Dating -> Friends -> Dating?
May 5, 2004 12:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm asking for your life experiences here. Two people who were in a close relationship broke up, and attempted to remain friends, and more or less failed for different reasons. Now it's a year and a half later, and other things have changed where it's possible and likely in my mind that it could work again. Have you ever been or known someone in this situation, and did it turn out for the better rather than the expected worse? I'm looking for a reason not to be pessimistic, as I usually am.
posted by lysol to Human Relations (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience remaining friends with exes isn't generally a wise decision, but I suppose there are exceptions.

A big part of the problem is often that it interferes with moving on, so they need to ask themselves and each other some difficult questions. Do either of the these two people harbour any hopes that they might someday get back together? Are they going to use it as a pseudo relationship that will prevent them from getting into new relationships? Are they prepared to bury grudges and treat each other well?
posted by orange swan at 12:13 PM on May 5, 2004

I think it can work, and I've seen it work.

The hardest stumbling block is unequal feelings. It's REALLY hard if one person still wants a romantic relationship and the other doesn't -- especially if this dynamic is unspoken.

But if both people REALLY accept that the romance is over, it can work.

Would you be okay hanging out with the other person and his new girfriend/boyfriend? Would the other person be okay hanging out with you and your girlfriend/boyfriend?

If the answer is, "not now but maybe someday," you could, perhaps, work towards an eventual friendship by starting with a email or snailmail-only relationship.
posted by grumblebee at 12:17 PM on May 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The idea here is that in general can people mend those fences after they've been all fucked up, seemingly beyond all recognition? Is it foolish to think that it can? The main thing I'm looking for is personal experiences to make my thoughts on this seem valid, like most people asking for advice are usually doing.
posted by lysol at 12:26 PM on May 5, 2004

I've been in almost exactly this situation, where we broke up, had a short cooling off period, tried to become friends again, basically failed, then had a much longer (like 6 months) cooling off period and now chat occasionally over instant messenger as friends (we're at different colleges now, but i'll probably see her over the summer). For us i think the key was me moving on, because originally i was very much still hoping to get back together with her.
posted by rorycberger at 12:27 PM on May 5, 2004

The idea here is that

that might be the idea, but the subtext, in big, neon pink, flashing, letters on a lime green background, says "this person is still important to me".

in other words, in my humble opinion, you've got much more chance of this working if you wait 'til it really doesn't matter whether it works out or not...
posted by andrew cooke at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2004

I am very good friends with a few ex-boyfriends that I went through long cool-out periods with. Part of the being-friends-again thing had to do with figuring out a way to interact that wasn't based on our old relationship. So, we'd do stuff like go to movies [and go home separately, not linger over beers, etc], hang out in groups of people and not keep looking for each other, and try to limit contact to what seemed right for both of us. We'd meet for set periods of time, catch up and then GO AWAY, we wouldn't sort of say "so, what do you want to do next?" and hang out on and on, at least not til it seemed like an okay thing to do much later. We wouldn't go to each other's houses since it was too easy to get critical or emotional. While we didn't place an absolute moratorium on talking about our past relationship, we tried to not make it a topic of conversation. One ex earned my eternal enmity by constantly bringing up old grudges he had with me from when we went out, or acting a bit too familiar with me when we were in mixed company ["hey you always said I was the best guitarist you'd ever seen..."]. You have to learn to draw some serious lines that may feel awkward at first while you and they are still working on boundaries.

The important thing to remember is that there's no right way to do this, and if you don't both, at some level, want to try to make a friendship work, it can be rough. Neither one of you should tell the other person "hey, you're doing this friendship thing wrong" In many cases old power dynamics can come to play and that stuff needs to get nipped in the bud if you want to relate as equals.

In my case the issue was that I hadn't moved on, was still carrying a torch, whatever. Some time off helped me get my head straight about why I was interested in pursuing a friendship and once I'd hung around him and his new girlfriend for a while, it became easier and easier. This is helped by the fact that his partner and mine don't mind that a million years ago he and I used to have a thing and the kind of relationship I was looking for then isn't much like the kind I'm in now. One of the hardest things to do when you're being friends with an ex- is realize that not only can't you tell them every little thing about your life [which is a constant sort of thing to do with a partner] but you probably shouldn't. Learning to keep some of my personal life personal was a hard thing for me to learn to do.
posted by jessamyn at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2004 [6 favorites]

I got back together after a long layoff once. It was very brief and ended with the thought, "Oh yeah. That's why we broke up." Sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, but it's important to think about why you broke up in the first place and to reflect on what's changed since then.

