Her ex had the wedding they had planned to have!

Who owns the ideas a couple comes up with?

Published October 17, 2005 12:30PM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

A girlfriend of mine and I were discussing this recently. An ex-boyfriend contacted her the week before his wedding. She made inquiries (she hadn't heard from him for six months) and found out through friends that he was having the wedding that they'd planned together. I've experienced similar things several times with exes. When they post personal ads or blogs that describe all the dates they plan to take a woman on, they're always to places I took them. Essential parts of their personalities seem to reflect, well, without sounding utterly narcissistic -- me!

So, in light of books such as "He's Just Not That Into You" and others: Do men build dating structures, then simply insert "woman"? Is this where that arcane "trading up" theory fits in?

You are a man. Even if you've never done such a thing, maybe you've been around it? My friend and I can only hope that love lingers a bit and that this behavior is, in some way, a subconscious tribute to us ... but we have our doubts!

Refusing to Be Traded

Dear Refusing to Be Traded,

I think it's safe to say that, yes, people in relationships, both men and women, do generalize from their experiences, building "dating structures," if you will, and inserting later partners into those structures. And yes, what one learns from one relationship and carries into the next one could be seen as a kind of tribute rather than exploitation.

But what are the rules? If you teach your boyfriend to cook an omelet and then you break up, is he not allowed to cook an omelet for his new girlfriend? You know he's going to cook one. So who owns the omelet? Do you own the omelet? Did you patent the omelet?

An intellectual property lawyer might ask: When you broke up, did he take with him just the general idea of an omelet, or did he take the omelet itself? It's one thing if he cooks an omelet on your stove with your eggs in your pan and then carries the omelet out of your house into his new girlfriend's house and feeds it to her. But every time he cooks an omelet for her, in his pan, or her pan, does he have to credit you for it? What if she asks him where he learned to cook that omelet? Is it permissible to just say, "Oh, I can cook a thing or two." Does he have to say, "My ex-girlfriend, you know, the one I broke up with so long ago I hardly even know what year it was, who doesn't matter to me at all, whom I have completely forgotten about, whose name I can barely remember and whose face I cannot for the life of me picture -- she taught me"?

Or say he dreams up an elaborate, utterly fabulous wedding, and she breaks it off with him -- maybe because she wants to have that very wedding, except, say, with a straight guy. Whose wedding is it in the end? Should she be prevented from having it? Or should she simply invite the former boyfriend, who dreamed up that wedding, so he can show his new partner how fabulous it is?

Overall, it's a matter of having some discretion.

There are much more intimate things a person might learn in a relationship, of course. You may teach a man what pleases you as a woman. He may figure that's true for all women. He may be wrong about that. But how is he going to explain that the reason he's twirling when he should be thrusting is because he had this girlfriend once who every time he twirled would let out this little noise like a ...

Chances are, if he finds something that works, he's going to try it again. How is he supposed to know?

Well, you say, he could ask. Certainly. He could ask. That's what a grown-up might do. But that would indicate that he does not already know. That would be tantamount to admitting that he does not possess a magical sense of exactly who you are and what you like. In other words, it would be like admitting that he does not have superpowers.

That is not such a big thing, you say. But wait. Is he the only man on the planet? I think not. He knows that he is competing for your affections against other men, some of whom may indeed possess superpowers. So why tip his hand? Better to try the twirl and see if it works, and if it doesn't then try the thrust or the up-and-down, back-and-forth thing, or maybe trot out that tantric Barry White move.

If it seems familiar, whatever it is, some woman probably taught it to him.

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