I was once in a relationship that ended very badly, which resulted in me acquiring an ex-girlfriend that I’ll attempt to avoid for the rest of my life. I’m happy to say that I was successful in evading said ex-girlfriend for years and years, but nothing lasts forever, as they say, and I unexpectedly ran into this person one random night in a random dive bar.
As you can imagine, the encounter was painfully awkward, and I wanted nothing more than to sprint far, far away in any viable direction—which, in hindsight, might not have been the worst decision. But ever since this uncomfortable encounter, I’ve wanted to better prepare myself for any future confrontations with ex-partners I want nothing to do with by asking the experts what they would do in the same situation.
First up: The nuclear option. “If they go north, you go south. If they go east, you go west,” says private investigator Thomas Martin, who’s performed more than 10,000 marital surveillances (all of which have ended in divorce). “It’s just better to go your separate ways.”
While this is certainly an effective option—Martin further explains that years and years of dealing with relationship disputes has proven to him that nothing good can come of chatting it up with your old lover—couples therapist Jeanette Raymond has a slightly more nuanced approach, adding that there are three factors that you should take into account before deciding what to do:
1. How Long Ago You Broke Up: “If it was very recent, you may be surprised and uncomfortable,” Raymond explains. “That’s normal, because you’re still navigating how to be without that person—an ‘uncouple’ if you like. In this circumstance, it’s best to make eye contact and/or give a slight nod before moving on.”
2. How Triggered Your Ex Makes You: “If you still become triggered, it means you haven’t completed the separation process and are reacting to your ex as if he or she is betraying or abandoning you,” Raymond says. “If your attachment bonds are strong as ever, then nod/smile and say hello after making contact. It’s important that you step into the real world of separation and create an experience that can be a template for the future—otherwise, you’ll keep living in a false world of togetherness that no longer exists.”
From that point on, Raymond suggests engaging in small talk as if your ex-lover were an old acquaintance, “while allowing yourself to feel the pain of loss and the hurt that led to your breakup.” This, she explains, will help you process the breakup and move on.
“If you aren’t triggered, then you might be able to check in with your ex, acknowledging that you’re not strangers and have some curiosity about each other’s lives,” Raymond says. “Knowing what’s going on [with them] also helps you move on.”
3. How You Feel Toward Your Ex: “Many clients tell me that they’re surprised by the intensity of their feelings when they bump into an ex,” Raymond says. “They had imagined that they’d gotten over it, and that they wouldn’t feel anything if they ran into one another. If you get stirred up a lot [by the sight of them], then it’s best to just acknowledge their existence and pass by. Go back into therapy, and deal with the stuff that comes up.”
“If you have a mild reaction, then take a minute to feel present with your surroundings,” Raymond suggests. “Feel yourself as you’re in that moment: No doubt, you’ve come a long way since the breakup. Take the time to connect in a congenial way, letting your ex know that you’re not in pieces and can handle finding a new way to fit him or her into your current mental schema, changing the old one that holds hurt, vengeance or fear.”
Above all, however, Raymond emphasizes the importance of not pretending to be or feel anything that you don’t in that moment. “If you can’t comfortably make eye contact or engage in small talk, then protect yourself and move away—you have work to do with grieving and letting go. If your ex seems more interested in connecting with you than you do with them, just say that you aren’t comfortable and move away.”
“Many people in this situation are tempted to show off by pretending that they’re so over it and doing so well,” Raymond continues. “If you find yourself wanting to do that, then you’re still hurting, and you want them to hurt back. Again, in that case, go into therapy and work your stuff out.”