Friendship after a break up
January 23, 2016 10:16 AM   Subscribe

If you are someone who is or has been good friends with an ex-partner, how does that happen and what does it look like? What do you think are the necessary conditions for this to happen? How do you navigate feelings and boundaries? What are timelines like (ie is there a cooling off period involved)? Do you get jealous of their new partners? Thanks in advance.

Let's say that the break up was amicable and the desire to maintain friendship is mutual amongst two people who are compatible personality-wise, have similar hobbies and both deeply care for each other. This is my current situation.
posted by mossicle to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've done this!

For me, taking some time where we were not in very close contact was helpful to sort of re-find my edges wrt my ex, and also to break out of the habits we'd developed in how to spend time together and interact. For us, that was about 6-9 months? The timing I think will vary people-by-people. It was definitely helpful that we shared a broad social circle, so it was easy for us to get together in social gatherings, not just one-on-one.

I don't think either of us has experienced jealousy about new partners, but I did have a phase about 2 years after our breakup where I wanted to try to get back together. Her life wasn't in a place where she could do that, and the moment passed. But you might want to be prepared for that: If you're people who have had an attraction and continue to have respect and appreciation for each other, it's totally possible for it to come up. And that's fine and it doesn't mean you have to pursue it, but it can be a little emotionally whiplashy.
posted by spindrifter at 10:43 AM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, I find it hard to believe, but it's been now more than 10 years that I have been friends with my ex-lover, father of our child, business partner, life partner, bound together for life it seems because we're such good friends though the romantic attraction has long since bit the dust. We even live in the same abode, although I have the upstairs quarters and he the downstairs.

The boundaries are and always have been very simple. We don't bring our love affairs home.

Truth be told, neither one of us has found a suitable life partner since we decided to stop having sex so many moons ago. Nor do I think sex is completely off the table for us in the future. But as ridiculous or immature as it may sound, neither of us wants to mess with a good thing by introducing sex again.
posted by zagyzebra at 10:46 AM on January 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have one good friend who's an ex. It took time. Plain and simple. As much as I missed him, I was not ready to be his friend in the months after our breakup; I did not wish him well in his new relationship; I was angry and sad and jealous.

I went no-contact and got on with my life. About a year later, I genuinely wanted to be done with the bad feelings. I made a penny wish in a special spot and wished them away, and found it worked - the bad feelings were gone and the fond feelings for our friendship were still there. Luckily he felt the same way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:17 AM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've done this - but I suspect I may be a special case, as my ex and I broke up because we agreed, mutually, that we had been having a lot more fun when we were just friends, and a sexual relationship simply introduced pressures that neither of us liked.

Both of us have always been utterly honest with one another and felt that beating around the bush is counterproductive and tiresome for all concerned, so the breakup - over tea - went along the lines of: 'This isn't working out.' 'Yeah, you're right.' 'It was so much more fun when we were just friends.' 'Yeah, you wanna go back to that?' 'Let's do that.'

When I met his new girlfriend, I did make sure that the first thing I said to her was 'I am SO happy for you guys.' And now I get on really well with her, too. But then, she knows I'm asexual, so again, might be a special case.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 11:21 AM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm good friends with one of my early exes. We took about three months of zero contact, and then another 3-6 months of minimal friendly contact (possibly one casual lunch where we both agreed it was too early, and occasional online chatting) *plus* they found a new relationship before we really started to be friends again. My ex had done this many times before and knew the drill, and it worked great.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:24 AM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Less amicable breakup than it sounds like you have, but the very best thing I did in retrospect was decide very firmly that it was OVER and we would never ever be back together and I would not even entertain fantasies of that.

I think everyone is different, though. I have exes I really wanted to stay friends with but I'm not in contact with them at all, and some exes I'd frankly rather never think of again seem to stick around. Just like a regular friendship, I think you need to be open to whatever happens between the two of you.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2016

Best answer: Also, how long were you together? If it was brief, the transition should be easier. If you've been together for years, I think you first need to re-establish yourself as YOURSELF, without the context of that other person and that relationship, before you can discover whether you can really meet again as friends. You'll both have changed.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 12:03 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was less jealous of their subsequent partners than those partners were of me. I've lost contact with two exes because their partners demanded they stop speaking to me, even though those relationships had very clearly ended and been irrevocably replaced by friendship in both my mind and the exes'. So I guess: be prepared for that to happen. When it does, it can sting in unexpected ways.

