Elizabeth Day: Staying friends with your ex… discuss

My friend Mike was in town recently from Los Angeles with a 40-hour stopover in London because of a missed flight connection.

‘What should I do?’ he texted. ‘I hate museums.’

I replied with a list of activities that mainly consisted of the best hotel bars for vodka martinis (Duke’s, in case you’re wondering).

Mike suggested we meet for a drink with my other half, J. So I asked J, ‘Hey, do you want to have a drink with this friend who’s over from LA?’

‘Who is he?’ my boyfriend replied. At which point I began to look a bit embarrassed. I started talking loosely about how we were friends who occasionally went to dinner and, yes, OK, I might have slept with Mike a handful of times several years ago and maybe it was sort of dating, but it wasn’t anything serious enough to categorise him as a legitimate ex.

Jenny Brough

‘You’re funny,’ J said, returning to whatever he was doing on his laptop. ‘Why would anyone be friends with their ex?’

He asked in a genuinely reflective way. J can’t understand why I keep in touch with former lovers when he isn’t in touch with any of his. It’s become something of a joke between us that quite a few men I mention in casual conversation will turn out to be someone I have had a fling with. The exes I stay in touch with are the men I’ve not been serious about. Ones I went on three or four dates with, sometimes extending to a couple of months of seeing each other, but never evolving into what I would have considered a full relationship.

I used to try to stay in touch with exes from long-term relationships too, because it felt so brutal to go from talking to each other every day to absolutely nothing overnight. Unless your relationship was emotionally or physically abusive, it had always seemed to me to be sad and illogical to lose that friendship, even if you were no longer romantically involved.

This is what I used to tell myself. But honestly? I think this was an excuse. The real reason I tried to stay in touch was probably because I wanted them still to like me, either because I’d broken up with them and needed to assuage my guilt or because they had broken up with me and I needed, on some level, to prove them wrong. I was trying so hard to be perfect that I couldn’t assimilate the idea that they had found me, or the relationship, lacking. The irony, of course, was that my attempts to be perfect, rather than real, had probably caused the relationship to falter in the first place.

It wasn’t that I ever wanted to get back with these exes. No, it was something far more twisted. I wanted them to want me back. I’d meet up with them over disappointing vodka and tonics in some hastily chosen pub, and discover that they were perfectly happy without me and I would pretend to be perfectly happy back. It felt like picking a scab that had formed across my wounded soul. I suppose I was searching for evidence to back up my deep-seated fear that I was fundamentally unlovable.

J and I never went for that drink with Mike. We went to the cinema instead, where I didn’t have to prove anything or put on a good show because I feel accepted, lovingly, for the person I am rather than the one I was trying to be.

That feeling you get when you see someone you used to be intimate with – that sad, restless, queasy feeling at the end of the evening when you hug each other goodbye and smell familiar laundry detergent – is nothing at all to do with loving someone else, and everything to do about how much you refuse to love yourself.

This week I’m…


My possessions around in my new Coach shoulder bag. The Edie fits everything in one place and is pleasingly slouchy.


(At least in my dreams) in the Mahsai chair by Lombok. It’s the perfect piece of furniture – even if I can’t afford it.


To the Noble Blood podcast: a narrative tour of history’s most fascinating royals. I’m a history geek, what can I say?