Ask Polly: Can I Be Friends With My Ex Now That I’m Married?

Photo: Duncan Noakes/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I am 29, recently married to a wonderful man I knew I wanted to spend my life with just weeks after meeting. We met when we were both 25, three years after I broke up with my college boyfriend, whom I dated for four years. At that time, I was still very close with my ex. Though we lived in different cities (the reason for our breakup), we talked on the phone regularly, saw each other whenever we found ourselves in the same place, and kept close tabs on each other’s love life. There was a kind of possessiveness to it, a feeling that we both wanted to be each other’s go-to person, even if we weren’t together. We both dated other people during those three years, but he was still my first phone call when my grandfather had a stroke, and when I got my first job offer.

That changed when I met and moved in with my now-husband. And not because my husband was uncomfortable with the friendship (he’s not a jealous guy), but more because my new partner usurped my ex as my main confidant. And though we both still loved each other in a nostalgic sort of way, I think both of us were often left wondering what the point was of continuing the friendship.

My communication with my ex dropped off precipitously after I got engaged two years ago, and came to a halt after I got married last summer. I called him in the fall to wish him happy birthday, and when I never heard back, assumed the friendship had come to its logical end point, or perhaps (indulge me this arrogance) it was hard for him that I got married. Either way, I was bummed we’d stuck it out as friends for six years post-breakup, only to lose touch now.

I now haven’t talked to my ex in over six months, and the truth is, I miss him. He was my closest friend throughout college and after, and it’s just bizarre not to know even the broadest strokes of his current life. I’m not the type of person who has many “ex-friends.” I’m good at maintaining friendships over many years and across geographies. And more than that, I care about him. I truly don’t think this care is indicative of a problem in my marriage, although I hesitate to talk with anyone about how I miss my ex, as I assume it’ll raise eyebrows.

My question is: What do you do with an ex you care about after you get married? Where do you file someone like that in your life rolodex? Should I treat him like any other old friend, with whom I’d rather not fall out of touch? Or should I just let him go?

Nostalgic Newlywed

Dear NN,

I’m a big proponent of remaining friends with your exes. You shared so much of your life with this person, leaned on him, told him everything for years. He knows your history, your dreams, your flaws, your baggage, your talents, your friends and family. Who would want to say good-bye to someone that important after so much time together? Whether or not he’s over you enough to be friends now is another question, of course. But isn’t it worth finding out?

That said, there are a few situations where friendship with an ex is a bad idea. One: If you have any lingering romantic feelings for the ex in question — or even any faintly competitive feelings, or some vague sense of ownership — then obviously throwing yourself back into a close friendship with that person can be risky once you’re married. You say that there was “a kind of possessiveness” to your friendship with this ex, a feeling that you both “wanted to be each other’s go-to person.” Clearly, you’re not each other’s go-to person anymore, and realistically, that level of closeness probably can’t be replicated. The element of possessiveness you describe isn’t the healthiest thing for you both now, either.

I had that feeling with a few of my exes when I was younger. Even though I might’ve been happily settled in a decent relationship, I still brattily wanted to be my ex’s favorite woman in the world. In one case, I wanted this because I never really had it. I was waiting for my ex to finally say, “Oh my God, all this time I thought you weren’t worthy of my love, and only now do I see clearly HOW MUCH BETTER THAN ME YOU ARE.” That’s not the most romantic version of my fantasy, but it’s the clearest way to express the root cause of my possessiveness: a needy ego, a compulsion to be superior to other women. Very immature stuff! With another of my exes, though, I felt sure that he loved me a lot, but somehow I was still unnerved to think that anyone could replace me. I didn’t want him back, but I still wanted to haunt his fever-dreams FOREVER AND EVER.

What a tool I was! I’d like to say that I did some important work that snuffed out this bullshitty way of being. I’d like to say that I (independently and valiantly) grew the fuck up and stopped wanting to be everything to everyone. Because, Jesus, how long did THAT compulsion last? Two decades? I’d like to claim that some internal process fixed this grabby need to reign supreme among all the important exes in my past. But I can’t be sure, and I don’t want to claim any moral high ground on that front. All I know for sure is that once these exes got married, I was sincerely happy for them. I accepted that I was a mere blip on the map. I was invited to one of their weddings and I was thrilled for him. He married a gorgeous genius. I couldn’t compete if I tried. My little games of make-believe were officially over!

And honestly, it felt good to let go of him. That was a surprise. I expected to have some stirrings of inferiority at the wedding (me being me), but all I felt was awe. They’re just such a good match, such beautiful fucking weirdos. She wore this incredible teal vintage dress at the wedding, and there were gongs and steel drums playing, and I probably drank too much and told her she was amazing or something similarly pathetic.

So, are you still out to prove something? Do you secretly want to be the eternal sparkle princess of your ex’s life? Do you need to know whether he’s met someone else, and what she looks like, and whether she seems better than you? The faintest strain of this curiosity — rubbernecking on Facebook: “Mmm, what nice legs she has. A lawyer! I didn’t see that coming” — is only human. Only you know how much skin you have in that game. Personally, I see new babies and happy beach scenes and true love unfolding on Facebook these days and I feel happy for my exes, genuinely. Those photos makes me smile and feel good inside. Suffice it to say that this is not true for all photos on Facebook. (If Facebook is a litmus test of how generous and kindhearted a person you are, then I am a fucking asshole, period, point-blank.)

