How to become friends with my ex while I'm still working out my feelings
March 14, 2013 6:56 AM   Subscribe

How do I stay in loose, friendly, honest contact with my ex (from a short relationship) to build a friendship while I still have some residual feelings for him? I know we are only friends now, and I want to respect my boundaries and also his. There's no chance we'll see each other in person for a long time, so this is all about communication and not about sex.

I had a short, mostly long distance relationship with a man whom I really enjoy, respect and care for. I developed stronger feelings for him than he did to me, and when I realized that we wanted different things (I wanted a committed relationship and he didn't, mainly because of distance but I also think he didn't see me as a girlfriend) I told him I needed time to myself. We didn't talk at all for a few months, but recently I decided it was time to say hello and see how we are as friends. I gave myself time to get over it before I contacted him - however, now that I have, he's been a bit sentimental and it's made me realize I still have some feelings for him. I guess I'm not as over him as Id thought.

Because our relationship was so short, and he was respectful and kind throughout, I truly think we can transition to friends. I'm not trying to punish him for not wanting me to be his girlfriend, and think this can turn into a valuable friendship. I REALLY think we can both be grown ups and have a chance to be friends. So here's my question:

How do I stay in loose, friendly, honest contact with him to build a friendship while I still have some residual feelings for him? I know we are only friends now, and I want to respect my boundaries and also his. There's no chance we'll see each other in person for a long time, so this is all about communication and not about sex.

Your feedback on how I can 'stay cool' and zen about things while occasionally being in touch with him is really appreciated.
posted by zettoo to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're waiting for things to change. I suggest going no contact until you have moved on from these feelings.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:02 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

How do I stay in loose, friendly, honest contact with him to build a friendship while I still have some residual feelings for him?

By letting yourself take as much time as you need to do that. You won't be ready until you're ready. If contact leaves you feeling messed up, back off for a while.

Good friendships are built over long periods. There is no need at all to rush this one.
posted by flabdablet at 7:03 AM on March 14, 2013 [10 favorites]

Time and space.

I really want to go into more detail, but that is concisely it. You need to give yourself, and him, time and space. The friendship will grow back slowly in the gap which your relationship was uprooted from, but you need to have patience, and give it time and space.
posted by greenish at 7:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

You want something that is really hard, and will be really hard for as long as you have feelings for him. In all likelihood you can't have what you want, simply because it is far likelier that you won't have a friendship with somebody under these circumstances than that you will.

I think your best bet will be for you to work on your feelings, which will be difficult when this guy is mostly long-distance. If he were around you could get sick of him, you could see him not at his best and focus on how he tells the same stories at parties or picks his teeth or is actually a terrible dancer or whatever. You could see his flaws and focus on those things and that could help you to stop thinking about him in a romantic way.

Because that's what you have to do if you really want to be cool with him and really want to be friends. You have to get rid of your romantic feelings. Note that I don't mean you have to suppress them, because that is hard and ultimately probably not the way to get them out of your system. You have to overcome them, you have to get through them.

So, how do you get rid of romantic feelings for somebody far away? That's a tall order, because it's going to be much easier, and much more pleasant for your mind to construct and preserve your idealized version of this guy from the few datapoints you have. Maybe you do it by indulging some other crush you might have for a while. Maybe you do it by taking enough time that you're kind of a different person than you are now, and then getting back into contact. Maybe you test the waters and then be brutally honest with yourself each time about whether you're ready to do this or not. I don't know. But you have to deal with your residual romantic feelings or you're not going to be friends.
posted by gauche at 7:08 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Time, space, and dating other people. Seriously. I speak from experience when I say that nothing helps cool residual romantic feelings for one person like nurturing them for someone else. Try internet dating or something -- there are a lot of awesome dudes out there looking for and willing to provide the level of commitment you want.
posted by fight or flight at 7:18 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Because our relationship was so short, and he was respectful and kind throughout, I truly think we can transition to friends.

You can, but not now.

I REALLY think we can both be grown ups and have a chance to be friends.

You can, but not now. It is a really bad idea to try to be friends with an ex if either party still has feelings for the other, or wants to get back together. It's one of those things people think they can do, they're certain they are the exception to the rule, but they are not. It's a bad idea. You can't partition off your feelings - you can only try, and be hurt by the attempt.

Your feedback on how I can 'stay cool' and zen about things while occasionally being in touch with him is really appreciated.

