Focus: The Ex Files

Old flames who remain friends can cause chaos. Just ask Pete, Kate and Johnny. Nick Roper offers tips for interfering exes, and, below, two writers argue the pros and cons of getting on
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The Independent Online

Johnny Depp was probably visited by a warm feeling during his recent lunch date with his ex, Kate Moss, and her current beau, the on-going baby-shambles that is Pete Doherty.

Maybe that explains why Johnny took it upon himself to deliver a sizeable package of fatherly advice to young Peter, recommending in no uncertain terms, or so it's said, that the fellow get his act together and act his age. The young man promptly got into a fight in the street and was sent packing by La Moss, on the grounds that after all Johnny's good work, this really was the last straw.

Exes. They're trouble. Even when they're trying to be nice, they're trouble. And that's to say nothing of what happens when they get involved. What was Johnny thinking? Why, that he'd help straighten things out, of course, on behalf of Kate and her child. That any man who's not prepared to help a former girlfriend in need is no kind of man at all.

That what young Pete needed in his life was some non-authoritarian warmth and understanding - and maybe just a spritz of authoritative, experienced, woolly-limbed man-vapour. As for Kate. She was thinking what ex-girlfriends always think when the ex-boyfriend starts turning on the grown-up charm. Gosh, he's not so bad after all. And how he's matured! If only he'd looked at me with that kindness back in the days when... well, let's not go there. I really think that we're learning how to be friends. And so it goes, on and on. Being muckers with your ex doesn't automatically lead to hobbled lives. Follow the advice below and you'll be able to become very special friends indeed.

Sex with the ex

Just don't do it. Yes, I know - it's an easy mistake to make. There is virtually no creature in nature as sexually desirable as the woman who dumped you three months ago. Also, under certain circumstances, there is something strangely compelling about poor, vulnerable, wide-eyed, slightly cross dumpees, especially when they wear the shoes you liked them best in. You know why you shouldn't: it feels as proportionately awful afterwards as it did deviantly sexy at the time. It's also just plain wrong. Limit yourself instead to warm but reserved physicality of the sort you deploy when close friends experience a bereavement.

What to do...

If you do ... don't tell anyone: they'll think less of you (even if they've done it themselves). Also, make sure that you have the conversation afterwards: the one where you grin winningly while putting yourself down like mad as you explain that you are just a weak man. But it was great wasn't it? I really enjoyed it - hope you did too. But we'd better not do it again, don't you think? For all our sakes. We've come too far to spoil it now. This is important. Otherwise you have taken the first step in creating a monster: Psycho-Ex, the beast with 17 heads and absolute recall of everything you ever said when not concentrating properly.

The current partner

Never tell the truth. It is vitally important that your current partner has a completely fallacious idea of what your relationship with your ex is. In other words, that it barely exists at all. Disinformation is good. But no information is better. For instance, do not tell her that you and your ex used to have a jokey thing about delphiniums - the look, the scent, the delicious pottiness of the word itself. Because then when your ex sends you a pot of delphiniums for your birthday, your partner will go mad. And she'll have right on her side.

Can they meet?

This is all about strategy and manoeuvre. It is possible for them to meet, of course, but only in controlled circumstances (not in garden centres, obviously) and never, ever in places of "significance". Yes, you may have spent a marvellous weekend with your ex in Suffolk in '93, in which the very air of the Saxon shore was freighted with the heady scent of your love. Sorry, but this puts the kibosh on meeting up with the ex and her awful family for Sunday lunch in Dunwich. It might have been 12 years ago but your current partner, like all women, can smell through the wormholes in time. No, the best way to involve current partner and ex - once a year at most - is on current partner's terms, in the territory you have marked out as jointly yours. It's your cutlery, so it's your agenda.

Ex's new beau

What can you say? Not a lot, because there isn't much to him. He's all right, of course. But a bit dull. With any luck he'll be scared of you. Be generous of spirit. Remember, she can tell him anything she wants about you. He may be a dork but there is every chance he has pillow-giggled at your expense, shortly after lifting your ex to a higher level of sensual ecstasy than had hitherto been her privilege. Think about that.


Flirting is permissible, funnily enough, because this is the sexually least dangerous relationship you will ever have (once you've got the "sleeping with your ex" bit out of the way and done your penitential pillow-chewing). But it's a fine line. Don't cross it. There are no specific warning signs to look out for, but always beware of warm, fuzzy, stirring feelings. Once they start, your feet are actually on the line and you are tipping forward. One false move and you could be faced with...


