When Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” hit the airwaves six months ago, it felt like a break in ex protocol. Rather than wallowing in soul-crushing post-breakup sadness or fiery rage, it became trendy—enlightened, even—to think fondly of a failed relationship, to celebrate your ex, not because you want to get back together, but because you recognize that they were once an important part of your life.
And, with the planet melting, maybe now isn’t the time to harbor grudges against our former flames. Maybe now is the time to show each other some appreciation, especially, to use a phrase coined by Nicole Cliffe, to all the “good exes” out there. But while we know reflexively what constitutes a bad ex—if they attempt to manipulate your mutual friends against you or make repeated phone calls to your mom, run—the definition of a “good ex” is way more nebulous. Obviously, a good ex does not send late night text messages laced with eggplant emojis and regret. A good ex does not talk trash about a former S.O. (especially not on the internet when they’re running for president). If you end up seeing them in public, they don’t try to flirt or re-hash anything personal, but they also don’t avoid you like a dangerous contagion, either. But beyond some standard guidelines for human decency, what kind of relationship, if any, is appropriate?
As someone who’s not personally spectacular at breakup aftermath and could stand to learn a thing or two, I talked to a couple dozen people (including a therapist and a dating coach) about what distinguishes the good exes from the bad exes, and how to nail the art of staying friendly-ish with your past flames.
1. The right amount of contact with a good ex will vary situationally.
All good exes leave the past behind, but some people take that expression literally, preferring to largely refrain from any kind of direct contact after a breakup—like when my friend Julia awarded the title of “best ex” to an old boyfriend whom she blissfully hasn’t heard from in years. Maybe they like your little brother’s graduation photo on Instagram, or say hello during inevitable Starbucks run-ins, but otherwise they leave you the hell alone.
But you might also have one of those unicorn ex situations, where you’re able to turn a past relationship into genuine friendship—or as one person put it, “exes with friend benefits.” I talked to one woman whose high school boyfriend wound up as best man in her wedding. Another traveled and co-authored a newsletter with her college sweetheart. And then there was Stella, a Brooklyner who became both roommates and best friends with an ex. They’d met on Tinder, dated for a couple of winter months before Stella broke it off, and later that summer, she reached back out.
“I said something like, ‘I would love to hang out, and if you feel like that’s approachable for you, let me know,’” Stella told me, recalling how there were naturally built-in boundaries during their first hangout in the form of her ex’s friends. One-on-one time followed easily, especially after both happened to move to the same neighborhood and realized their new apartments were in walking distance. By the time tricky roommate situations cropped up for each of them, it had been almost two years since their breakup—and moving in together seemed like a logical solution between friends.
For most people though, good ex experiences fall somewhere in the middle, in the form of past partners who DM you congrats when they hear your podcast debut, say happy birthday, or recommend you for a job opportunity. In other words, the ideal ex strikes the balance between being present, but not active, in your life. It could arise out of necessity: maybe you guys work together or share a small enough social scene where it’s logistically helpful to make peace—an important factor in the queer community, as two interviewees mentioned, where relationships already built outside of assigned gender roles (and/or monogamy, to boot) can give everyone more freedom to rewrite the rules on ex etiquette.
That said, not everyone can be a good ex. Any past relationship that involved abusive behavior, dishonesty, or ghosting in lieu of a real breakup is automatically disqualified, because the common thread in all good ex stories is mutual respect.
2. A good ex is someone uniquely qualified to call you on your bullshit.
So, there is one person from my own life who I’d call my “good ex.” Like a lot of other good exes I heard about, he and I dated in college and broke up before graduation. In the past few years, we’ve started exchanging long email updates about our families and career aspirations, often around New Year’s Eve, when we’re both feeling existential. When I first wanted to move to New York, I told him about how freaked-out I felt, and he gently reminded me that change always did that to me. Having someone like him, who knows my specific history and insecurities, is comforting and uniquely helpful.
Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who writes the weekly Dear Therapist in The Atlantic and is the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, told me how staying in touch with our most formative exes can actually do us good.
“If you dated someone right out of college or in your early/mid twenties, and it didn’t work out, that’s a really interesting time when you’re discovering yourself,” Gottlieb explained. “And that person was with you for that. That person knew you in a way that your future partners won’t know you.” That is, you can always tell your new boyfriends about your old college self, but it’ll never be the same as if they’d actually been there on the campus quad with you, trying (and failing!) to figure out how to be a person in the world.
