it's complicated

Why You Should Be Friends With Your Ex’s Exes

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Welcome to It’s Complicated, a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

I met Kellie shortly after moving to Atlanta, a city where a big-time ex of mine also resided. Mike and I had a six-year on-and-off history, and I recognized Kellie from the Facebook photos during one of our off periods.

Despite the facts — I’d moved on and she was in a long-term relationship with someone else — I felt annoyed catching her in line for the bar bathroom. Clearly a bit tipsy, she leaned in: “I know Mike, too,” she said (his name and others have been changed throughout the story). Maybe I wasn’t the only one taking digital deep dives. I felt a sick wave of nerves and vowed to avoid her in the future.

These efforts, though, were wasted. Quickly I learned Kellie and I shared an impossible number of social Venn Diagram intersections. I also noticed us laughing at the same jokes. We had matching visions for the perfect Saturday: bagels and thrifting, with a soundtrack of Streetz 94.5. In any other circumstance, we’d be passing notes and braiding each other’s hair. The sole hiccup was Mike, which, when I was being honest with myself, felt a little asinine.

For too long, I registered my ex-boyfriends’ ex-girlfriends as off-limits. They weren’t enemies, necessarily, but they would never be my friends. But I liked Kellie enough that it forced me to see the obvious: We shared a common thread. Multiple threads, really, because we didn’t just choose Mike — he chose us. We’d both passed through whatever filtration system he had in place, dating-wise. The only barrier keeping our friendship from materializing was the fact that we’d both mashed organs with the same human at two different points in time.

I considered the worst-case scenario: What if I found out Kellie was cooler than me? Well, what if I did? There are certainly worse things than having a friend who’s cooler than you are. From Mike’s point of view, perhaps, that would mean I’d lost the contest — but who cared about Mike’s point of view anymore? Neither of us had signed up for a game of “Who Can Be the Best Ex?” so there was no need to play it.

Neither Kellie nor I had especially amicable splits with Mike, but enough time had passed since the breakups to extinguish any antagonistic impulses. Slowly we moved beyond cordial acquaintanceship, peeling off from the larger conversations around us to talk about our many common interests (she was similarly obsessed with the now-defunct “Professor Blastoff” podcast, too!) and, eventually, Mike.

We were careful not to burn him in a verbal effigy; instead, what developed was a very human, emotionally rewarding exchange of personal experiences. We were able to offer each other insight that none of our other friends could — because we got it. We knew his typical emotional trajectory, mild hoarding tendencies, sex stuff (to be fair, we never stayed on the last subject too long). It was illuminating to learn there were patterns independent of our respective relationships. What a relief: It wasn’t Kellie, it wasn’t me, it was just Mike.

Many women I spoke with who befriended their exes’ exes agreed on one crucial detail: Both modifiers must be “ex.” The relationship couldn’t be current — the ex of a current partner or the current partner of an ex gets too tricky.

Marian is friends with multiple women who’ve dated one of her exes. “I do feel a certain connection to them — I think they are great — and clearly he has great taste in women,” she says. “It’s easier to deal with the idea of an ex dating a villain than your ex dating a nice person,” she says, but befriending an ex’s ex is a reminder that the Other Woman is just as human as you are, and often pretty cool.

Alyssa’s friendship with a woman named Rachel began while she was still dating Josh, Rachel’s ex. A spontaneous hang between the three went so well it spurred a one-on-one for the women. “A week or two later, Rachel came over to make pasta on her fancy pasta crank,” she says. “We hit it off, remained friends for years, and now have lived together for three years.” Their friendship has lasted longer than either woman’s romantic whirl with Josh.

“I just remember us being better and better friends,” Rachel says via email. “I mean, how could you resist an invitation from a smart, cool lady who was so gracious toward her current boo’s recent ex? That’s not how it usually goes down, and there’s something really appealing to me about women who don’t get bogged down by jealousy.”

Women are socialized to compete for male attention, so I wondered what competitiveness between exes looked like if you took men out of the equation. Was the game of “Who Can Be the Best Ex?” a heteronormative problem? Summer, a queer woman, wrote in an email exchange, “The queer community is small in most places, so I see my exes’ exes around more than a hetero person would. I think that this is something that other queer people would agree with. Even though there are more opportunities for me to befriend an ex’s ex, seems like we all just avoid each other.”

However, a queer female friend, Cam, told me she successfully befriended a female ex’s male ex. “We didn’t, like, bond over any kind of grievances with her, but it’s always at the core of our friendship and I am probably significantly closer with him now,” she says.

Researching for this story, I put a call out on Facebook for people to share their experiences with exes’ exes. I added a clarification far down in the comment chain, “Or what about current S.O.’s exes?”

A day later, Mike’s current girlfriend left one word: “Yo.” She and I had met a handful of times in passing, but I never made efforts to get to know her — probably because some jealousy remained.

I felt the same barfiness as I did in the bathroom line, but this time, it was different. I wanted to be better than those insecure impulses. After all, Mike’s current girlfriend does a badass job promoting cycling around the city through various efforts. And I do run into her at shows a lot. And, and, and …

And we have a taco date next week. Honestly, I can’t wait.

Why You Should Be Friends With Your Ex’s Exes