Since the full stretch of my romantic life has been “normal” (read: not always catastrophic), it has only recently come to my attention that some people, while in a committed relationship, talk about their ex too much. Maybe even their exes, plural. Apparently this is the sort of problem that can trigger a fight that torpedoes the current partnership. Which, of course, simply creates more exes to inappropriately talk about.
But just how much ex talk is too much? You can’t exactly pull a 1984 and pretend you never dated at all before meeting the person you’re with. Nor can you hope to sneakily redact or edit your anecdotes to avoid bringing up old flames. It’s somehow more awkward to create an alternate timeline where you went backpacking through Thailand alone instead of with your college boyfriend — not because of the low-key deception, but because you went through the trouble, as if the ex is an embarrassment to be hidden or a figure of unmentionable evil. Like whatsisname, the guy from Harry Potter? Moldybort.
It’s indeed a minefield of sorts, but a few basic rules should take you pretty far in the art of mustering a conversation topic besides your ex now and then. For one thing — and it’s incredible this even needs to be said — you can stop referring to them on a first date. Presumably, your Tinder match would prefer to glean some of your attractive qualities, not those lingering petty resentments over who washed the dishes in your previous domestic arrangement.
This leads me to the second ought-to-be-obvious point: Dwelling on your ex’s personal failings makes you look worse. Has any dude ever reminisced about the “crazy bitch” from his past without sounding like the psycho of the couple?
On the other hand, a nostalgic and effusive tone may invite jealousy by signaling that you want the ex back — or can’t help measuring your significant other against them. Yeah, yeah, absence and fondness and whatnot, but read the damn room. If your friends can’t bear you pining after the one who got away, that goes double for the naked person in your bed.
When the ex themselves has become the subject at hand without any direct prompt or questioning, you’ve gone on a dangerous tangent, my friend. You’ll want to confine a majority of ex chatter to glancing, neutral, non-comparative statements: “Oh sure, I’ve seen The National live. My ex was really into them.” See? Nice and boring. You can move on to other white indie-rock bands with nary a hitch.
By the way, whenever possible, you may as well nix the phrase “my ex,” which tends to cast the breakup as their defining personality trait. Say “my ex” enough and it starts to reveal shades of “my girlfriend, who goes to a different school, in Canada, and we met at camp, and she’s real.” You may as well say “Meghan” when you mean Meghan, and “Matt” when you mean Matt, although there are so many goddamn Matts in this country that you’ve probably dated at least two, in which case you can come up with your own system for differentiating them. The point is, you went out with a human being, not the silhouette avatar of some Twitter dumbass who can’t figure out how to upload a profile pic. Using their name has the added benefit of softening the dynamic between you — where “my ex” can scan as hostile or even combative, a name suggests easy acquaintance.
Who we’ve been close to informs who we are, and memory is always with us. You shouldn’t have to deny that to make a relationship work, but there’s also no reason to say, for example, “Can we try this cool sex position my ex taught me?” Act like you thought it up yourself! Right then! Living in the moment, baby!
Overall, I think you should bring up your ex as often as you would your therapist, or an interesting cousin, or your preferred brand of laundry detergent: They exist, okay, no big deal, let’s go get tacos. Otherwise, and despite what the sitcom taught us, you may find that three’s a crowd.