The Joy of Ex

Why we find former lovers irresistible–and what to do instead of taking them back

Charlie Chaplin in “Pay Day” (1922)

I’m about to get dumped. It’s not official yet, but there’s a reason I’m so sure: The man I’ve been seeing just confessed he went kayaking with his former girlfriend last weekend and discovered he still has feelings for her.

You probably already know these rueful rules of relationships: If you’re not sure whether you’re his girlfriend, you’re not. If you think she might be fooling around with someone else, she is. If you’ve been seeing each other six months and you’re not sure he’s the one, he’s not.

Add this one to the rule book: If you have a chance to get back together with your ex, you’ll probably take it.

Why? Because there’s always business left to finish. If the ex broke up with you, reunion feels like victory. If you broke up with the ex, familiarity feels like comfort — until it breeds contempt again.

In either case, your former lover is the evil you know. When a world of unknown hurt surrounds you in the dating space, it’s tempting to take refuge in identifiable pain and convince yourself you can fix it this time.

Outside of romcom plots, however, these second acts in American romantic life rarely last. Because here’s another rule: People don’t changethe reasons you broke up haven’t gone away.

I grant you, there’s one major exception. Splits can mend if they happened for external reasons — a move across the country, a hostile parent or child, a job or school demand that took priority. When outer conditions change, a valid second chance may open up.

But most of us in later adulthood have these external upsets under control. Breakups happen because of fundamental issues within the relationship. Something’s missing or unwanted. Someone behaves badly or doesn’t step up.

I’ve been the relationship breaker a couple of times and the breakee several times more. Too many of these breakups happened with the same person — I’m Exhibit A for ex-appeal.

I did a dumping do-si-do with Daniel that went on for four years. It began a year after we got serious, when his joint-custody teenager moved in for the summer and his charming farmhouse turned into Boystown. After a last-minute eviction on July 4 to make way for a guys-only beerfest, I applied the cold shoulder for three months. I even went online to see if there was anyone better out there, decided there wasn’t, and the shoulder warmed up again along with the rest of me.

Two years later Daniel went to Thailand to find himself, found a fiancée instead, and dumped me by email. When he returned three months later — unmarried— he proposed friendship with benefits. Actually, just benefits. I refused, having met someone better-behaved online.

A month later, I got dumped by the better option. More months of meeting men online kept yielding dead ends, so it was my turn to propose friendship with benefits to the evil that I knew. Daniel agreed with enthusiasm.

Nine months later he dumped me again to marry someone else again, and actually did it this time. But he and his wife planned to spend the next two years living apart for professional reasons, so once again he proposed friendship with benefits.

I said no thanks. Actually, I said no effing way, I respect your marriage even if you don’t.

This is merely the Cliff’s Notes version of the relationship, enough to show you the moth-to-candle interaction among exes and its inevitable result. Over and over and over.

I have finally learned my lesson. For a year now, Daniel and I have been friends without any benefits beyond camaraderie, and that is all I need or expect from him.

But if we’re all consenting adults, why should exes remain sexually taboo? Why shouldn’t we experiment with former lovers and spouses, on the 5% chance that pushing the reset button may work?

One word: pain. That’s what breakups cause, in varying degrees, to all involved. Every time Daniel and I split, I felt stabbed, even if the wound bled less each time.

When my current budding relationship gets snipped off in favor of an ex-revival, it’ll sting. When I unload my sorrow on my best friend for the umpteenth time, she’ll suffer too.

Even when doing the dumping, the men I’ve known don’t enjoy it. I’ve actually had tears shed on my dumped shoulder by a breaker-upper. Pain all around.

So I suggest you resist temptation. Ex it out, so to speak. If you still have feelings for a former lover, try friendship instead.

Just plain friendship, without adjectives or prepositional phrases, offers enough benefits. And when your ex-lover/current friend behaves badly, you can just shrug it off and go home.

Five feminist reasons to have a man in your life

Men are optional extras for women anymore. We don’t need them for their traditional purposes—procreation, security, paychecks—and many of us don’t want them for their traditional pursuits—sex, war-making, lawnmowing.

Even for straight women, the thrill is gone from the one pastime that requires male cooperation: romance. It’s such a tangle of misinterpreted hints, missed cues, mysterious silences, inexplicable rejections… easier to opt out.

