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Is It Possible to Remain Friends with an Ex?

Friends and love interests are two different things. And even though the person you shared your heart with surely had a charming personality and similar interests, is it smart to stay friends with an ex? And is it even possible?

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Was Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally right when he said, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”?  Relationship and advice columns have made their money almost solely from discussing this thorny issue, yet it never seems to get totally resolved. Just as every relationship has its own dynamic, so does the aftermath of every breakup. 

It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over
I once went to a birthday party for my older brother and was shocked to find that the guest list seemed to come straight out of his little black book; just about everyone there was a past girlfriend, and many of them had their new boyfriends in tow.  I was torn between two reactions to this situation—admiration that my brother was mature enough to maintain civil, even close, bonds with his former flames, and a lingering suspicion that those relationships couldn’t have been so fantastic in the first place if no one seemed to care that they were over. 

My brother, Zac, and I are two very different people, though. He is cool and authoritative; he believes in some higher logic that governs the universe and dictates the correct answers to those who seek them. I, on the other hand, am passionate and high-strung; I often allow my strong emotions to take hold of my reason. The arc of my relationships seems to go from ecstatically good to tragically bad, whereas his seem to have much more equilibrium.  Once I understood all of this, I realized that Zac really had moved on from these women, and that they (by all outward appearances) had moved on from him. I, other the other hand, don’t seem to be finished with any of my exes. And by finished, I mean that I’m either still falling in love with them or still breaking up with them. 

Rack ’Em Up
According to most relationship counselors, Zac has the healthier, more mature attitude toward the ex situation than I do. That’s probably right.  Just the fact that both men and women are waiting longer to get married, and therefore are racking up more partners before settling down, means that we are all going to have many more exes than our parents and grandparents did. In fact, neither my maternal nor paternal grandparents had any exes; they married young and stayed married their whole lives. They left us with no guidebook to deal with the changing landscape of modern relationships, leaving us to figure out for ourselves the healthiest ways of dealing with an ex-partner after the relationship ends. 

Savage Love and Peaceful Friendship
Though, if we are in need of a guidebook, Dan Savage’s internationally syndicated column Savage Love is probably the best out there. In his usual salty language and wry, blunt sense of humor, Savage has cumulatively offered a wealth of advice on dealing with exes throughout both his column and podcast. Take these gems, for example: 

  • Exes are a part of your life and history, and the same goes for your partner’s exes. Don’t expect to exclude them from your life altogether; it’s impossible. The experiences you had with them have shaped you and your future. The only reasonable thing to do going forward is to set boundaries—both long- and short-term—that make both of you, and both of your new partners, comfortable.
  • Don’t expect to be friends all at once. Your relationship took time to build, and it will take time to separate. You might need a period of no contact that lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few years before you have both moved on enough to have a healthy connection with the person.
  • On the other hand, you can’t just expect people to disappear when you’re done with them. Neither of you has any obligation to abandon any part of your life that you acquired during your relationship together, so it’s likely you will cross paths on a regular basis. Don’t expect the other person to give up his or her favorite coffee shop, for example, just because you used to go there together and you might run into each other.
  • Remember that others are watching. In fact, prospective new partners have their eye on how well you deal with a breakup and how congenial your relations with your ex are. By showing your maturity in this situation, you advertise to these interested parties that if it doesn’t work, at least it won’t get ugly. 

Other Ex Factors
Again, every relationship—and every breakup—is different. Two people who have been together for years, who have mortgages, bank accounts, even kids, in common are not going to follow the same breakup rules as a couple who was seeing each other casually for a few months. 

So can we be friends with an ex? Depends on the ex, and on you, and the circumstances under which that former flame turned to ashes. The only constant when it comes to relationships and their dissolution is to act with compassion and integrity. If you do that, you should be able to keep all your relationships—ex or not—cordial and satisfying.

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