermine the positive qualities and charming nuances of an ex partner’s character, we paint tales of the relationship in a harmful hue, only favouring our own colouring and complexion. The gendering of such a trait could be the result of a disparity between how each gender deals with the spectrum of emotions that such a separation provokes us to explore in ourselves. Although we aren’t excusing such behaviour, the tendency to label meaningful conversation as ‘madness’ and passionate expression as ‘psychotic’ may stem from some deep-set internalisation of toxic masculinity being projected onto the women in a man’s life.   

The ‘crazy woman’ compartmentalisation may be a coping mechanism for many aggrieved ex-partners, but aside from the obvious stigmatisation of mental illness that the ‘psycho ex’ phrase encourages, its gendered use only serves to feed into the idea that only unstable and incomplete women can live a life not in need of romantic love from a man. This outlook not only devalues the legitimate depth of feeling that single-sex romantic relationships nurture, but also ridicules any woman who feels she doesn’t need a man in her bed to make her feel safe and warm at night. 

A woman may end a relationship for many reasons, but if she displays anger or contempt or upset at the way she’s been treated, she’s immediately unseen. She’s shut out from the mainstream of male-friendly females, boxed off and shunned from the room of ‘rational romantics’ and seen as an outcast. Who could possibly be so shameful as to put their emotions on the line, to wear their heart on their sleeve and say how they feel? Psychoses is not a trivial matter that can be attached to a throwaway comment about your disgruntled lover. Women are not crazy for speaking up when they feel hurt. Let’s work together at dismantling this mentality and making the notion that women are hysterical, historical.

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