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Blanket Statement Monday: You don’t have to be friends with your ex.

The commenters in this thread are just killing it with wise advice.  I think I got caught up in the “how do you communicate in a situation that is already happening where you’re in the same room (not text messages)” side of the problem, but sort of missed the “Oh yeah, you don’t ever have to see that guy again if you don’t want to” thing.  Thank you, smart commenters!

Which brings me to the general topic of breaking up and trying bravely to be friends with your ex.  We’ve talked about how to survive a breakup when you’re the one who was dumped and you run into your ex everywhere.  But not how to handle the “but we can still be friends” thing.

You can definitely still be friends with an ex and make it work if both people want to.  This works best, I will argue, with relationships that already ARE friendships, where you share a lot of common activities and a common social circle, and where the relationship petered out on its own due to lack of chemistry and passion.  The “I like you so much, but we haven’t slept together in I forget how long” breakup.

Here’s maybe when you should hesitate to fall into the “Let’s be friends!” trap:

  1. The two of you were feverishly fucking and fighting right up until the day of “I can’t take this anymore!”  You’re not friends, you are people who fuck and fight.  If you were more friendly towards each other, you probably wouldn’t fight so much…but you might not have fucked so much, either.  C’est la vie.  C’est l’amour.
  2. One or both people was mean, petty, small, selfish, and abusive and the breakup involved a lot of soul-destroying things being said.  Get this person completely out of your life as quickly as possible.
  3. One person really wants to break up and the other person really doesn’t, and there isn’t anything definitely WRONG, per se, but the break-upper is just not happy anymore and needs to leave, and the final breakup conversation involved a lot of “But why?” from the break-upee trying to make the breakup Not True.

The “But whyyyyyyyyyyy?” kind is the biggest trap of all, because the break-upper probably DOES like the person and feels guilty and wants to offer some kindness and it would be nice to be friends, and the break-upee is feeling raw and torn and doesn’t want to have to go through withdrawal all at once, and maybe the other person doesn’t really mean it.

You guys, I have been on both sides of that one, and just like I eventually learned not to blurt out my feelings for crushes in the form of a letter like Mr. Darcy, I also learned that the best way to handle getting dumped in the moment of getting dumped is roughly this:

1. When someone breaks up with you, believe them. That’s not a conversation you just have without putting some thought behind it, okay?  The other person has been thinking about this and dreading it for days and maybe weeks and possibly months.  So when someone says “We need to break up,” the best thing you can say in that moment is “That’s really sad and hard to hear, but okay.”

2.  When you break up with someone, be direct and complete.  It’s not kind to dither.  You want to soften the news, of course, but not so much that they don’t understand they’re being broken up with.  I don’t actually have a script for this one ready to go, because there really is no good way, but a good thing for the other person to know would be that yes, you’re sad, but also, yes, you’re sure.

3.  Knowing why is overrated.  You’re not wrong or stupid for wanting an explanation for why someone is dumping you, but if you push for reasons you are going to hear either weak polite excuses (“It’s not you, it’s me“) or an awkward illumination of your less attractive qualities. This may be useful feedback down the road, and it may be useful now if it fuels your pride and anger, but do you really want someone who has decided they don’t want to be in a relationship with you explaining in detail why being with you is sucky?  Is there really a logical reason they could give that would make you go “Oh, okay, that’s perfectly understandable, good day to you, sir!”  The fact that the person is breaking up with you is the reason why it’s over.  Believe the facts, sort out the reasons later.

4.  Cut the conversation as short as possible.  Sure, you could stay up all night crying and talking and seeking closure, but you’ve got shit to do in the morning, and closure only comes with time.  A lot of time.  Also, and this is a little evil, but if you’re getting dumped it helps you get a little of your own back if you flee the interview as quickly as possible.  The other person has their whole long speech prepared and is all ready for a drawn-out explanation, and you just say “Okay, we’re broken up now, obviously that’s really sad and hard to hear, but I accept it.  Let’s work out the details (like transfer of stuff) later, right now I just want to be alone.”

4. Let go of the need to be friends.  Your best hope of being friends with an ex is to let go completely of that need in the short-term.  Possible responses to “Of course, I’d still like to be friends,” include:

  • If you’re pretty sure you will be friends down the road, “Obviously we’ll be friends, but let’s not worry about that right now.  This is a huge adjustment and I need a lot of time before I can even think about that.
  • If you’re pretty sure you won’t be friends down the road, but want to get out of that conversation as gracefully as possible and let the other person save face, it’s the same as the above without the “Obviously we’ll be friends…” part.