I’m a likely candidate for quitter after eight years of dating, yielding three intimate relationships that hit the wall hard enough to fracture my bliss. This follows four better-than-most decades with an eccentric wiseacre who greeted me each morning with Hey, Beautiful! and made me crack up at least twice daily until his final weeks. Wasn’t that a lifetime supply?

Apparently not. I still like men who like women, for friendship and more, and I’ve come up with at least five reasons to seek out the good ones.

1. Men are different from you.

Diversity has become a mainstream desirable, at least among those not culture-canceling in one ideological direction or another, and gender is one aspect of human diversity. Gender may be no longer binary, and of arguable significance and debatable importance, but it’s still here. Interacting socially with a variety of cultures, including male ones, flexes the brain.

2. Men are people too.

Not everyone worth knowing is female (nor is everyone female worth knowing). Many of the worthwhile people in this world are male. Most of them do not need simultaneous translation or manual exploration to value your company.

3. Men know stuff.

I’m not talking about stuff like how to jumpstart a car or chainsaw a tree. Some men partake of the stereotypical canon, some don’t. As for you, take a class.

I refer to your interests, and extending your circle to those who share them and happen to be men. With male companions, I’ve gone to symphony concerts, Broadway musicals, opera, amateur burlesque, charity balls, jazz clubs, and fancy dress boutiques. For that matter, I usually play golf, snowshoe, and go to basketball games with women. A lot of stuff in life is more attached to personal taste than gender.

4. Men talk differently.

Tricky this, but in I plunge. Conversations with men tend to focus on the external: sports, business, politics, the state of the world, the state of a sport. Yes, men get chided for avoiding the intimate, but the female hothouse of personal topics can tire, too. Sometimes it’s a relief to talk about uncomplicated things like carbon trading, virtual private networks, and exchange-traded funds.

Male conversation also is not as consensus-driven as female. Men argue and stay friends. Female sparring takes place on reality TV, not in real life. Groups of women often work much too hard to achieve consensus, when honing opposing positions would be a better use of intellect, and agreeing to disagree a better outcome.

There’s another angle here, of course: Some men think women who disagree with them are disagreeable. We all have a ways to go at learning how to do civil disobedience with each other, but it’ll never happen unless women talk to men instead of behind their backs.

 5. Men can make you feel good about yourself.

Men are much less likely to have problems with their own bodies or yours, as plenty of research studies confirm. You probably look better to them than to your own self, since there’s no woman in America without body-image issues. Even models fear that people like them only for their looks.

Male compliments don’t necessarily tie in to sexual preference or flirtatious intention—verbal chivalry can simply be a form of human civility. My late husband, who didn’t stray, nevertheless greeted female friends with “Howdy, gorgeous!” because he liked to set off a glow.

Bonus point: Sex.

This reason is meaningful only for straight and bi woman, and, as noted earlier, there are plenty of workarounds. But there’s nothing like communing with a nice warm male body that has an interesting brain attached—if it values the same in a female one.

So I suggest you consider the male of the species as neither a must-avoid nor a luxury item. Close friendship with a worthwhile man can enhance your social and intellectual life. If you find one who extends friendship to physical intimacy and romantic commitment, all the better and happy you.

In sum: Having a dick doesn’t necessarily make you one. Give a guy a chance.

Ready for online dating? Not if you see any of these traits in yourself

All’s fair in love and online dating? Not quite. While there are those who see the semi-anonymity of dating sites as a chance to get away with something, this arena won’t work in the long run if it’s rife with cheating, lying, and generally immature behavior.

Accordingly, be honest with yourself first. You may not be eligible yet for online dating if you see any of these traits in the mirror.

1. You’re not over your previous relationship

Are you truly ready to treat the people you’re about to meet as humans unto themselves? Or are you going to view them through spectacles tinted by remnants of your previous lover?

Those lenses may be rose-colored, if you’re widowed, or aviator blue, if you’re recovering from a breakup. Either way, you’re lugging a steamer trunk of distortion to every encounter.

Most people you meet don’t really want to hear about your ex on the first three or more dates. But even if you keep your mouth shut, the ghost of a still-vivid relationship will cast a pall on any new one.

