Is It Okay to Pursue a Relationship with a Friend’s Ex?

Dear Neil: I had been pursuing a woman for a couple of months, and we ended up dating for a while after that. It never got very serious, and in the end she let me know that she wasn’t looking for anything romantic with me. I was upset, but she was fair and direct about it.

I own a business with a good friend. It’s just the two of us, and they met because I was dating her. A week or so after she ended with me, they started secretly seeing each other. I discovered this by accident, and when asked, my workmate confirmed that they were dating. I know in my head that they haven’t really done anything wrong, but I feel incredibly hurt. This all feels small in the scheme of things, and I’m passionate about my business with my friend, but right now I just don’t want to see him. How can I get over this?

Hurt in New Zealand

Dear Hurt: Perhaps it would have been better if your workmate told you in advance that he was going to ask out the woman you had been recently seeing, or if he had asked for your permission first. I have a suspicion that you would have still felt hurt even if he had informed you ahead of time. Of course, you could have said no to him, but she didn’t belong to you, and your consent was not necessary for the two of them to begin dating each other.

There is an ill-defined and seldom talked about ethical dilemma that you have touched on. It you are single and close with someone—a friend, relative or fellow worker—and they are in a relationship that falls apart, are you free to pursue a romantic relationship with their ex-wife/husband, partner or lover? The answer to that question is almost wholly based on how much you value the relationship with the other person, because they are likely to feel betrayed and stabbed in the back by you. Of course, you could also offer your blessing for them to date if your emotions and dreams are no longer invested in the relationship.

Being in an intimate relationship, for most of us, means that we have permitted ourselves to become emotionally vulnerable to someone else—even if the relationship was short lived. We invest our hopes, dreams and fantasies in the relationship, and it brings out our desires and longings. It hurts to think of someone else having what was precious to us, but that we lost. To think of someone we value and have a trusting relationship with taking what has been denied us can feel like betrayal or disloyalty. So in a nutshell, you feel as if your coworker was disloyal to you, even if your head says that they haven’t really done anything wrong.

So how do you get over this? You could tell your coworker how this has affected you, and that you feel the working relationship between the two of you deserved more openness and consideration from him about how all of this might make you feel, not to mention how it might impact your working relationship with each other. But the only thing he can do now is apologize, and promise you that he’ll be more mindful of protecting your friendship in the future.

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