When my first-ever serious boyfriend and I broke up, I had a hard time letting go. No, I wasn’t still in love with him. The decision to split up was mutual, but my ex, Steven, had been such a defining part of my post-high school life that the idea of him not being by my side freaked me out. He stayed my “best friend,” effective immediately after our split.
It wasn’t until years later, when reflecting back, that I realized we had crossed several boundaries as exes even though we moved on romantically. At this point, we live in different cities and are able to maintain a healthy distance and friendship.
Now, flashbacks of us confiding in each other about our new partners (complete with intimate details) make me shudder. I still feel guilty about all the times his new girlfriend sat there as he and I reminisced about old times. Meanwhile, I asked my new partner at the time if he was okay with my ex being around so much. He said he was totally cool with it, but revealed later on that he, well, wasn’t.
“It’s important to have strong boundaries with an ex, clarify the nature of the relationship to the new partner, and listen to the new partner’s feelings about the issue,” says Amie Harwick, LMFT.
Whether the breakup was rough or friendly, here’s how to gracefully and healthily move on.
“If you find yourself checking the social media accounts of your ex compulsively or frequently, it may be time to take some action,” Harwick says. The same is true if you run into feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, or any other intense emotion when scrolling through your ex’s stories. Ask yourself what your objective is, and use this as an opportunity to explore your feelings about this person and the end of your relationship.
“If your goal is to reduce drama and remain amicable, it may require possibly muting them in order to have less exposure while you heal,” says Harwick. “If your goal is to create distance and end contact, deleting and blocking may be appropriate.”
Madison, 25, had a difficult time not checking up on her ex after the breakup — until her ex unfriended her and made their account private.
“It hurt more seeing them sad, knowing they weren’t happy after the choices we made,” says Madison, 25. “We felt it best to cut all ties. I wish I could still creep every now and then, though.”
Alan*, 25, saw the opposite thing on his ex’s Instagram. “Seeing him moving on hurt because I still wanted more, but it just wasn’t a realistic thing to dwell on,” he says. “I kept having false hope for us, so I needed the space to stay away from him and his social media, for that matter.”
When I was uneasy about a new romantic partner entering my ex’s life, I made myself very present on his profile by commenting and posting. Did she notice me? She sure did. And in the end, all I felt was guilty that I didn’t give Steven the space he needed online and made his new girlfriend question whether he and I were still together.
Mutual Friends And Family Members
“After a breakup, [the situation with mutual friends and family] can become complicated, awkward, and sometimes hurtful,” Harwick says. “You need time to heal. Your ex needs time to heal. It’s important not to put these people in the middle of the breakup. After that, remaining casual friends is possible.”
Jeff*, 29, moved to Los Angeles for his partner of eight years. They spent most holidays with her family, and he grew very close to them.
“After the breakup, the emotional pain was immense,” Jeff says. “I did not keep in touch. It was too difficult. Her cousin was the only one to reach out to me, because he wanted to stay friends. We are [now] friendly if we ever run into each other, but I decided it was best to move on.”
He also unfollowed his ex on social media and actively avoided most of the friends he met through his ex for a year or so after the split. There are times when he still worries about running into them.
“These people can trigger memories that are still very painful,” says Harwick. “Typically, good boundaries mean that once a relationship ends the contact with the families is more distant.”
But in some cases, it is possible to continue mutual friendships and relationships with family after a relationship ends. Stephanie, 33, dated her ex for eight years and, while they’ve been broken up for four, they still hang out frequently.
“We didn’t have to divide up friends or family between us; we continue to keep the same friends and everything,” she says. “There were a couple friends that I ‘gave’ to him, in a sense. I felt he needed people to be close to and talk to, so I backed off of those relationships a little.” When either of their families come to visit, they still all go out to dinner together.
There should be some discretion when talking about new relationships with an ex, but what this looks like depends on the level of comfort you maintain with each other. Pay attention to how you feel when having these conversations.
“When a previous partner talks about dating, does it elicit jealousy that feels unbearable, uncomfortable, or causes you to want [tune out]?” asks Harwick. If you answer yes, you may, at the very least, need to table this discussion for now.
For Sarah, 25, it was easy to talk to her ex about new relationships once they both had time to recover from the breakup.
“It was one-sided in the beginning, and he didn’t like hearing about it much. But now we’re both dating others, [we] have no issues talking about it.”
I’ve personally never had a problem talking to my ex about new relationships (including those gritty details) in the past, but I now choose to only give brief updates. For example, before my ex visited LA, where I now live, I told him about my current boyfriend in case they ended up meeting.
The Long Run
As time passes, continue to listen to your emotions and responses to your interactions with your ex. Figure out what feels comfortable and stress-free (or at least lower stress) for you. No two exes are the same.
“While it’s not a cookie-cutter solution, healthy boundaries include clear communication regarding how much time and contact is spent after the romantic relationship ends,” says Harwick. “If you want time to heal, say it. If you want to know that your ex still cares and you want to express that to them, say it. In regards to the long-term, only time will tell.”