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An easy way to introduce tension in the day-to-day life of a fictional character is to have them work with someone they were previously in a relationship with. While dealing with an ex-boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse can often be awkward enough as it is, such encounters are normally uncommon and short-lived. When two characters with a romantic history end up working together, however, the tension is magnified by the fact that they have to see each other on a daily basis, with no easy means of escape.
If the relationship ended badly, this situation can lead to endless arguments and insults between the co-workers as barely repressed resentment bubbles to the surface. Their constant squabbling can lead onlookers to jokingly question whether or not they're still together, which will elicit horrified denials from the former lovers. When one of the characters reaches their emotional breaking point a "The Reason You Suck" Speech is not uncommon... and both sides have plenty of ammunition to use against the other. Things can be made even worse when one character receives a promotion and becomes the other's boss, putting them in a position where they can torment their Ex with impunity.
If instead there are still romantic feelings between the characters, their history can be a prime source of unresolved sexual tension. After all, they did have chemistry at some point in the past, and being forced to work in close proximity together can cause old feelings to be re-ignited... leading to the inevitable question of whether they'll get back together. This situation can be especially troublesome if one or both of the ex-lovers are currently in another relationship. If the current significant other finds out a character is Working with the Ex, jealousy and suspicion are almost certain to follow.
In some cases, a character is shown to work alongside their Ex with little or no issues, possibly even using their familiarity to perform better together than they would otherwise. This is often the result of their previous relationship ending with a realization that they were Better as Friends, and a common trait of Amicably Divorced characters. In situations like this, light-hearted teasing about their past from the Ex is to be expected.
Anime & Manga
- This applies to Kaji and Misato in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Misato was none-too-pleased when she found out that Kaji would be staying with Nerv after delivering Asuka and Unit 02, and lashed out at him at nearly every chance she got afterwards. The bickering led Ritsuko to comment that they sounded like an old married couple.
- In the Ace Attorney manga, Julie Henson is assistant for Sparkle Land's production team, in which her ex-boyfriend Flip Chambers plays Twinklestar. There's some unspoken tension between the two because he left her for another girl, and when he gets killed, she is suspected because it is thought that she hated him and she was the only member of the cast who could use her hands.
- Ant-Man: Hank Pym and The Wasp, to the point where this is almost what the two are most famous for.
- Nightwing: Dick Grayson and either Starfire or Barbara Gordon.
- New Warriors: Justice and Firestar previously had a relationship.
- In The Alphabet Killer, when former detective Megan Paige is allowed back into the force on desk duty after receiving treatment for the mental breakdown she had during a Serial Killer investigation years ago, she finds that her ex-boyfriend/ex-partner is now Chief of Police, and thus her boss. This puts him in an extremely awkward position when the killer resurfaces, as no one knew more about the case than Paige did.
- Dead Air: Radio talk show host Logan Burnhardt works with his ex-wife, who is his producer. Very little romantic tension is shown between the two of them, as their relationship seems to have evolved to Just Friends status.
- In both the Japanese and US versions of The Ring, Reiko Asakawa/Rachel Keller works with her ex-husband/ex-boyfriend Ryuji Takayama/Noah Clay to solve the mystery of the cursed videotape to save their lives and the life of their son. At the end of the movie Ryuji/Noah is horrifically killed by Stringy Haired Ghost Girl Sadako Yamamura/Samara Morgan.
- In Runaway Bride, Richard Gere's character (columnist) works for his ex-wife (editor). She has to fire him for not checking facts, and producing a totally overblown, inaccurate column about the titular character.
- In the film Outbreak, the protagonist Colonel Sam Daniels works with his ex-wife Robby in an immunology department. Naturally, they get back together at the end of the movie.
- Kind of the whole point of His Girl Friday. They get back together at the end anyway.
- Changing Lanes: Lawyers Gavin and Michelle are shown to have had a fling in the past, despite the fact that Gavin is married to their senior partner's daughter.
- The Abyss: Dr. Lindsey Brigman visits the Deep Core underwater drilling rig on which Virgil "Bud" Brigman, her ex-husband, is the foreman.
- In Twister, the entire reason Bill comes to Jo's storm team is to get her to sign the divorce papers so he can marry his new fiancee. One tornado-riddled day later, the new fiancee is gone and they're back together again.
