I had just clicked “complete purchase” on tickets to an amusement park for my family when I realized the park was just a few miles from where my dear old friend lived. She was going through a divorce, one of the toughest times in her life, so I thought surprising her with tickets to the park would help cheer up her and her kids. When I told her about the gesture, she gushed with gratitude and expressed how wonderful it would be to see each other. We had been friends for nearly 20 years but hadn’t seen each other in nearly seven.
My own wife was excited when I told her I bought tickets to surprise our son with a day at a theme park. But her face fell when I told her I had also invited my friend and her kids.
This friend and I used to sleep together, but we’ve been strictly platonic for years since then. My wife knew this, and she wasn’t thrilled about all of us spending the day together.
“I don’t feel like sharing our family day with someone you had sex with,” she said.
She had a point.
A few days later, another friend reached out to ask if we wanted to set up a play date for our kids. We had just moved, and they were now neighbors. We hadn’t made new friends in our area yet. It was a nice invite and a fun prospect.
My wife said okay, but I could tell she was uncomfortable.
Yes, I had slept with this friend, too.
Then my friend canceled on us last-minute with little explanation.
“Perhaps your friend’s wife felt the same way I do,” my wife said. “Maybe she’s not comfortable hanging out with her partner’s ex.”
“But we were never together,” I protested. “We were friends 99 percent of the time and something else 1 percent. It’s our friendship that endured.”
I didn’t see anything wrong with hanging out with friends I had slept with, but my wife did. And we’re not the only couples arguing about this. A 2016 study published in the journal of the International Association for Relationship Research surveyed college students about how their communication with former romantic partners affected their current relationships. Of the 40 percent who were in touch with an ex, they were more likely to stay in contact if the relationship ended on good terms, or if the ex was a part of their larger social group. There was a connection between the frequency of contact with an ex and the satisfaction with their current relationship (as in, more contact with the ex indicated things at home weren’t good); but infrequent contact did not indicate they were unhappy with their current partner and wasn’t harmful to their current relationship.
“There are no rules, but there are guidelines,” says Jean Fitzpatrick, a psychotherapist who focuses on couples. “It’s important to be transparent with your current partner. Partners are in different places with this, so have a conversation and patience and be willing to respond to concerns,” she added.
Fitzpatrick noted that exes should be considered “family friends,” not “private friends,” and to avoid secret texting or social media messaging. She also recommends taking a good, hard look at your own intentions. If you’re unhappy in your current relationship, longing for something or comparing your ex to your current partner, you have some soul-searching to do. In those instances, being in touch with an ex can be a “slippery slope for even the most well-intentioned,” Fitzpatrick says.
Another study, out of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., found that staying in touch with an ex is tied to “dark personality traits,” including narcissism, duplicity and even psychopathy, and that those who maintain contact were more likely to do so for “practical and sexual” reasons.
I used to sleep around and would then keep people as friends. But I don’t think I’m a narcissist or psychopath! It usually happened like this: I would meet someone at a bar or event; we’d sleep together; then we’d realize that we had more in common as friends than as lovers. We’d settle into a friendship, the bedroom history becoming just a piece of how our friendship came to be. I didn’t stay friends with exes who broke my heart, or where emotions still lingered.
“There’s something healthy and sacred about staying in touch with people with whom you were spiritually vulnerable,” says Damon L. Jacobs, who’s a therapist in New York. Even when the relationship doesn’t work out, Jacobs says, there may be good qualities in your ex that you want to keep in touch with, and doing so can be “nurturing and healing.”
For the LGBT community in particular, staying in touch with an ex could be a matter of social necessity. “We’re already a minority, and if we create standoffs with exes, we could be cutting ourselves off from a lot of people,” Jacobs noted.
In fact, I viewed the physical and sexual aspect of my dalliances as encounters that brought us closer and strengthened my social network. I had friends I slept with when we were both single, and we launched into platonic friendship and double-dated when we were both shacked up. We were the best shoulders and advisers for each other’s romantic lives because we knew each other so well, clothed and not. Some may view this as dysfunctional, or as antithetical to the very label of “friend,” but it worked brilliantly for us and didn’t hurt anyone.
My wife is my one true love. I have been faithfully devoted to her for nearly a decade. I would never purposely do anything to hurt her, and I would go to the ends of the earth to protect her and our love.
She may not understand this part of who I am. That I am a woman who can detach sex from emotion. That I view sex as an activity one can engage in involving emotional investment equal to, say, going to the movies, or playing a game of softball or enjoying a beer at happy hour. That I want to be in touch with some of the people I’ve slept with, because I care about them as human beings.
I can respect my wife’s concerns, and I imagine that most people think like she does. Women, in particular, tend to connect sex to emotion, and many just don’t keep in touch with exes.
The older I get, the more I realize that having spent time rolling around nude with friends doesn’t necessarily make for stronger bonds. I realize that I need to forge new friendships based on mutual affection for microbreweries, coming-of-age novels or crock pot dishes.
Still, sometimes beautiful platonic friendships emerge from those fizzled sexual ones. In addition to providing therapy to couples, Jacobs, who is gay, became close friends with his ex of seven years after they broke up and ended up officiating at his ex’s recent wedding to another man.
“Finally, he got me to marry him after all these years,” Jacobs said.