Tuesday 25 October 2016

Katie Byrne: The good ex guide

Can friendship ever truly survive the end of a relationship?

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

I had a 'catch-up' with an ex-boyfriend the other day.

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We do it every few months, by telephone, mainly to prove to ourselves, and each other, that we are emotionally evolved enough to have an easy-breezy phone conversation with the person who ran off with the smoothie maker.

These chit-chats don't follow the typical rhythm of a telephone conversation. We don't talk about problems or challenges; we don't ask after each other's family. We don't even mention the smoothie maker.

Instead, we talk about our achievements, our acquirements and the astonishing run of good luck we each experienced after we bid one another farewell.

Everything is great when you chat to an ex. Really great. Greater than great.

Even if you're lying in week-old bedsheets and toast crumbs; even if you're looking down the side of the sofa for errant coins in the week before pay-day. It's great. All of it.

Parking fines? No such thing. Plumbing problems? Not in my world. Besides, I'm in New York...

"Yeah... Paris next. Then Milan... Actually, I have a call coming through. Can you hold for a sec...?

"Konichiwa! Oh! It's still you... I thought it was my friend in Tokyo. And before you ask - yes - I've been learning Japanese...

"Anyway, where was I? I told you about the marathon that I took part in while alluding to the idea that I'm in the best shape of my life - physically, mentally, emotionally, but mainly physically - right?

"And I told you about the magical weekend in Paris, while insinuating that I was there with my new lover (who may or may not be French) and not my deaf-in-one-ear, 84-year-old great-aunt, yeah? And did I mention that everything is great? REALLY great?"

Ostensibly, a conversation with the ex is an amicable chat between two grown-ups. In reality, it's a gloat-off between two overgrown children.

In most cases, conversations with exes are high stakes bragging matches in which you bet with a Sri Lanka and he raises with a Nepal; a game of Top Trumps in which Burning Man beats Benicassim and Tulum beats Berlin. The wholly disingenuous objective is to convey that you are 1) better without them and 2) better than they are at being better without you.

Catch-ups with friends are supposed to promote emotional intimacy. Catch-ups with exes, on the other hand, briskly avoid the emotional intimacy you once shared. Authenticity and sincerity can open that door once more, so it's best to just focus on your success in the Ironman competition, the holiday on the yacht (in this instance, every type of pleasure boat is a 'yacht') and your new-found joie de vivre. Yay for life!

My ex and I always conclude our little catch-ups with: "It was great chatting to you." But is it really that great? Granted, there's a smug sense of satisfaction, and a feeling that I'm an ambassador for civility and diplomacy. We're just like Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, I think. Sure we'll probably be going on holiday together next...

But do these conversations actually progress our relationship any more than they make us feel terribly progressive? Likewise, does anyone, anywhere, benefit from listening to a 20-minute-long infomercial selling a Photoshopped version of your fantasy life?

Is it even accurate to call this a conversation, when it is more of a performance piece? Is it fair to describe it as a dialogue when, realistically, it is more like two converging monologues?

There are, of course, one or two exceptions to the rule. Occasionally people really can stay friends with their ex. Somehow the etheric cords stay intact and the ownership of the smoothie maker isn't an issue. They don't need monthly catch-ups to justify their post-relationship friendship or a bucket list of achievements to validate their post-relationship existence.

They don't cling to the ego defence mechanism of blue-sky-babbling and unashamed showboating, nor do they feel compelled to use the upbeat tone of a morning TV host as they deliver a news bulletin on their marvellous life.

In other words, these former couples still have the bedrock of an authentic relationship: vulnerability.

Some people pride themselves on remaining friends with all their exes, but can you really be someone's friend when you can't be vulnerable around them?

More to the point, do you really have affection left for somebody if you slightly enjoy hearing their throat constrict and their sphincter spasm every time you tell them about your remarkable turn of fortune?

It's worth asking if you like being friends with your ex or if you like the idea of being progressive enough to be friends with your ex. The former requires an open heart; the latter is just a wounded ego.

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