Can You Really Stay Friends With An Ex?

Photographed by Rachelle Manning.
I used to pride myself on being that cool kind of girl who's on good terms with all her exes. However messy the breakup, I wondered, was it really worth throwing away all that we shared simply because we're not dating anymore?

I'd call up my exes on birthdays, hit up their art shows, invite them to parties and refer to them fondly as “my old boyfriend." I hated the prefix “ex." It drummed up other ex- words... excommunicated, exorcised, executed: all words with such finality. I hated the idea that anything I once invested in and valued was now deemed unimportant and thrown out entirely.

New boyfriends would get the whole story on my “exes,” but I'd be sure to clarify that we were still happily in touch. And I would be thrilled if I learned that a love interest still called up his ex on holidays or shared custody of their cat. I felt that was a good sign in a partner. When a guy was friendly with a former flame, it signified that not only was he mature and capable of rising above whatever ended the relationship — be it petty differences or significant heartbreak — but that he himself was also worth keeping in touch with. I found it super attractive.

Then I met Henry.* Henry was the one, or at least it seemed that way at the time. We fell in love, almost immediately, and dove headfirst into a serious relationship. We got along famously, and — what’s more — he shared my value of being friends with exes! His most significant ex was Vanessa,* whom he’d dated 10 years ago; she was now his closest friend. I was introduced to her at a party, and we talked in the corner for two hours straight. She was, is, awesome. I was so impressed with their healthy friendship, I recall telling him that I wasn’t worried about us: Our friendship could be just like theirs if we ever broke up.

Our friendship could be just like theirs if we ever broke up.

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And then we did. Or rather, he broke up with me. It was sudden and entirely devastating. I had just turned 30, and by some cruel twist of fate, this was my first time getting dumped. Don't be jealous. Waiting until your 30s to experience this is like adult chicken pox — it's much worse than when you’re young, and you don't get to miss school.

I launched into the usual breakup routine: stocking up on Kleenex, getting a dramatic haircut, wondering what that Catalonian winemaker I turned down a few months ago was up to, and keeping my distance from Henry in the weeks after the fallout. I missed him terribly. I missed his face, his words, our sex. I missed the freedom for my mind to wander and land on him as it almost always did. But most of all, I missed the friendship. We were best at the friendship. The relationship was challenging — much of it was long distance, and we had different mechanisms for coping with life's challenges. However, the friendship was solid. He was always there for me when I needed to talk something out; he was perceptive, intelligent, and loyal.

So after the dust cleared, I felt I was ready to reach out and regain that part of the relationship. And he was more than willing. This version of us was ideal for him, and he enthusiastically began to participate. First, there were “How are you?” texts. Then there was sharing of funny pictures of dogs. Then there were phone calls when one of us was killing time. Then there were phone calls when one of us was in distress and needed the other.

And then there was me, thinking about him all the time, and waiting with bated breath for the next contact. My therapist would ask if I thought this frequency of communication was a good idea, and since lying to my therapist is one of my more egregious wastes of time, I would reply with a resounding "Yes!”

In the end, it took the strength of our friendship to cut through the haze of our disparate intentions and give us both a reality check. I decided I was ready to see him in person. I told him I thought it would be good for us to talk face-to-face, since we had broken up while I was on tour on the other side of the country. He agreed, and I booked a bus ticket from my parents’ house where I was home for the holidays (stewing and moping, as 30-year-old teenagers do). The detail I had left out was that I intended to stay overnight with him in his New York City studio apartment. To me, this seemed like a given. We were talking every day just like we had done when we were dating; what was the difference? We didn't have to do anything… We could just be friends. Who shared a bed. Just this once. And maybe kiss a little. And maybe fall back in love. And…

That love was very real — maybe the realest one yet.

I got busted. Thankfully, before I left for New York, my diabolical plan was wrenched out of my subconscious, and he calmly suggested that maybe it wasn't a good idea. Then came the tears and the confusion, and eventually, the realization that I simply am not ready to be friends. I'm only human, and that love was very real — maybe the realest one yet. It took him knowing me, it took me trusting him, it took us being honest with each other — all elements of a great friendship — to understand what the best version of our relationship can be right now. We’re two people who shared something special, and will always care about each other, but we can’t co-exist in a healthy way at the moment.

Maybe someday I'll call up my old boyfriend Henry to grab a bite or meet my new beau. But for now, I'm comfortable calling him my ex.

*Names have been changed.


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