But look, even in cases where I felt some need for an ex to privilege our relationship over others, all of the sexy intrigue had drained out of the relationship long before that. Guys I’ve had short-lived affairs with have more of a chance of remaining intriguing, maybe because I never brushed my teeth while they peed a few feet away? But ex-boyfriends aren’t like that. My exes and I are like old friends who mildly gross each other out. We don’t flirt; we give each other shit. Yes, there is a difference. The threat of returning to an ex, for me, is roughly equivalent to the threat of falling in love with my neighbor’s dog. I do love dogs a lot, but not like that.

So, those are the questions you need to ask yourself: (1) Are you still incredibly attracted to this ex? Is there still heat there? And, (2) Are you possessive with him? Do you want to prove that you’re the one who REALLY matters the most? Would you be tempted to, say, write him a note mentioning what great sex you once had? (My husband got an email like this from an ex early in our relationship, claiming that she was “super happily married” and then fondly recalling the great sex they had, and then confiding that her husband could never, ever know the details of their past together or he would be soo, sooooo jealous.) Would you ever dig into the past with your ex, just to satisfy your hungry ego? (What a narcissistic red flag. Might as well just write, “Do you ever think about how amazing I am? Because I do, all the time!”) Would you write him notes that you wouldn’t show your husband?

If you’re not sure, then it’s better to sidestep the whole thing, and maybe ask yourself what you had with your ex that you need more of now. Obviously, people do, sometimes, dig around in the past when they feel like they’re not getting what they need from their partner. I’m not assuming that this is the case with you; it sounds to me like you simply miss your old friend. But if you do feel like you’re kicking up dusty old intrigues for a reason, and it’s about more than a friendship, then you should try being more honest with your husband about what you want and need from him. If you feel like your husband is responsive to those needs and is honest with you in return, then this temptation will pass. You can be bored or procrastinating and suddenly you’re Googling exes, sure. Everybody does that here and there. But if you start making sexy talk with them, you have to ask yourself what you’re not getting from your current relationship.

The final question: (3) Do you feel disingenuous when you talk to your ex? Can you be honest with him, or is he just a curiosity to you? I sincerely wanted to stay in touch with one ex of mine, but every time I got off the phone with him, I’d find myself chuckling over stupid shit he said and marveling over what a total fucking douche he was. Not very nice! You can’t stay friends with an ex just to relish how lame he is. Even though I’d honestly love to hear what that ex is up to, and I really do wish him the best, it doesn’t matter. Staying in touch with him would be obnoxiously insincere at this point. I shouldn’t bring that energy to his life or to mine.

It may sound like I’m setting the bar a little high, so let me be clear: I invited four of my ex-boyfriends to my wedding, and all four showed up. A little weird, maybe, but I think it’s important to honor the most pivotal relationships in your life. I wouldn’t want to marry a guy who was afraid to meet my exes or couldn’t appreciate how much richer my life was from knowing those people. As long as I don’t have some weird sexy dynamic with them and I make it crystal clear why I moved on (or why my ex dumped me and then I realized it was for the best!), there’s no reason why anyone should feel uncomfortable.

So, I think you have to figure out if this ex is a true, lifelong friend or just someone you want to keep tabs on/keep in your circle of influence/spice up a dull day with/use to fulfill some emotional gap in your life. If there is an emotional gap, can you address it with your husband? Can you fill it with some of your trustworthy female friends? Do you know how to have intimate friendships with women, to be vulnerable with them, to lean on them emotionally? Women who aren’t good at leaning on other women do tend to put their exes on a pedestal and treat them as the only humans who can understand them/support them when things get ugly. Once you have a true female friend to cry to and talk things out with, even when it feels a little embarrassing, those old boyfriends will stop seeming quite so magical. And think about it, do you really want to be someone who leans on her ex instead of confiding in a female friend?

Because, as a 40-something woman, I feel like it’s my duty to warn you that friendships with men aren’t always that easy to maintain past your mid-30s. I still have a few close friends who are guys, but lots of men who’ll gladly stay friends when YOU’RE married disappear the second THEY get serious with someone. You invite an ex to your wedding, but he doesn’t invite you to his. You have him over for dinner, but it’s not reciprocated. He drifts away. His wife dislikes you. It happens all the time. Many women my age end up feeling pretty disappointed by this phenomenon.

So, examine your feelings, ask for what you want, and aim for a healthy balance in your life. If you go out into the world saying that you’re looking for friendship but you’re really searching for new ways to feed your hungry ego, you will feel empty no matter what happens next. You will be disappointed and dissatisfied, time and time again. But if you go out in search of real connection, looking to honor where you’ve been and the people who’ve influenced you, you’ll find a lot of great connections out there.

One of my exes emailed me last week to ask for feedback on an album he just recorded. Another one is coming to dinner with my family next week. My 6-year-old is so excited to see him, since he’s “more of a kid than an adult,” according to her. (I couldn’t agree more!) There is no reason to settle for severed ties and unreturned phone calls, if you know that this is a loss you can’t bear. There’s no reason to settle for a life that’s not as rich and full as you want it to be. Don’t be one of those people who shrugs and says, “Oh well, I guess that’s how it usually goes.” If you’re honest, and respectful, and clear about your intentions, that will shine through to your ex, and he’ll reflect on what you mean to him and reconsider. Maybe he’s not ready yet. Maybe he’ll be over you down the road. But you probably can win him over eventually, if you try, and you can even win over his new wife when the time comes, if your heart is in the right place. When your heart is open and you hope for the best for yourself and for others, anything is possible.


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Ask Polly: Can I Be Friends With My Ex?