One of the hardest parts of dealing with a break-up isn’t the pain of a relationship ending or the complicated hostage exchange involved in getting your graphic novels back while your ex demands her blu-rays even though she knows damn good and well that you bought the Game of Thrones collections for you and she wasn’t even a fan before you were dating, nor even the annoying feeling that somehow you’ve become that guy from the Gotye song that was all over the radio a couple years ago.
No, it’s that your ex is refusing to honor the contract that says that she’s supposed disappear forever, or at least enter a monastic existence far from civilization and never ever date again in the event that your next relationship doesn’t work out.
Instead, they’re stubbornly sticking around – even starting to date people who aren’t you. Which means that there are going to be all those awkward “accidental” encounters at the places you used to frequent together, the painful “oh shit, who is she talking to?” moments at parties and other occasions when your ex seemingly conspires with the universe to remind you of her existence.
Also: she never did return your Transmetropolitan graphic novels.
But just because the two of you broke up doesn’t automatically mean that everything is going to be awkward and painful between the two of you forever. In fact, it’s possible that your ex could be an incredible friend.
Provided you know how to deal with her after the relationship ends.
What Your Relationship With Your Ex Says About You
People are often surprised when I tell them that I’m friends with a large number of my exes. In fact, I hang out with several of them on a regular basis. All too often, when we end a romantic relationship with somebody, we tend to assume this means that we can no longer stand to see that person ever again.
It’s understandable, really. After all, break-ups hurt, literally. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that break-ups activate the same parts of the brain that feel physical pain. No matter the circumstances of the relationship ending, it is still a painful experience and the associations you had with that person are now intertwined with that pain. Small wonder, then, that you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them; why would you want to be constantly subjecting yourself to that pain again?
But in the midst of the angst and anger, the feelings of betrayal and the slipping of Katy Perry songs into your Spotify break-up playlists and hoping nobody notices, it’s worth remembering that pain doesn’t have to last forever and that there’s a reason why you and your ex were together in the first place. And this is going to be important. Unless you have lives that are so incredibly separate that you have no friends or haunts in common or you’ve moved across the country, the odds are that eventually you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re probably going to run into your ex on occasion. In fact, in some circumstances – attending the same school, working in the same industry, overlapping social circles – you may well risk running into them on a regular, even daily basis.
And you’re going to have to put on your big-boy pants and deal with it.
But it doesn’t mean that this necessarily has to be an awkward or even painful experience. In fact, the better you are able to handle a post-breakup relationship with your ex, the better your future relationships will be. After all, your relationship with your exes is going to tell your future partners about the sort of person you are. After all, the biggest common denomenator in all of your relationships is you. Someone who has nothing but “crazy psycho bitches” in his past is telling his future partners that either his picker is profoundly broken or he’s very bad at relationships. Someone who keeps getting his heart broken by remorseless harpies over and over again is likewise someone who is bitter and needs to spend some time examining his attachment patterns and why he keeps making the same mistake over and over again. On the other hand, somebody who is able to maintain a cordial – if not friendly – relationship with his exes is generally someone who is able to handle the complexities of a serious relationship, who has a handle on his emotions and is able to, if not forget, at least forgive the wounds and errors that are part and parcel of any romantic entanglement.
Now, in fairness, there will always be break-ups where the pain is too great or the betrayal too unforgivable or the relationship too toxic for you to remain even in casual contact with your ex and you will be well rid of them. Nobody says you have to be close with everyone you’ve ever dated. But it’s worth remembering that these people were an important part of your life; being able to interact with them without drama is an important skill to cultivate.
Understanding The Nuclear Option
One of the most important – and misunderstood – aspects of recovering from a break-up is the Nuclear Option – that is, cutting off all ties and forms of contact with your ex.
