The Problem With “To The Girls Who Let Him Go”

Photographed by Natalia Mantini
Have you seen this "To the girls who let him go" meme? It’s an open letter barreling through Facebook and Instagram like a tornado released from the depths of Satan’s Pinterest account. Straight women everywhere are posting sappy selfies captioned with messages to all of their partners’ exes — the women who presumably mistreated their men and led them to their current relationship. It’s all inspired by one woman’s Instagram post that went viral this week. The quote, posted by smsolis90, continues as follows: "Thank you so much. Thank you for walking out of his life or letting him walk out of yours. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to love him and do things that would make him happy, to really keep him. Thank you for hurting him. If not, he wouldn’t have learned what something as valuable as we have looks and feels like. I will do all the things you failed to do for him, like be there for him, prioritize him, not make him feel like he is just an option, Give him time and affection even when he is not asking for it. I will take care of the man you failed to appreciate. I will love the man you took for granted. I will do anything to keep him and make him stay. I will love him for all that he is, and will support him in anything that he wants to be. I will be the partner you failed to become for him. I will be the woman who will never make the same mistakes that you did. I will never let him go." According to The Daily Mail, "mumsnet commenters" (not sure if that’s British for "trolls" or what) have called this "vomit-inducing." And while I agree that they are correct about that, this trend is so many other things beyond some sort of Valentine’s-Day-in-April hellscape. What "To the girls who let him go" is really telling (straight) women is that other women are the enemy, and you must spend your days perpetually trying to hold onto your precious man, lest he run off with another eager partner who is more appreciative of his glorious complexities.

What 'To the girls who let him go' is really telling (straight) women is that other women are the enemy.

The assumption is that all of the current boyfriends and husbands were somehow damaged by their long line of bitchy priors, and further, that they required that damage in order to learn the intricacies of their existing love. The whole sentiment here is, "Sorry you missed out on the gold standard of a man I have managed to earn." Except, it’s nearly impossible to tell what someone else’s relationship was like based on one account. This trend is like what would happen if someone wrote a reboot of Avril Lavigne’s "Sk8r Boi" as an Instagram caption, because I’ll be damned if "I will take care of the man you failed to appreciate" doesn’t ring of the rhetorical, "Does your pretty face see what he’s worth?" Stay with me through this crucial nostalgic analogy. In the hit 2002 song, the overriding philosophy is that the "Sk8r Boi" was a beautiful soul who needed to be nourished by Avril’s love. (How dare the ballerina he dated first ignore him? She’s nursing a baby all alone now out of narrative spite.) Except, I wonder what that song might have sounded like from the ballerina’s perspective. Is it possible that the sk8r boi maybe, just maybe, wasn’t the best partner to her? Maybe he forgot the ballerina’s birthday or stood her up for their weekly date at the local Panera. Maybe he didn’t wear enough deodorant, as was the case with one of my otherwise cute middle school boyfriends. We really just do not know what sk8r boi’s deal was. What "Sk8r Boi" and this new incarnation ignore is that there are two sides to every failed relationship. It’s not as simple as one woman who didn’t succeed in tending to the lovely little flower that is a man’s heart, only to let it die before being graced by the hands of a better gardener (like, presumably, Avril Lavigne). Beyond unnecessarily pitting women against each other, this open letter format implies that all men are fragile creatures who must be cared for like a small bird on life support. And that’s not great. It doesn’t give men enough credit, and it frames women as caretakers for their emotional well-being — which doesn’t seem particularly healthy, either. If you want someone to be intensely dependent on you, get a puppy.

This open letter format implies that all men are fragile creatures who must be cared for like a small bird on life support.

Also, it appears as though, in the universe of the initial letter, such caretaking goes hand-in-hand with ownership. There’s "Thank you for giving me the opportunity…to really keep him" and "I will do anything to keep him and make him stay" and "I will never let him go." Well, jeez. Is he trying that hard to get away? Because, lady, I don’t know, but perhaps there are other issues beyond potentially toxic ex-girlfriends which have prevented him from really feeling truly loved. I don’t mean to judge the intricacies of one woman’s relationship, but that’s exactly what this open letter format does to every ex-girlfriend out there. If the "girls" of the intro were singular, then perhaps this could have been an elaborate act of passive aggression gone awry. It may have been specifically targeting a specific ex-girlfriend — one who didn’t answer the guy's calls and rudely told him his dreams of being an architect were far-fetched on account of the fact that he couldn’t draw. Who can say? It’s not "girl," though; it’s "girls," and it’s also being shared and reposted in the way of a recipe for calorie-free cookie cake. Clearly, something much bigger than an out-of-control subtweet is happening here. This seems to be relatable to the many women who are celebrating their love by collectively trashing any other woman who has been non-platonically involved in their partners' lives. The fact that it went viral signals that this kind of retrograde "hold onto your man!" "other women are the enemy!" thinking still resonates with people on some level. Theoretically speaking, the ideal relationship is an egalitarian one. In a practical sense, the best relationships are a balance of the preferences of the people within them. That could be something not quite egalitarian. Frankly, it’s nobody’s business. This letter insists otherwise. It makes a judgement call about the details of previous relationships while condemning every participant in them aside from the current partner. And let’s make one thing very clear: Heterosexual couples do not always split up because The Woman was unable to make The Man happy. That sets an expectation in which the entire goal of any straight relationship is satisfying him, as if dating, for women, were a job opportunity involving blow jobs and exceptional lasagna-making skills. Working to make each other happy ought to be the goal of any romantic partnership, and if that effort were only ever intended to be one-sided, well, then the "girls who let him go" sure as hell made the right decision.

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