There’s a lot of advice about how to break up with someone with dignity (yours and theirs) and how to survive being the one who gets broken up with. But how do you manage your relationship after the relationship ends? Unless your break-up involved unexpected guest stars, a great deal of screaming and thrown objects, the odds are that somebody uttered those infamous words: “We can still be friends.”
To be fair, many times, people will say this because it’s expected; a social nicety that’s supposed to ease the sting of a break-up that usually feels more like a sharp kick to your soul’s nuts. But what if you legitimately want to be friends afterwards? How do you navigate the complicated waters of a post-break-up friendship? Is there even a point to it?
Actually, yes. Just because you didn’t work out as lovers, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends – even good friends. But being friends after a break-up is tricky and takes work… sometimes more work than the relationship did.
You Won’t Be Friends Immediately Afterwards
Let’s start this off with some straight talk: you’re not going to be friends for a while. Yes, there are people who say that they were able to slip straight into a friendship after they broke up without missing a beat. There are also people who win the Mega-Millions lottery with a single ticket. Just because it’s theoretically possible doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen to you, and betting the farm that you’re the exception is a very good way to end up without a farm.
The fact of the matter is, even with the most amicable splits, you’re going to need time to mourn, to heal and adjust. Your relationship has just ended and that deserves to be observed. While breaking up certainly doesn’t mean your relationship was a failure, you are facing an ending and those tend to be sad. Trying to force a friendship too early means you’re going to fall right back into old patterns with your ex and that spells trouble. Most of the time, when you’ve broken up, it’s for a very good reason. Staying around one another – even when you both swear that you’re over it – almost always means that all you’re doing is prolonging the breaking-up portion of your relationship, which is an excellent way to ensure that you won’t be friends afterwards.
You need to have time apart, without being in contact with each other, in order to move into this new phase of your life. One of the things that people tend to forget – especially in a long-term relationship – is that you develop new habits and routines that center around having your ex in your life. Regardless of whether you lived together or lived apart, you will have into certain patterns that are dependent on working in tandem with another person. It takes time to relearn how to be on your own again, and the longer you were with them, the longer it’s going to take. You need to discover who you are now and how you’ve changed and grown.
And let’s be honest: you need time to cry. Even when you know to your core that you couldn’t have made it as a couple, it’s still going to hurt. You need to let that pain out so you can let it go and it’s going to be almost impossible to do this while they’re still so present in your life. So take that time apart. Lock down your social media and phone so that you’re not tempted to pick at those scabs. Mourn. Heal. Adjust.
It’s easier and healthier to start a friendship when you’ve had the time and and distance to get some perspective on your old relationship.
Plus, getting over your ex helps avoid the annoying “reconnecting because you really want to bang, not be friends” two-step.
Establish Boundaries Early On
One of the most difficult parts of building and maintaining a friendship after you’ve broken up is adjusting to the difference in intimacy. It’s tempting to assume that, seeing as you’ve been swapping bodily fluids before, that there’s no reason you can’t be as open with one another as you were before you broke up.
This is frequently a mistake.
Just because you were super close before doesn’t mean that you can maintain that same level of total disclosure that you had now that you’re no longer together. Remember how I said you’re going to be a different person once you’ve broken up? That means that you’re going to relate differently to your ex too; things that you were cool sharing before can feel incredibly awkward or intrusive now that you’re not together any more. It becomes part of that awkward “so, what are we not supposed to say?” dance that marks the early days of a post-break up friendship.
So how do you avoid this awkwardness? You acknowledge the awkward up front and establish early on the things you don’t want to hear about.
Let’s be honest: how much do you really want to know about your ex’s love-life? This isn’t a rhetorical question; it’s a legitimate issues that you’re going to have to address sooner rather than later. In an ideal world, it would never be an issue, but there will always be people who rudely ignore the implied social contract that says that upon breaking up with us, our exes are obligated to live monastic existences far from anything remotely sexual. Some people are totally cool with hearing everything – size, shape, smell, frequency, etc. Others are fine with acknowledging that their former squeeze is seeing other people but would really rather just assume that their genitalia withered and fell off and they’re now as sexless as a Barbie doll. Some don’t care about witnessing ex’s displays of affection with their new snugglebunny and for others, it’s pure unadulterated nightmare fuel.
This goes both ways, by the way; just because you’re totally fine with knowing everything (and everyone) your ex gets up to doesn’t mean that they’re going to feel the same way about you. Good fences make for good neighbors and good boundaries make for good friends; establishing early on what you both are and aren’t comfortable with is part of how you make a friendship with your ex work. It’s ok to not be comfortable getting the full details of what your ex is getting up to; being uncomfortable with knowing about their sex life doesn’t make you less of a friend, nor does it mean you’re not over them.
That being said, there’s not being comfortable with your ex’s new relationships and using your “discomfort” to control their behavior. There’re plenty of toxic individuals who’ll try to leverage their feelings in order to keep manipulating an ex. If your supposed “friend” is so uncomfortable that the merest mention of your new significant other is taboo… well, it’s time to consider whether or not it’s worth still being friends with them.
