The Ex Files: Are There New Rules of Engagement?
Originally published on March 14, 2011 on SexReally.com.
“The only time you should contact your ex is if you get engaged or you get a STD.” – Paul
My friend Jackie found out about her ex’s engagement in a very theatrical way: she read about it in The New York Times. She happened to be browsing online and stumbled upon Brian’s picture with his soon-to-be wife.
When Jackie relayed this information to me I was surprised. She’d ended her relationship with Brian only a year before and since then he’d managed to a) recover from their breakup; b) start dating someone else; c) become engaged to that someone; and d) marry her. My, what a difference a year makes. But, sometimes I guess that’s how love works. One year you’re ending a relationship and the next year you’re saying, “I do”.
Statistics show that women are waiting till later in life to marry. In the United States in the 1960s, the average age a woman got married was 20. As of 2007, that age was 26. With all that extra time, it makes sense that we’d be experiencing more relationships in our 20s. Getting married later means we have more time to date a variety of people and, hopefully, learn about love.
Yet more exes also means new questions about behavior and etiquette. For example, should we expect a phone call, email, or conversation over coffee when an ex gets engaged? Do they owe us one? Or, if you have an engagement ring on your finger, is there a need to call up the guy who you thought might be “the one” until things went sour?
I came up with four working theories on why an ex might be in touch about upcoming nuptials:
- 1. Out of courtesy. The advent of social media has changed the playing field in terms of how news gets around. Now all it takes is a change in relationship status on Facebook – one click of a button – and the whole world knows. Your ex wants to make sure you hear it from the source, rather than in such an impersonal way.
2. To rub it in. This scenario is likely to play out if the relationship didn’t end well. It’s the I’m-doing-so-freakin’-well-without-you call.
3. To see how you react to the news. Your reaction could be an indicator of how much the relationship meant to you. Or, it could be a way to gauge whether you still have any romantic feelings.
4. S/he is crazy happy and just couldn’t resist. Your ex is calling everyone s/he can think of because the joy cannot be contained.
In my own experience, I’ve received two phone calls about engagement. Jackie’s story made me think back to those conversations. Was I glad they told me? What exactly were my exes hoping to accomplish by letting me know? Is it better that I found out from the source rather than through the grapevine?
I had many questions about exes and engagement etiquette, so I decided to do something crazy. I called up one of my exes to ask why he’d called me about his engagement. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Thank you for letting me call to ask you questions about our past! I know it must be weird to know that it will be in a column for Sex Really.
Paul: (Laughing) That’s okay!
Me: When you got engaged you called to tell me your news. Why did you decide to call?
Paul: Part of it was because I thought it was something you were supposed to do. I was contacting people that I really liked and were friends. It would feel weird to tell everyone else and not let you know.
Me: Did you call any of your other exes? If so, what were the reactions you received?
Paul: Yes, I called two other people. Those two were married and I thought I would get a reaction like, “that’s great to hear.” But with you I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was going to get.
Me: How would you describe my reaction?
Paul: Upbeat, positive, excited.
Me: What did you think of that reaction?
Paul: I wasn’t sure if you were putting on a brave face or not. Not that it would ultimately matter anyway. When I hung up with you I thought to myself, “I hope that is how she really feels, because that would be great.”
Me: I have some theories on why people call their exes to tell them about an upcoming engagement. Can you respond to each one?
Me: First – people call to let their exes know out of courtesy.
Paul: Yes, that was part of it. I really thought it was a thing you were supposed to do. Like, a social norm that had popped up around weddings. I’m not sure where I picked up that social clue. Maybe it was movies, or TV, or just having other friends do it.
Me: Next theory – people call to rub it in.
Paul: (Laughing) Well, for us that wasn’t part of the phone call. But, one of my friends, Tom, did call his ex to tell her that he was getting married. There was a bragging aspect of it. In his mind I think he got an emotional high from showing his ex how great his life turned out.
Me: Next theory – people do it to see how their ex would react to the news. Meaning, to see if they get upset.
Paul: For us I think it was more about gauging feelings. It’s about curiosity and how that person feels about you. But the reaction that you gave was one that I hoped for. With Tom he was hoping that it wouldn’t go over well. He was hoping that she would feel like she blew it with him.
Me: Final theory – that people do it because they are so happy that they can’t contain themselves.
Paul: I could really see that as being a reason why an ex would reach out, especially if things ended on good terms. When it comes down to it, I think you should only contact an ex if you get engaged or get an STD.
I’m glad Paul called and told me about his engagement. But it would have been okay if he hadn’t, too. It did make me laugh a little when he said that he hoped I wasn’t putting on a brave face. I expected him to get involved and get married at some point and, by the time his engagement happened, everything between us was water under the bridge.
Does etiquette revolve around timing, then? Paul and I had been out of a relationship for two years when he got engaged. Maybe that one-year mark that Jackie experienced makes the difference. Perhaps the new rule of etiquette should be that if you get out of a relationship and engaged to someone else within the same year, a phone call is in order?
The curious thing about relationships and breakups is going from knowing every nuance about someone’s day to knowing nothing at all. Maybe contacting an ex about your engagement is a way of harkening back, or paying your respects, to an era when your lives were tied together.
As for me, I don’t know if I would do it. My past is in my past for a reason. It’s not that those other relationships didn’t have their time and place, but when you are looking toward the future with a partner, all the other stuff tends to go fuzzy and the road ahead is the only one that matters. The visibility of exes on that road? That probably depends.
What do you think?
Kaarin Moore is the owner of Closet Caucus, a fashion consulting company located in Washington, DC. Her goal is to help clients express who they are through the medium of clothing. You can reach her at www.closetcaucus.com or on twitter (@closetcaucus).