There are plenty of things to fight over during a breakup: who gets the mutual friends, the favorite restaurants or the rescue dog. The question of who gets custody of the parents, however, seems like it would have an obvious answer — you keep your own, duh. But many former couples have found that to be the hardest thing to settle on of all.
When Sally Ann, 30, met her ex-boyfriend Ian’s mother nine years ago, she was immediately scared of her — mostly because his mom opened with, “I recognize you from your hair. I found some on his pillow.” She was tiny, tan, loud and every other stereotypical trait of an overbearing Long Island woman. After Sally Ann broke up with Ian a few months later, she got a call from his mom and reluctantly answered. “She terrified me, so that’s why I answered, but I also liked her,” she tells me. “She acted like nothing happened and asked if I wanted to come over.”
Sally Ann accepted the invite and they got wine drunk and made fun of Ian’s affection for silk ascots, puzzles and action figures, among other eccentricities. After a few glasses of vino, Ian’s mother brought out the naked baby pictures and made jokes about how his “pecker is probably bigger now.” What ensued was a six-year friendship — compared to her four-month-long relationship with Ian, which ended over his lack of emotional availability — filled with many more ladies’ nights and multiple Christmas dinners. (They even spent Hurricane Sandy together.) “Ian didn’t mind and that infuriated me,” she says.
Fostering a friendship with the mother of the dude she dumped might seem unusual, but it’s not entirely unique. Brooke Dean wrote about maintaining a relationship with her ex’s mom in 2014; her fellow writer Kelli Jette managed to maintain a similar bond (despite cheating on her gal-pal’s son); and multiple Quora threads discuss the etiquette of keeping in touch with an ex’s mom. While these friendships can certainly form between mothers and ex-boyfriends, it appears to be more common among women, especially when one or both parties is lacking a mother or daughter figure (Ian was an only child).
Such friendships also tend to form with younger people who struggle to set boundaries with overbearing mothers. “In these situations, the relationship with the ex usually goes back to college,” therapist John Moore explains. “Later in life, it’s not as common.”
There is no research on this phenomenon, but it seems to be a product of a larger trend of exes remaining friends in general. Maybe more germane, one study found that people who maintained friendships with their exes were more likely to display psychopathic traits. The data didn’t look at friendships with families and doesn’t necessarily mean everyone who is nice to their ex is a psychopath. But psychopathic traits are all about trying to gain something, so the findings mostly suggest that people who stay in their exes’ lives have ulterior motives.
To that end, Sally Ann admits that she wanted to get back together with Ian, but she never told her ex because he was a lousy boyfriend. That didn’t stop his mother from making her motives painfully obvious: During one of their wine chats, she brought out an engagement ring she wanted to pass down. “She made me try it on, and it fit,” Sally Ann remembers, several years into their post-breakup friendship. “That was the first point where I was like, This is getting weird.”
Other times, though, these relationships originate simply from a place of wanting to be liked. Therapist and psychiatrist Laura Dabney notes that women, who tend to be socialized toward more nurturing behaviors, sometimes struggle to sever ties after breakups out of politeness. After all, when the mother is pursuing the friendship, like Sally Ann experienced, there’s a lot of pressure to comply. “Often one person is more invested than the other,” Dabney says, adding that these one-sided friendships “definitely can be due to a need to please others.“
Max, a 28-year-old customer service rep, considers these types of friendships to be part of the cost of having a cool mom. His mom isn’t exactly Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls, but she is cool enough to have remained friends with every one of his ex-girlfriends. Playing it perhaps a little too cool, Max didn’t know his mom was friends with his most significant ex, who he dated for four years, until he saw that she commented on a picture of her with her new boyfriend about how happy she looked. “I don’t know if they’re still friends because, truthfully, I’m kinda afraid to ask,” Max says.
Regardless of how they feel about these friendships, though, men with particularly sensitive mothers probably won’t address the issue because it’s not worth upsetting them. “If a man was raised with a mother who recoiled at any sign of their son’s aggression, even the constructive kind, he may have unconsciously come to see his aggression as hurtful,” Dabney explains.
And so, without anyone to put a stop to it, mothers and ex-girlfriends can get caught in a people-pleasing loop for years until a new significant other ends it. That’s what happened with Sally Ann — when Ian got a serious girlfriend, his mother’s calls and invites slowly tapered off, and by the time he got engaged three years ago, they’d stopped entirely. Looking back, Sally Ann says letting go of the possibility of ever getting back together with Ian was much harder than letting go of the friendship with his mom. Maybe that’s why she went to so many wine nights and couldn’t get any traction in her other romantic relationships. Dabney and Moore agree that the biggest risk people run by staying friends with their exes is being emotionally unavailable to other prospective partners. “Maintaining these friendships can unintentionally create friction with a new romantic interest,” Moore says.
As for Max, he’s not worried about his mother’s friendship with his ex getting in the way of his future relationships. His bigger concern is that he’ll have made his mom yet another friend for life. “I know any future girlfriend can and will have the same bond with my mom as my ex-girlfriends,” Max says. “I’m just not sure they’re going to like me.”