5.  Don’t force it.  It will come when and if it does. Give yourself the time and space to grieve and move on.  Give yourself time to get really angry, if you need to, and work through it.  Give yourself time to clear the air with the person and talk really honestly about what went wrong – think of it as One Last Fight to get it all out of your system. Give yourself time to reclaim sex for yourself and not have it so bound up in this one partner.  If you’re meant to be friends, common interests and real affection will bring you back together and they will be the glue that helps you get through the first few awkward meetings.

6.  Be honest about your feelings and your limits.  You don’t win some award for always being the bigger person.  “I’m sorry, I can’t do this, it’s still too weird” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say.  See also, “It’s very confusing to hug you, because your neck smells amazing, so let’s not hug anymore.”

7.  Do not negotiate with terrorists.  Someone who is actually meant to be your friend will understand about time, space, limits, boundaries, and social cues.  Someone who is just hanging around trying to guilt you into continuing a relationship that you don’t want to be having is not your friend.  You don’t have to hang out with someone because you feel sorry for them, and you don’t have to let someone badger you for reasons why you broke up just because you weakly agreed to be friends when you dumped their ass.  There is a language pattern that I call “keeping score” and it is a huge red flag for me in interactions – if I sense that you are a score-keeper, I will quickly delete you from my life.

A score-keeper is the kind of manipulator who tries to hold you to everything you say like it was a sacred vow. They keep track of everything you say in order to hold it against you so that they get what they want.  It’s like a little kid saying “But you promised, Daddy” in a tiny voice when you’ve forgotten to pick up the ice cream you said you’d buy if they were good while you ran your errands, but it’s coming from adults.  They suddenly become unable to take a polite, indirect refusal for what it is and so look at every interaction for what they are entitled to, from you, and also, you are never allowed to change your mind. If you dated one of these people, this constant badgering will not be new behavior, so now that you’re not dating them anymore, feel free to say “You know what, I thought we could be friends, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Good luck with your life.”  Also learn to get comfortable with the words “This conversation is over.  Goodbye.”

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36 comments
  1. Lucy Looseleaf said:

    Phew, I really needed to read that today. I’ve been trying to be friends with my ex for over a year, and he often says things like “I still think of you as one of my best friends, and I miss you.” But all along I’ve kept thinking “If I’m your best friend then you wouldn’t have treated me that way. You would have seen that I was unhappy. You wouldn’t have ignored me” etc. Just this weekend I learned of some malicious gossiping he’s been doing about mutual friends and I decided I have had enough. I DO NOT NEED TO BE FRIENDS WITH HIM. Thanks for helping to put all of my reasons into words!

    • JenniferP said:

      I have a lovely, lovely ex with whom I did stay friends afterward (after 3-4 months of almost no contact to reset the relationship). He’s now happily married to someone I adore (and who I probably talk to way more than I talk to him, in fact, I can remember calling him and then being like “Hey, can I talk to S?” after 10 minutes more than once. (Sorry, J., if you’re reading this -I like you very much, but YOUR WIFE FUCKING RULES THE SCHOOL).

      Breaking up was excruciating and long overdue – we were very intertwined, but I’ll never forget having a party at my house a few years later and watching the back of someone walk in the front door and down the hall and thinking “Who the heck is that?” and then realizing…okay…I dated that back of someone for like 3 years.

      With time, you forget. Your body forgets, your soul forgets, and you move on.

  2. Sid said:

    Full agreement, no argument.

    If you’re in it to break up, then you are Not There To Make Friends

    • NessieMonster said:

      Love that video!

  3. I believe all of this also holds true when breaking up from a non-romantic relationship. If for whatever complicated host of reasons a friendship is over, that’s a sad thing. But it’s done.

    • JenniferP said:

      You’ll get to the closure stage much more quickly if you accept the break when it happens. You can’t argue someone into continuing to date you (and you shouldn’t let other people argue you into relationships you don’t want to have).

  4. Caty Shark said:

    I am 100% with Lucy Looseleaf. Although I think, in a sense, I’ve spent the last year “breaking up”. As in, we may have said we were broken up last January, but it took all the way until this March to actually *be* done. And now I find I don’t want to be friends with him at all. It’s sad and all, with the teary eyes and the “stay in touches” but – honestly – I’ve moved on, he’s moved on and we have nothing in common any more. Why bother pretending?

    • JenniferP said:

      There’s nothing that stops you from being friend-LY, like, on polite terms and happy to say hello if you run into each other….like…a year from now.