I have successfully transitioned one relationship into a rewarding friendship, but the transition was not without its snags. And it wasn't truly 90%+ comfortable until we had both moved on to new relationships.
posted by callmejay at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2004

After dating for a year and a half my girlfriend and I broke up and tried to remain friends. We saw each other as "friends" occasionally for the next four months. Sometimes our paths just crossed, once she needed help with her computer, once I had tickets to a Red Sox game and she was around, etc.

After talking things over we decided to give it another shot. A few months later we were engaged, we've been happily married 6 1/2 years and just had a birthday for our two-year-old.

It worked for us, but I think we're the exception rather than the norm.
posted by bondcliff at 12:57 PM on May 5, 2004 [2 favorites]

It's not a "cooling off" period that you need to become friends with an ex. It's a period of white hot anger that burns with more ferocity than a thousand suns.

Because, see, right after a break-up, both parties are still harboring that "Oh so and so is really a good person and I really wish him or her well" because from the dumper's standpoint, you don't want to hurt this person any more than you already have, and from the dumpee's standpoint, you really hope you can get back together again. Both sides are just putting on a facade, and as long as there is this facade, an honest friendship will never, ever happen.

BUT! But, once you can tear away this facade and get down to the truth of the matter, then you're making progress. The dumper has to really understand why he or she pulled the plug, and really start to HATE the dumpee for being such a fucking chump about the whole thing. The dumped has to really get angry at the dumper for the dumping, and for not understanding the pain that the dumpee is going through.

The righteous fires of fury must burn away the old, sickened vegetation of the relationship so that the new, healthy growth of friendship can bloom.

So, to answer your question, yes, two people can be friends as long as sufficient time has elapsed for one or both of you to try to publicly decapitate the other with a flying pint glass full of beer at a local bar, and really, honestly find yourselves disapointed that you failed. Once you have honestly wished death on your ex, once you have realized that you will never, in a million billion years be friend with that asshole again, once you vow to the depths of your soul that you would not piss on that bitch if he or she were on fire... then you are ready to be friends.
posted by jennyb at 12:59 PM on May 5, 2004 [72 favorites]

OH I'm sorry. You didn't want to know if you could be friends but if people ever got back together.

Two friends of mine started dating in high school and continued to do so until after they graduated college and the male decided he needed some space to grow and explore on his own. This left the female totally devasted, and I, and many others, spent the next... damn, like six years trying to get her to get over it and move on. She dated other guys, and he other women, but in her heart, anyway, she never let go.

About two years ago, they somehow got together again, and now they're getting married this October.

None of us, especially me, thought it would ever happen. As I write this, I am still pretty astounded.

So yes, it happens, but it's rare and it's probably not going to happen to you. (That's tough love. Imagine the tragedy if my friend had carried that torch for so long only to find out he had decided to marry some one else? Better to be safe, and surprised, then sorry.)
posted by jennyb at 1:07 PM on May 5, 2004 [2 favorites]

jennyb, that was an awesome comment.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:09 PM on May 5, 2004

You didn't want to know if you could be friends but if people ever got back together.

oh! i misunderstood that too.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:57 PM on May 5, 2004

It happens over and over again in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All you need to do is get both of your friends' memories of each other erased, so that they must rediscover each other from scratch. Of course, they'll keep breaking up, too, but the cycle of memory-erasure and getting-back-together will extend indefinitely into their dotage.

If memory erasure is not possible, however, I defer to jennyb. Also, see old flame week at Breakup Girl.
posted by onlyconnect at 3:05 PM on May 5, 2004

I've been in this exact situation, and though yes, at a later time we were able to become friendly with one another again, it was a limited friendship. Nothing incredibly deep. I've never had a friendship actually range deeper once the relationship card has been played (not counting the relationship itself, which is not a 'friendship' per se).

