by Amy Alkon
Q: My boyfriend of eight months was with his ex for almost five years. Unfortunately, she passed two years ago. I have sympathy for him, but occasionally he’ll call me by her name, and it’s really upsetting. I feel like she’s haunting his brain, and I don’t know how to do an exorcism. How do I take my rightful place in his life?—Can’t Compete
A: If you’re putting on some skimpy somethings to get your boyfriend in the right mindset in bed, ideally, they aren’t three strategically located “Hello, My Name Is…” stickers.
It’s understandable that you’re feeling bad, but his detours into Wrongnameville probably don’t mean what you suspect they do. Using the wrong name is what memory researchers call a “retrieval error,” describing how an attempt to get some specific item from memory can cause multiple items in the same category to pop up. Basically, your brain sends an elf back into the stacks to get the name to call someone, and he just grabs the first name he spots that’s associated with “girlfriend” and girlfriend-type situations. (Lazy little twerp.) This sort of cognitive error—following a well-worn path (five years of grabbing the late ex’s name)—is more likely when a person is tired or preoccupied. In other words, your boyfriend’s name-swapping may be a sign that he needs to stop multitasking; it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been taping a cutout of her face over yours in his mind.
There is a solution, and no, it doesn’t involve inventing a time machine so he can go back 20 years and get in the habit of calling all women “babe.” It turns out that a person can get better at retrieving the right name with practice. Cognitive psychologist Gordon Bower explained in Scientific American that the one making the error needs to consistently correct themselves or be corrected and then repeat the right name a few times. It would be best if you correct him teasingly, and perhaps incorporate visual aids like homemade flashcards—ideally of you in various states of undress with your name on them.
Assuming he isn’t trudging around in all black like a Fellini film widow or putting the ex’s urn between you two in bed, it might help to consider how he is when he’s with you: Engaged? Loving? Present? If so, do your best to focus on this—lest you be tempted to go low-blow and tit for tat and start screaming out dead men’s names in bed: “Ooh, Copernicus … Oh, my God, Cicero … I mean, take me, Archimedes!”
Q: My boyfriend just broke up with me but wants to “stay friends” and keep hanging out on those terms. (He says, “My life is much better with you in it.”) I’d like to be friends eventually, but I told him that it’s just too painful and confusing to see him now. He says I’m being dramatic and unreasonable and keeps calling.—Broken
A: This guy’s notion of how a breakup should work is like telling an employee, “Hey, you’re fired, but please feel free to come in a few times a week and do some light janitorial work.”
A breakup is supposed to be an ending, not a “let’s continue as if very little has changed, and I’ll pretend not to notice those big wet mascara stripes down your cheeks.” Research by clinical psychologist David Sbarra confirmed what most of us already know about getting dumped—that contact with your former partner while you’re trying to recover jacks up feelings of love and sadness, setting back your healing. You need time and distance to process and accept the change in your relationship; you can’t just send a memo to your emotions, ordering them to recategorize the guy: “Cut the love. From now on, respond to him like he’s a brick or maybe a lamp.”
It’s wonderful to have a man who insists on standing by you, but not because it’s better for him than respecting your need to go away and lick your wounds. This is not friend behavior. If, despite that, you want him in your life down the road, inform him that for now, you’ve made a “no contact” rule—lasting until you feel ready to see him on different terms. When he (inevitably) tries to break it, politely reiterate it and end the conversation. The sooner he’s out of your daily life the sooner you’ll be open to a new man—dreamy as it would be to spend lazy afternoons at your ex’s place writing him letters of recommendation for prospective girlfriends and Photoshopping your arm out of pictures so he can post them on Tinder.