It happens to the best of us. Catch a glimpse of someone’s profile across a restaurant, or recognize the back of a head in a grocery store, and you’re hitting the deck, immediately, in full scale panic mode, like a fugitive who just spotted the FBI.
Now, it is one thing to do this and feel embarrassed for yourself, realizing that your impulse to not deal with someone can make you behave like the most foolish of fools. But, it is quite another to have to explain said ridiculous behaviour to the person you happen to be on a date with, whose face is now likely a combination of concern, bemusement and disgust. What terrifying creatures universally make rational humans behave like irrational idiots? Our exes of course.
If you are a certain age, let’s say mid-twenties onward, and have lived in your current city for a while, you are almost definitely familiar with the awkward ex run-in. In this age of later marriages and looser definitions of relationships, you might find yourself questioning whether that guy you hooked up with for a couple months counts as an ex. I’d say, not officially, but he’s also definitely not a non-ex if that makes any sense. Throw in the constantly expanding social worlds online, it can sometimes feels like you can’t get a coffee, go to a party or check your Instagram without some reminder of relationships past.
It’s one thing to navigate this for yourself, it’s a whole other thing to hold the hand of your current girl or guy while navigating it. Myself, I am a proponent of the dodge and dive method when it comes to avoiding awkward chit chat with people whose faces have been attached to yours at some point or another. That said, I can also see the value in the other extreme, the scenario in which you’re able to be good friends with your ex, meet for meals, catch up and never, ever talk about sex. The latter is only possible though if your feelings are gone, and there’s no confusion about what you want from them; exes are similar to any nostalgic item from your past, they made you ponder; “I used to like him/her,” you ask yourself with a chuckle. “Oh silly baby me. What was I thinking?!”
Unfortunately our own exes are the least of our concern. New loves come with their own trail of exes, ranging from the most casual to the ultra-serious, and they can roll up like a clown car of crazy with all the tools to disrupt your blissful new union. Since there are a few common archetypes that almost everyone has in their ex rolodex, the old saying applies: forewarned is fore-armed. Here’s a helpful cheat sheet of four classic exes complete with strategies for managing these characters in a way that makes you come across like the coolest of cucumbers.
The Ex: The Flip Flop
The Scenario: They likely broke up not too far in the distant past before you two got together, and by all accounts it was mutual at the time. Now that they see their ex happy with someone new (that would be you) they are feeling a little…territorial. They aren’t overtly trying to get them back necessarily, but they’re all about testing the waters to see if they could if they wanted to. They will probably be a combination of friendly and sketchy around you, depending on which stage of the pendulum swing their feelings happen to be at. One day they’ll pull you aside at a party to tell you that they’re totally over their ex, and they like you together, and the next they will be texting him/her to see if they can grab lunch and “talk”. This is the one that cannot be trusted as far as they can be thrown.
The Strategy: Listen to good old Teddy Roosevelt and walk softly, but carry a big stick. Meaning: be warm, be friendly, be conciliatory, and never, ever trust a word out of this one’s mouth. They will employ whatever means at their disposal to undermine your new relationship — do not fall for it. Your dealings here should be cautious; don’t accept any invites to get brunch or coffee or basically anything solo together. And through all this, be trusting of your own relationship. If you are with the right one, you can feel secure that your boo knows what they’ve got in you, and isn’t going to be lured back by someone they’ve already moved past. It will only make this particular ex more furious to see you calmly move forward with the toy they just discarded, which suddenly is looking shiny and new again. So keep your guard up, and be prepared for their behaviour to get worse before it gets better.
The Ex: The Polar Opposite
The Scenario: This is the ex that when you meet sends you into a total self-doubt spiral. You’re so different in every way. Between appearance, personality, career and background, two more opposite creatures have never walked this earth. Immediately you begin to wonder, “If he/she liked that, why are they with me now?” Their behavior towards you could be perfectly civil and reasonable, largely dependent on how they were treated by your new squeeze at the end of their relationship. That said, this may be the most dangerous ex of all, as the questions triggered by your bump in, run the risk of developing into full-scale irrational fears, which have a tendency of sparking a whole lot of crazy.
The Strategy: First off, this ex will probably be having a similar inner dialogue when they meet you. As in: “So that’s why we broke up! He/She is into people like that, not like me.” That is the key to processing this one. Yes they’re different, and yes, your lover loved that type at one point, but he/she isn’t with you against his/her will. They’ve chosen you, including how you look and act and think, and the ways you are different from their ex(es) is probably part of the draw. They tried that, and now they like you. End of story.
The Ex: The Lurker
The Scenario: They didn’t date that long, or that seriously, but this ex will somehow be absolutely everywhere in a way that may throw you for a loop. They’re at a mutual friend’s art show, the same brunch spot on Sunday, and all over your main squeeze’s Facebook, “liking” everything in sight. They are friendly, even nonchalant when introduced, but you’ll soon notice that whenever you’re in the same room, they are watching you like a hawk.
The Strategy: Be wary because this one may be legit C.R.A.Z.Y. The best advice here is just to keep as wide a berth as possible. Do not engage. Nothing good comes of acknowledging this creeper. If anyone is to deal with this one, it should be between your bf/gf and the ex in question. It is likely no coincidence that this person keeps showing up wherever you guys happen to be, so it is time to take precautions. Definitely do not consider joining Four Square at the moment, and take a look into how you can upgrade the security levels on your Facebook. Cyber-stalking has already shifted into light IRL stalking, and while hopefully the fascination will subside and/or the lurker will find a new beau/future stalking victim, in the meantime, security measures are your best solution.
The Ex: The Big One
The Scenario: This is the ex who your new flame was with for many years, who stars in their stories and knows their secrets. Presumably they broke up for a good reason, more likely several, but unlike more casual relationships, this one may never entirely disappear, due to the complicated web of common friends and history that their years together developed. When you meet, they may be hostile or friendly, depending on the terms between them and your beau. And how they will almost definitely act towards you is: superior. They will feel they have put the time in, and therefore have the upper hand. When you meet, they may passive aggressively reference inside jokes and memories you won’t know anything about. They may even go for a sneaky team up and start making jokes about the silly things your new guy/girl does on the regular, leaving your new flame will have no choice but to participate.
The Strategy: However insecure you feel around this person (and of course you do, it would be weird not to) the key is to keep a lid on it. As much as they are trying to get a rise out of you, they’re also probably trying to see how much they can ruffle the feathers of their ex/your bonafide. The best way you can play this is to be calm and civil, but also clearly on your bf/gf’s side. If their ex tries to make a joke about their cooking fails or chronic lateness, you don’t laugh or agree (even though whatever they’re saying will be completely true and probably one of the things that annoy you, you raise an eyebrow and shrug it off with a simple, “oh really, that bugged you? I kind of like it.” Your bf/gf will feel like you have their back, and suddenly it won’t matter who was with who longer, rather who is better together.
These are just a few of the ex archetypes; it goes without saying that there’s a million variations and each new love will come with their own band of merry weirdos to navigate. However many variations there may be, the rule of thumb is basically the same no matter what type of ex you are dealing with: they’re the past, and while we should always learn from history, there is absolutely no point in sweating over it. Stay calm, trust you are the chosen person now for a reason, and let whatever these exes throw at you slide right by. If you’re having trouble with that, it may in fact have more to do with your confidence in your beau, than it does in the craziness of their exes.