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Reconnecting with an ex’s family member isn’t always a taboo | Krista Burton

Sometimes, there’s a family member we really loved, and in rare cases, an ex becomes the bridge connecting two old friends

A few months ago, my ex-girlfriend’s mother sent me a Facebook message.

A few months ago, my ex-girlfriend’s mother sent me a Facebook message.

The notification popped up on my phone as I was filling up my car. Uh-oh. What was this? Mary* had never contacted me before. My ex and I had broken up two years prior. What could Mary possibly want?

Maybe I … maybe I just wouldn’t open it for awhile. One of the worst features of Facebook is that it shows someone when you’ve read their message, and I needed to brace myself before I read this one.

Curiosity got the best of me within two minutes. I clicked on the message, squinting my eyes, keeping my finger ready on my phone’s screen button, in case the message was something more than I was ready to read and deal with.

It could not have been more benign. Mary had taken a genealogy test for fun, and it had indicated that she could have someone with my name and near-birthday as a fifth cousin. She wondered if it could be me, and thought that would be funny!

I clicked out of the message and took a deep breath. Driving home, I thought about Mary. She had been kind to me when my ex and I were together. (When you’re queer, that’s a big deal, and frankly, not what I’ve come to expect from parents of partners.) The first time I met Mary, I was spending Christmas at her house. I was nervous. She immediately hugged me and led me into the living room, where I saw a stocking with my name on it, hanging on the mantel with the rest of the stockings. Come Christmas morning, there was a little pile of presents for me to open with the rest of the family. This was almost too much – I did not know how to handle that level of sweetness. All weekend long, my eyes kept getting dangerously shiny; I kept disappearing into the bathroom to pull myself together. I was 31 years old, and that Christmas was the first time in my life I had experienced casual, effortless welcoming from a partner’s family.

Over the four years I dated her daughter, Mary was always, unfailingly nice to me. So why had it rattled me to see her name pop up in my message inbox?

It’s because there’s an unspoken social rule about remaining in contact with an ex’s family. If the breakup was rough/hard/emotional – if it was anything but a calm, mutual, and loving “we’re just not right for each other” kind of breakup – then all members of each person’s family camp usually goes their separate ways. Permanently. Most of the time, it’s for the best, and you never see or hear from anyone in your ex’s family again. Maybe you stay friends with family members on social media. But liking anything, commenting, or otherwise interacting? In Dating Land, this is most often considered inappropriate behavior – kind of weird, and probably not welcome.

I used to be 100% in favor of cutting out all ex-associated family members after a breakup. There was no excuse for staying in contact – either you had ironclad boundaries, or you were weak, and if that meant some friendship casualties, so be it. But I’m getting softer as I get older. I’m starting to think that it’s not always odd or inappropriate to remain friends with an ex-partner’s family. What actually feels odd is investing a lot of time in a romantic partner’s family, getting to know them well over a period of years, and then suddenly ceasing all contact forever in the event of a breakup.

These were relationships you nurtured. Maybe your ex had a mom you loved. Or a little sister you genuinely cared about and had fun with. What if you knew an ex’s family for many years? Is it necessarily unhealthy to hope to see them again?

Sometimes. There are definitely circumstances when ceasing all contact is best for all sides. If a relationship was abusive, or bad, or ended horribly, or a continuing friendship goes against an ex-partner’s wishes or makes them uncomfortable, then … nope. A friendship with an ex’s family member isn’t right.

But if the pain of the breakup has eased with time, and your ex is fine with it, and nobody on either side feels disrespected, it might be OK to resurrect a friendship with an ex’s family member. Interesting and rewarding relationships can result.

Take my mom and my ex-boyfriend. When I was a junior in high school, I dated Marco*, a senior. Marco was our school’s exchange student from Italy. He was sweet and handsome, and he dressed well – almost elegantly, in tight jeans (unheard-of in the suburbs of Green Bay, Wisconsin circa 1999-2000), and thin, soft sweaters. He and I dated for nearly the whole year. We had lots in common. I was blond, and he wanted to go home and tell everyone he had dated a blond American girl. He liked making complicated Italian desserts, and I liked eating them. Ideal.

But the person Marco really hit it off with was my mom. I’d come home from choir practice or a play rehearsal sometimes to find them both sitting on the couch chatting, cookbooks spread out on the coffee table, Diet Dr Peppers in hand.

“What are you guys talking about?” I’d ask.

“Oh, this and that,” my mom would say, closing the cookbooks and standing up. “You kids have fun.”

“How long have you been here?” I’d ask Marco.

“I came after school to wait for you. I love your mom.”

Really?

“She’s wonderful.”

Imagine talking to my mom like she was a person.

When he went home to Italy, Marco and I remained lightly in contact, and then fell out of touch a few years later. One day, my mom asked me if she could have Marco’s address. I gave it to her. She and Marco started writing to each other regularly, maintaining a completely separate friendship for more than a decade, right up until she died. They just liked each other. They had met through me, but my part was finished. It was their friendship that endured after our breakup, and I’m happy it did. Their lives were richer for it.

I’m not saying it’s always a great idea to try to reconnect with an ex’s family. Most of the time, it’s probably best to let severed relationships go. But maybe reconnecting with an ex’s family member is not the hard-and-fast social taboo I always thought it was. The people we date and love come complete with their own families; often, they’re people we would never have met otherwise. Sometimes, there’s a family member you really loved – a person who made you feel welcome, or a person who could make you laugh until iced coffee ran out of your nose. Sometimes – in rare cases – your ex becomes the bridge connecting two old friends.

* Name has been changed

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