You cannot be friends with this one! Terminate! Terminate! And remember, it's ALL YOUR FAULT. Yes, we know it wasn't entirely because of your selfish behaviour and masculine inadequacy that she grew the 16 extra heads with accompanying forked tongues, but the best way to think about it is that it was. This is not a management issue - it's a fight-or-flight one. Flight is definitely the one you must choose.

Your role

Who can say? But if you behave yourself, if you appreciate her not only for who she was but for whom she has become, and - well, der! - you don't go on about your current relationship, there is every chance that she will, in time, come to take you seriously as a human being. Do bear in mind though, that she may have a slightly different human being in mind. But come on, you must admit, it's a start.

Hermione Eyre: 'The joy of an ex is being able to point at his clothes and laugh'

The joy of exes. I love my ex-boyfriend. Not in the way I used to, granted - but with more equanimity and respect and, strangely, more devotion. A boyfriend lasts as long as a piece of string or a piece of chewing gum, but the ex-boyfriend who has weathered the sea-change and become a friend is a friend for ever. A special kind of friend.

Special, meaning that I can point at his clothes and laugh. Special, meaning that I can wallop him when he is rude, or just because I feel like it. Special, meaning that he can tell me that he does not like my hair. And when I am being grandiloquent. In short, just one ex-boyfriend can supply more truth than is strictly necessary.

This is what makes him so good to have around - but it also means that he can really overstep the mark. Comments about his successor, for example, never go down well. Derogatory remarks always sound bitchy, and call for a harder than normal wallop.

Approving remarks are also dangerous, tending as they do towards patronising paternalism. "Well done, Herm, he's very sweet," (said in a surprised tone of voice, as if to say, not like the last one) is much worse than naked aggression, since it cannot be responded to with physical violence. But these are small gripes. My ex is in all other ways a joy: with all passion spent between us, we are more like siblings than ex-lovers. There is a physical ease between us that has developed nicely over the five years since we split up.

And we have closer points of reference than many friends: I got to know his grandparents well when I was his girlfriend; likewise, he knows my parents and can do brilliant, satirical impressions of them. Few people know me better, and there are few friends I cherish as much.

But I had better not go too far. My boyfriend and I are going on holiday with him and his girlfriend this summer, and I wouldn't want to jinx it. For while an ex can be a very rewarding friend, matters have to be handled with tact and care: an ex can also make a brilliant nemesis.

Eizabeth Heathcote: 'Anything more than crossing paths is unrealistic and unfair on both of you'

Years ago, through the sting of a separation, Tim and I promised to remain friends. We met for dinner a couple of times. I spent a Saturday with his family.

One afternoon he came round for coffee. The answering machine intercepted the phone before I could reach it. It was the man who, we had both agreed, had been the catalyst of our break-up, my new boyfriend. He was suggesting that I meet him at a restaurant. "Why doesn't he come to pick you up?" enquired Tim.

"He doesn't drive."

"He doesn't drive," Tim repeated, and stared at the floor. "He doesn't drive?!"

He grabbed my wrist. Surprise was on his side and before I knew what was happening he had unstrapped the watch he had bought me the Christmas before and vroomed off in his Jag. He posted the watch back with an apology a week later but that was the last I saw of him for several years.

Yes I know, you have to give it time, get over the pain, move on before you can contemplate being friends. But for me that story sums up friendships with exes even if the violence of emotion has subsided. It's not so much that I don't believe it is possible to be friends, more that I wonder why you would want to.

Yes, sometimes - rarely - you really should have been mates from the beginning. But mostly, once your heart has engaged, your story is set on an entirely different trajectory. Of course, it can feel warm and cosy to have an ex as a friend - usually if you were the one who walked away. Otherwise, the great thing about not being a teenager or a tabloid celeb is that you don't have to prove how over it you are.

And it doesn't matter if it was three weeks ago or 20 years - proper relationships involve mountainous emotions and choosing not to revisit those doesn't mean you haven't moved on.

Besides, in my experience, it is the most slippery exes who want to be friends. Most of us know instinctively that while it can be lovely to cross paths with former beaus from time to time, anything more is probably unrealistic and possibly unfair - on you, them, your new partners, someone. Having an ex as a friend creates endless scope for drama, jealousies, split loyalties, insecurities and competitiveness.

And if you're not sharing confidences that would be better reserved for your new relationship, what is there left? The past is all you share now. If your relationship had had a future, wouldn't you still be together?