The Wednesday Weigh-In: Exes Edition

All human relationships hold the potential for engendering complicated emotions. But in my experience—and that of many of my friends— the relationship between exes can be one of the most complicated and rocky of all.

Those of us who have exes may know this all too well. Some days we can feel totally at peace with this ghost of our past love. And some days their mere existence can inspire any number of emotions that range from sadness to nostalgia to anger to remorse.

Common wisdom dictates that your relationship to your exes says a lot about you. Are you able to remain friends with your ex after a breakup? Catch the occasional drink with a person you used to bone? Have the self control to avoid late night calls or texts to someone who was once toxic to your life? You might be considered “well-adjusted” or classified as being in a “healthy place” with the situation.

But I don’t totally buy it. Unfortunately, as a feminist blog, we’ve covered too many cases where an ex-lover became dangerous, unhealthy, and violent in response to a breakup or other perceived scorn.  So it’s important to remember that our relationship to our ex says as much about them as it does about us:  who they are, how communicative or emotionally mature they are able to be, and their feelings about how things ended.

Part of what makes our relationship to our exes so tricky is that socially acceptable forms of “love” are so often confined, branded, and appropriated by social norms. There are so many invisible lines that dictate how we’re supposed to behave towards people that we love. But the script is less clear for those who we have loved in the past, and there are less pre-established routes for successful ex-relationship models.

I personally have a wide range of relationships with my exes. I have exes I’d consider among my closest friends, exes who it’s too painful to even talk to, and exes who still know how to drop into my life just long enough to wreak emotional havoc, and then drop out again.

And these relationships show me that there’s certainly great potential for complexity when feelings are hurt or parties experience loss. But is there’s also potential for rich friendship and growth.

This week’s Wednesday Weigh-In deals with exes: Do you have ‘em, love ‘em, or wish you could leave ‘em completely? What role do exes play in your life, and what role do you wish they could play?

Leave it in the comments, folks!

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

Read more about Lori

Join the Conversation

  • Tae Phoenix

    I am friendly, if not good friends with most of my exes. One of them helped with my most recent record. I’m attending another’s wedding next month. Yet another lives in San Diego and we communicate sporadically over IM about the kinds of things we used to help each other with when we were engaged (my family, his finances, etc.). I adore each of these guys and consider them to be wonderful human beings who taught me a lot.

    There is one, however, who is a toxic creep of epic proportions. He had no respect for my boundaries – or really for my existence as a human being – during our relationship and that tendency has extended into our ex-hood. Recently, just when I had relaxed into the notion that I would never have to see or interact with him again, he turned back up in an incredibly invasive way and I had to ask my lawyer to write a cease & desist letter threatening him with a restraining order. So far he seems to have backed off. I just truly hope that he doesn’t make yet another appearance in my life in another six months just to wreak more havoc and then make a hasty departure.

    I think the level of revulsion I still have when I think about the fact that I ever let him touch me, let alone be in my home and my life in an intimate way, is a product of the intensity of the attraction I once felt toward him. It’s like, if you’re not the person I thought you were and wanted you to be, then go the fuck away and leave me alone forever. In my better moments, I can send some positivity his way – the hope that perhaps one day he will work through his self-absorption, lack of empathy and anger issues. But I doubt that will ever happen, so I have to expend energy keeping him out of my life, and that’s incredibly difficult and irritating.

    • Tae Phoenix

      I should note that at least I got a couple of good songs out of the breakup with Douchey Mc. Doucherson, this being one of them:

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    Does it count if I’m not part of the heteronormative majority? Or, for that matter, if I’ve only ever had one relationship where we both count as exes, but there are two others whom never considered me a ‘girlfriend’ and just a ‘girl friend’?

    Whatever — because I’ve got such a terse relationship with humanity in general and am a poster child for introverted misanthropes, I don’t really have relationships with any of my ex girlfriends. I do, however, still have very good feelings towards them — I refuse to be bitter or angry at any of them, even if I could technically say I was led on and hurt. Why? Because I still learned and grew from my relationships with them. And, in all honesty, I’ve always believed that, no matter how toxic any relationship gets, it only matters if you let it. None of the gals I ever dated did turn abusive, but I would like to think that even if they had, I would be able to just shrug it off, because then, they wouldn’t have power over me.

    As it stands, however, each of my breakups (Or the ‘Sorry, but I really am straight. Just FYI’ which was more often than not) did leave me with a new perspective. In fact, my only real relationship came to an end just as my own parents got divorced, and for pretty much all of the same reasons. Because of that, it helped me move on and accept, both ways. And, in all three cases, looking back, I do like to think each breakup/rejection happened to re-teach me the lesson that you don’t necessarily need to be in a relationship to be happy — a proud, pro-feminist lesson.

