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.