That perspective not only can keep you grounded during the tough times—quarter life crises, journeys to sobriety, death in the family—but they can also help you out with current and future relationships. After all, your exes are the only ones who know what it’s like to date you. “Your friends have never been in an intimate relationship with you, so they don’t know all the stuff that you do,” Gottlieb pointed out. “But your ex does. And your ex can give you some really good, loving feedback”—or, as one woman put it to me, call you on your bullshit.
Good exes can even help you hone in on what you’re looking for in your next partner. Sidd, a Los Angeles-based consultant, told me about a former girlfriend he stays in touch with online. Reminiscing over old Facebook photos that pop up on their timelines is one of their favorite ways to check in. For Sidd, these memories aren’t “wasted.” Instead, they’ve helped him appreciate his past relationship even more. “I was just routinely exposed to personal qualities [in her] that I’m increasingly realizing are very rare,” he said, reflecting on his ex. “For better or worse, she’s set the standard for future significant others.”
3. Though it’s tempting, trying to become friends immediately following a breakup will almost always result in the opposite outcome.
When a particularly loving or long-term relationship has to end, there’s always the temptation to try to flip the switch from “lovers” to “friends” instantly. It’s an instinct that feels mature and a little New Age-y, because why shouldn’t we be able to slightly alter the terms of an otherwise great connection? Several people who told me stories about trying and failing to stay friendly with exes echoed this sentiment. The underlying tripwire was always the same: couples who never fully broke up left room for lingering feelings and the potential for things to get messy fast.
For example, a marketing associate named Priscilla told me about texting her long distance ex the day after their breakup to joke about how “day one” always sucked and exchange photos of their faces, both puffy from crying. I heard another story from Meghan, a San Franciscan who started up weekly dinners and group hangouts with an ex after breaking up for a month. In both cases, staying close in the aftermath felt like the less painful route, but without clear boundaries or enough time to process, both couples eventually started hooking up again. Priscilla even got back together with her ex for a few months; by the end, the idea of properly disentangling their lives was so fraught that he ended up ghosting.
Put bluntly, you can’t be good exes with someone until you’ve fully embraced the “ex” aspect of that label. For Christian, a Chicagoan who dated his ex for eight years, it took two years of zero contact—he even avoided visiting the city she lived in, just in case—before the two of them could have a sit-down conversation. I asked him how he did it, and he emphasized all the work he had to do on himself first. “You start by not being a dick,” he said. “You start by getting over yourself and getting over what led to the separation. Life’s short. If you can, rebuild the bridge if it’s worth it to you.”
For anyone who’s wondering if maybe this is a sign that it’s time to do some bridge rebuilding of their own, I asked Gottlieb, the therapist, about the best way to take that first step. “You have to understand exactly why you want this person in your life—why now, as opposed to a year ago,” she cautioned. And don’t just fire off a text asking them to coffee—what are you, an HR recruiter?—that’s too vague.
Once you’re real with yourself about your intentions, decide how much contact with an ex is appropriate. Hunt Etheridge, who’s been a dating coach for more than ten years, outlined three factors to consider: the length/depth of the relationship (intense, long-term history should be handled with extreme care), how long it’s been since you broke up (and if you’ve known them longer as a friend than a girlfriend, for example), and how comfortable your current partner will be about everything (oversharing is the operative strategy here: Etheridge recommends bringing them up in convo as “my friend Steve, who I briefly dated a few years ago…”).
Then, if you’re really ready, send them a message—text or email, ideally, because it gives them time to react—and give them an out to not respond, too. Something like “If you aren’t interested, don’t feel the need to text back; I’ll understand,” works, especially if you did the breaking up. With a little luck and the most powerful post-breakup ingredient of all—time!—you’ll be well on your way to having a good ex and being one, too.
These days, Christian regularly talks to his ex and specifically refers to her as his “former partner,” because the word “ex” feels too reductive. “This is somebody who I’m not in love with anymore, but someone who I still love,” he mused, the warmth in his voice crushingly obvious. “And I think one way of being a good former partner is by being engaging, being supportive, being uplifting and not being a stranger.”
Originally Appeared on GQ