It’s been said that only masochists stay friends with their exes. I beg to differ. I am a masochist for a lot of reasons — I get Brazilian waxes, follow impossibly rich and fit Instagram models, and often reread trolly comments on my essays and videos until I believe the insults — but I am certainly not a masochist because I am friends with my ex. I remain in contact with him not because I’m psycho, still in love, overly attached, or want to make my current partner jealous, but because I love Nik like family.
Nik and I met walking to religion class when we were around 13. He gave me a head-nod in the hallway, and I was smitten. We dated for two years in high school, a few months in college, and again for a few months in our early 20s. Our relationship was tumultuous, intense, loving, and ultimately, all wrong. We deeply cared about and knew each other better than anyone else, but we couldn’t seem to make it work. Every time we broke up (which was too many times to count), I’d come up with some ridiculous reason to talk to him. At first it was pretty benign (“I left a hair tie at your house, can I come get it?”), but it quickly got unhealthy (texting him from friends’ numbers and driving past his house). I knew I wanted Nik in my life, even though I was no longer in love with him. There are even more layers to our story than that — he came out as a trans man and I’m a lesbian — but I have to skip those details or we’d be here all day. After a year of not talking since our last break up, I invited him to get coffee and asked him to be my friend. He happily obliged. That was the easy part. The tough part was explaining this friendship to my current girlfriend.
If you find yourself in a similarly sticky situation, proceed as follows.
1. Be honest.
If you are friends with your ex, there is no reason to keep that a secret from your new partner — failing to mention it presents way more of a cause for concern. “If you’re keeping an ex as a friend, tell your partner why you still want that person in your life and in what contexts you’ll spend time with them,” says sociologist Victor P. Corona, Ph.D. “Don’t give your partner a reason to be jealous.”
2. Don’t expect instant understanding.
Be patient if your new boo is thrown at first. It’s human nature that their first instinct is jealousy — and that’s not a reflection on you. Try to remember this, and let it allow you to stick with them while they process their emotions. “When I first met my fiancé’s friends, I found out she had seriously dated two of her best friends,” says Stephanie, 28. “At first, every time her name came out of their mouths, my stomach would drop and I would do a shot of tequila, thinking they knew her better than me and that they’d seen parts of her that I thought only I knew. It freaked me out.”
But with time, these knee-jerk feelings might morph into understanding, appreciation, and even another friendship. “I realized these girls cared about her and that it wasn’t a competition,” says Stephanie. “They never made sense [as girlfriends], but they saw me as someone who did, and it was the most comforting thing. One has even become one of my best friends, to the point of being a bridesmaid of mine.” How did she get to this point? “I grabbed drinks and dinner with her. She looked me dead in the eye and said about my girlfriend and I, ‘you guys just get it. I’m so happy she found you.’ I never felt so at ease.”
3. Consider the source of your partner’s reaction.
You might be able to tell where your partner’s mind is at, even if their words don’t explicitly say it. For example, if they have a super dramatic reaction, they may be more insecure about your relationship than you thought.
“If your partner is upset about you being friends with an ex, have a conversation about why,” says Wednesday Martin, author of “Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free.”
If you’ve complained about how your ex treated you or how things ended, a new partner might (rightfully) be concerned. “I’ve had to try to explain to my partner that I couldn’t like an ex of hers who treated her like shit,” says Katy, 26. “She may have forgiven them and somehow become friends, but I worry about her and see ongoing harmful behavior from this ex that I wouldn’t want anyone who I loved (or anyone in general) to [experience].” If your partner feels this way, ask them what specifically they consider harmful. If you give it some thought and disagree, agree to disagree, thank them for their concern, and keep making your own adult decisions.
4. Ease your partner’s mind.
It’s important to be patient with your partner as you tell them about your friendship with an ex. If they themselves aren’t friends with an ex, they may not understand. Maybe they think you’re still in love. In that case, Martin suggests saying, “This is a friendship, not an emotionally incomplete breakup.” Presuming you are clear on the difference, help your partner understand that. And make sure it’s the case. Is this an authentic friendship with no hope of getting back together? “If that’s true for you, there is no reason for you or your partner to feel threatened by the friendship,” says Martin. “Jealousy isn’t bad — a little of it can be sexy and hot — but attempts to control your social life and relationships is a red flag.” This can either prompt a healthy conversation about jealousy, or it can be a signal that this may not be a relationship you want to be in. Follow your gut. If your partner is jealous, that’s human. If they are controlling or manipulative, you might want to reconsider being together.
5. Ask them to honor the person you are today, your past, and how you got to them.
Your exes are inevitably a part of and have led you to who you are now, and hopefully your current partner can see that. “I explained to my now fiancé that my exes are in large part responsible for the success of our relationship,” says Andie, 25. “Those relationships taught me how to love and be loved. It’s like finding that killer outfit. The first dress made you look perfect on top, but the bottom didn’t do you any favors. Then the next dress has the opposite problem. Because you could identify the pieces of each that worked and didn’t, you were able to refine your search and find exactly what you wanted.”