A few years ago, I was in a fairly new relationship. One night (when my boyfriend wasn’t there), I went to check my phone where it was charging on the floor. I flipped it over and saw a WhatsApp message from my ex. I hadn’t even opened the message before my stomach contracted and my heart rate rose.
The last time I’d seen my ex had been six or eight months before, when I’d been single. After an excruciating run-in at a party, where I’d hoped to tell him I wanted to get back together and instead had to make small talk with his plus-one, I’d deleted his number and vowed to move on. I met my new boyfriend and fell happily into a new relationship. But when I saw my ex’s name on my phone, I couldn’t get involved in a WhatsApp conversation. It would have felt wrong because — although I was happy in my new relationship — even seeing his name gave me butterflies and shortened my breath. That didn’t mean I should be with him; it didn’t mean I wasn’t happy with my current partner. But I knew talking to my ex would feel, in short, too much like cheating.
The question of what counts as cheating has been explored extensively — a reflection, as Eloise Hendy writes in a recent Vice article on the topic, of “a world where open and polyamorous relationships are increasingly common and interest in ethical non-monogamy is on the rise among young people”. Relationship boundaries are not always what they once were and definitions of what constitutes cheating are rapidly expanding, morphing and dissipating as couples establish the form of monogamy or polyamory that works for them, rather than accepting relationship confines set by previous generations.
Throw exes into the mix and things get even more subjective.
“The definition of infidelity is anything but fixed, and the digital age offers an ever-expanding range of potentially illicit encounters,” writes therapist Esther Perel in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (she includes staying in touch with one’s ex as a potential form of infidelity). She goes on to add: “What is clear is that all characterisations of modern infidelity involve the notion of a breach of contract between two individuals […] At the core of betrayal today is a violation of trust.”
It’s exactly this violation of trust that can define whether or not talking to an ex could be cheating because, as Perel says, that’s ultimately what cheating is.
“In my opinion, talking to your ex is not cheating but only if you are honest with your current partner about it,” says psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy Tamara Sears, who offers both individual adult and couples counselling. “If you are talking to your ex without telling your current partner, then that can undoubtedly lead to questions concerning honesty and betrayal. If both parties agree to not contacting their exes and then one party does, it becomes an erosion of trust.”
Obviously, talking to an ex is not always a violation of trust. “There may be all sorts of innocent reasons for talking to an ex,” points out Toby Ingham, psychotherapist and author of Retroactive Jealousy, Making Sense of It. “Sometimes it’s a small world and we naturally cross paths with an ex; that doesn’t mean it’s cheating. I think if we know that we are making an effort to keep something we are doing a secret, then we might feel like we are getting into something that isn’t too innocent.”
Crucially, I’m not equating talking to an ex with being friends with an ex (though the latter will obviously involve the former). Plenty of us have healthy, happy friendships with our exes and that’s a good thing. Several people in my friendship group have dated each other over the years; the idea that any of them would be cheating on their current partner by talking with each other is laughable, and I’m sure the current partners would agree. Then there are shared responsibilities — it’s hardly cheating if you call your ex-partner to discuss the wellbeing of the children you share.
But for me, talking to my ex that night — even just about an article he said he wanted to send me — felt wrong, for the very reason that we weren’t friends. Our only connection was that of exes: of romance that had turned toxic, of sexual desire that lingered for years after we broke up. My new partner and I hadn’t specifically discussed whether or not it would be cheating to engage in late-night WhatsApp chats with our exes but I didn’t need a relationship contract to know that chatting with someone I wasn’t friends with and who had, fairly recently, shattered my heart into a million pieces probably would have violated his trust.
This isn’t unusual: a quick search in the r/relationship_advice subreddit shows the ‘talking to ex’ issue cropping up again and again. “How do you all feel about talking to ex’s [sic] while in a committed monogamous relationship?” asked one user, adding: “How do I salvage the trust in my relationship[?]”
This perspective — that of the current partner — is vital to explore, not least because it can bring its own perspective to the issue itself. “A partner in a new relationship can sometimes feel threatened by any contact you may have with your ex as it may raise insecurities about whether you might prefer that person instead,” says Sears. “[For example,] If you liked them once, then what’s to stop you liking them again?“
To a certain extent, insecurities of the kind Sears describes can be something to respect — none of us (hopefully) wants to make our partner feel upset or anxious — but there has to be a cap on the level to which you limit yourself because of them. Insecurities are one thing, jealousy is another, and control (which may well lead to forms of abuse) is a third. It’s a sliding scale: at one end is respecting your partner and acting compassionately and at the other is your partner exerting control over who you can and cannot speak to on the basis that ‘talking to them means you’re cheating on me’.
“It is a very different thing to agree boundaries with your partner [and for them] to [dictate] who you can or cannot be in contact with,” agrees Sears. “If your partner is also expecting you not to be in touch with your ex but tells you that you are insane for getting angry if [they] contact [their] ex, then there is a problem. Agreeing boundaries should be something discussed and agreed openly; not with manipulation and certainly not coercively. This is abuse.”
Ultimately, the whole issue of whether or not talking to an ex counts as cheating is something you and your partner should mutually and respectfully decide together.
“It’s important to understand very early on in the relationship [which] boundaries constitute cheating,” says Sears. It might be a tricky conversation but it’s vital if you don’t want to feel unnecessarily guilty for responding with a laughing-crying emoji to a funny beaver video your ex innocently sends you, or break your partner’s trust by reaching out to your ex when their grandparent passes away.
“If you both have different ideas as to what is acceptable in a relationship and these aren’t made crystal clear from the outset, then they really can create immense problems later on,” says Sears. “The simple way to ask such questions is to say, ‘I just want to make sure we’re both on the same page as to what commitment looks like for both of us so I want to clarify the different things that you consider to be cheating’.”
“Be as clear as you can be,” advises Ingham. “Talk about what you want, find out what your partner wants. Being clear and open and not keeping secrets is much less stressful than otherwise.”
The definition of what counts as cheating will likely never be set in stone and nor should it be. Plus, the whole issue is easy to overthink. Just because it feels like cheating doesn’t mean it is; receiving an out-of-the-blue message from your ex doesn’t have to elicit anything but the mildest shrug and a polite reply. There’s no need to go down a rabbit hole of thought-policing yourself, especially if you’re clear and transparent with your partner. “To think about an ex isn’t an act of cheating,” agrees Ingham. “We may stop seeing people but we still think about them. It may be a sign that you are not over your former relationship but it may be harmless and a natural part of letting go of your old relationship while you start your new one.”
Just agree with your partner where you each draw the line when it comes to talking with exes. If your partner’s line (for you or for them) concerns you, question it. As Perel writes (and as Sears and Ingham both point to): “Secrecy is the number one organising principle of an infidelity.” Having secrets doesn’t naturally equal cheating but cheating usually equals secrets. If you’re being honest and transparent, you can’t go far wrong.
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