Can you be friends with your ex – and should you? The Lovers’ Guide gives you the grounds on which you can decide.
It is always hard when a relationship ends, but if you have been lovers for more than a few months, and have cherished hopes that this was ‘the one’, it is even more depressing.
One of the hardest things to come to terms with is the idea that the person who was central in your life now has no place in it any longer.
That is when people talk of ‘wasted’ time and wonder why they invested so much in something that has simply evaporated. Now they must make a fresh start in life.
But your partner rarely just disappears out of your life altogether. Sometimes one or other of you attempts to cling to the outdated relationship, reluctant to admit that the end has truly arrived.
There are meetings arranged or ‘accidental’, fraught or cool, or long telephone calls that can be friendly or bitter. But in the end – unless either of you is obsessive – these taper off, and your relationship as lovers comes to an end.
When tempers and emotions have cooled, it is possible to look dispassionately at what you have left – if anything. Sometimes you will find you have gained a friend – or discover that there is nothing about your ex-lover that you like, now that you are not bound together by sex and habit.
A third party
Your relationships can end for a variety of reasons. The surest death-blow is dealt by the arrival of a third party on the scene. If you or your lover fall for someone else, the cut might be clean, but the emotional result is messy.
The lover who has left probably has feelings of guilt, but those take a back seat to the rush of euphoria and the sexual high that a new relationship creates. The truth is that the ‘ex’ is an annoyance, someone who can easily be forgotten when the new partner is around.
Things are very different for the lover who is left behind. Sometimes the blow can have come quite out of the blue, and like sudden bereavement the result is a bewilderment of conflicting emotions. These range through anger, shock, grief and disbelief, laced with powerful feelings of loneliness and despair. In contrast to the other partner, there are no pleasing distractions to take the edge off the pain.
Retaining a ‘civilised’ relationship is extremely hard, and is certainly not always immediately possible. Whether it is possible at all depends on three main factors – whether the bitterness and anger felt by the ‘wronged’ partner recedes enough to make a different relationship possible, whether the erring partner cares enough in the first place to want to remain friends, and how the new lover feels about the relationship continuing at all.
But relationships end for reasons apart from the third party. Sheer incompatibility that causes row after row can lead to a break-up, either mutually agreed or at the instigation of one partner.
Boredom with a relationship that has lost its zip and excitement is another reason why many people decide to end it. And for some people, just the desire to be free and independent drives them to make the break.
Whatever the reason for the break-up, and however right the decision, it is very rarely mutual. One of you is usually prepared to cling on a little bit longer, even in the face of hostility or unbearable dullness. Many people feel lost outside a relationship, and find themselves compromising long after they should have ended a relationship that has had its day. That means that parting is rarely pleasant or emotionally cool. There is generally a row or series of rows, with the usual tears, guilt and anger – only this time without the kiss and make-up that accompanied rows in the past.
The early days
The first weeks after a break-up are particularly hard. Even if you are sure that this was the right move, doubts not only creep in but invade with force.
This is partly because your life has been turned upside down. Routines you have built up with your partner, patterns of behaviour linked with the other person and habits formed within the relationship disappear all at once. You can miss your ex-lover desperately for these reasons – even if you cannot stand to be together.
But loneliness, grief and disorientation are seldom the only emotions experienced at this time. There is usually a lot of anger and resentment, not least because your romantic hopes have been disappointed and you are faced with two unasked-for choices – looking for a new partner all over again, or deciding to live alone.
If the relationship is well and truly finished, there is usually very little to be gained from seeing each other in the first few weeks, and much that is positive about making the effort to stay apart.
It is only when you have rid yourself of the feelings of dependency and habit that you are truly able to assess how much you really care for your ex-lover, and whether you can be friends.
This is particularly important if the break-up was only one person’s idea, and not a joint decision. If one of you still considers yourself in love, then meeting at this time only prolongs the pain. It is possible to kid yourself into believing that before long everything will be all right again – which means that instead of concentrating on rebuilding your life and adjusting to the new situation, you live in an unreal and miserable limbo.
Catch up on old friends
Staying apart is particularly hard when your lives are closely intertwined. You do not have to be living together to share the same friends and the same haunts. Often, not seeing your ex-lover also means giving your usual crowd a miss and breaking a social routine, as well as a personal and emotional one.
When you are very hurt or depressed, the impulse is to stay indoors on your own and brood. But these early weeks after a relationship ends are ideal for catching up with friends you have not seen for a while. Hurt fades gradually – it is not something you can hasten – but by keeping yourself too busy to brood, you may ensure that you emerge from a difficult period with a positive attitude.
Can we be friends?
When emotions have cooled – you no longer feel anger, resentment or, indeed, love – it is possible to evaluate whether or not you can be friends.
This mainly depends on how much you have in common. If you like the same kinds of things and share the same sense of humour, then it is likely that you may want to continue to see each other. But lust is a strong cement, often binding the unlikeliest couples together, and once there is no longer a sexual tie, they realise they do not have much else in common.
Whether you like, rather than love, each other or not is far from being the only deciding factor in the relationship continuing. Pain and distress caused by the break-up can result in a bitterness that never goes.
The demands of other relationships can also affect a continuing relationship with an ex-lover – partly because spare time becomes limited, and there are someone else’s feelings to consider.
In these situations, it is often easier to be friends when the relationship is one stage further on – when there has been another partner in between. A recent ex-lover is often looked on with suspicion by your new love.
Was it worth it?
Once a relationship has receded into the distant past, then forming a friendship becomes more possible. But it is not inevitable. You may meet an ex-lover and wonder how you had managed to sustain a relationship. But friends or not, each relationship teaches you something and brings you closer to one that endures.