By Kelcie McKenney
Dating in your 20’s. It’s a comment that is often followed with a sigh and a smile, both riddled with fond memories and lessons learned—or so I’ve gathered. At 24, I’ve spent many long evenings talking first dates and heartbreaks and love and lust with friends, and I’ve spent even more mulling over them by myself. They did what? He said that? God, I’m so in love. How could he? I can’t tell them. You will learn to love again.
Relationships teach us more about ourselves than most things I’ve experienced in my short life, and while I’ve learned plenty through my experiences, I wanted to learn more. I’m currently single, still wading through the dating game, trying to find something meaningful that clicks. So I thought: What the hell? What if I asked my exes to reflect on our time together? What if I asked them for dating advice?
The initial thought left me with a pit in my stomach. Vulnerable. That’s the best way I can describe this experience. It’s terrifying to openly accept potential scrutiny. But, like most things that scare me, that only made me want to do it more.
So I reached out to a few of my exes. I even contacted my first boyfriend from high school, who refused to respond (even to my late night, and I’ll admit drunken, pleas of pleeeasssseeeee answer just a few questions). He seems happily in a relationship, so I can’t blame him. But I did manage to wrangle three exes. I sent them all a version of this:
Hello! I realize we haven’t talked in awhile, but I have an odd favor to ask. I’m working on an article called “My Exes Give me Dating Advice.” Risky, I know. I was wondering if you would answer a few questions for that article? You can answer them as completely or incompletely as you want. You will remain anonymous in the article, apart from a nickname that we can agree on, but I will provide some context including when we dated and how long it lasted. Think you’re game?
There might have been some light begging, and I expressed how grateful I would be for their answers. I mean, there really isn’t much of a story without my exes. I sent over questions, they filled them up with responses. So with that, here are my exes and their dating advice for me:
Long Distance Relationship (LDR)
My long distance relationship turned not so long distance. We dated for about two and a half years, give or take, and broke up twice. While I wouldn’t call us friends, we’re on fine terms. LDR was the first to respond to my article—and promptly answered it (thank you for that!).
Better as Friends(ish) (BAF)
We were a set-up and ended up seeing each other for about six months. I learned a lot from BAF during our time together—but learned even more after it ended. I fell in love, he didn’t. We’re still friends, but as BAF coined it, we’re more “Friendish.” I get some of my best feminist memes from him still.
Friends with Benefits (FWB)
I felt an array of relationships would give me perspective, which is why I reached out to a friend with benefits. We, too, are on friendly terms—probably the friendliest of the bunch. I once told FWB this was the healthiest relationships I ever had—we both knew where we stood—and it’s still true.
1. How long did our relationship last
LDR: Two years plus, with a break somewhere in the middle.
BAF: This took some text searching. We went on our first date June 16, 2017 and I broke us up December 10, 2017.
FWB: A couple of months, give or take.
2. If you can remember, what initially attracted you to me?
LDR: I thought you were smart, funny, and pretty. Plus, we were in Europe; it was new, fun, and exciting. Everything seemed natural.
BAF: I was pretty nervous about going out with you because of the age gap (readers, she’s 10 years younger than me). But I remember being impressed by your confidence and poise. Also, your romper was cute.
FWB: Definitely the sense of humor. Inappropriate in all the right ways.
3. What is something I did well in our relationship?
LDR: Sex, lol. Showing/sharing feelings … whether I liked it or not. I never had to guess what was on your mind.
BAF: One of the best things about you in general is how much you really live your life. You definitely grab it with both hands, and it’s infectious.
FWB: Positive feedback, and I’ll just leave it at that.
4. What is something I could have improved on?
LDR: Controlling your liquor. Most of our biggest fights happened when you were intoxicated.
BAF: I worked really hard to make sure you knew where I stood on our relationship, and you made it clear really early you weren’t into exclusivity or anything serious and were really looking to date around and enjoy your 20’s. And I was totally cool with that. I started to pull away further and further, and I thought that sent the message I wasn’t up for anything serious for a bunch of reasons. But I think I knew you were getting attached, and I knew I didn’t feel the same way, but because we were in this weird limbo state, I wasn’t sure how to break it down. I knew just casually walking away would be hurtful. And I knew it wasn’t honest to keep going, when I didn’t feel the same. I think if you’d been a little more honest with me about your feelings, we could have addressed things sooner, or I could have handled it in a way that wasn’t so blindsiding.
FWB: Oh lord, maybe fewer questionnaires? I kid.
5. What would you have changed about our relationship?
LDR: I can’t think of anything I would change. We had a pretty solid relationship, minus a couple of speed bumps. Sometimes things don’t work out, but I feel like we both learned a lot from each other.
BAF: I wish I had been more forthright sooner, but I was trying to figure things out. I didn’t want my depression to influence my decision. And I didn’t want to string you along when you could be out finding a better fit.
FWB: Nothing springs to mind.