It’s worth noting: how you feel when you first try to be friends may not be how you feel the further you get from your break-up. Be willing to revisit how you’re feeling and where you’re drawing those lines as time goes by.
And while we’re talking about making adjustments…
Let Go of Your Expectations After the Break Up
One of the hardest gaps to bridge after a break-up is accepting that the way you relate to a friend, even a very close friend, is different from how you relate to a lover. When you’re in a committed relationship together, it’s natural to have a greater expectation of involvement in your partner’s life. After all, you’re a team; what they do materially affects you too and vice versa. You have responsibilities to one another. It’s understandable that you’re going to be one of the highest priorities in their lives, that they’re going to put their relationship with you (and yours with them) ahead of others.
When you’re just friends, however, that all changes. You may be tight with one another, but you don’t have the same kind of relationship that you did before. You aren’t able to hold them to the same standards (or at least, to do so and expect them to care the same way they did before the break up); they don’t have the obligations to you that they did before, nor you to them and it can take some adjusting to recalibrate your expectations. The first time you realize you’ve dropped down their priorities list can be incredibly jarring and uncomfortable if you’re not prepared for it.
Before you may have dropped everything to see each other and spent whole days chatting on IM. Now you may find that you only see each other once a month and that’s if you’re lucky. Plans with you may come second to plans with other friends, and especially to time being spent with their new snugglebunny.
If that stings… well, remember, you’re just friends now. You’ve prioritized friends differently too. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
As an aside: no longer having the same expectations of one another can also be incredibly liberating. The way she snored, the way he laughed like a gurgling septic tank, that annoying habit of singing the same random bits of songs over and over again… those are no longer something you have to deal with. Realizing that you don’t have to put up with (or pretend not to notice) the things that annoyed or frustrated you can actually make it easier to maintain your new relationship together.
Be Prepared To Process Your Break Up
There’s an inevitable part of every friendship between exes, a time-honored ritual that is as inexorable as the turning of the seasons and as unavoidable as pumpkin-spiced everything on September 1st: talking about your break-up.
You really can’t avoid it; if you have anything other than the most casual of friendships afterwards, the specter of your break-up is going to hover around you like an unwelcome fart. Like Banquo’s ghost, it’s going to sit there silently glaring at you until one of you brings it up.
And yes, it’s probably going to be exactly as awkward as you imagine it will be. It is, however, necessary. It was a significant turning point in your lives together, a moment that changed the very nature of how you relate to one another. Even the most amicable of break-ups tends to leave unanswered questions and dangling issues and there will come a point when one of you will eventually get tired of pretending it didn’t happen and want to talk about it.
So how do you get past it? You own it. You let yourself be honest – with yourself and with your ex. The completely one-sided break-up is like the Loch Ness Monster: everyone’s heard of it, but nobody’s actually seen it. The likelihood that you – or your ex – had no involvement at all, that you (or they) were the perfectly innocent bystander in the affair is so remote that I’m not entirely sure they have numbers that small. The fact that you may have been unaware of how you contributed to the break-up doesn’t mean that you didn’t.
No matter how you broke up, the odds are that neither of you exactly covered yourselves in glory, and being willing to take ownership of your part is a key to making a post-break up friendship work. If you can’t handle accepting that things may not have gone exactly as you interpreted it… well, that’s going to make staying friends harder.
Now, none of this means that this is doomed to be a painful, confrontational experience. In fact, in many cases, it’s entirely possible that the two of you will be laughing about how it all went down and how obvious it is now in hindsight that the two of you weren’t going to work out. But it’s going to go down. Better to just let it happen and get through it than to try to continually put it off.
Your Might Not Work as Friends, Either
So here’s one last hard truth: sometimes things just won’t work out, no matter how badly you want them to. Sometimes the issues that broke you up as a couple are going to be the same ones that keep you from being friends afterwards. It might be that one of you went into this seeing that friendship as being the stepping stone to getting back together and end up blowing the whole thing up… again. It could well be that you’ve grown apart, and now your lives are going in different directions. It could be that you tried to force a friendship that neither of you was entirely ready for out of a sense of obligation or a well-intentioned belief that you should be friends. You may want to be friends but she doesn’t – or at least not as much as you do.
And sometimes it can just be that, like most friendships, it was a relationship that was only meant to be for a certain amount of time before the two of you just naturally drift apart. This doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong or that your relationship and the friendship afterwards wasn’t good and true and valid. It was just of the moment, and that moment has passed, leaving you both wiser and better people for it.
But sometimes it does last. Pure attraction may bring people together, but the commonalities, the shared interests and emotional chemistry are part of what keep them together, and the components that make for a good romantic relationship make for powerful friendships as well. And those friendships can last a lifetime.
The break-up may hurt. But sometimes – not every time, but sometimes – you both really can mean it when you say “we can still be friends.”