I think the operative question in terms of mending bridges later on is whether both people want to. If so, and they're clear with each other about what they expect, it's possible. If you want it real bad though (and I'm guessing but it sorta sounds like you do) then you should ask yourself why you want it so bad before you try to approach someone in friendship.
posted by scarabic at 3:30 PM on May 5, 2004

Having been on both ends of breakups, the friends thing comes up, either by the instigator trying to soften the blow or by the broken trying desparately to hold onto some faint glimmer of the past. I've never seen one of these transitions work out well in the short term, but they can in the medium to long term if time and space is given to each party.

I've become friends with a number of my ex's (one on each side of the above equation), but in each case we've given each other the time to heal and reflect. This has allowed me to look back fondly on the time we shared, get past any anger or jealousy issues and construct a memory set that is happy, but tinged with bittersweet. I still have a great deal of love for one of them because we made a great couple for a while and, each being the others first major SO, learned the ways of the world together. Seeing her now, I am glad it didn't last because we've both grown in different directions and are each happier now apart than we would have ended up together.

So my point is that the end of a relationship doesn't have to be a lifelong bad memory, and it is possible to transform the harsh to the halcyon. If, after a few years you want to try it again, go for it. You have, prepackaged, a degree of comfort together and the memory of what will piss the other off. But its also okay to move on and you can still love them without wanting to be with them. As the song says, there are lots of fish in the sea.
posted by shotsy at 3:33 PM on May 5, 2004

I'm friends with most of my exes, including my ex-husband (my most recent ex-boyfriend and I are trying to wade our way through the process as well). In every case, I agree with the essense of what folks have said above: it requires two things -- the time to heal the wounds and a lack of desire to return to romance -- and they must be mutual. If either one of you is still hurt, or either one still wants to get back together, it can't happen successfully. If you're both no longer hurt and no longer pining for the other, then yes, it's absolutely possible (though not always easy) to reconnect on a meaningful, platonic level.

Good luck. I treasure my friendships with my exes (one in particular really turned out to be one of the greatest influences on my life), so I hope you can make it work.
posted by scody at 3:50 PM on May 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

In my experience...
It's pretty much 50/50 for me as to whether the much heard exortation "We'll still be friends" works. In the most successful of these, I still carried a torch for the other person involved for the better part of two years, and yet we still managed to make our friendship work. I think it depends on the new relationship you're trying to forge, how readily you can accept that it's going to be different to the old relationship, how forgiving you're willing to be and how much pain you're willing to take in order to keep a friendship going.
Ironically if either party has a new partner, then this seems to make it easier. I think that in a lot of cases, the things that made you get on previously are going to ensure that you're always going to get on, but it really helps if one member of the failed twosome has a big "I'm with someone else" sign attached to their arm. One of the hardest things to do is to convince the two of you that probably, you're never going to have a sexual relationship together again.

I'm waffling here.
There's always the possibility that the two people in your question will never manage to be friends. You should accept this. It's also possible for them to redefine the relationship and to make it a friendship. This takes effort, and can be emotionally draining. Expect minor tiffs, and a propensity to slip into post-mortem, but don't accept that these things mean you can never be friends. All major wounds heal, and staying in touch with somebody just means that this rhetorical wound heals slower. It can be done though.
posted by seanyboy at 3:54 PM on May 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Sort of the direct opposite of your situation, but still relevant if you bear with me. One of my ex's and I have formed a very, very deep friendship to the point that we introduce each other as "my best friend". (Yes, including her new men and my new women, with the subsequent period of adjustment for them.)

We know that another romance between us would never work out precisely because we did become friends. Although the logic is a bit warped, we have concluded that relationships that don't turn into friendships have a better chance of reigniting, not a great chance but still better.

A failed friendship after a romance can mean that both of you view yourselves in an 'all or nothing' situation, with friendship being an unacceptable compromise. We feel that that "all or nothing" attitude is the basis of a successful romance. This may be the case in your situation; look deep within yourself and see.
posted by mischief at 4:14 PM on May 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

Oh, and GOOD LUCK!!!
posted by mischief at 4:15 PM on May 5, 2004

Geez. I'm going through this right now—a breakup that is. Most of these comments don't fill me with hope for remaining friends. I do notice some of the dumper/dumpee dynamics jennyb mentioned. Maybe I'll post an update here of my own experience a year from now.
posted by btwillig at 5:02 PM on May 5, 2004

Most everyone I've broken up with, I've remained on good terms with afterward. Not that we've necessarily stayed in close touch, as there are some I haven't talked with in years, but there's generally been little overt acrimony.

