A few months into dating, my now-husband and I were approached by a tall attractive woman at a comedy club he was playing out of town. This charismatic blonde bombshell sparkled and shined and hugged us both. Not too long after, she cornered me to go on about how my new boyfriend was “Just the best!”
“We’re super-good, super-old friends,” she said. “And I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Yeah, okay, great,” I chirped, unsure of her endgame but melting into a puddle of insecurity. Did she feel protective? Was she trying to make sure I was a worthy person to date? Was she still in love with him and therefore trying to undermine me? Was she simply trying to get in my head because she was insecure, too? It felt like a game of chess. I spent the entire car ride back to New York trying to figure out how I could have played better and avoiding my then-boyfriend. I hadn’t expected his ex to come out of nowhere and threaten my sense of calm. She seemed to want to throw me off balance. It was working.
After two hours of passive-aggressively changing the radio station every few minutes, I finally broke down and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that you dated her?”
“I had no idea she would be there,” he explained reasonably. “There was no time to tell you that before you met her.”
Once he assured me that I had nothing to worry about, I calmed down and told him that if I had been prepared, I wouldn’t have felt like they shared some special secret, which is truly the worst feeling of all. I realized I needed a “Running-Into-an-Ex Emergency Plan.”
We decided transparency was easiest and most fulfilling when it comes to past romantic entanglements. Over the next few months, we laid out all our hookups, relationships, crushes, flirtations, almost-dates, and texts we still get from people at 4 a.m. that simply say, “’Sup?”
It goes both ways. I’ve told him I never want to be the only person who doesn’t know if he’s had a relationship with someone, and he feels the same way. When we first got serious, he asked me, “Which comics have you hooked up with? I don’t want to run into them and be the one guy who doesn’t know about it.” I didn’t mind the request since he had provided the same oppo research for me. Both of us have seen firsthand the little lapses in knowledge that can allow someone to work their way in and try to “I’m-the-Guy” you (or “I’m-the-Girl” you). When we shared our lists, including the trysts no one knows about, we were fully copacetic.
This level of honesty meant there was no way an ex could whip out the classic moves from The 48 Laws of Power (say, Law 3: “Conceal your intentions”; or even Law 14: “Pose as a friend, work as a spy”). An innocuous “Tell Mandy I said hi” was not some veiled power move actually meaning, “You’re wondering if I fucked your wife, aren’t you?” Instead, it became the casual greeting it actually is.
After those early ex encounters, our level of personal due diligence became melded with a general understanding of how we’d like these kinds of interactions to go down in the future.
We also put some rules into place:
Rule One: No gushy reunion, please. It’s great when exes remain friends, but it’s hurtful when you act like running into an old fling totally made your day. The perfect amount of detached nothing-left-here-to-see-folks chilliness demonstrates respect for your partner.
Rule Two: Introduce your new partner right away. The worst possible thing you can do is not introduce someone with their proper relationship title. This happened to my husband once when he was dragged onto a cruise with his ex to see a rock band play. She had a crush on the lead singer. When they all met, he was introduced dismissively as “her friend.” Suddenly, her true character was revealed. Meaning: Her loyalties vacillated depending on her options. We’ve all been there, and it’s awful.
Rule Three: Don’t make a scene. A friend of mine once confronted her partner’s ex by throwing a glass of sparkling water in the woman’s face. The ex had made rude comments in a definite attempt to provoke her. But still, my friend regrets it to this day because there’s no better way to win a situation than to be unflappable. To quote Don Draper, “I don’t think about you at all.”
Rule Four: Watch the physicality. Everyone has different levels of discomfort when watching their partner touch or be touched. For one person, a kiss on the lips is something friends do. For another, that’s cheating. When you’re dealing with an ex, every syllable and physical interaction carries a magnifying effect.
To be honest, one of the reasons that early encounter with my partner’s ex bothered me so much was that I envied her as she hugged him tight. They still seemed close, she seemed far more confident in her connection to him, and it didn’t help that I compared myself to her immediately: She was younger, skinnier, prettier, and all the other “-er”s. In many ways, I felt like Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (which returns next Friday for its second season).
If you’ve never seen this show (see it), Rebecca is pure unhinged satire, singing with deep comic commitment about her crush on her ex’s new partner, Valencia: “I wanna kill you and wear your skin like a dress / But then also have you see me in the dress / And be like, ‘OMG you look so cute in my skin.’”
Acknowledging what your partner might have been attracted to is exactly why encountering an ex can burn so deeply. You know the in’s and out’s of where the attraction may have simmered, the sweet nothings and emotional predilections. You want to know where everything went wrong, so that you might avoid the same fate.
Of course that’s a terrible idea.
Far better to adopt the cleansing karmic stance of an Adele song where well-wishing is the rule of the day: “Send my love to your new lover (treat her better) / We’ve gotta let go of all of our ghosts / We both know we ain’t kids no more.”
But even when you’re as Zen as a person can get, encountering an ex serves as a reminder of a failed union and a failed attempt at connection. Failure hurts. A 2010 Journal of Neurophysiology study revealed that the brain registers physical pain when we are shown pictures of our exes. It’s no wonder the experience can feel so poisonous — sometimes even dangerous.
For example, do you share inside jokes, teasing, and mild flirtation with your ex in front of your current partner? In some ways that can hurt even more than a physical betrayal.
Why? Often the behavior can stem from the most predictable of places: our defense mechanisms. Whether it be repression (burying pain), denial (blocking awareness), projection (blaming others), displacement (satisfying an impulse, like one of aggression), regression (acting helpless), sublimation (satisfying an impulse but in a socially decent way), a lack of directness, or even resentment, these mechanisms can sow all manner of destruction. Especially sublimation.
Say you’re uncertain of your own relationship’s status, but that’s too base and vulnerable and weak an instinct to acknowledge. Instead, you attempt to move that pain elsewhere, onto someone else. It’s a sneaky little message you’re sending to a partner: “Look at this cozy thing we have that you’ll never have with me. No, really, look at it.”
Which leads to the most important factor when running into an ex with your mate: Are you truly solid? In the early stages of any relationship, running into an ex can feel like a test to be passed again and again. Your commitment is tenuous, and the bonds are still being forged.