Gentleman Scholar

Let’s Talk About Ex

How much can I say about my old girlfriend to my new girlfriend?

Please send your questions for publication to Questions may be edited.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

A guy with whom I have mutual friends—but whose worldview I abhor and with whom I don’t enjoy spending time—recently moved to New York and continues to ask me to hang out. I’ve used a mixture of evasion and excuses to put off seeing him. My time is limited, and I don’t think I should be forced to be friends with this person out of politeness, but I also don’t want to be a jerk and hurtfully reject him outright.

Thank you for your implied question.

There are 8 million stories in the naked city, and no sane person would want to hear even half of them over supper. Just as the etiquette of social niceties differs between the streets of a small town and the boulevards of a metropolis—the way you tip your hat, at whom your smile just beams—the rules of engaging in a friend-of-a-friendship change according to population density.

The social possibilities for a newcomer to New York are rich and various. There are plenty of other fish out there to swim with—people with whom to share rewarding comradeship and nourishing ideas and brazen logrolling. Or, think about it this way: What if the guy were a gal, and she wanted to pursue a romantic relationship. Would you beat around the bush in that instance? Wouldn’t it be more hurtful to delay saying that you and she will never be an us?

Rip the Band-Aid off posthaste, before this dude develops the slightest sense of a bond. The passive-assertive way to do this is to fabricate a scheduling conflict every time he wants to hang. The aggressive way is to publicly disparage his abhorrent beliefs with the coolness of a convict expertly sticking a shiv.

What do you do if you have a lady friend whom you’ve been seeing for a while and all the female friends you introduce her to are women you’ve slept with? I mean, this is going back 10 years: Some of them are married now; some are close friends.

Thank you for your question.

The duty is to show respect to all women involved. The challenge is to speak to your current lady friend with due candor without saying anything that would embarrass an ex. The thing is to be nonchalant.

There are two levels to this situation, right? The first involves the plain, yes-or-no disclosure that your friend was once a lover. There’s no need to bring it up, and there’s no need to respond to a gentle inquiry in that direction with anything more elaborate than, “Oh, we used to date.” No problem, unless your lady friend is the jealous type—and I somehow get the sense that’s not the type you go for.

The second level here involves the revelation of emotional and sexual intimacies. Here’s the general principle: If your current lady friend fails to heed the internationally-recognized Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on exes, then you should invoke the Gentleman Scholar’s Don’t Kiss and Tell Shield Law of 2015. It’s a variation on the Golden Rule: Do not tell unto a lady what other ladies have done unto you.

Are there any exceptions to this rule? Maybe! Let’s inspect a letter sent by a reader whose problem resembles yours, though with an introspective twist like the curve of a gazed-upon navel:

What responsibility for discretion does a gentleman have for former romantic partners? I had a four-year relationship with a woman that ended several years ago. We have remained friends and talk every few months. We both know more than a few things about each other’s relationships—both before and after we were a couple.

When I talk about feelings and relationships with new women whom I date, I sometimes want to use events from my ex’s life for examples to help explain. Part of me does not want to share things that my ex might justifiably believe are not the business of my new partner. But part of me feels bad about withholding information from my new partner. Where to draw the line?

Thankfully (maybe) I am a journalist—morally reprehensible, always selling somebody out, yadda yadda yadda—and have no scruples about what you, ethically-minded introspective letter writer, seem to regard as a problem. That you are even thinking about this puts you on a higher moral plane than that inhabited by me, or anyone else without qualms about stealing other people’s stories, or souls, for their own purposes—a category of people definitionally including almost everyone who listens to Serial.

My point here is that I’m contradicting my answer to the previous letter. It is all very well for you to use your ex’s biography for the purpose of helping your current partner to understand your own. Your heart’s in the right place, so the ends justify spilling the beans. But—and I’m saying this with respect for you and the prospect of knowing yourself—isn’t there other stuff to talk about?

I recall a time, long ago, when people would mail a card to a friend or relative with detailed stories written in the card, including so many details that the last sentence would have to be written sideways. Sadly, that time has long gone. I’ve kept a few of those cards, mostly from my relatives, and a few from the courting years with my wife. However, now I am in the process of cleaning my home office, and I find these “modern” birthday and holiday and anniversary cards, costing $3.50, with “…Love, Pookie” being the only ink in the card that Hallmark did not print there. I enjoy these cards when they are received, but I feel no attachments to them, yet my wife thinks I should keep them, and I get sad puppy eyes from her when I tell her I was planning on recycling them.

What is the proper protocol for these cards? Do I keep the ones sent by my wife? By my kids? By friends?

Thank you for your question.

A glance at copyright law might help orient you properly. When I mail you a personal letter, the intellectual property of the text remains mine, but the paper becomes yours. The correct course of action upon receiving a card is this:

  1. Open the envelope. (Not with a letter opener. No movie buff owns a letter opener because he knows that eventually it will be used to stab him—possibly a felony act in legal terms, probably a misdemeanor in narrative-symbolic ones. Same rules go for ice picks.)
  2. Double-check the envelope to see if grandma sent money.
  3. Look at the card and any enclosed photos, cooing at your friends’ kids, chortling at their woebegone social pretensions, etc.
  4. Do whatever you want with the card. To repeat: It’s your card. You may place it on the mantle with the knitting, or put it by the fireplace with the kindling. Sympathetic to the pull of sentiment, I say it’s okay to keep a cherished card forever—and yet I somehow think that the Collyer brothers got started that way.
  5. Please recycle.