I am friends with my most recent ex, but it found its groove as a "have lunch occasionally" friendship rather than being super close. Still a good outcome, though, I think.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:11 PM on January 23, 2016

Best answer: I have been able to be friends with exes if and only if we spend at least a year no-contact or very low contact. This has been true both with a bad breakup and with an amicable breakup. Otherwise, feelings just run too high and it's too painful. After that time, though, the anger, sadness, and jealousy are completely gone -- as is the desire to ever get back with them, at least for me. I care about them as a friend, but the idea of ever getting back together romantically just feels like "Yeah, no thanks, I'm good."
posted by snowmentality at 12:22 PM on January 23, 2016

Best answer: Nthing no contact. My personal rule (not that I live by, the one I impose on friends :) is one solid year.

It is natural for your ex to be the person you go to for comfort, so the urge to get comfort from them about the split-up pain is strong. And it will ruin future friendship prospects.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 12:40 PM on January 23, 2016

The vast majority of my exes are still friends, and their current partners are my friends too. I have a handful that I'm not in contact with - one went totally no contact on me, two I went no contact on, a couple I've just lost touch with, as you do with any old friends sometimes. The latest one... ugh. But most of them are still around in my life in some form or fashion.

One of my exes is currently living in my spare room as he's in the middle of a bout of Life Happens. Another exish, his wife performed my wedding. :) I lived in an ex and his wife's spare room for awhile when I moved back to NC (he and his wife are both old college friends; I slept with her a time or two too). Up until recently, my best friend was roommates with one of my exes and so I'd see him pretty regularly when I visited; he's also in my wedding pictures. Etc. There wasn't anything super special about the process in any of the cases - I wish I could tell you there was some formula or rule for how it happened, but it just kind of did. We were all friends beforehand, and even after things broke off, we just managed to stay that way. So it can be done, but for me, it's always happened organically - the relationship was an extension of the friendship, and even after the relationship pulled back, the friendship stayed. The folks I stayed friends with, I haven't been jealous of their new partners or vice versa because we recognized that we were happier as friends then lovers or partners, and so the friendship evolved back to that stage.
posted by joycehealy at 1:36 PM on January 23, 2016

Two of my best friends are exes. I actually did NOT go no-contact, although sometimes I think I should, because the "transition" would have been a lot smoother for me.

And it just plain took time, and for me, it also took a lot of self-reflection - that was how I could finally see "oh, okay, yeah, R and I would never have lasted forever anyway" and "oh, yeah, C and I really are more like siblings than lovers". Things just worked better when I wasn't pining in either case.

The case with "C" was the best example of boundary-setting - he met his next girlfriend, who he's still with 10 years later, only a month after breaking up with me; and by that time, he and I had already started WORKING together. I had to have a couple of talks with him in the immediate aftermath about "look, I know you're all happy about her, but I'm REALLY not the person who wants to be hearing you gush about how great she is right now", and he accepted and understood that, and was sensitive to my wishes. But a couple years later, I felt guilty and apologized that I'd asked him because "dude, you were just really wanting to share good news with me becuase you trusted me and I'm sorry," and he said he'd totally understood. For us, it also helped that we had this other big Thing that we were working on together - we ran a playwriting contest for ten years, and so a lot of our energy was more directed towards Running The Contest than it was in relationship navel-gazing, and that sufficiently distracted us to the point that it took three years before we even had time to look up and look at each other and say "hey, wait, we actually function really well as friends. Awesome!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:29 PM on January 23, 2016

Best answer: I've done this twice. The keys are to be together for a long time, to break up before you start arguing, and for one person to start another relationship soon thereafter.

The first time was a girl I dated in college. We were from the same hometown, and we dated for two years, so we got very close. Her mom died about halfway through our relationship, and she needed some emotional support that I was not mature enough to provide. We gradually drifted apart, although our social circles were so similar that the drifting was extremely slow. After I graduated, she went on a western road trip with her dad, so she was gone fir a few weeks, and a month after she got back, I moved to a new city to start law school. We never officially broke up, but it was different. She started dating, meeting the man she's now married to, and I gradually did as well (with her roommate, of all people, about whom more below). But we still enjoyed each others' company, and had a lot of mutual friends, so we'd still hang out pretty often. Both of us were, at one point or another, interested in getting back together, but never at the same time, so we didn't. The longer things went on, and the more serious our new relationships got, the less we thought about getting back together, and the more we enjoyed each others' company as friends.

