Forgiving Friends' Exes

Forgiving Friends' Exes

I met a girl at a party whose friend was getting back with an on-again, off-again partner, a guy who had somehow wronged his ex-ex on one of their previous goes around. "She's clearly forgiven him, since she's getting back together with him," said my new companion, "but I somehow feel like it's my job as her friend to still be a little bit mad at him?"

I think this is a pretty common dynamic: sometimes, people seem better at forgiving their own exes than forgiving their friends' exes. (I suspect this is a specific case of a general pattern like "in certain cases, people can be better at forgiving those who have wronged them than forgiving those who have wronged their friends" – for simplicity, I'll stick with the current ex-ample).

Why is this, and does it make sense? Should we potentially be harsher on our own exes, or nicer about our friends' exes? Or are there good reasons to treat the two cases differently?

First: what's the argument for being harsher on your own exes? As my co-blogger has argued, people are often better at looking after their friends and loved ones than they are at looking after themselves: they would never fail to take their dog for a walk, but fail to look after their own bodies; they would never call their friend "a worthless @#$@ing idiot," but are regularly self-talk in this kind of unwarranted way.

So: it's possible that any romantic behaviour that we would find unacceptable towards our friends we should find equally unacceptable towards ourselves; that if someone treats us badly enough that our friends are mad at them, we should be mad at them too.

However, in practice, I think we stand in a different relationship to our own exes than we do to our friends' exes, and that forgiving our own exes might be important in situations where forgiving a friend's ex is not.

Bluntly: my own experiences are more immediate and more intense to me than my friends' experiences are, and if (I feel that) I've been wronged in a relationship, that feeling of wronged-ness is liable to viscerally sit with me. Letting go of anger towards an ex may be like letting go of the proverbial hot coal you were holding with the intent to throw at someone, and which was burning its way through your hand.

By contrast, my anger towards my friends' exes may be more thought than felt. Perhaps it's just a warm pebble I keep in a back pocket; perhaps it even feels pleasant to the touch. Perhaps it's ok for me to hold onto that pebble.

On (can you believe it?) an even less flattering note, there's another reason why we might forgive our exes in cases where our friends don't: our partners (can) feel like a reflection on ourselves and our choices. So, if our partners mis-treat us, we might blame ourselves; rightly or wrongly, we may feel we need to forgive the ex in order to feel better about our own past choices. Conversely, if our friends' partners behave badly towards them that's no reflection on us, and we can be uncomplicatedly angry towards them for what they've done.

When thinking about all this, I personally come back to what the girl at the party said: "I somehow feel like it's my job as her friend to still be a little bit mad at him?"

A couple of times in my life, a very dear friend has been cheated on by their partner. Now: I think cheating is bad, but I don't think it's (generally) unforgivable. I'm sure I have other friends who have cheated on yet-other people and who I am still friends with, and I don't think this is hypocrisy. When my friends were cheated on, my feeling was that I could simultaneously:

1) wish the cheater well in the world, hope they find peace and serenity, not think they should be mauled by bears, etc, but
2) believe that my personal role in the world was to be one of the people who never forgave them

Perhaps there's some categories of behaviour where the right outcome is that some small handful of people never forgive you for what you did – hold the torch of memory for the fact that you caused unnecessary harm and hurt to another being – while everyone else forgives you. And perhaps there are good reasons why close friends of the wronged are well-suited for the role of un-forgivers, while the wronged themselves are well-suited to forgive.

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email