Love & Sex

Dear Exes: I Want To Be Your Friend

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I always hear, “Why would you want a person in your life if you’re not romantically involved anymore?”

Not long ago, we published a story by Jeremy Glass called, "I Don't Want To Be Your Friend" One longtime reader wrote in with an official rebuttal.

When I first started having sex, I promised myself that I would make sure it would never be awkward to run into someone I’d slept with on the street.  Over the years, I’ve occasionally thought back to that promise and chuckled about how abominably naïve I was.

But recently, I decided to go through the sex list I keep in my iPhone (what, you don’t have one?), imagine running into each of them on the street, and crunch the numbers.  The results weren’t bad at all. Of my 25 partners, I’d be downright pleased to run into 9 of them. Those guys range from good friends, to people I occasionally exchange a friendly g-chat with, to people I’ve lost touch with but would be genuinely happy to run into. It would be slightly, but not terribly awkward to run into 7 of them- I’d probably make up a fake doctor’s appointment after 10 minutes or so, but it wouldn’t be a miserable experience. There were only 5 guys I would really hate to encounter; 3 guys who treated me awfully, 1 I made an awkward mess of breaking up with, and 1 I really should not have slept with for reasons that will not be delved into today.

The promise I made to stay friends with, or at least on good terms with, my exes has not gone as poorly as you'd presume. So why do so many people think staying with an ex is impossible? 

When this topic comes up, I always hear, “Why would you want a person in your life if you’re not romantically involved anymore?” That question makes no sense to me. I want my exes in my life because I love them. The fact that we are no longer considering the possibility of making babies together doesn’t change that.  I’m no longer with Ben because he wants to live in the desert, be in a poly relationship and do a lot of peyote, while I prefer to live in the city, be monogamous and do no peyote- nothing about that suggests to me that we should never speak again. I’m not with Kevin because he wants kids now and I want them in ten years; you’re really going to tell me there’s no point in us staying in each other’s lives for that reason?

When people say it’s impossible to be friends with an ex, what they really mean is it’s a lot of work they don’t feel like making the effort to do. What is this concerted effort comprised of?  You have to end the relationship respectfully, not by cheating or suddenly going radio silent. Then you have to take a serious break from communicating in order to move on. Then you have to deal with any lingering anger and resentments, forgive their sins and atone for yours. Then you have to set boundaries, stick to them, and be continually respectful of the other person’s emotions. Most importantly, you have to resist the temptation to backslide when the demons of loneliness and horniness try to convince you that maybe you should be together after all.  In many ways it’s as difficult as an actual relationship, but if you reject the idea that hard work should only be reserved for monogamous romantic relationships, it’s work worth doing.

At its core, the idea that you can’t be friends with an ex is enmeshed with society’s heteronormative expectations. We’re taught to see our lives as a narrow trajectory towards marriage and kids, with some less-important sub-plot characters involved whom we call ‘friends’. In that world, once someone’s romantic potential is gone, they must be discarded. They’re no longer a potential spouse and they’re not a buddy, so what’s the point? But I prefer to surround myself with people I love deeply without fitting them into a preset structure, and that means I can keep loving someone even if we’re not going to make a family or become a monumental part of my future. I’ve noticed that my queer friends are more likely to stay friends with exes than my straight friends, and that makes perfect sense to me. They’re already in the business of bucking society’s expectations for their relationships, and the whole ‘you can’t be friends with an ex’ thing gets tossed out with the rest of it. Relationship are too complex, multifaceted, and grey to end and begin on such finite terms.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to stay friends with exes if they don’t want to. But we should stop telling each other it’s impossible. As in most cases, it’s just a bad idea to tell people they shouldn’t love each other or that a person outlives their usefulness when you're no longer romantically linked.