Hope that's a little more encouraging.
posted by kindall at 5:18 PM on May 5, 2004

Assuming you're asking about friendships, I'll echo the popular sentiment here and say yes, it's entirely possible to be friends with exes. I am still good friends with my first boyfriend and likely always will be, but I have not spoken to another ex since the day I left (no anger, just no interest in having anything to do with him). The important factors involved in friendship with an ex (in my experience) are: you have to genuinely like each other (which is not always present in a romantic relationship), there must be no hidden agendas (no torch-carrying that's not upfront, no revenge fantasies), and you must both be comfortably and confidently over each other. A good friendship with an ex can be an incredibly rewarding experience, since you have few secrets and likely feel comfortable with each other, and very often romantic love can translate nicely into friendship love, and a close, meaningful friendship is a wonderful thing.

Assuming you're asking about a relationship getting back on track, yep, it can happen.
posted by biscotti at 7:56 PM on May 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

I share your pessimism lysol.

I'll drink a shot on your behalf in two days' time.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:05 PM on May 5, 2004

NO, you shouldn't be friends after a breakup, but maybe that's just me. In fact, my entire social life fell apart when I got a girlfriend. Why do I need to go to parties? The whole point before was to meet girls. Why do I need to hang out with the guys? The whole point before was to talk about girls, and go find girls to pickup. Why do I need to hang out with beautiful, intelligent women under the pretense of friendship? That's just asking for trouble. And so I don't do it. Ahh, at least I got a girlfriend though. And Metafilter.
posted by banished at 11:06 AM on May 6, 2004

I've always lived by the maxim of never going backwards, not to jobs I have quit and not to relationships I have left/been left on.
posted by archimago at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2004

I'm no longer friendly with any of my exes who are/gave me enough to go on to assume that they'll eventually be gay. But I'm still close friends with the girl I met in college and dated for about two years. She hooks me up with free books all the time, usually McSweeney's journals.
posted by emelenjr at 3:34 PM on May 6, 2004

The Boiling Water

A serious moment for the water is when it boils
And though one usually regards it merely as a convenience
To have the boiling water available for bath or table
Occasionally there is someone
Around who understands
The importance of this moment for the water -- maybe a saint,
Maybe a poet, maybe a crazy man, or just someone temporarily disturbed
With his mind "floating" in a sense, away from his deepest
Personal concerns to more "unreal" things . . .

A serious moment for the island is when its trees
Begin to give it shade, and another is when the ocean washes
Big heavy things against its side. One walks around and looks at the island
But not really at it, at what is on it, and one things,
It must be serious, even, to be this island, at all, here.
Since it is lying here exposed to the whole sea. All its
Moments might be serious. It is serious, in such windy weather, to be a sail
Or an open window, or a feather flying in the street . . .

Seriousness, how often I have thought of seriousness
And how little I have understood it, except this: serious is urgent
And it has to do with change. You say to the water,
It's not necessary to boil now, and you turn it off. It stops
Fidgeting. And starts to cool. You put your hand in it
And say, The water isn't serious any more. It has the potential,
However -- that urgency to give off bubbles, to
Change itself to steam. And the wind,
When it becomes part of a hurricane, blowing up the beach
And the sand dunes can't keep it away.
Fainting is one sign of seriousness, crying is another.
Shuddering all over is another one.

A serious moment for the telephone is when it rings.
And a person answers, it is Angelica, or it is you.

A serious moment for the fly is when its wings
Are moving, and a serious moment for the duck
Is when it swims, when it first touches water, then spreads
Its smile upon the water . . .

A serious moment for the match is when it bursts into flame . . .

Serious for me is that I met you, and serious for you
That you met me, and that we do not know
If we will ever be close to anyone again. Serious the recognition of the probability
That we will, although time stretches terribly in between . . .

Kenneth Koch
posted by onlyconnect at 5:45 PM on May 23, 2004 [11 favorites]

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