A friend of mine — a gorgeous, tall, witty and accomplished woman — once went on a date in which her suitor outright compared her to his ex, found her not up to his standards and eventually broke into tears over his former beloved.
“Inexcusable!” I hear you cry. “I’d never make such an ass of myself, nor openly derogate a lady in such a manner!” And I believe you! Truly, I do.
And yet, so many of us falter when it comes to any discussion of ours exes. We fall into the trap of subtle idealization — or demonize and dismiss them. Sometimes, we’re too afraid to discuss them at all.
But talking about your sexual and romantic past is an adult skill! The only real alternative is to pretend you have no past at all. And friend, unless you’re Jason Bourne, that’s not going to make you seem cool and mysterious, just less human.
What makes me qualified to write on this subject? Well, my people (i.e., lesbians) have something of a complicated relationship with the concept of “exes.” Coming from historically small communities, it was in our interest not to put down our ex-lovers, because there was a good chance that we’d run into them again — like it or not. Research even backs this up, finding that LGBTQ people are more likely to have post-dating friendships.
While you might not be at similar risk of landing in a sitcom scenario, you can put the same principles into practice to talk about your exes in honest and straightforward ways that neither idolize nor malign them. The first step, though, is identifying the most common traps — otherwise, you’re gonna fall right into them. Traps such as…
The ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’
“I went on a date with a dude who 10 minutes into dinner started trash-talking all of his ex-girlfriends,” says 25-year-old game developer Anna. “He’d talk about how he’d always wanted to date a smart woman, but how all his exes were ‘idiots who’d worked at factories’ and they’d all been ‘dumb as rocks but they’d all put out.’ He also said that he had only ‘kind of respected’ one of his exes, and that was because she was at least ‘woman enough’ to shave her legs every second day.”
Twentysomething writer Jamie provides another egregious example: “This guy kept talking about how his ex got into drugs after they broke up. He told me he has a picture where she looks super fucked up, high and generally bad that he looks at whenever he wants to feel better about himself. Then he pulled it up and looked at it while we were in the diner.”
Let me be totally clear: The “crazy ex” is an immediate red flag in a dating scenario. At best, it paints you as someone unable to take responsibility for any problems in past relationships. At worst, it sounds outright misogynist — and isn’t very attractive. If you say that all your exes are crazy, there are two possibilities: They all really were — which is pretty unlikely — or you’re the one with the problem. After all, you’re the common denominator.
But what if your ex really had psychological or emotional issues that hurt you or the relationship?
Alex, a 29-year-old teacher, says, “Often men will call their ex some variety of crazy or something else misogynistic when the problem is the women were abusive. So it becomes a weird experience of needing to invalidate their sexist language while validating their experiences.”
Anthony, a 26-year-old game designer, dealt with just this kind of experience. “I had a one-month fling with someone who was incredibly emotionally abusive and sexually assaulted me in the back of an Uber,” he says. “Immediately after, I met someone on Grindr who seemed perfect for me. We’ve been together almost a year and he’s the love of my life, but the first month I was with him, I couldn’t stop talking about the last person and how bad the whole thing fucked me up. My partner was pretty annoyed, he didn’t like being compared to someone. But he understood it was something I was getting over.”
So if your ex really, truly was hurting you emotionally, physically or sexually, it’s better to talk about it in those terms than to hide behind the “crazy” label. It might be scary, and you don’t necessarily need to get into specifics on the first date, but being open and vulnerable is the best way to go here.
The Ex You Can’t Get Over
Not all demonization of one’s exes is so explicit, however. Twentysomething consultant Jay worries that “there’s a deceptively fine line between ‘the relationship wasn’t really healthy or working anymore’ and ‘I’ve never done anything wrong, these harpies have wounded my spirit.’”
Can you talk about how things ended badly? Of course! But being truthful without seeming like you’re still into her can be tough, as 18-year-old college student Matt points out. “I was on the receiving end of a messy breakup that left me with some unresolved stuff. When I try to bring it up with new dates, I always hesitate and draw away from the subject because I feel like I’m cultivating a grovelling SuperCuck™️ ex-boyfriend image.” Matt’s conscious of what’s behind these feelings — a “dumb and toxically masculine way of thinking,” but that knowledge doesn’t make them go away.
So, how do you navigate this situation? Jeanne, a 30-year-old media professional, tells me that on her first date with her current boyfriend, he disclosed that he’d been engaged to someone who later cheated on him. “I was like, ‘Oh, here we go,’” she says. “But he just talked about the simple fact of being very sad about it, which a lot of guys aren’t willing to do — and instead, it becomes a list of unacceptable actions their ex did.”
The simple act of sharing a vulnerable moment from the past became a very human moment of connection. “I obviously related to it as someone who had also had their heart broken,” Jeanne explains. “And learning about how someone processes sadness is good knowledge about them.”
The ‘Perfect Ex’
It’s a less common problem than demonization, but idealization can put a damper on a budding romance just as quickly. Unless you’re sitting at a bar, nursing a full glass of whiskey and looking for rebound sex, you probably want to avoid talking about how your perfect, beautiful ex broke your heart. I mean, this is a move. But in most situations, it’s a one-way ticket to No Second Datesville.
In my friend’s example, the poor guy was probably trying to date way too soon after a breakup. If that’s you, spare yourself and any prospective dates the trouble and hold off until you’re in a place to focus on other people in the present, not just your lover in the past.
As Jay points out, ours is a culture that doesn’t especially make room to discuss our exes and the impact — for better or worse — they’ve had on our development as human beings. “Not that folks should do a deep dive into past relationship failures on the third date,” he says. “But a culture with a less weird pressure to ignore or delete all past relationships as failures would probably allow us to process our ex partners in a healthier way.”
How do we get there? Well, it’s gonna take a while. In the meantime, you can find ways to talk about your past romantic partners in a way that’s healthy for you and isn’t hurtful to your current one. Most relationships aren’t perfect or terrible, and acknowledging that places you on the path of being able to talk about how you got to where you are.
Oh, and I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but this all goes both ways. So if you find yourself getting jealous when someone you’re seeing talks about her ex, remember who she’s sitting across from.