- Niobe and Morpheus in The Matrix Reloaded, as they apparently broke up due to Morpheus believing in the Oracle. However, they gradually reconcile over the course of the film, as Morpheus learns that there's more to the Oracle's predictions than he thought, and Niobe starts to believe in Neo.
- In Bitten, the first book in Kelley Armstrong's The Otherworld series, when Elena has to work with the werewolf pack she used to be part of, this happens with her and Clay. After a lot of Belligerent Sexual Tension they get back together.
- In Mass Effect: Retribution, David Anderson is called upon by Kahlee Sanders to help her against the terrorist cell Cerberus. The two have barely seen or spoken to each other in more than twenty years, although it's obvious that some mutual feelings remain, despite not officially ever becoming a couple. The book ends with them rekindling their old relationship.
- The Yiddish Policemens Union. The Cowboy Cop protagnist's ex-wife is Da Chief! It doesn't help that he's still in love with her.
- The Lincoln Lawyer: The main character has two ex-wives and one of them works as his secretary. It's lampshaded how unusual it is for a man with two ex-wives to be on amicable terms with both of them.
Live Action TV
- The New WKRP in Cincinnati: Morning drive time DJs Burns & Allen are exes who still work together professionally.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Will Riker & Deanna Troi are ex-lovers.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not shy about using this trope.
- Angel and Buffy during season 3 of her show, although how 'ex' they were varied from episode to episode. Angel eventually decided to leave town so she could move on (and he could get his own show).
- It definitely showed up more on Angel, with Fred and Gunn in season 4 primarily.
- Buffy ended up working briefly with Riley and his wife in the sixth season in the episode "As You Were".
- Buffy and Xander had this vibe when working with Spike and Anya in Season 7.
- In the first season of Lie to Me, Cal Lightman has to work with his ex-wife on several occasions, and ends up in bed with her a couple of times.
- This is a primary source of drama and romantic tension on Fairly Legal. The main character is a mediator and her ex-husband works for the DA, so naturally they butt heads.
- The short lived Work Com FM was about an NPR station in Washington DC where program director Ted had to work with his ex-wife Lee-Ann when she was hired (not by him) to be a political commentator.
- Happens quite a bit in 24. Tony and Michelle find themselves working together at CTU in the 4th season. Also, David Palmer ends up having to work with Sherry quite a bit, even asking for her help one time.
- Human Target has an episode where Chance had to work with his ex girlfriend.
- Chuck has two examples, both of which serve as Romantic False Leads
- In the second season the eponymous character is forced to work with his ex-girlfriend Jill.
- Sarah has Bryce Larkin in the first and second seasons.
- Castle: Richard Castle's second ex-wife is also his publisher and editor.
- Beckett also has an ex-boyfriend in the FBI, and has to work with him on a case.
- In Babylon 5, Sheridan deliberately hires his ex-wife to command the station when he has to resign by reason of becoming a president; they didn't work out romantically, but he still trusts her. Of course, this causes some minor drama when he fails to mention this previous relationship to his paranoid chief of intelligence or his current wife.
- NCIS: Seasons three through five had Director Jenny Shepard and Special Agent Gibbs, who had formerly been lovers.
- McGee and Abby dated briefly, early on; this occasionally still provides tension when one or the other of them gets involved with someone.
- One of Michael's ex-girlfriends once showed up on Burn Notice to ask for his help, and ended up working closely with the team throughout the episode.
- Also, Fiona, referred to in the Opening Narration as Michael's "trigger-happy ex-girlfriend".
- Happened once on Covert Affairs with Auggie's Russian ex-girlfriend.
- The X-Files: Mulder winds up having to do this at times during season 5 with Diana Fowley. Things really get awkward, though, when Scully has to work with her too.
- In the season 7 episode all things, Scully runs into an ex-lover, dying at a hospital. She seems to still have feelings for him, but ultimately rejects his feelings for her, seeing as this episode works as a big reveal of Mulder and Scully's relationship.
- On News Radio co-anchors Bill McNeal and Catherine Duke have a sometimes tense relationship because of a fling they had in the past. Dave and Lisa also have to continue working together after they break up.
