Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was struggling with the fact that her partner was friends with his exes. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about whether they believe in being pals with past flames, and how they've made it work.
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Morgan Root, 30, Syracuse, NY
In the queer, polyamorous community Morgan Root is a part of, they've found that it's incredibly common to be friends with exes. Not only is it not unusual, but it's almost required. "I can't describe it, but — it's usually a small community and you've got to save face — and it's not only convenient to stay friends with your exes, but it's also this 'cool,' ultra-queer thing to do," they say.
Morgan has struggled with that at times. "On the one hand, you don't have to avoid anyone, but on the other hand, it can make you feel awkward," they say. "I also hate being fake, and you almost have to put on this mask in groups at first in order to stay part of the community… In straight culture, it's different, because they have so many different bars and clubs and places to go to avoid their ex's favourite spot. But if you're in a small, gay community or there's only one queer bar in your town, it's tricky."
But, there are also some pros to staying on good terms. "Everything is gonna have a little good and a little bad, it can be better than the alternative of harbouring hate or resentment or bad feelings," they say. "You almost have to get over yourself, be nice, and restart with a clean slate with an ex. It often means you’ve worked through the problem and released some of that hatred that can come from breakups. It feels good to let it go and be like, I accept that you could not care for me the way I need to be cared for."
Morgan adds that some people outside of the community assume breakups for folks in polyamorous relationships, in which they're dating multiple people, aren't as difficult to process. "That's just not true," they say. "It's still so hard, and it also can be isolating. If I break up with someone, I’m not going to my boyfriend and being like, I’m sad someone broke up with me. I have to process that on my own and treat it as a separate thing because it's not healthy to use other people to help you heal."
In the end, with a therapist and finding a support group has helped them through the difficult breakups. "Nothing is universal," they say. "Now, knowing my own attachment style, I've discovered that I like being friends with most exes. With that said, I also am realising that I have this inherent need to have people like me, and I think that's connected. I do think there's something noble about being able to self-soothe, be self-reliant, and cut off contact with an ex — I think it’s very impressive. But it's not for me right now. Maybe someday. There is still this element of pining for someone's approval and also wanting to be seen as 'cool' in my community. I think part of it may be an attachment problem for me, thinking about it, but it's where I'm at right now, and I think that's okay."
Quinn*, 28, New York, NY
You don't need to force friendship with an ex if you've already got great friends to rely on during a breakup, according to Quinn.
So far, Quinn has enforced a pretty strict cut-off rule with the handful of exes she's had in her life. She wants as little contact as possible, and certainly not friendship. This philosophy came to her naturally, and she implemented it after her first major break-up with her boyfriend of five years. She was in her early 20s, and knew her relationship needed to end with a period, not a comma.
"He would put me down and be controlling which made me feel like I couldn't grow and be myself," she reflects. And who needs a friend like that?
"There's no point in being friends with someone who wasn't a good friend to you in the relationship."
Still, it was hard to cut off contact at first. "I knew I needed to break up with him at the end of a year of long distance," Quinn says. "But once I did — this happens to a lot of people, I think — I regretted it right away, even though I had initially been sure. I did think, Maybe we could be friends because there was this initial fear of losing something. Fear is natural, as this person was such a big force in your life and it’s hard to say goodbye. You want to grab on to keep them in your life, even just a little bit. But I knew it was the right call to totally end things, and I was glad I made that call later. There's no point in being friends with someone who wasn't a good friend to you in the relationship."
She says thinking about that — how he wasn't a good friend to her at most points in their history together, and considering how he treated his own friends — really helped her stay away. Once ties were cut, she relied on self-care and her relationships with others. "Luckily, I've got really supportive friends who were able to get me through the hard time," she says. "I lacked confidence when I was with him, so I focused on finding myself again. Part of that was just believing in myself. Looking back, I don't like who I was in that relationship, and I know I'm a better person outside of him."
When he eventually did reach out again on social media to say hi, she was polite, but gave bare minimum responses and didn't engage much so the conversation would peter out quickly. She didn't block him because he never posted much and she didn't see the point, but would consider it with other people.
Although she didn't mean to make these clean breaks a pattern after this relationship ended — and understands why some people want to be friends with their exes — she did find great healing in disconnecting completely. Since, she's made a point to not stay in touch with her exes, but would consider some exceptions if she was absolutely sure she had no feelings left for the person and thought they could form a solid, real friendship. "It's easier to heal when you don't see someone," she asserts. "And especially if feelings are still there, I think it just makes things harder. If someone is truly meant to be your friend, I think they'll come back around later in life, long after the breakup and when you've both moved on."
In the end, she's proud of her decision in her early 20s to break up with her partner, and the way she's handled herself in her relationships since. She's says: "I feel much more confident, and I know who I am."
Luisa, 37, Los Angeles, CA
Luisa believes that staying friends with exes is "the better route whenever possible." And she's maintained several relationships with her exes successfully, including an ex-husband.
This was difficult at first because, ironically, one of their major pain points while married stemmed from him not liking that she was still friendly with some of her past lovers. “The main thing I've learned is that when staying friends with exes, you have to have strong communication, period. Over communicate, if that’s what people need to feel comfortable because transparency is paramount to creating safety."
Although they parted ways, Luisa is now on great terms with her ex-husband and appreciates that she has him in her life to remind her of the good times they shared. If anything, their interwoven history empowers and strengthens their friendship now. "There were issues, but, when I was married to him, he was so loving and nurturing, and that's something I'll always hold dear to my heart and that I'm looking for in future relationships." The fact that he's still around in some capacity reminds her to keep an eye out for those qualities in a future partner.
But that's not the only positive she's taken from staying friends with exes. She’s found that having a shared romantic history with her now-friends helps them support her better due to the bond they once shared — and vice versa. Another perk: She even found a lease for a space to operate her business out of through an ex.
“I had another ex who I hadn’t heard from in a while, and then he hit me up for some spiritual coaching; enough time had passed that I felt comfortable taking him on as a client," she adds. "For ethical reasons, I would not do that in every case, but this was a very natural transition."
With that said, Luisa says there are some exes you need to leave in the dust, especially if a relationship becomes toxic. "You need to know what’s right for you," she says. "No one else knows. I think it's up to you to do the inner work and healing to have the self-awareness to come to terms with your truth. Then, decide if you can be friends. I've done this work, and know that, for me, it usually works. But it's also ok for others if it doesn't."
*Names have been changed.