  5. Shora said:

    I wish i had read this six months ago, when I broke up with my ex. One of the biggest issues with breaking up, and one of the biggest reasons why i didn’t do so earlier, was that we had ALL THE SAME FRIENDS. Add that to our massive codependency issues, his inability to respect/maintain boundaries, and all of our friends expecting us to just be friends and be totally cool with that…. Well, lets just say its been a difficult break up.

    Trying to “be friends” with someone who still thinks a relationship might work out is a DISASTER. A couple of friendships have been ruined by our attempt to stay friends, including ours. And if your mutual friends aren’t respecting your need for separation after a while…. Tell them to suck your balls. Things are allowed to be difficult, you’re allowed to need space.

    • JenniferP said:

      I think a good rule is for the mutual friends to invite you both to parties, but whoever responds to the Evite (or FB invite) first gets to actually go and the other person should politely decline.

    • Kathleen said:

      I have been going through this sort of thing for the past five-or-so years. We were the “perfect couple”, he broke it off, we’re cordial but I don’t want to see him again. Our mutual friends really hate this fact. They expect that he and I should just be friends now. But, I just don’t want to be friends.

  6. BlackLizLemon said:

    “You’re not friends, you are people who fuck and fight”

    OMG! Truer words have never been spoken! Yaaaasssssssssssss!!!!!!!!!!

    • JenniferP said:

      You still have my favorite username bar none.

      • BlackLizLemon said:

        Thank you!

        *does awkward curtsy*

  7. k said:

    Yeah, like I said in the other thread, I always try to stop myself from feeling like I’m obligated to be friends with an ex after a breakup. Putting a brave face on things and trying to deal with confused feelings of lust and regret is just NOT a constructive way of moving on in your life, in my experience. There’s nothing to prevent you picking up the phone in 6 months or a year once the relationship has grown distant in the rear-view mirror of your brain/heart/vagina. So just give yourself some time away from that dude, if you’re still feeling conflicted.

    In my opinion.

    • JenniferP said:

      Your advice in the other thread was GOLD and the main reason for this post. :)

      • k said:

        : )

  8. Jennifer said:

    Here’s another reason not to remain friends: if you still want them as a boyfriend/girlfriend. You just can’t do it. Unfortunately, time and my body don’t forget this shit. There is one ex, and it’s been over a decade since he dumped me… I’ve had contact with him twice since he cut me off years ago (yes, he does want to be friends) and every time I still go into a 48-hour crazy tizzy about wanting him back, even though it’s been over a decade and I know better as to why it won’t happen. I really can’t ever talk to that guy again. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’ve had one boyfriend since him and that one, well, there’s no real temptation to go back. (And even that guy makes me wonder, until I realized that his life always sucks and he just talks big about how he’s improved since the breakup.)

    So yeah, that’s a factor. If you’re even remotely interested in him like that still, you can’t ever have contact. You’d better find him neutral to repulsive before you ever have contact again.

  9. Karen said:

    ENDORSED. I am “still friends” with just about every one of my exes, and I look back now and marvel at my stubbornness and stupidity about that goal. By God, I was going to “stay friends” regardless of the personal cost to myself. I approached it like some kind of moral test. A MATURE person could be friends with their ex! A RATIONAL person doesn’t go around saying they “hate” the person they used to love! An ADMIRABLE person forgives and rises about their heartbreak!

    And to get there I crammed down every resentful feeling. I tortured myself by showing up to social events I should have avoided. I took their calls, soothed their wounds when the bitch they dumped me for turned out to be a -surprise!- real bitch.

    Forget all that. Sometimes you have to wallow. Sometimes the asshole doesn’t deserve your forgiveness. And that’s okay. And folks, I am living proof that NO ONE hands out medals for your “maturity” about it. If ever an ex of mine has stood up on front of a room full of people and extolled what a great ex I am for being so mature and understanding, I have yet to see the youtube video.

    I do value my relationship with some of my exes. But sometimes, honestly, you’re better off screaming “go fuck yourself” and throwing a vase at your ex’s head.

    • NessieMonster said:

      Oh Maud!
      The only ex I have stayed friends with was my first ever boyfriend from yr8 i.e. nearly 10years ago! I feel guilty for not having stayed friends with my exes (there are lots) for precisely the reasons you “stayed friends” with yours. I.e. it’s a moral failing of mine for not remaining friends with them.

      The ex before the one that prompted the previous post I cut out completely and I end any conversation initiated by him almost immediately even though it comes acress as really rude. I guess that’s part of what’s complicating things now. I feel like I have to prove that I can be grown-up and mature about the recent breakup by staying friends with him or at least not being a bitch when I see him in person, even if it’s not doing me any favours.