The second, the aforementioned former roommate of the first, and I dated for around five years, but it was turbulent. We would break up and get back together seemingly every two months. We tried moving in together, and that failed spectacularly, but after she moved out, she invited me over to her place, and we realized we still cared for each other, so we stayed together. Both of us went through some pretty rough times (now easily dismissible as mid-20s emo, but desperately serious at the time) while we were together, and each of us saw the other as integral to helping us get through those times. For me, especially, I think I came to see her as a bit talismanic, and I feared that if we broke up, I would regress back to where I'd been. So I held on well past the time we had a romantic relationship, and she seemed to indulge me so as to avoid hurting my feelings. But it was clear for quite a long time that we weren't a couple. As we spent less and less time together, I started developing some of my predicting hobbies, and she met a guy at work. They grew closer as we grew apart, and again, without an official breakup, she started dating him (they too eventually married). This helped me realize that I didn't need her to be healthy, and that we could still hang out without being in a relationship. In fact, it was even better, because we didn't have all sorts of questions hanging over us. We just enjoyed hanging out now.

So yeah, sorry for writing a book. But the formula for me was basically: get really close, fade out, date other people, enjoy each others' company.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:38 PM on January 23, 2016

Best answer: One my dearest, oldest friends is an ex. We've been friends for much longer than we dated. We weren't able to go no-contact as we shared a major in a very small department at our college, but we didn't hang out one on one for a couple of years after our breakup, and it made a huge difference.
posted by linettasky at 5:21 PM on January 23, 2016

This only really works if you BOTH have good boundaries. I thought because my ex dumped me, friendship would work as long as I wasn't secretly trying to get back together (and I wasn't). Not so. What ended up happening was an emotional pseudo-relationship where she engaged in the same push-pull behavior that made me miserable during the actual relationship, except now there wasn't a framework to call her on it. I'm talking slipping heart-shaped notes into my backpack, getting drunk and telling me that she's absolutely crazy about me, and then 'confiding' in me about how she cried after someone else fucked her. I tried multiple times to set fully platonic boundaries with her, and she'd cringe and nod through those discussions only to keep doing what she'd been doing. Bonus, she lost respect for me for trying to talk to her about her behavior if I was just gonna keep putting up with it. (How weak of me, assuming that she cared about our friendship and was trying her best.)

Eventually I realized the rules: if she had romantic feelings it was vulnerable and complicated, but if I had them it was pathetic and dishonest. She didn't want me to be her friend; she wanted me to be an emotional placeholder for a girlfriend under terms she alone dictated until she found someone prettier. Luckily I cut things off before she actually met the new girl, but it was awful anyway. IS awful. We're in the same activity scene, and her presence now feels like a threat to my self-worth. If we hadn't tried to be friends, it would have just been kind of awkward and sad until it faded.

I think that after a breakup, people frequently hope that the pressures of a relationship were to blame for everything that didn't work. Sometimes, though, those things still don't work and the lack of official 'relationship' status just becomes an excuse to not try anymore. Breakups also create or intensify power imbalances that will absolutely torpedo a friendship. You say your breakup was amicable, but I notice you don't say it was mutual—in my case, that mattered, no matter how much I wished it didn't.
posted by randomname25 at 7:15 PM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers everyone. I've marked the ones that I found personally relevant as best, but I really appreciated hearing everyone's stories. For those who asked, it was a one-year relationship and not a mutual breakup (initiated by me) - but he did express the desire to remain friends and I agreed. It seems like we'll need some months to be low or no contact, and then see where things go from there.
posted by mossicle at 9:06 PM on January 23, 2016

I consider myself to be best friends with my ex. We were together for eight years and still own a house together, although I moved out and now live in an apartment (we broke up just under a year ago).

The breakup wasn't exactly mutual (I ended the relationship), but we had been having problems for a while, and were both able to articulate that things were less than ideal for both of us in different ways. The first month was difficult, but we both agreed during the breakup that we were important to each other and wanted to be as supportive as possible while the relationship changed. It wasn't an easy process, but drawing on the years we had together actually made it easier. We're able to communicate so much better while living apart than we did when we were together, I think mostly because the stakes are lower with a close friend than a partner. We were also able to forgive each other for things that had gone wrong within the relationship, and talked through a lot of boundaries while we were getting used to a different type of relationship.

Another thing that helped was that I never really wavered in my feeling that we needed to break up. I want kids and he doesn't, so there's really not an in-between with that, and knowing that helped me avoid regret and second-guessing. It was definitely VERY difficult for me when he started dating, but I tried to own my feelings as much as I could (I told him that it made me sad, but my sadness was my issue, not his. He was entitled to date, and my having feelings about it didn't mean that he should change his behavior). He was supportive and understanding about my sadness, and I tried to be a good-friend-sounding-board for his new relationships while maintaining boundaries about how much I wanted to know.

We now hang out about once a week and talk almost daily on the phone. It's weird to me how we can still be so close without any romantic feelings, but I'm very, very grateful for our relationship. I don't know if this is particularly rare, but I do think both people have to be willing to work to get there, and in our case, we both were.
posted by odayoday at 1:49 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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