Chatting with a friend recently, it became obvious that she was rather enamoured with a super ambiguous guy. A little probing revealed, however, that he has a hell of a lot of female friends. A lot. Like when you see those shows about hoarders where they can barely move for all of the stuff piled up around them and they feel super attached to stuff that they’re never going to use or appreciate. Mr Super-Ambiguous collects exes, love interests that he’s turned down, and even befriends the exes of his own friends.

As soon as I heard about this, a code red alert went off for me. “You’d want to watch yourself there with all of those exes. You don’t need to be another one in the collection”, I cautioned. Things were so ambiguous and not moving anywhere. At this point, she was still thinking that he was that special and putting him on a pedestal. I had to remind her that she is pretty damn great too. Undeterred, she reassured me that these friendships (erm, more like a harem) were genuine and that he has all of these female friends because, well, he’s so intelligent, funny, and quirky.

Illustration of medals and trophies for being able to stay friends with all of your exes. Illustration by Natalie Lue

Here’s the thing: Some people love collecting exes.

I don’t mean that they go out of their way to make partners into exes by deliberately botching up relationships, although I suspect some sabotage to resist commitment and then console themselves that they’re Really Great People ™ and A Really Good Ex ™. No, people who collect exes have egos that need almost constant ‘supply’ from the pool of people who have tried to forge something with them in the past.

These exes are like medals. Dear Ego & World, look at me. I’m such a good and great person that I can remain friends with all of my exes.

Ever-present exes, however, often keep potential new partners at bay or are disruptive if the relationship progresses. Even the most secure people in the world would feel rattled by going out with someone who spends most of their time juggling their exes. It’s even weirder when it also includes ex-love interests too!

People who collect exes and who in fact collect ‘supply’ are what I’ve joked are ‘haremologists‘.

If someone collects attention but is pretty indiscriminate about it and doesn’t have a harem per se (like people who trawl for attention on introduction ‘dating’ sites, Facebook et al), they’re more of an attentionphile.

Some ‘haremologists’ extend this penchant for collecting exes to collecting those of their friends. Look! Your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend likes me and I’m making him/her feel better about having been with you.

A number of my early relationships started this way. The friend of an ex would swoop in on his broken-down donkey disguised as a white horse. In these situations, you love the attention and the diversion plus, let’s be real, you get a kick out of remaining connected to your ex. You do, even if you try to pretend that you don’t. It’s also knowing that you spending time with their friend has likely pissed them off. Side note: some people like going out with their friend’s exes because it’s like they’re pre-approved.

When someone goes out of their way to become or remain friends with their friends’ exes, it elevates them.

They enjoy listening to these people express their hurt over the breakup, and sometimes, they also get to enjoy noticing but pretending not to, that they’re falling for and trusting them. Then the haremologist gets to have a brief romance and then turn it down, or they might claim that their interest has been ‘misunderstood’ and that they just want friendship. I’ve heard a lot of versions of this story where the haremologist claims that they’d assumed that they were ‘kindred spirits’ coming from the same emotional place and leaning on each other for friendship and support. Yeah, of course.

The sad thing is that once you realise that you’re in a harem, even if you’re peeved at being messed around, your ego then worries about not being in the harem. You worry about being ‘replaced’ or passed over. You might find yourself hanging around for reputation management.

While many people are friends with an ex or two, just as many aren’t.

It’s not a badge of honour to be friends with your ex, and it doesn’t make you a Good Girl/Guy.

Too many people are obsessed with saving face and maintaining faux friendships because they think that only not-so-good people don’t remain on friendly terms with their exes.

A hell of a lot of people also remain ‘friends’ with their ex(es) because they:

1) Want to keep an eye and keep them in their pocket as a rainy day option in case they change their mind, and also to ensure that they haven’t made a bad decision.
2) Are not over them and are effectively re-auditioning in the hopes of being picked up when they realise that they can’t do better, or when they have a lobotomy.
3) Are still sleeping with them, but calling it ‘friendship’ makes the bitter pill of no official title and relationship easier to swallow.
4) Don’t really like him/her that much but can’t bear the thought that they [the haremologist] may feel similarly so they have the faux friendship for reassurance.
5) Need to validate something and prove it to their ego, peers or ‘everyone’.

Genuine friendship with an ex is self-evident and unforced. It’s organic. It’s not baggage, because the friendships are not being carted around as a way to avoid letting go and/or as symbols to reassure the ego.

If a someone is in the habit of remaining in touch with all of their exes, their ex love interests who they didn’t reciprocate the feelings of and even their friends’ exes, these ‘friendships’ are important to their ego and are serving a purpose. Their motivations and lack of self-awareness cause a pattern of problems. If you have been let down by somebody who didn’t reciprocate your interest and now they’re all over you like a rash to keep messaging them and keep up a ‘friendship’, they have form for this. How do you think they accumulated their harem? It’s like, “Here we go again. Yet another woman/guy who can’t control their emotions and is falling for me. What can I do? All I want to do is ambiguously be friends with them and they all go and get the wrong feckin’ idea. Ah well.”

My friend eventually discovered that she is indeed a member of his harem. It’s as if this guy is carting around a cemetery of all the women he’s ever been involved with or who’ve expressed an interest in him. The ghosts of unavailability past. I’ve seen this so many times in reader stories. It’s as if these people all read the same playbook. All of this carry-on is reassurance that they’re not shady and is about maintaining illusions. The pursuing of ‘friendship’ which may be little more than lots of messaging, is about getting harem members to forget their own feelings so that they can stroke his/hers and assuage them of their guilt.

When I see people carting around their exes and devoting so much time to tending to these ‘friendships’, I wonder: how the hell do they expect to have room for a romantic partner?

I regularly ask people who expend excessive amounts of energy on keeping their ex in their life: Exactly what part of moving forward with your life does your ex fit into? You say you want to meet somebody and have a mutual relationship, right? Why are your life plans based around how to keep your ex in your life? Why is there so much focus on trying to keep them happy? Let this ‘friendship’ go!

The easiest way to ensure that you don’t end up in someone’s House of Exes doll collection is to ensure that your self-esteem isn’t reliant on validation from ex-partners or people who don’t reciprocate your interest. Know that line between being friends and disrespecting yourself because you’re trying to have some crumbs rather than none. Make sure you don’t take their seeming rejection of you and their inability to give you what you want personally. It’s not about you. Stop pumping them up!

Your thoughts?

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