I’ve Been Secret Friends With My Son’s Ex for 30 Years

“I’ve realized that you have to look for friendship in places you would never expect it.”

A woman walks away from a silhouette of a man in the background toward an older woman in the foreground
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a woman whose best friend is her ex-boyfriend’s mother—and more than 30 years into the relationship, they still haven’t told him they’re friends. They discuss how their friendship has evolved since the days when Alison thought she might one day be Karen’s daughter-in-law, why Karen hasn’t told her son about Alison, and how the lines between “friend” and “family” have blurred for them.

The Friends:

Karen Johnson, 79, a retired secretary who lives in Vancouver, Washington
Alison Silva, 51, a landlord who lives in Portland, Oregon

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Your friendship has an unlikely origin story—tell me how you met.

Karen Johnson: Alison first came to our house when she was 15, as my son Kelly’s girlfriend.

From that point on, she was over almost every day. I would come home sometimes, and she had folded my laundry, she had cooked a meal. She was just like a daughter to me.

Alison Silva: I was trying to be the good, hopefully one-day daughter-in-law.

Karen: They maintained that relationship into their freshman year of college, but then they broke up.

Alison Silva and Karen Johnson (Courtesy of Karen Johnson)

Alison: Off and on, [the relationship] was about five years.

Karen: Alison and I drove him from Portland, Oregon, to Minnesota [for college]. And then we drove back. That’s a long time to be in the same car. Where did we stop, Alison? At that bubbly place. At one of those national parks.

Alison: Yellowstone.

Karen: We have shared many, many adventures.

Beck: Alison, what happened when you and Kelly broke up? In terms of both your relationship with Kelly and with Karen?

Alison: I probably hung out with Karen the next day. It never crossed my mind that ending the relationship with him would end the relationship with her. It actually might’ve made it stronger.

Karen: I have to say that we never really revealed to my son that we’re still friends.

Beck: To this day?

Karen: He has no clue. Not even now.

He can be a jerk. So, I was afraid, honestly. It just evolved over the years, and I have never gotten around to telling him that Alison and I are best of friends.

Alison: When my kids were little, I would give Karen their artwork. And Karen would have to go around the house hiding all of that if Kelly was coming over.

Karen: I wish I could just let it all out. He probably would be fine with it now.

Beck: This has been going on for how long now?

Alison: I’d say about 36 or 37 years.

Beck: Does your son not live in the area? How does he not know?

Karen: I don’t see Kelly very much at all. He does live about three miles from Alison.

Alison: Karen and I would go and have dinner together. She would come to our house, or I would go to her house. We golf a lot together, and Kelly doesn’t golf. There aren’t many times that we would ever run into Kelly together.

Karen: I always worry, when I finally die, that Kelly and Alison will come to my funeral and see each other. That’s going to be a trip.

Beck: If he Googles you, he might find this article.

Karen with Alison on her wedding day (Courtesy of Karen Johnson)

Karen: It’s unlikely that he will, but that’s all right. That’d be a good way to find out.

Alison: Karen, I have to say—he’s seen pictures of you and I on Facebook. I would be surprised if he didn’t know we were friends. I think he’s gotten over it.

Beck: Was there a turning point for your friendship? When it went beyond being friendly with your ex’s mom to being truly best friends?

Alison: Kelly and I broke up probably in 1990. I graduated college and met my husband in ’92, and then had our daughter in ’96. Karen was in the delivery room. My parents were there, and she was there. At that point, I was like, “Okay, she’s something pretty special in my life.” I lost the feeling that it was because of Kelly that we got together. And I decided to have our daughter’s middle name be after Karen.

Karen: Her middle name is Lee, not Karen, because my middle name is Lee.

Alison: When I got married and got pregnant, I felt like more of an adult. It wasn’t like Karen was my mom; she was more my friend. My maturity changed our relationship. Because I wasn’t doing your laundry anymore, Karen. I grew up and was becoming my own person. I just realized how much I enjoyed Karen in my life. There is a significant age gap, but she never felt like she was old to me. She was just mature, and I knew I could learn from her.

Karen: Friendships evolve in different ways. I can’t really tell you if there’s any specific reason why, other than we were just together a lot. I took her to Hawaii after her college graduation. We started playing golf, and we became co-captains on our nine-hole golf team. Our personalities are so different. As co-captains of this golf team, I’m out there doing all the advertising, the recruiting of golfers. And she’s doing all the quiet things, like figuring out how much money we have. And she does the food for our tournaments.

Because Alison’s so quiet, I always think she’s mad at me. But she has blossomed. Oh my God, to watch her at tournaments and to see her in meetings, how she expresses herself … she’s very smart. It’s just a pleasure to see the blossoming of Alison Silva.

Also, I’m very close to her children. I adore them both. I’ve taken the kids on what we call “Aunty Karen’s adventures.”

Alison: I went on a couple of these. But she would do things that, as the parent, I would not agree with. I said, “From now on, if you take the kids, you’re taking them by yourself because I cannot be part of that.”

Karen with Alison’s kids when they were young (Courtesy of Karen Johnson)

Beck: What are some of the things you’re talking about?

Alison: Karen lives just outside of a train track, so they would walk down the train track and find dead animals. They would put pennies on the tracks and watch the trains go by. One time, she took them to the pet store, and they came home with a frog and a lizard. Shortly after that, they went back to Karen’s house because I did not want a frog and a lizard.

Karen: I took the frog to a friend’s house and put it in the backyard. I don’t know what I did with the lizard, but I didn’t keep them.

Alison: They would go on hikes, not knowing where they were going. And then Karen would tell me, “Oh, we got lost.” I was like, “Cool. I don’t need to know what these adventures are.” But they love doing them with her.

Beck: Karen, when you talk to your son, would you just not mention you were doing all these things with Alison and her kids?

Karen: My son and I are not that close. I rarely see him. And we don’t communicate that much. Although during COVID-19, he’s been really concerned. But no; we don’t talk about Alison, or any of my adventures.

Beck: It seems like you maybe have a bit of tension with your family, but you’ve really adopted Alison’s family. I’m curious if that has changed your thinking about friendship and family, and how those lines blur.

Karen: Like they say: You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. My sister and I are not that close, either. I’m just going to say it: She’s very jealous of my relationship with Alison. But I can’t help myself. I care about Alison’s family.

Alison: And my mother has been jealous of my relationship with Karen. It is hard.

Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?

Karen: Alison is the most altruistic person I’ve ever met. I could depend on her for anything. If I was stuck in a mountain cave and I called her up, she would come running. Alison, as a friend, would be there for me—anytime, anywhere. That’s the truest thing I know about her.

Alison: I’ve realized that you have to look for friendship in places you would never expect it. Because of Karen, I’ve seen how relationships morph and change. At the beginning I was doing laundry, trying to win her affection. When I was pregnant, I wanted to learn from her. And now, I feel like she can start learning from me. It’s almost a complete circle.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.