Give yourself more time and space and don't try to put your feelings on a schedule or try to force them into place with logic. I understand you think you can be friends while you still have feelings for him, but you cannot do so in a way that is healthy for all parties involved. In the situation you're describing, the problem would not be a failure to stay cool; the problem would be that you even need to try to stay cool in the first place. Again: more time and space. If you want to stay friends with him then maybe just let him know that you're not over things and you need some time and space, and you'll let him know when you're ready to be in regular contact again. You'll know you're ready when you can think of him dating someone else without getting a crushing feeling in your chest.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:42 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Test yourself. Imagine that you see on his fb page that he has found a girlfriend. Are you happy for him? If you are, then you can be friends the same way that you are friends with anyone else. If you are not, then you were never his friend and you never will be. Don't even try. You will be deceiving yourself and him. If you are not his friend, then let him know and then move on. He will find you if he wants more.
After a bit of time and after you have dated someone else, then test yourself again. If you pass, if you truly want what is best for him and for him to be happy, even if it is without you, then you can renew the friendship.
Hanging on to a crush can feel exciting but it keeps you emotionally tied to someone who cannot be who you want them to be. Open up your life to real love.
posted by myselfasme at 7:46 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wait until you are safely enmeshed in a happy relationship with someone else. Until then, keep contact to occasionally liking one of his Facebook posts.
posted by amaire at 8:02 AM on March 14, 2013

I've done this twice now.

A lot of the right kind of communication can help. You say that when you reached back out to him, he's been "sentimental" - what does that mean? And more importantly, does he know that this isn't helpful for you? If he doesn't, you are absolutely within your rights to tell him that "look, I'm not quite ready to talk about/think like that just yet, wouldja mind?...."

I had to do something like that with my last ex-to-friends thing - he met his current girlfriend about 2 months after we broke up, and we had started working together by that point - and every couple days or so he'd start gushing about how happy he was with her and how awesome she was and how she was so much more different than anyone he'd ever dated and yadda yadda yadda, and I finally sucked it up and told him, "dude. Please. Think how it makes ME feel to hear about that." And he IMMEDIATELY stopped. And was a lot more sensitive about that going forward. And for my part, I also let him know when "y'know, I think I'm actually cool about the situation now, thanks for being understanding while I was going through that." That was all ten years ago, he is still with her and is really happy, and he and I are such good friends he feels like a brother (so much like a brother, in fact, that remembering that we once dated actually feels a tiny bit creepy).

You have the right to assert a boundary about what you need to help transition. If he is worth staying friends with, he will respect your boundaries - about everything, but especially about this. But he does have to know what these boundaries are.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The eternal question.

Don't do this to yourself now. If it's hard, you need more time.
posted by murfed13 at 8:21 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Exes can certainly be friends -- but only (in my experience) once both parties have worked through their residual feelings, so that any friendship will come without any sort of unresolved emotions or agenda lurking below the surface. So until you're there -- and it's totally OK to take as much time as you need, even if you think you "shouldn't" need so much time -- pursuing a friendship is unlikely to be the healthiest or happiest option for you.
posted by scody at 9:01 AM on March 14, 2013

The odds are really good that you're fooling yourself. You may so invested in "building a friendship" because of your residual feelings, not in spite of them. It may be a way of getting a relationship out of him, but on terms you hope that you can control.

You've said you had feelings for him that he didn't reciprocate, and that you were the one to both break and re-initiate contact. In light of that, what makes you think he reciprocates your wish to become good friends? If he's as "kind" a person as you say, he might not say something as direct as "I have no urgent, pressing interest in becoming your buddy."

Also, what do you mean by "he's been a bit sentimental"? Are you saying you both have residual feelings? If so, you definitely aren't ready to be regular old friends yet. If you mean that he's just been saying stuff like, "Yeah, we had some good times, you were great to be with" ... that doesn't necessarily mean anything about how he wants to proceed with you now.

There is an entire world of people out there, with whom you can build friendships right away. Without having to dance around this issue. With this guy, you're going to have to get rid of the leftover romantic feelings you have, and that's going to be very hard if you don't go no-contact until the feelings are gone.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:51 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I told him I needed time to myself. We didn't talk at all for a few months, but recently I decided it was time to say hello and see how we are as friends.