6. Why did things end?
LDR: We were too different and didn’t have enough shared interests. I liked sports, you liked art. Not saying that’s a deal breaker, but we were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
BAF: I was in a place where I didn’t have the energy for anyone. And I had this person who seemed to like me more, the more withdrawn I became, which made me feel worse in a fucked up way because I felt like I was letting this great person down and was mad at myself for not reciprocating.
FWB: Not 100% sure. It just seemed to naturally flow that direction away from a physical-based relationship to a friendship with the occasional knowing smile at one another at gatherings.
7. Would you change anything about our breakup?
LDR: Which one? Lol. No, I thought our breakup went surprisingly smooth. I think that’s because we both knew it was time to end things.
BAF: I should have been more honest about my reasons why. Depression was a factor, and a big one. But deep down, I knew I didn’t feel the same way as you did. And I really didn’t want to hurt someone who had been so consistently kind and sweet to me. All of this sounds so pretentious on my part. I don’t think I’m God’s gift to women or that you were some China doll that needed to be handled carefully, but you’re a good person, and I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.
FWB: Not really, it seemed sort of natural at the time and we clearly remained on good terms after things stopped being physical. Which I appreciated.
8. Any other advice you would give me?
LDR: This advice isn’t just for you, but for all women: Men are shitty. If you feel like you deserve better, it’s because you probably do. Don’t settle for mediocrity.
BAF: I don’t have a ton of advice. I know this was supposed to be more fun or playful than this interview was probably intended. I mean this in the least condescending way possible, but you’re young and you’re supposed to date a lot of people, have fun, figure out what you like, and what you don’t and learn from it. And you’re doing that. I’d say be honest with your feelings and don’t be afraid to share them with who you’re dating, but that’s easier said than done, and probably hypocritical on my part, to say at all. Truthfully, you’re doing it right. You’ll find some woke person who loves you for you and has the right amount of complimentary crazy. Maybe warn them about your squirting. Or surprise them. Splish-splash, bish.
FWB: Keep dancing. Always. I’m 99% sure that was part of our first time out together with friends and was where we realized that things weren’t going to be strictly platonic.
9. How awkward has it been filling this out?
LDR: Not awkward at all. If I thought it was going to be awkward I wouldn’t have agreed to do this. Awkward is seeing your ex in a bar and having a co-worker go talk to them … cough cough.
BAF: Not really. I’m more nervous for how you use this information than anything.
FWB: On a scale of “gaping pause on a first date” to “mom found my porn stash,” I’d say this was a solid “forgetting someone’s name as you’re introducing them to someone else”.
These answers arrived over the course of a few months—and each one provided a different level of insight. I debated for awhile on how to explain my responses to the answers I received. As a reader, will you ever fully understand the nuances of what they said—without all the background information? But while I opened myself up for scrutiny, my exes did not ask for the same. So I’m going to do my best to put words to how I feel.
LDR: Thank you LDR for answering so quickly. You said we were different, which I agree very much so with, but I think we also have different perspectives on what being different means. I don’t think differences make people inherently incompatible, but I agree our differences weren’t right for each other. I will comment on my drinking habits: I think we fought when I was drinking because sober me was too scared to be honest about how I felt about things. I’m working on being more honest. I had enough closure at the end of our breakup where this questionnaire didn’t change how I felt, but I do think it solidified what I had learned from our time together—and I think we both have a lot to learn still.
BAF: This process gave me closure in a way I hadn’t realized I needed. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. When people break up it’s because they’re on separate pages. Before this article, I didn’t know what page you were on. Now I realize you were in a completely different book. Our time together taught me more about myself than I think I’ve let on, so thank you for that. I’ll take your advice to heart: “be honest with your feelings and don’t be afraid to share them.” I think both of us can learn from that, and I hope you already have. I’d like to be friends eventually, but “friendish” is cool for now.
FWB: Oh, FWB, we had a lot of fun. Thanks for being up for this, for being honest, and for dancing with me that first night. It was refreshing to know we really did feel the same way during our time together. How lucky that it turned out that way. You’re a catch, and I think both of us deserve happiness and love. I’m confident we’ll find it—maybe you already have—just make sure they give, uh, positive feedback, too.
Overall, this process has given me closure in a way I hadn’t realized I needed. So thank you, LDR, FWB, and especially BAF for that. The biggest surprise of this activity has been the positive feedback I received. Apparently, I’m better in bed than I thought, but more importantly, I think I’m doing the right thing. I’m putting myself out there, getting my heartbroken, learning from my past, reevaluating what I want next, and living life to the best of my ability.
While my relationships with these three exes didn’t work out, I’ve learned a lot from them—as we all do from partners. In a few years, maybe I’ll look back and smile at how much I learned from this. Maybe I’ll have a new list of exes—of experiences to learn from—that I’ll question again. Or maybe I’ll have someone who isn’t an ex, someone woke who clicks, that I can ask a whole new set of questions.
Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Digital Editor at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie watching internet cat videos, eating brunch, taking photos, and reading mystery novels.