The point of the Nuclear Option isn’t about screaming “you broke my heart AND NOW YOU’RE DEAD TO ME!!!!111@!” or being an immature dickbag; it’s about healing. No matter how amicable or hostile the breakup may have been, a relationship has come to an end and that’s going to hurt; trying to pretend that it doesn’t is just deluding yourself. God knows I’ve had plenty of times where I tried to pretend that I was above it all and had immediately settled into my new role in my ex’s life and was ready to be just friends.
Not surprisingly, it would rebound and just make things worse by orders of magnitude. Every. Single. Time. Why? Because there was never a point where I was taking time away to let myself grieve, to get mad, to scream and yell and – critically – give myself the time and space to get over it. Instead, by trying to be “friends” with her afterwards, I was just desperately clinging to what used to be, begging for whatever scraps of affection might still be there. It’s impossible to heal when you’re constantly picking at the scabs, and whether you’re wishing your ex would take you back or you’re nursing elaborate revenge scenarios to make them feel all the misery you’re feeling, every new photo on Facebook and status update is going to be a tiny dagger to your soul. Having her number is just an invitation for a 3 AM drunk phone call that will leave you feeling like somebody just took a massive dump on the tattered remains of your dignity.
Even if you genuinely do want to maintain a friendship afterwards, you’re going to need an extended period away. You’re simply too close to the pain; no matter how much you may convince yourself that you’re behaving perfectly rationally and maturely, you’re still reacting out of pain. And even if you’re not, they are too; it’s damn near impossible to move on when somebody keeps insisting on dredging up the past and inflicting it on the present.
Just as important as distance is to the healing process, it’s also a critical part of salvaging a friendship – or at least a non-awkward relationship – out of the ruins of your breakup. Taking some enforced time away allows your relationship to change into what it will become in the future instead of being mired in the past. It’s the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of relationships.
By dwelling on your ex, you’ve locked the quantum state of your relationship. Time away allows it to reset itself.
Take Stock (And Then Let It Go)
The next key to a drama-free relationship with your ex – whether you become close friends or are just able to not flee the room when you see her – is to honestly assess what led to the end of the relationship. Breakups are rarely one-sided affairs;even when it’s because someone cheated or something as simple as somebody’s feelings had changed, it’s almost never a “U R DUMPED BECAUSE FUCK YOU” situation. In fact, most of the time, you’ve both been laying the groundwork for the breakup for a long time, sometimes even right from the beginning.
Being able to have any sort of successful relationship with your ex means that you need to have processed your breakup and taken ownership of your part in it… even when it means accepting that sometimes there’s no “good guy” and no “bad guy”. Getting hurt doesn’t mean that somebody was right and somebody was wrong; sometimes it’s not one person’s fault and you have to accept that, as much as we’d like to have a clear cut “THIS IS WHY IT HAPPENED” resolution, life’s just fucking messy.
And the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can let it go.
Yup. Time to let it go like a thinly veiled Disney anthem about coming out of the closet. Because quite frankly, the anger and the bitterness that comes from a break-up? It isn’t doing you any good. All it’s doing is burning a pit in your gut and making you take time away from your recovery period when you could be doing more productive things like actually working on your life instead of plotting elaborate revenge fantasies.
I’m not saying you have to pretend that it doesn’t hurt or that you’re not angry and upset, far from it. But at the same time, we have a tendency to hold on to that pain like a squirrel hoarding anger nuts for winter. Holding on to the frustration, the hurt, even the vague hope that you can get back together… all of this is why suddenly seeing your ex at the party causes your heart to seize up and leaves you feeling you’ve just heard a voice behind you say “Hey, who turned out the lights?”
Being able to let the past be the past – to forgive, because we can’t and shouldn’t forget – is a key part to maintaining any sort successful relationship with your ex.
Embrace The Awkward
Unless you were in a long-distance relationship or one of you has fled town, you’re inevitably going to run into your ex before you’re ready… and you’re going to have to act like a goddamn adult about it. I’ve seen people vacate stores because they found out their ex was there. Other times they self-exiled from their old favorite haunts because they couldn’t face the possibility of seeing her. It gets especially bad when your friends get dragged into your personal drama. I’ve known people who would tap their friends to do reconnaissance before showing up at parties just on the off chance that the ex was invited too.
