The Joy of Frexes: Why It’s Great to Be Friends With Your Ex

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Photo: NBC

Before Matt and I started going out, I’d always thought of romance as a vertiginous mixture of happy agitation and nerve-racking fears of loss. I thought that for something to count as a “real” relationship, it had to plunge one or (ideally) both partners into a perpetual state of gut-wrenching uncertainty. I saw love as a two-sided coin — passionate elation gleaming hopefully from one side; corrosive doubt glaring balefully from the other. To my mind, a relationship only counted as real if it turned me into an emotional wreck. 

But with Matt, things were different. From the outset, our rapport was blithe, natural, and curiously straightforward. We had the same ideas of fun and work (mostly), and shared a similar temperament — that subtly introverted extraversion you will find among Midwesterners who feel compelled to build adult lives in frenetic New York, but savor the calmer towns they come from. (I’m from Indiana; he’s from North Dakota.) That dynamic is still at play with us today. Matt makes me laugh, I make sure he meets people I know he’ll like, and both of us feel completely secure in our relationship. What is that relationship? At a party last weekend — more than eight years after we broke up — Matt coined an expression to describe it: "We are frexes," he said. "Exes who are friends." He then added, “You should put it on your Wordbirds blog!” (Wordbirds is my neologisms Tumblr, where, for five years, I’ve minted words that I think need to exist. When the Wordbirds book came out last year, Matt volunteered — unasked — to build me a website for it, for free. That’s how great a frex he is.) 

Matt and I met almost a decade ago during a smoldering hour of accidental kneesies we played at an Off Broadway show one freezing February night. The actors, retro-Vaudevillian silent-film clowns, had plucked him from the audience for a gag, then reseated him next to me. (Neither of us has ever figured out what they did with his original chair.) Sixty minutes of torrid electricity ensued, the current leaping between the two of us through denim and tights. When the lights came up, we smiled at each other, chatted briefly, then left the theater separately with the friends we’d come in with. We didn’t exchange names.

At my office that day, one of my colleagues had been going on about his discovery of Missed Connections (think of it as the Tinder of 2005). As soon as I got home, I went online and posted an ad: “To the guy at the All Wear Bowlers show ...” suggesting we find out who each other was. The next morning, I checked my email to see if the guy had responded. No luck, no reply, no nothing. It figured, I thought — how silly I had been to hope! Still, I scrolled down the feed, just to make sure my post had registered. Soon I spotted my headline, which had gone up the previous night at 11:30: “To the girl at the All Wear Bowlers show …” it read. Damn! I thought — no wonder he didn’t respond; I’d posted “girl,” not “guy.” But then, an inch or two below, I found my actual post, which had gone up at 11:26. I hadn’t mistyped, after all: We both had posted for each other, within the same five minutes. A year later, when we broke up, Matt protested, “But if we break up, I won’t be able to keep telling our story!”

It turns out that long after we stopped seeing each other romantically, neither of us has stopped telling that story. We can’t resist it, and in fact it’s become the cornerstone of our post-relationship friendship. Our meet-cute, improbably, has turned into a quit-cute.

In some ways, I think Matt and I weren’t as close while we were going out as we have become since. Part of the reason, when I look back and try to understand my motivations, was that he’s almost always stayed friends with his exes. Me? Almost never. Before I met him, my post-breakup pattern with exes was to avoid them for the rest of my life; or, if that was impossible, to treat them with genial detachment; or, if that was impossible, to get back together. Matt, however, kept many (but not all) of his exes on his emotional speed-dial, treating them not much differently from any other friend, and expecting any long-term girlfriend not to mind. But, when he and I were dating, I did mind. His indistinct boundaries made me wary — so wary that I never dropped my guard, and never invited confidences from him, either. Besides, we were traveling so much and having such a good time that I didn’t see the point of freighting our fun with heavy talks.

For a long time, it felt exhilarating to be in a relationship with a man who shared so many of my enthusiasms. Until, suddenly, it didn’t. One Saturday I had to cancel plans with Matt because of a deadline. He promptly called one of his exes and spent the day helping her paint her apartment. Furious, (I’m not proud of this) I convinced myself that he saw me as interchangeable with a woman he had not seen in months. Really, I was just insecure, reckless, and scared, and resistant to talking about anything that could potentially upset me. And above all, I was jealous. I couldn’t understand that there was a universe in which frexes could percolate harmlessly among dating or married couples without destroying them. To tolerate the concept of a frex, I had to become one. 

Not long after Matt and I broke up, I met someone else and embarked on a reassuringly tumultuous relationship, filled with declarations of love and infuriating letdowns, giddiness and doubt, contentment and collapse, and frequent pulse-taking talks. This turbulence felt more familiar and safe to me than the mellow, unruffled flow of my year with Matt, whose smooth surface had made me uneasy. But Matt, unlike past exes, kept in touch with me, month after month, year after year. Soon, I realized that I was glad he did. It felt liberating to have a friendship with a man that was affectionate without being burdened with sexual tension. We never had to overcome an awkward period after the breakup, because we’d had a clean split, and because we were never cruel to each other. There were no wrongs to resent or to forgive on either side. And so, even in the fall after the breakup, in 2006, Matt stayed on my list. I invited him to everything, and vice versa. And I didn’t see why I wouldn’t: We had done a lot together, spent time with each other’s families, and had evolved into something like cousins; people who felt a bond that was almost cellular, but not amorous. My new boyfriend had no patience for the outpouring of warmth I extended to Matt when he called or dropped by for some group activity; he was as leery of frexes as I formerly had been. After that boyfriend became an ex, he and I did not speak for years. Lately, we’ve spoken once or twice … with genial detachment.

But Matt’s and my post-breakup friendship continues to grow. We invite each other to beach shares and parties; I set him up with people (he usually doesn’t suspect it); he comes to my book events; I go to his (and his sister’s) concerts; my mother is painting a portrait of his dog; he’s helping me bake cakes for my next party. That said, we don’t have heart-to-hearts, we don’t talk every day, or even every week; and since I’m his friend, not his girlfriend, that’s fine by me. We’re not a pair anymore, we have no claim on each other, we’re just two people who feel no reason to avoid each other just because we once were involved. In my experience, a boyfriend is someone who inspires unreasonable expectations, while an ex is a sad relict of the past. But a frex? A frex has a future. On Craigslist, in the Casual Encounters feed, people often extend offers of no-strings-attached sex; but that’s a connection I’m happy to miss. I think no-strings-attached friendship with exes is a far more promising concept; it is also, I suspect, a lot harder to pull off.