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x’s and o’s: is it possible to be friends with an ex?

I’ve never been good at maintaining friendships with people I’ve been involved with. I used to think it was their fault – because clearly it’s the height of maturity to blame everything on your ex after a break up – but in reality, I think it has a lot more to do with me. I’m incredibly loyal to the people in my life, whether they are friends or ‘lovers’. But if I come to the conclusion a relationship isn’t doing me any good, I cut that person out of my life. Simple as that. It’s not to say I hate everyone I was ever into. It’s certainly not true of the first girl I was ever involved with – eight and a half years after we met, we’re still friends. The reason I’ve stayed in touch is not because I think we’ll ever be together, but because I care deeply about her and always will.

I recognize that my attitude could come across as selfish and rather harsh, so let me explain myself. My family is a mess (most are), and circumstances have prevented me from having much to do with them over the years. I’ve spent most of my life forming my own family out of the motley crew of friends I’ve gained. Because I don’t have the network of my family to fall back on when things get tough, I need to surround myself with people who look out for me, and only ever have my best interests at heart.

To be honest, I’ve never really understood why people would want to be friends with their exes, which is perhaps why it’s never worked for me. I mean, we broke up for a reason… why would we still want to be in each other’s lives? There’s a lesbian stereotype that when a couple breaks up, they become best friends and still do everything together. A friend, recently split from her girlfriend, explained it to me in these terms: basically, having a relationship with a woman is a lot like having a partner and a best friend at the same time. If the relationship ends, you’re not only losing your girlfriend, but your friend as well.

I do get what she’s talking about. Having dated men and women, I understand that relationships with women are often more emotionally intense, and it can be hard to let go. But for me, my immediate reaction after a break up is to get the hell away from the person for as long as possible. It’s a cathartic process; if I feel like you don’t exist, it makes it easier to get over you. I don’t develop feelings or get involved with people very often, so when I do, I feel the break up very strongly. It’s a long and arduous process for me to recover from a difficult one. Why would I want to be friends with someone who’s caused me pain? If I’m still friends with an ex, I’m constantly reminded of our relationship, and particularly the failure of our relationship.

What I don’t understand is where you go from a break up. Having taken your relationship to such high levels of intimacy, how can you step back and be friends again? For me, even being friends with someone I’ve slept with or had feelings for is often a struggle. After my last break up, my ex tried to be friends. Even gave it a good crack for six months or so. But then one day it hit me: I wasn’t over her. We’d tried to be friends straight away, and I buried my feelings and never gave myself a chance to get over her.

Even though I didn’t want to get back together, I still felt jealous of her new girlfriend (yes, I definitely have a jealous streak) and angry with her. So I did the only thing I know how to do in this situation – I cut her out of my life. I got the rest of my stuff back from her, and promptly erased her phone number, de-friended her on Facebook and deleted all the photos I had of her. And you know what? It worked. After a while, I realised I didn’t miss her, and I knew I’d made the right decision.

But maybe, after all this posturing, what it comes down to is that I only keep the people in my life I truly care about. If someone hurts me, I don’t want them around anymore. If I care about someone, I want them in my life. For example: recently, much to my own surprise, I found myself falling for a straight girl. I knew it was a bad idea, my friends knew it was a bad idea, but I always insist on making my own mistakes. Even though I was hurt and it didn’t work out the way I wanted, I don’t regret it, and I still care about her. And because I still care, I have no intention of letting our friendship go.

I think it’s safe to say that being friends with your ex isn’t for everyone. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it, but I do have a somewhat grudging respect for those exes who are able to stay friends. Just excuse me for thinking you’re a little crazy for doing so.

By Hannah McIntosh

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2 thoughts on “x’s and o’s: is it possible to be friends with an ex?

  1. I used to think that it was impossible to be friends with an ex; I didn’t think you could ever truly and entirely let go of everything you’d felt for them, and quite possibly (probably) the hurt you went through too. But as much as I think that the best thing to do post-break up is indeed to cut the person out of your life, I also think it’s possible to eventually be friends. I actually ended up living with my ex and my current partner for about a year recently – I had become such good friends with my ex that he moved in when my previous housemate moved out, and then my boyfriend was kind of homeless so he moved on in too. And it was great! But Bob Dylan and I had broken up five odd years earlier, and as much as I’d once thought I’d never truly get over him, I did, and I feel really lucky to have a great friend in him now too.

    I think the key is to just not WANT to be together anymore. BD and I became friends while we were both single, so there was no real reason we couldn’t start dating again, except that neither of us wanted to. I think if you have any reason for not getting back together, other than simply not wanting to, those are the kinds of reasons you can start justifying away (especially when you’ve been drinking). Not wanting to is pretty hard to trump.

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