Look: I get that things are uncomfortable, but part of life means learning how to handle the unexpected surprises without falling apart. You can’t let your fear of potential pain keep you from living your life. It’s one thing if there’s a legitimate need to avoid them – a restraining order, your ex causes you to have actual panic attacks, you can’t be in the same room together without one of you screaming at the other and lighting shit on fire – and another entirely when it’s just that you don’t want to deal with the fact that she might hook up with someone while you’re within 50 yards of her. But it’s going to happen, and the more you try to avoid it, the more likely it’s going to happen at a time when you look like ten pounds of ass in a five pound sack because the universe is powered by irony.
So you need to suck it up and learn to embrace the awkward. You don’t need to seek her out if she happens to be there, but you shouldn’t be trying to Solid Snake your way through the night without her seeing you, either. If you happen to notice each other, smile and say “hey” and then move on. Don’t get into a long conversation; this isn’t the time to rehash old issues, and if it turns into a confrontation, it’s only going to make things painful for everyone around you, not just you.
This, incidentally, goes doubly if you’ve been drinking. Drinking plus a roll on the random ex encounter tables just means instant drama.
Don’t Play Games
There will be times when you’re tempted to try to get some sort of psychological advantage on your ex, especially if they were the dumper and you were the dumpee. It’s actually incredibly common; it’s a form of revenge, a way of trying to show them that you’re the better person and that they’re a fool for leaving you. We see it play out between celebrities all the time. Joe Jonas makes a point of being seen making out with a model and Taylor Swift writes another single about how her life is so much better now that she dumped old whatsisname. I’ve seen people, men and women both, make a point of “accidentally” showing up some place they know their ex will be, “date” in tow just to score breakup revenge points. Social networking makes it easier to play these games; after all, we’re already curating our lives to our advantage, so why wouldn’t you play to the crowd in hopes that it’ll filter back to your ex?
Except… it’s pretty damn clear when you’re playing the “I got over you first” game and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing. All you’re doing is broadcasting to the world that no, you’re really not over your breakup and you’re really spending all of your time obsessed with the idea that somehow you being happy is going to make her jealous because everyone knows that the only way to win the break-up is be the first to be able to say “U Mad, Bro?”
Look, I’m a big advocate for doing some self-improvement work after a breakup, and lord knows that using your breakup angst to throw your workout into beast mode has its benefits. But trying to make your ex jealous and/or making her realize she was a fool for leaving you and she needs to take you back is a waste of your time. All that’s happening is that you’re spending your time dwelling on the past instead of actually living your life for you. And, more importantly, when it doesn’t work (and, SPOILER ALERT: it won’t), it’s going to make it even harder for you to actually deal with your ex later on.
You want to salvage a friendship out of your breakup? Then be honest. You don’t have to wallow in your misery – that’s equally as pathetic, and about as useful, as trying to play head games.
Remember What Brought You Together In The First Place.
Regardless of whether you honestly want to be friends afterwards or just want to move on with your life, it’s important to remember why you and your ex got together in the first place. Yes, your relationship isn’t just dead, it’s been staked through the heart, had the head cut off, the mouth filled with garlic and then burned at the crossroads just to be sure… but that doesn’t mean that all the good times didn’t happen in the first place. The things that brought you together – the way her eyes crinkled when she laughed, the silly inside jokes, the books you shared, the music she introduced you to… those all still exist. Those are still part of your history. Those all served as the keystone of the friendship you shared that was part of your romantic life together… and they can still be part of your friendship afterwards.
You’re not going to stay friends with every person you date. Sometimes your ex is your ex because you never should have been together in the first place. Sometimes the pain is just too deep or the betrayal too harsh and there’s no way for either of you to get past it. But it’s important to at least make an attempt to be civil if not kindling a friendship from the ashes.
If nothing else, the better you’re able to deal with your ex, the better you will be able to maintain your relationship with the next person in your life.