The text was quick, to the point, and included a photo of a cat in a party hat, but I still wasn’t sure I should have sent it. The recipient was my ex, it was his birthday, and the entire exchange represented something I had denounced for years: “The happy birthday ex-text is a thinly veiled pursuit of attention disguised as goodwill,” I used to say, with an irritating air of certainty. But as is often the case with things we staunchly believe while young, it felt different later; it felt different when it was me.
The question of whether it’s appropriate to stay in touch with an ex is a debate as old as modern love, and one that remains divisive in my circles. I’ve historically subscribed to the camp that believed, “If you’re still friends with an ex, you’re either still in love or never were” — perhaps because that’s always been the case in my own life. I’m not friends with any of my exes, nor do we maintain contact with each other. It’s not out of ill will, but rather a natural evolution of our decision to not speak post-split. It’s something that starts as a requirement to heal and is honored in perpetuity out of respect for wherever that healing brought us (new partners included). In my mind, letting love go always equated to leaving it be, letting it rest, no matter how gutting such a cutoff can feel.
The birthday text was a small departure, but I decided my motives were pure. Maybe I didn’t really care if his birthday was good, per se, but the date served as a small window of opportunity to wish him well, to let him know that he wasn’t torn out of my pictures, metaphorically or otherwise — that even though I’d moved on and he had too, I honored what we had and hoped he was happy. But his reply — “Lol, thanks!” — was sobering. Not because I expected more, but because I didn’t. What was the point of this whole thing anyway? I wondered. What sneaky emotional currents are guiding me into these arbitrary waters? I closed my phone and concluded we’d probably never be friends. We’d ventured too far out of context.
Still, I felt I’d disproved my zero-sum theory about the happy birthday ex-text. What is it, then, that draws us to remind old loves we exist, if not a result of latent feelings? Is it just nostalgia? A desire to be remembered, an extension of our fear of death?
A 2014 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that with the ease of the internet, more people are staying in touch with their exes as a form of keeping tabs. “People use computers to keep romantic prospects waiting in the wings.” The researchers dubbed these “back burner” relationships — a way for people to evaluate the availability of past partners, even while in committed relationships of their own.
“The most frequent ways that people kept up with their back burners were through texts and Facebook,” The Atlantic reported in its coverage of the study, which revealed that 45 percent of the 374 participants reported texting back burners, and 37 percent reported communicating via Facebook. “There are a couple of competing evolutionary imperatives at play. … On the one hand, it makes a certain primal sense to explore all the potential mates available, to be sure to get the best deal.” On the other hand, lead study author Jayson Dibble notes, you’d think committing to one long-term partner would ultimately provide the most benefits. Researchers concluded they’d need to “examine the ways those conversations play out” in order to really understand back burner logic.
Years ago, I pulled over to wordsmith a text to that same boyfriend after he admitted to having lunch with an ex. “Am I allowed to say that bothers me?!” I remember asking my sister in a hastily made phone call from my car. “I think so, but why does it?” she asked. The truth was I thought his ex still had feelings for him. She was always around, commenting on his family’s social posts, grabbing coffee with his parents, dropping by around the holidays. I guessed her request to catch up came with an ulterior motive. I guessed he was on her back burner. But did that matter if I trusted him?
I opted to tell him the inconclusive truth: that it made me a little uncomfortable, but that I trusted him. His response was that he didn’t care enough to stay in touch with her, so he let their communication fall off completely. Only now, years later, does my insertion make me feel uneasy. By policing, even indirectly, who he spoke to, was I robbing him of his due agency? Perhaps I’d broken the golden rule.
I asked a friend for her thoughts on staying in touch with exes — she maintains relationships with a fair amount of hers — and her impetus couldn’t be further from romantic: “A lot of my exes are people I love hanging out with, and a few of them are people I was friends with before we dated,” she said. “Just because things aren’t right for us romantically doesn’t mean we can’t still hang out.” I asked if new significant others ever felt uncomfortable about that. “Probably, but I don’t stay best friends with my exes; I just don’t necessarily cut them out,” she said. “If someone new felt uncomfortable, I’d give them space.”
Is that because there is an element of flirting to these friendships?
“I think it’s kind of the opposite, actually. At this point, we’re so platonic because we tried dating and it didn’t work out, so there’s no what-if tension.”
She admitted that none of the relationships were all that serious, though, and it made me wonder whether there was a correlation between the depth of a romantic relationship and its viability to continue platonically post-breakup.
“I think it’s great if you can stay friends with exes,” another friend told me when I asked her thoughts. She’s in her 30s and doesn’t have a strict rule either way. “There are a few people who I ‘used to hook up with’ who I genuinely enjoy running into. I have one ex who I see every few years, and it’s always so nice, truly. I only have one ex who I’ve ever had to be careful about a ‘friendship’ with because lines get blurred and feelings messy. I have three I’ll never speak to again — one from college, and that’s mostly just distance, and two because when it ended, I was DONE.”
Perhaps the answer is there is no answer, that each relationship must be considered carefully in its individual context and motives properly analyzed in equal measure. In a New York Times Modern Love column titled “Happily Ever, After We Split,” Wendy Paris details the evolution of her relationship with her husband through the divorce process and how separating brought them closer together. In a New York magazine Ask Polly column titled “Can I Be Friends With My Ex Now That I’m Married?” Heather Havrilesky parses the difference between innocent ex contact and not-so-innocent. (The difference is motive.) Context, it seems, is everything.
Debate aside, one thing the years have shown me is that true motives are often buried in our subconscious, only to be revealed in hindsight, and that’s why this remains tricky territory. What do you think? Are you friends with your exes? Have you had a partner who was friends with his or hers? Do you care about any of this, or does it all strike you as a little old-fashioned? I’m a swirly mix of hmmmmm across the board.
Feature collage by Emily Zirimis; Photo by Camerique/Getty Images.