Should you stay friends with an old flame when the relationship is Finnish(ed)?

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When Finland’s outgoing prime minister Sanna Marin announced her divorce this week, both she and her husband were keen to state that they’d remain “best friends”. I don’t speak Finnish but I do speak “split relationships”, and I reckon there’s a good chance they will.

Sanna Marin, Finland’s outgoing prime minister, and Markus Raikkonen are divorcing.Credit: Instagram

It also raises the broader question: should you be friends with old flames – even when you’re happily partnered with your permanent love?

A resounding yes! Not only is it possible to stay friends with old beaux but, in my experience, it makes you a rounder, more sensitive human being. I’m talking of course only of past happy relationships where, say, your man gave you joy most of the time but had picky habits like not letting you inside his car while you ate a sloppy ice-cream. Or got cranky when you screamed out answers on Jeopardy. Or gave you a brown umbrella on your 19th birthday.

Just safe, good-time relationships.

I used to have this fantasy that I’d invite my exes to a dinner party. Then I’d ask myself who I’d prefer to sit beside for the next few hours. Whoever that lucky bloke was, would surely be my soulmate.

But I could never choose. Each boyfriend brought out something different in me because they were all so different themselves. The Greek engineer, the Olympic hockey player, the Polish poet, the German sleep doctor, the Aussie botanist who used to be a vet… (I’ll never tire of hearing what it’s like to stand at the wrong end of a cow).

Here’s cheers to staying friends… Maintaining a relationship with an ex can make you a rounder, more sensitive human being.

If it sounds like I was the madam of the Tower of Babel, it’s not like that at all. I just happened to like languages … and searching for the perfect partner till I was 40. (I know, I know. No such thing, but you can get close.)

Mark Travers, a psychologist writing for Forbes, cites the four main reasons why people want to stay friends with their exes. These are: 1. Security, 2. Practicality, 3. Civility and 4. Unresolved Romantic Desires.

I’d like to add fifth and sixth reasons to the list: Curiosity and Enjoyment.

Curiosity – well, we all want to know what happened next, don’t we? You can’t live with someone for five years and care about them and suddenly not know how they’re going, where they’re working, who they’re with. Sometimes a brief catch-up is all that’s needed to satisfy your inner sticky-beak.

Enjoyment – why deny what brought you together in the first place? The belly laughing, the love of poetry, the late-night lit crits, the shared fungi fetish. When you’ve enjoyed someone’s company, it’s cool to revisit it now and then with zero thoughts of Reason 4 above.

Perhaps my most fulfilling friendship with an ex occurred about 30 years after our split. We’d been dating for three years when he was called to London to work on stiffened steel-core something-or-others. The idea was that I’d finish my own studies and join him a year later. Our letters flew thick and fast across the ocean. He couldn’t read my handwriting. I couldn’t understand why he wrote “l love you” in perfect geometrical spirals. Was he more interested in his draughtsmanship than the loving bit?

Turns out he was.

When the time came for me to plan my trip OS, I rang his mother for his phone number. This was late ’70s when snail mail on flimsy blue “aeroplane” paper was the usual way to communicate. His mum sounded super excited. “Have you heard the news?” she asked. “No.” “Con is getting married!”

It’s complicated: Unresolved romantic desires are just one reason people want to stay friends with their exes.

Thirty years later, Con (not his name but definitely his actions), revisited Oz. We had a few meetings (I gave him George Michael’s Older CD – because he was), and finally produced the pile of love letters he’d written to me so he could read exactly what wasn’t there and should have been. At our next catch-up, he shook his head and uttered the words I’d long been waiting for, “I’m so sorry”.

I wasn’t. I was ecstatic. I’d got my “sorry” and my hurt was healed. He’s now in the US and I’m still in Australia. We play Words With Friends over brekky every day. We’re evenly matched, though it always thrills me to kick his arse with a triple worder.

What does my partner think of my mateship with exes? He’s pretty cool about it as he too continued to see his ex – Reason 2, Practicality – as they shared their sons’ upbringing. I confess, initially I didn’t love the idea, but Mary so wisely worked on us all becoming one big happy family. And that we are.

Shortly after I’d given birth to our son, we were invited around to the ex’s home to celebrate a birthday. The baby needed feeding so I snuck off to the room next door. Not necessary, Mary insisted. It’s fine to feed him here. Out came a reluctant breast. My inner voice was ruthless. “You are sitting at a dinner table, displaying your boobs to your partner’s former wife!” It got worse. Shifting the baby from the right breast to the left, old righty started squirting milk high into the air. Inner voice: “You cannot be serious!”

Some of my old flames really are old now and our talk too often turns to health. As I shift his walker into position, the Polish poet – 20 years my senior – tells me about his dicky heart and his unreliable gut. Then he straightens up and looks me in the eye. “Flowers are the ornaments of love”.

That’s more like it.

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