So, did you guys ever have the "we are breaking/broken up" conversation? From your description it sounds like officially you are still on break, though neither of you may feel like there is anything there. That conversation can be cathartic and really put that last nail in the feelings coffin. But, boy, is it sure hard to have months after the fact. Perhaps writing it all down in a letter, documenting your feelings - what you want out of a relationship and why it won't work - and then throwing that letter away can simulate the release you would feel from that conversation.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:03 AM on March 14, 2013

When you have a new boyfriend and are perfectly happy and you harbor no romantic feelings at all for this guy, then MAYBE you can explore a friendship with him.

Beyond that, do yourself a favor and let it go for now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:34 AM on March 14, 2013


Seriously, what is the advantage of doing this over just walking away. Friends are easy enough to make, and there are literally millions of people out there capable of being awesome friends for you. Why not put your energy towards building a relationship with one of them rather than towards a friendship that you know is going to be fraught and difficult (and long-distance) from the very beginning.

You don't have to be friends with everyone. You get to choose. And, in fact, maintaining a friendship take time and effort, so you had better choose wisely.

When people come out of long relationships, they often feel a very strong urge to remain friends because of their history with the person. When you're talking about someone who has been with you through thick and thin, who known you better than anyone, and who has known you longer than most anyone outside of family, well, the idea of trying to build another friendship from scratch to rival that is daunting.

But in your case? It sounds like you could join a local scrabble club, meet someone, and have a more rewarding friendship within a month than this one is ever likely to be.

So ask yourself why you even want to be friends with this guy? If it's because you're still dreaming of a committed relationship with him and just want to keep that dream alive, then stop now before you both get burned.

If it's because it just seems like the adult thing to do, well, fuck the adult thing to do.
posted by 256 at 11:14 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks guys. I really appreciate all of your thoughtful and straightforward advice.

When we split (and yes we definitely had the splitting up conversation, actually was good closure, better than I normally get from guys), he wanted to be friends right away. I told him I needed time of no contact and would get in touch with him when I was ready. I thought that time of no contact was really healing and that I HAD in fact gotten over him, that I was ready to now slowly get in touch as only friends. I’d even dated some guys, although no one that I really liked so much.

When he sounded so happy that I had gotten back in contact with him, and he started to reminisce about when we first met (that’s the sentimental part), I realized I was thrilled that he was saying those things – I was too thrilled, you know?

I think he’s just happy to be friends, but his reaction made me have a little inch of doubt that maybe he missed me and now wanted more. I know that can’t be the case, though – I took him at his word that he didn’t like me as a girlfriend. I don’t want my heart playing tricks on my mind, and I want to be grounded in reality and not some fantasy. Since that’s obviously troubling me I agree that I need to stay out of contact with him again until much later...until I really have moved on.

You’re all right – I can’t be friends with him when I still feel this way. I wish it wasn’t taking this long to get over him, but it’ll take as long as it takes, and I can’t force it.

To add to this, it’s really rare to find someone I like this much. I’m sure a lot of people have this feeling, but for me it’s years in between relationships, not months. I don’t know how to be attracted to more guys – either I am or I’m not. And usually I’m not – only certain ones I fall for and then I really fall. I wish I could get wrapped up in another lovely guy to forget this one who I’m hurting over, but it’s hard to have faith that I’ll move on so quickly. Any reasonable advice on moving on is appreciated too.

Thanks all! I really value the great comments and support.
posted by zettoo at 12:12 PM on March 14, 2013

Aw, I feel ya. It takes me so long to find feelings for people --and even the people I'm attracted to, it can take me six months to a year to figure it out-- that most of my relationship heartaches simply linger on for half a decade or so. That advice to Just Find Someone Better as if I could poof some bizarre alchemy of attraction into existence like Bewitched...well, it always rankles very hard.

That said, listen to all of these people anyway, because while they're probably wrong that the next Mr. Amazeballs will turn up next week, they're right that speaking to the current Mr. Amazeballs is basically like pulling stitches out of a not-quite-healed wound.

Sucks man. Sorry. :(
posted by like_a_friend at 3:15 PM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

For me, the easiest way to move on was dating other people, even ones I didn't fall for, because it got me out of the house, meeting new people, and learning what I really wanted in a relationship. The fact that I did eventually meet someone awesome was a bonus. I'm not saying go on a buncha dates with folks who don't hold your interest in any way, but more, to maybe be a bit less defeatist or (less harshly) less goal-oriented in your dating.

Hang in there. It's totally understandable that feel as you do, but you really sound much farther along in the healing process than you probably feel.
posted by sm1tten at 6:35 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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