  • Lori

    I tried EXTREMELY hard to be friends with my ex-fiance. It seemed like the mature thing to do – after all, I clearly loved him as a human being and valued his presence in my life. I assumed I could keep some of the good parts of the relationship and eventually the heartbreak portion would subside. It never did. Our friendship was complicated, mostly because it was confusing, and always seemed to upset me. Three years later, I finally was able to cut him out of my life and I feel happy. It’s nothing against him as a person (although I could say a LOT of mean/true things about him), it was simply what I needed to do.

    And no, I don’t forsee us EVER being able to be friends. And I have cut my other exes out of my life as well. I have realized I am not the kind of person who lets go very easily. Doesn’t make me bad or good, it’s just what is. I can’t do “half way.” You’re my lover or you are not.

  • Emily

    Despite being in my mid-twenties, I only have one ex. We broke up last year after a long relationship, so what followed was new for me. Since it was my first LTR, I sometimes felt afraid of what a breakup might feel like, but reality was much less dramatic. At first, I was really keen to stay in touch with him, and even tried to communicate about how sad I felt the next day. I also started second-guessing our split, and thinking that maybe we should’ve tried harder to make it work. But after the initial pain passed, and I remembered with clarity that the relationship had been “over” for a while, I got back to feeling like myself and became much less interested in chatting. Now, I can’t say that I miss him, and we don’t really hang out anymore, but I am glad that our relationship ended on fairly good terms rather than with some big heartbreak. My ex and I had some good times, but I can move forward being glad it’s in the past. One great thing about the breakup for me was that it allowed me to be fully honest with myself and others about things that bothered me in the relationship – things I should’ve been straightforward about. (If you can relate, I recommend Beverly Engel’s book “Nice Girl Syndrome” – some problematic language/generalizations but overall an eye-opening and helpful read.) The honest reflection has allowed me to better understand what I seek/need in a future partner.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I’m ok with some of them and some of them I don’t want to be around…it depends on the kind of person they are as much as it says anything about me.

  • anyadnight

    I sometimes feel like my relative lack of contact with exes says something bad about me, but I’ve also watched many people strain to have “friendships” with exes that were the farthest thing from true friendship I could imagine. Also, my first ex sorta set the tone for how I’d treat future exes and you’ll see why that doesn’t involve talking below.

    When I finally gathered the courage to definitively end things with my first ex after yet another episode of disrespect he didn’t seem to understand that he wasn’t going to get any more opportunities to mistreat me. He continued to send me messages at least once a month that I did not respond to and call me, angry that I was seeing others (never mind that he cheated on me repeatedly or was already in another relationship in another town- apparently even after being dumped he was supposed to have a claim on me). I told him in no uncertain terms that I didn’t see us ever getting back together. After discussing with a friend how his monthly messages made me feel (icky, uncomfortable), she helped me respond asking him to stop. He stopped, but makes a resurgence every once in awhile. Only a year ago (roughly 4 years post breakup) I received an “anniversary” message from him. Any attempt I’ve made at having some sort of mature interaction results in inappropriate and unwanted communication. He’s not someone that respected me then and he never will. He’s pried into my life in some disturbing ways so as much as I would have liked to thank his family for all the help they gave me or even just be comfortable enough not to feel terrified when I see him that won’t happen. Once he recognized me at Rocky Horror Picture Show with friends and sat directly behind us and sexually harassed me. He will harass. He will make advances. He will send angry messages to me when I rebuke him. He will send more messages making excuses for those messages (“I was drunk”) and continue to passive aggressively insult me while apologizing and when I still tell him he’s in the wrong and to leave me alone he will get more angry. Yeah, not the kind of friend I need.

    The second ex was another story. He was a great guy and our break up was more smooth.. for me. Unfortunately, we tried the friends thing, but it was strained. There was always a sadness to him. Eventually we had an honest and open conversation and both recognized that he just wasn’t going to see me as his friend. I respected that and stopped trying to hang out with him. At one point we exchanged a couple emails (just before graduating college) congratulating one another and giving a brief run down on what we ended up majoring in, etc.
    My third ex was a similar story.

    What these relationships say about me is that I once had a relationship where my boundaries weren’t respected and now I won’t participate in any relationship that doesn’t respect my boundaries and I can also respect another person’s boundaries and recognize that what works for me isn’t what works for another person.

    I don’t think exes should be measured by whether they stay friends. I think that the pressure to be friends after the break up is often not good for exes. Sometimes one member of the couple applies that pressure to be manipulative and sometimes both people fail to recognize their emotional limitations. In any case, I think the true mark of a “good” break up is how well both parties can respect one another’s boundaries and limitations. Sometimes the person doing the dumping is doing it to get away and using the “friends” thing to make them feel guilty for not wanting to be around their ex is wrong. On the other hand, the person who was dumped might be in pain for awhile and need space to experience that pain instead of denying it. In either case, a mark of maturity would be that a person is able to yield time and space and take the time and space they need in order to process their experience as well as acclimate to the new code of conduct so to speak that results from the break up. Sometimes that code can include friendship, sometimes an occasional email, or sometimes nothing at all and no one should have to apologize for needing or wanting otherwise.