- Used repeatedly in Scrubs between JD and Elliot in the first three seasons, which included them sharing an office too small for separate desks. Dr Cox and Jordan also had this set up for the first two seasons before reuniting.
- In the final seasons of Silk Stalkings, the original cops were replaced by the characters of Tom Ryan and Cassie St. John, who have been through a somewhat angry divorce, but who also (it rapidly becomes very clear) are far from over each other. It's shown over time that Tom would die for Cassie, if necessary, and Cassie is definitely still hung up on him, to the damage of her other relationships.
- It rapidly becomes clear from their comments and other indications that the biggest problem between them was mostly immaturity on both their parts, the only thing standing in their way as a couple was/is the need for them both to grown up a bit.
- Rookie Blue season 2 has Luke cheat on Andy with Jo, his ex who transfers to the 15th Division in the first episode.
- The first season of The West Wing had PR specialist Mandy Hampton, who had apparently had an extremely non-amicable breakup with Josh. Their work relationship was not exactly smooth.
- CSI: NY did this for a few episodes. Danny and Lindsay got together, then seemed to seperate after the shooting death of a boy Danny was looking after-he ended up having sex with the boy's mom-and there was the 'working with the ex' tension for a few eps. Then the two got back together, and it was all over.
- Leverage: Nate Ford's ex-wife has worked with the team on several occasions.
- In Namco X Capcom, Taizo Hori of Dig Dug fame fights alongside the heroes, and his ex-wife Toby "Kissy" Masuyo (from Baraduke) also joins their ranks. Although they divorced long ago, Toby still holds a grudge against Taizo. Toby also makes a few cameos alongside her ex-hubby and son in the Mr. Driller series, with her personality more or less intact.
- Implied between Jacob and Miranda, two of the squad-members in Mass Effect 2. In Jacob's words, their previous work together "got a little close - then it got real far apart." In spite of this, they seem to still be on good terms.
- Adam Jensen and Megan Reed have dated and broken up by the time Deus Ex: Human Revolution gets rolling (not too long before the game starts, as a matter of fact). However, they certainly don't act like most people expect exes to, especially since they work together quite closely. In fact, most people assume that they're still together unless they look around for clues.
- In the webcomic Wayward Sons the captain's ex-wife is also the head medical officer.
- Occasionally on Time Squad, other Time Squad units join in to help the trio. One of these squads consists of Buck Tuddrussel's ex-wife Sheila Sternwell. While Buck is good-natured towards his ex, Sheila seems to hold nothing but enmity for him (then again, he is an idiot).
- By Justice League Unlimited, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl.
- In Batman Beyond, Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon had a romantic history, and now she leads the GPD.
- On Gargoyles, Macbeth's two mooks Banquo and Fleance are said to be exes by Greg Weisman.
- After the Time Skip in Young Justice, Miss Martian and Lagoon Boy are now dating but Conner decided to stay on the same team as M'Gann even though they had the option of joining the Justice League, but he is visibly uncomfortable with their relationship.
- A hefty portion of the issues between Lana and Archer stem from the fact that they used to date. There's a lot of antagonism between them.
- In The Legend of Korra, it's pretty much the entirety of Tenzin's relationship with Lin Beifong. Especially in "And the Winner Is..."
- Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher. The two had previously dated for several years. There is even a fake sex scene between the two. They share a clothed dry hump.
- Alternative Rock duo The White Stripes consist of Jack and Meg White, who divorced shortly after hitting it big, but remained together musically. The divorce was actually for image reasons, and they have pretended to be siblings, so this is a slightly skewed example.
- Fleetwood Mac, around the time of the Rumours album, consisted of two broken relationships and a drummer (who had a fling with the singer).
- Sonny and Cher during the 2nd version of their Variety Show.
- George Hamilton and his ex-wife Alana had a daytime Talk Show in The Nineties.
- Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter, who play brother and sister on the TV series Dexter, recently divorced and have a sixth season in the planning.
- John Cleese and Connie Booth created Fawlty Towers and they wrote every episode together. They were married when the first series was made, but divorced before the second one started.
- George and Robin Lakoff (divorced) both work as linguistics professors at the University of California, Berkeley, and get along well as professionals.
- Simone Simons was Mark Jansen's girlfriend when she joined Epica and remains in the band despite the two of them breaking up not long afterwards.