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So an ex-girlfriend finds you on Facebook and contacts you out of the blue 12 years after the fact. What do you do?

1. Jump up and down like a giddy schoolgirl because someone’s interested enough to find you after all that time?

2. Passive-aggressively sit on the message?

3. Tell her exactly what you never had the chance to tell her?

Although option 2 crossed my mind, I thought it best to handle it a little bit differently.

My wife wasn’t home at the time, so I actually had a few minutes to think about it, which is probably good. The answer really was pretty easy.

I didn’t even open the message. When she got home, and after our son went to sleep, I told her, and I asked her to read the message and tell me what she wanted me to do with it.

Just this past Sunday, our pastor said in his sermon that one thing destroys marriages the fastest: secrets. To me, this seemed like a classic example of something (most likely) completely innocent that could very easily turn into something out of control under the wrong circumstances.

While my option certainly could be construed as overkill, it eliminates all possibility of misunderstanding. And it sends a very clear message that she’s more important than the ex.

Nothing in the message made her feel uncomfortable or threatened. Curious certainly, but not threatened. She spent some time poking around the ex’s Facebook profile and asking questions. And that was fine. It’s better for her to know than to wonder.

Maybe I handed over more control than some people would be comfortable handing over. But since this was completely innocent, what was there to be afraid of? I trust my wife, and this tells her that in a big way.

An hour or two later, I wrote a reply. I was cordial. Cordial is the appropriate tone. I’m not interested in being best friends. And being hurtful 12 years after the fact accomplishes nothing. Well, nothing worthwhile anyway.

And I was brief. This is also appropriate. Minutes after I saw the message, I talked to one of my best friends for the first time in months, and we talked for about 15 minutes. If that’s all I have right now for the guy who was the best man at my wedding, then I shouldn’t have more than that for someone who broke my heart 12 years ago and–I’ll say it–wasn’t very nice about it.

All relationships are different, but I can’t think of any good reason for two people, both married to someone else, to be writing long epistles to each other 12 years after the fact. That only invites the mind to go all sorts of places it shouldn’t go. "Your Wildest Dreams" by The Moody Blues doesn’t need to be cuing up in your head, and neither does anything by Barry Manilow.

I asked my wife to read my reply before I sent it. It’s all about checks and balances. She knows what’s going on. I was going to say it also prevents me from saying things I shouldn’t say, but self-restraint in e-mail is a requirement for my job and I’ve had lots of practice. But everyone is different.

"So are you going to friend her?" my wife asked. I said I didn’t know.

That, too, is a situation where everyone is different. If the parting wasn’t especially bitter and two people can both gain something by corresponding occasionally, why not? On the other extreme, if the sight of a person’s name triggers fight-or-flight mode, then it’s obviously not a good idea.

If the sight of a person’s name does cause you to go into fight or flight mode, I will say, speaking as someone who’s been there, that you need to deal with that issue. I don’t say that flippantly; I spent a lot of time and money working through it myself. It’s not easy but it’s necessary.

Ultimately the most important thing to do when a situation like this crops up is to keep priorities straight. There’s no reason to say, write, or do anything on account of 12 years ago that might mess up today or tomorrow.

Depending on what you make of it, this situation can sow seeds of trust or seeds of doubt. Personally, I’d rather have trust.

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2 thoughts on “Boundaries”

  1. On a website with so much wisdom, this is one of the wisest things I think you have written. Seriously.

    I have done Option 2 when faced with the exact same thing. Followed within 48 hours by deleting my Facebook account; that message plus a lot of other people finding me made me realize just how happy I am that "the past is a different country." But I did keep my wife in the loop, I CC her on emails etc. to women, and so forth. No secrets, best policy.

  2. I’ve been on both sides of this fence.
    With sites like Facebook, it’s really simple (as you
    already know) to find people from your past. In fact,
    often it’s difficult to AVOID people from your past,
    especially if those people are friends (real or
    virtually) with your friends. If one of those people
    comments on on of your friends’ pages, it appears
    on yours. It’s as if this person you’ve been avoiding
    for years has suddenly walked in to the room and
    starting talking.

    As a young teenager and young adult I was involved
    in several bad relationships, almost all of which
    ended because of stupid things I did. I was real good
    at getting girlfriends and real bad with "what to do
    next." Inevitably I’ve run across some of these
    people online on Facebook and I’ve taken those
    opportunities to apologize. I had one girl who was
    really hurt by the way I had acted in high school and
    all I could do was say I was sorry. The only defense I
    had was that, at the age of 16, yes, I made some
    immature decisions and I regret the way I handled
    some things in the past. For almost 20 years this
    person had felt like they had done something wrong
    and, in a weird way, it felt good to let her know that,
    no, it was all me.

    In the past I have broken a few really good
    friendships and I found it easy to reach out to those
    people via Facebook. Mostly I extended a friendly
    handshake and offered an apology all in one
    message. In all but one case the apologies have
    been accepted, and in most cases, over time, we’ve
    been able to repair friendships and relationships. For
    the most part these are people that don’t even live
    in my town anymore; the odds of running into them
    at the store and making amends that way isn’t very

    On the other hand, I’ve had at least one person
    contact me who, for personal reasons, I was not
    ready to forgive. It seems a bit hippocritical and
    maybe it is, but this person really, really wronged
    me. Perhaps I am not as big of a man as I expect or
    at least hope others will be. I’m working on it.

    One thing I have found is that people’s memories
    are totally different. I’ve had multiple ex-school
    buddies "friend" me on Facebook. The only
    memories I have of some of these people are bad,
    whether they know it or not. At my ten year reunion I
    had a girl tell me, "I can’t believe not everybody
    came — high school was the best time of my life!" I
    remember thinking, "I’m sure it was FOR YOU." I can
    distinctly this person and her friends making fun of
    my hair one day, cackling in the hallway as I
    desperately tried to get to a bathroom and see what
    they were laughing about. Maybe these people are
    doing the same thing I did (trying to make up for
    decades-old wrongs) or maybe they simple don’t
    remember stinging comments that I’ve held on for
    far too long.

    When it works, it works. One of my old ex-girlfriends
    is now happily married. Her kids are cute as can be
    and we talk on occasion, sometimes about the past
    but more often about the present. She talks about
    her family and I talk about mine and we’re just old
    friends keeping up with one another.

    When it doesn’t work, well, at least it’s not as
    awkward (for both parties) as if it had happened in
    person. Messages can be ignored or deleted. In
    these cases, the sender should take the hint and
    move along.

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