      The point made in the OP about the relationships that are most likely to turn into friendships are ones that started off as such is interesting because none of my bfs were mates first. They were all ones where you suddenly realise ‘hey, that person is really hot and wow the sparks are flying!’….

      • JenniferP said:

        You don’t have to be a bitch when you see him in person, you just have to figure out how to say, after 5 minutes of polite small talk, “Well, it’s been nice catching up with you” and then walk away and put him out of your mind.

        And I’ve totally been guilty about trying to stay with friends that I shouldn’t have stayed friends with. Often we invest more in dysfunctional relationships because if we can will them into being somewhat functional we can feel like we have something to show for it (when really we should research the economics term “sunk costs.”)

      • k said:

        Yeah, I see where you are coming from, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to handle the aftermath of your relationship in a mature way. But like Jennifer says – that doesn’t mean you have to be best buds with this guy. Just be civil, and be firm about extricating yourself from any conversation with him that makes you uncomfortable. Even be firm about leaving the room he’s in, if you feel like you are not ready to be in the same room with him!

        Personally I used to have a terrible time with this. So I decided to use a situation with an ex whose circle of friends overlapped with mine to become the Jedi Master of having boundaries. Any time he showed up I’d wave and smile, if he came over to chat I’d chat for 5 minutes and then be like “hey I have to be over there with those people right now, have a nice rest of your evening”. And if I was getting increasingly tipsy and he was starting to look more and more tempting to me, I’d just tell everyone “Well this has been great but I really have to leave so I can get up for my cross-stitching and archery club in the morning” and whoosh! I was gone.

        At first I was afraid that I was giving him too much control over me by refusing to hang around him, but trust me, this is not the case. Feeling like you have to be the bigger person all the time is something that can really hamper your ability to protect yourself from drama and hurt feelings involving this dude. Take care of yourself first!

        And know that the day will come, when this guy shows up to the same party as you and you will literally not even care. It’s such a great feeling. My ex that I was so hung up on sent me a picture of him and his gf with their new baby, and the only thing I thought was “Cute baby!” The feelings you have now will not last forever. : )

  10. Mikeeequa said:

    I’ve read this post about 15 times. I needed to. It’s been over 4 months since my breakup, and I still somewhere in my heart hold out hope for a reconciliation (“oh, it was not a normal breakup. I know he still loves me…”) The point is, if he ain’t callin’, he ain’t worth thinking about period.

    The one thing I would add to this brilliant post is – if you’re the dumpee, stop waiting around for him to write. He’s never going to write. Ever. And if he does, don’t reply. Anyone who loves you wouldn’t put you through pain.

    I talked to a psychiatrist this week for about 10 minutes on the issue. He said something that kinda surprised me – if the ex had died, would it be easier? I replied – of course! There’s be no way to ever expect the phone to ring. He then looked at me and said, “Think of him as dead.” So, I am now, and that’s helping a lot too.

    So, moving on! I’m available! Who’s next in line?!

    • JenniferP said:

      Mikeeeequa! They never write back to our long breakup letters, so we shouldn’t send those long breakup letters.

      Wish you were here.

      • Mikeeequa said:

        Haha, I know that in theory, but I have sent two or three of those letters over the months. No more. Moving on. As best I can.

        I will see you next year. I promise.

  11. Vera said:

    I totally agree with everything.

    I tend to be in the can’t talk to ex’s or I will accidentally fall into bed with them. Or just be miserable depending on their situation.

    Which led to some pretty miserable outings over the last 4 years. Every time I saw my ex I would be sad if he looked happy, jealous, heart thumping, the whole shebang. It continued even after being married to another wonderful person who I had dumped said ex for.
    But finally, the last time I saw him, I didn’t care. Well, only a little bit. I spent the night *not* looking at him instead of trying to catch his eye. And having fun, which was surprisingly easy when I wasn’t constantly being triggered.

    It would have been easier had there been no chance of seeing him, or if he didn’t try to flirt the few times I did see him. (see reason for the breakup)

  12. “5. Don’t force it. ”

    That is quite possibly the most important piece of wisdom I’ve learned through my soul-crushing breakups. How I wish I had the maturity to understand it then but c’est la vie. Thank you for sharing this post – I’m *GASP* in a healthy relationship right now but oh gurl, have I been there.

  13. Rosie said:

    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.

    My ex of a year is the biggest score keeper ever, keeps asking me “when I am organising our catch up”.

    gah.

    • JenniferP said:

      Hey, not only do you not have to be friends (or organize an awkward unpleasant evening of catching up), you never have to return those emails or whatever.

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