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The Beginner's Guide to Exes

Posted: 02/27/2012 1:48 pm

Breaking up is hard to do, but it's also one of life's inevitabilities. Sometimes things end in a way that leaves the door open for a friendship, but the road between Breakup County and Friendshipville is a perilous journey, fraught with hidden emotional booby traps. It's also a road you have to walk with purpose: it's nearly impossible to just kind of, like, stumble into a friendship with an ex. Deciding to stay friends is an act of bravery, but it's one that attests to the fact that even though you and your ex are no longer in love, it's still possible to like each other.

Almost everyone, in the early moments of a breakup, says, "But I want to stay friends." The dumper uses that line to assuage guilt, while the dumped considers friendship a useful tool in winning them back. In both cases, the friendship isn't a result of two people genuinely liking each other; there's a hidden emotional subtext that's covered in dirt, bad feelings and weirdness. "But I want to stay friends" isn't a binding contract. Feelings will change, and a friendship that seemed impossible in the first few days after a breakup will slowly start seeming like it has a chance, and vice versa. If you've said, "But I want to stay friends," you're under no obligation to stick with that.

Also, take some time apart. Some folks set the clock at six months without contact, other say half the total time you were together. Whatever formula you use, there's no denying the benefits. Refocus on what's important to you -- not for the relationship, but your own needs and wants. If, after a few months, you and your ex get together for a coffee, you may decide that pursuing a friendship is a good idea. Awesome! Or you might decide that this person is a human trashpile. Also totally fine! This transition is rarely easy, and putting pressure on yourselves to get over the relationship and into the friendship doesn't help. Being alone helps you ask yourself: How much do I like this person? How much do I like myself when I'm with them?

There are a few different forms a post-relationship friendship can take. You might go through some or all of these before you settle. Take your time.

Friends With Benefits: Losing your sex life can be one of the most daunting things about breaking up. In an effort to avoid celibacy, some exes never stop having sex. On the outside, this looks an awful lot like dating, but both parties insist that there's no romance -- they're just getting their rocks off. Unfortunately, this makes it tough to move on, grieve, or meet new people. Many exes who try this find themselves back together, and because the focus in being Friends With Benefits is willfully not on the emotional connection, the re-couples usually encounter the same issues that forced their first breakup. It's possible to avoid that by talking frankly about boundaries and expectations, but it's also complicated by the emotional hangover of the breakup. Seriously: take some distance.

Neutral: Best described as "friendly, but not friends," this requires almost no work and zero maintenance. These people exchange small talk when they run into each other on the streetcar, wish each other happy birthday on Facebook, and basically have no real communication. There's no ill will, per se; they just don't want to be a part of each other's lives after the breakup. This is pretty easy to accomplish after a short, breezy relationship, and doubly so if you don't run in overlapping social circles (did someone say "Internet dating?").

Hate: In the weeks after my first real heartbreak, I made an effort to spend time with my ex in a misguided attempt to prove that, despite being brutally dumped, I was still awesome. He couldn't care less; he had already started dating someone else. After a few months of misery, I realized that I was angry. Like, really angry, and being around the source of my rage was eating me alive. I cut off the "friendship" because the benefits of staying in touch were not outweighed by the drawback of having to spend time with him. It may take a while for you to realize that, after the relationship ends, you don't actually like your ex all that much -- betrayal or infidelity has coloured your perception of them to a degree that you can't pretend to like them. Friendship? Off the table. Don't feel bad about it.

The Faux-riendship: When these exes get together, conversation consist of things that don't get said. Fake friendships aren't built on real openness, but a mutual desire to shove things under the rug and pretend everything's fine. If there's a lot of sexual tension, or if one ex brings up "the good old days" a little too often, or if you avoid talking about new partners (theirs or yours), or if you have nothing to talk about but keep hanging out anyway, then the faux-riendship has you in its grasp. It's not a tragedy -- with more openness, you can upgrade into an Actual Friendship, and with less, you can slide into Neutral territory -- but it's tough to maintain for long.

The Actual Friendship: This is the real winner: when there's no (or few) residual feelings from the relationship, when both people are integrated into the other's post-breakup life, when hanging out isn't fraught with sexual tension or words unsaid. These rare friendships take months or years to develop. There are boundaries -- every friendship has areas that just aren't really talked about -- but the mutual affection dwells in the present, rather than trying to preserve the past.


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