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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”