All that said, relationship hangover can serve as a useful variation on “It’s not you, it’s me” when you want to end things with someone who doesn’t do it for you. I first encountered this on the receiving end, after a pleasantly bouncy dinner with a widower. We parted with mutual vows to dine again, but the next day he called to say that meeting me had made him realize he still wasn’t over his wife’s death. (Mind you, it had been five years, and though he was new to JDate, he’d told me the ladies from his synagogue had been fixing him up for most of the interim.)

I believe this was actually a rejection, but it’s one of the most considerate I’ve ever received. I began using variations of it, too.

But don’t use it if you really mean it, because that means you’re not ready to dive into the dating pool. Give yourself a few more months, years, therapy sessions, whatever you need.

2. You’re in a seemingly committed long-term liaison

Granted, certain dating sites accommodate those seeking plural relationships (a.k.a. cheating). They let you announce your status as “married” or “in a relationship.” Some of them even let you announce more frankly that you are looking for a sex-only sideline to your main squeeze.

This is all fine if a) your main squeeze knows this and maybe even squeezes someone else on the side, and b) you are honest from the get-go with your online self-declaration.

Otherwise, you’re a stinker. I won’t get into the impact on your primary relationship; that’s none of my business (which doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion). My scold here is, it’s unfair to others in the online pool.

If you present yourself as free of entanglements and available for a new relationship, people who read your profile will set their expectations accordingly. Like, hey, she looks interesting, I might like to meet her, date her, maybe even marry her someday. Please don’t waste their time.

I think men do more outright online cheating than women. A male friend of mine, on his first date with a woman he met on, learned enough about one of her recent online encounters to realize she was talking about his currently married former boss. Yuck.

I myself was contacted by a married man on OKCupid who was overtly seeking a mistress, and because his profile foolishly revealed bits of career, bits of facial hair in a fuzzy photo, and enough bits about his situation—he loved his wife but her health had ended their sex life—I suspected he was the husband of a close acquaintance of mine. He himself seemed to realize this, too, when he bumped into me at a public event and his usual bonhomie turned stilted—since my photo on OKC was not fuzzy. Oops.

Now, what if you are entangled but the end is in sight? And you want to make yourself feel better with the reminder there are other fish in the sea? Indeed, your decision to try to keep your relationship going or call it quits depends in part on how your partner stacks up against the online inventory?

I’ve done it, more than once. There’s a fine line between intention to cheat actively, and self-assurance of personal or partner worth (or lack thereof). Tread carefully.

3. You hate men (or women)

I’m talking here about a temporary attitude, probably held for good reason. My friend Roberta is Exhibit A. She assumed she had an OK, if no longer great, bond with her husband of 20 years, a man of inflating body and declining physical and fiscal health. This assumption turned out to be wrong on several counts.

Her husband suddenly moved in with a young woman he’d met through his contracting business, which was actually doing well on an unreported cash basis. Her pre-teen daughter already had a nicely furnished room at the new woman’s house, where the supposed father-daughter weekend camping trips were actually taking place. All sorts of ugliness ensued.

Roberta decided that dating well was the best revenge. Her pretty profile picture drew men like flies, but messaging with them rarely progressed to dates. Her occasional first dates didn’t lead to seconds.

I read her message exchanges and listened to her reports of date conversations, and immediately saw her problem. She was seething. Her anger infused her interactions, even if she didn’t go on at length about her specific troubles, and male antennae quivered in fear.

It’s not easy being a man. Many American men of ripened generations feel like they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. As a feminist, I think it’s about bloody time that possession of a penis no longer makes you automatically eligible for more power, responsibility, and pay. But these guys had a set of expectations drilled into them while young, then had them yanked away in the decades that followed.

So they’re stuck with the worst of both worlds: old-fashioned muscle-bound isolation combined with undermined societal status. Father no longer knows best; he doesn’t know shit. Nor does he have supportive girlfriends he can complain to and rely on to talk him through blue spells.

Men like this do not need you to make them feel any worse than they already do from over-and-done-with relationships. Women who are escaping lonely or crappy marriages do not need you to go on and on about what’s wrong with American women.

Be kind, rewind, if you’re still in hate-mode from a lousy partner. The good men and women deserve better.

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