A romantic relationship ending, in most cases, implies that one or both members of a couple were unhappy in the relationship. The mechanics by which a relationship ends are often far more complex. Specifically, what people tell themselves about why the breakup occurred and how they characterize the other person post-breakup vary based on the personalities and circumstances involved. As a psychologist who specializes in relationship issues, I’ve found a common disturbing trend in relationships: men and women, after the relationship ends, publicly dismissing their ex as "crazy."
A current popular television show, "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," (CW Network) provides one example of how pervasive the trend is in our culture. Yet the trend reveals more than a cultural dynamic; it also reflects something psychologically about the speaker employing such a characterization. The way a person characterizes an ex is based on countless factors: the degree to which the speaker accepts responsibility for their role in the relationship’s dissolution; their capacity for rational thinking; the degree to which they engage in black-or-white thinking; their capacity for empathy and compassion; their degree of defensiveness; their degree of vengefulness or vindictiveness (i.e., how much they need to win in the court of public opinion); and others.
How a person talks about their ex reflects as much, if not more, about the speaker than the person they’re characterizing. What’s interesting psychologically is that, based on the two-way nature of relationships and the messy complexity inherent in the interpretation of behaviors and the expression of emotions, it’s typically problematic to apply total guilt or total innocence to just one member of the dyad. In many cases, suggesting that one member of a couple is all good and the other is all bad or "crazy" isn’t a fair characterization of either member of a couple.
There’s no question that some flagrant behaviors in the context of a couple are morally wrong and often even illegal. For example, physically abusive behaviors are clear-cut examples of behavior that is ethically wrong – and illegal. In the case of such relationships ending, what is a fair way to characterize the other person overall? In these instances, calling the ex "crazy" is not necessarily an accurate description. What does the word crazy mean, after all? In cases of behavior that is widely established to be unethical, cruel, or even illegal, it ‘s fair and justifiable to say that the ex was abusive, maladjusted, and cruel. The problem is that scores of men and women who didn’t necessarily suffer abuse or other extreme victimization publicly refer to their ex as ”crazy.”
In many cases, it’s a warning sign when someone calls their ex "crazy." In some relationships, one partner ends up acting “crazy” because, as a pattern, they have been lied to, controlled, cheated on, or manipulated. Such experiences can cause so much distress and anxiety that the individual becomes overly emotional, stuck in a fight-or-flight response given their intuition that the relationship isn’t emotionally safe. In many cases, it can be the one calling the other “crazy” who is actually fairly disordered.
Another problem with labeling an ex "crazy" is that women are often the targets of such negative characterization, as if getting emotional when you’re upset or when your needs are not getting met is a negative thing. Our culture has a twisted relationship with some emotions – especially anger, with conventional wisdom suggesting that the expression of anger is bad, wrong or pathological. The truth is that anger is a necessary emotion that reminds people when a boundary has been trespassed or they’ve been disrespected. The problem arises when anger is not expressed appropriately and gets over-expressed instead. Once there’s understanding about how to express anger clearly and in a non-attacking way, anger can serve a person and any of their relationships well.
If you start dating someone who calls their ex "crazy," it’s worth discussing with a therapist or a few trusted friends what such a negative, all-or-nothing characterization says about the person you started dating. Rather than calling their ex "crazy," it would be a healthier sign to hear your date share the following information about the past relationship: “My relationship with my ex wasn’t a good one, and it didn’t meet my needs. I will spare you the details, but there were things so-and-so did that were a problem, and I also have to take some accountability for the fact that I voluntarily chose that person in the first place. Ultimately, the best I can do is learn the lessons which will make my next relationship better.”