Two more reads to get you through the post-breakup tough times: Don’t Send that Text. & I am no Longer Available for Things that make Me Feel Like Sh*t.
Imagine this: you’re minding your own business and going about your life, having picked up all the pieces from your last relationship.
You finally feel like you’ve moved on—maybe you’re even talking to someone new—when out of the blue, you get the dreaded ex text.
It’s happened to all of us. Romantic partners from our past sliding into our text messages, DMs, or inbox can be a genuinely difficult, triggering, or confusing experience.
Cue the overthinking, wondering what it all means, and lamenting over how to respond!
When I was working as a dating coach for women, I saw this situation play out over and over again. And for many of my clients, these unexpected messages from their exes caused a lot of stress and uncertainty. They would often reach out to me wondering how to respond, or if they should respond at all. After all, your ex is a person, yes, but they represent much more than their singular personhood—they often come attached to memories, emotions, and unanswered questions.
I want to save you from feeling unnecessary stress, so I’ve gathered together my best guidance for dealing with unexpected communication from your ex.
You don’t have to respond at all.
It’s important to know that you are under no obligation to respond at all. Unless there are unresolved legal issues, children, or properties still being divided, in which case I’d recommend consulting a lawyer, it’s one hundred percent your choice. Now that you are no longer in a relationship with that person, there is no cooperation required.
It is within your right to delete the message and block the number without ever engaging, and you’re no less of a person for it. Many of my clients would feel pressure to respond because of the weight or intensity of their old feelings for the person on the other end of the message. And while feeling that way is completely understandable, I always encourage taking a moment to recognize your empowered truth. It’s your choice.
Don’t respond immediately: deal with feelings and expectations first.
Your gut reaction may be to respond as soon as you see the message and without much thinking. Instead, if you do choose to respond, do so intentionally and after you’ve taken a moment to assess your feelings and check your expectations.
If hearing from your ex triggers emotions such as hurt, anger, or sadness, this is especially important. Likewise, if you find yourself unconsciously falling into old patterns, such as feeling obligated to respond a certain way because the other person was the more dominant personality in your old relationship, you’ll want to reassess how you want to show up in the conversation. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself grace as you navigate any triggered emotions.
You may consider talking them out with a friend, therapist, or coach. You can take as much time as you need to understand and respond to your own feelings, putting your own mental and emotional health first, before you respond.
In the same vein, check any expectations you may be unwittingly attaching to hearing from your ex. If the relationship ended poorly and you really feel as if you’re due for an apology, or you’re secretly hoping your ex has come to his senses and will want to rekindle the connection, over-attaching to those outcomes might leave you hurt and disappointed all over again.
Before you respond, take some time to acknowledge that you don’t know why he or she is reaching out, and choose to be curious instead. After all, they could just be looking for an old hoodie or testing the waters to see if they still have emotional access to you. Checking your expectations at the door before you respond is a good way to protect your feelings until you know more.
Boundaries are infinitely important in any interaction, and because our exes naturally come with baggage and have oftentimes exited our lives in complicated ways, they become even more important when navigating unexpected contact. I always encourage my clients to remember Julia Roberts’ mantra in “Pretty Woman”—“I say who, I say when, I say how much.”
Different contexts, yes, but engaging with an ex in a way that’s healthy and safe for you requires that you get clear about what boundaries you need in order to be okay. Do not allow your ex to set the expectations or tone of the conversation, nor guilt you into feeling as if you have to respond in a certain way or certain time frame. Decide what you need before engaging, and don’t be afraid to communicate those boundaries in a way that’s clear and direct.
I once had a client hear from an ex via text, and when she didn’t respond quickly enough, the same ex also reached out to her via messenger and email. When we discussed what she needed to feel okay in the interaction, she decided that she wanted to have the conversation, but didn’t like being surprised by him reaching out or by seeing his name pop up on her phone (maybe you relate). Through our work together, I encouraged her to use the “Pretty Woman” mantra and choose how she wanted to receive contact, when, and how much. She chose to ask that particular ex to email her only (no surprise texts!), not during her workday (too distracting), and only once, giving her time to respond (no groups of emails if she took extra time to respond). She was able to navigate the situation feeling empowered and prepared, which was everything for her.
If you do choose to entertain a one-time or on-going conversation with your ex, be honest about how you’re feeling and what you need. Use the unexpected interaction as an opportunity to drop any need to edit yourself or protect his or her feelings. If you’ve taken the time to evaluate your emotions and expectations, you’ll be able to clearly communicate what you need to without being overly attached to the outcome.
Honesty includes being sure you aren’t leading your ex on if the conversation turns in that direction. If you’re genuinely not interested in reconnecting and your ex is, you owe it to both of you to be clear and direct about how you’re feeling. Texting or messaging can be a low-risk way for your ex to gauge your interest in another go around. If that isn’t what you want, or it wouldn’t be good for your mental and emotional health to give them a second shot, just say no.
Similarly, if your relationship was generally happy and healthy and you are interested in reconnecting, respond in kind and consider suggesting an in-person catch up. Either way, be clear and direct.
Beware of These Red Flag Reasons
Sometimes, an ex resurfaces because there is something they genuinely need or something that genuinely needs to be addressed. While it is still your prerogative as to whether or not you choose to respond, it is possible for your ex’s intentions to be positive.
However, there are four situations when I generally advise my clients to steer clear and choose not to engage, and if it becomes apparent that any of these situations are true for your ex, I recommend politely and decidedly ending the interaction.
1. They’re bored. Sometimes your ex will come out and say it, other times it will become obvious by the lack of things they have going on (they’re still single, had a job or project end, or seasonal activities have ended). You deserve so much more than attention from a person who has nothing else going on—hold out for someone who chooses you even when they’re busy.
2. They’re horny. If they lead with sex, pressure you to come over, or ask for pics, drop it. They don’t get access to your sexuality if they weren’t interested in committing to and maintaining a relationship.
3. They’re fresh out of another relationship. The ending of another relationship can have them feeling nostalgic and thinking about other past relationships, or it can leave them desperate for connection and an easy rebound. Either way, it isn’t your job to pick up the pieces from your ex’s failed relationships, and he or she needs time to heal and move on before they’ll be capable of pursuing another healthy connection.
4. They need something you have no business providing. Sometimes exes will surface looking for help with needs that are outside of the scope of casual friendship or generally accepted boundaries. When this happens, they’re likely reaching out to you based on the assumption that just because you were once intimate, it’s low risk to ask. Examples of this can include a place to stay, money, a job, emotional support after another break up, etc.
As we all move in and out of relationships, we’re bound to have an ex resurface every now and again. If this does happen to you, the most profound advice I can give is to prioritize yourself. Prioritize your own needs, boundaries, safety, mental and emotional health, and resources.
Ultimately, this person made the decision to leave your life, or you theirs. That decision happened for a reason, and that reason deserved consideration and respect. Choosing to use the time you would spend rehashing an old connection to do something for yourself instead is almost never a bad idea.