How to be friends with your ex (if you can)


“I’m Switzerland,” your best friend tells you.

“Known for chocolate and timepieces?” You ask.

“In your break-up,” she clarifies.

“No need to take sides.” You clamp your cell phone between your shoulder and chin so you can tape up a moving box. “This shit is amicable.”

Right then, you truly believe it is.

Your ex says the first time she saw you, beneath another woman’s thick, tattooed arm, she knew you’d be hers. It took you a minute to get out from under that arm, but eventually you caught the vision, too. Back then, you had everything to say to each other.

“I’m torn,” she told you once. “I can’t decide whether to talk to you all night or fuck you.”

You stared into her eyes, the same subtly changing spiral of colors as yours.

“We’ve got a lot of nights,” you said.

Here’s what it turned out the two of you have in common:

  1. She loves cars and you can drive.
  2. You love theatre and she has driven through Chicago’s theatre district. In her car. Which she loves.
  3. You lived in the same apartment.

Obviously, you’re each attracted to different activities (for example, you enjoy discussing your feelings and she enjoys feeling threatened by them) and thus gravitate toward divergent people. Her friends seem lukewarm about you (chalk it up to that face you made whenever they watched football), but most of yours love your ex. She’s like a golden retriever, upbeat and laid-back, her friendly face punctuated by those giant, long-lashed eyes. So you aren’t surprised when even friends closest to you express an interest in remaining in touch.

“Sure, call her for drinks when you’re in town.” You tell one. “She and I plan on a weekly coffee date, so maybe I’ll even join.”

“Camping? I bet she’d love that,” you say to another. “I’ll house sit for her while you two are gone.”

If anyone feels dubious, they don’t let on. Well, except your sister.

“If you think the two of you are going to be friends, you’re out of your mind,” she says.

“It’s different in your thirties,” you say. “We share a history,” you say. “When you love someone,” you say, “that love doesn’t just evaporate because you break up.”

“Whatever you need to tell yourself.”

Turns out you need to tell yourself lies.

Early on your ex said you deserved to have your car door opened, your chair pulled back. Her former girlfriends hadn’t, she explained. They were users and manipulators, only out for themselves. Back then, you believed her version of events. Not only were her toxic exes responsible for their relationship’s demise, but for the boxer rebellion, watermelon flavored Oreos and global warming as well. She’d cut them off without warning. When rarely one would text, the panicked look she’d throw her phone unnerved you.

“What do I do?” She’d ask.

“Hold your boundaries,” you’d tell her, wondering why she couldn’t decide for herself. “Only reply if you want.”

You weren’t totally naive. As your relationship soured, you began to suspect that if you broke up you’d be exiled like her exes. In fact, in your last weeks together, as you discussed a separate future, you asked her to promise that if you broke up she wouldn’t disappear. An unfair request, perhaps, but one she agreed to.

“You’re different,” she told you. “I love you too much to lose you as a friend.”

When your friends remain friends with your ex, you sort of feel betrayed. Especially when that ex hasn’t spoken to you in months and you aren’t exactly sure why. One day you’d made plans to get coffee and the next she stopped replying to your texts. She still texts you though. Mean little nuggets implying you’re putting her out by leaving your “shit” in her basement when you’d promised to have it out in a week. No matter you don’t remember making that promise. You shouldn’t feel hurt by her tone, that’s what your friends who are trying to stay her friends say.

“You broke up with her.”

“Your stuff is probably a painful reminder.”

“Rent a storage locker, for Christ sake.”

They’re probably right. That’s what you tell yourself. Still, you can’t help wishing just one of them would say something like, “I understand why she’s angry, but that doesn’t mean she should talk to you that way.”

The turn your talking took. That was a secret the two of you kept from your friends. Under her puppy dog exterior lurked a virulent anger even you couldn’t quite believe. Probably that’s why you put up with it. When she blamed you for her inability to quit smoking or told you if your friends really knew you they wouldn’t like you, her words seemed so out of character that you let yourself believe they hadn’t been spoken. Things made more sense that way.

It’s not like you’re some kind of victim.

You gave as good as you got, if not then, certainly now. After all, you’re a writer. That gives you the final, public say. The world (or, OK, a smattering of lesbians, a couple neglected bisexuals, your agent and you mother) reads your version of events. You have no idea whether your ex does, but you can only imagine her frustration should she happen upon a post. Like a house, each room distinct, truth’s contradictions add up to a nuanced whole which writing may not convey. For one essay you might describe the bathroom, for another the kitchen, but whereas your mind holds space enough for the complete structure, a stand-alone piece describes only one of truth’s rooms.

Here’s some of what you know:

  1. Your ex sings sweet songs to her dog. Even when her dog isn’t there.
  2. She adores your sister, let her move with the two of you into an apartment barely big enough for one.
  3. She bought you a new sundress every summer.
  4. When your favorite vintage lamp broke, she found a similar shade at a thrift store and rewired the base.

Certainly your sister remembers your ex’s good points. That’s why they still exchange texts. You tell yourself this shouldn’t bother you. You tell yourself you’re so strong, so fucking certain that it doesn’t matter that the kid whose diapers you changed has grown into a woman who thinks for herself rather than instinctively takes your side.

At least some of your friends have begun to see the cracks.

“No one can be that happy,” one tells you “unless she’s unbelievably sad.”

Even those blind to her darkness tell you the choice you made was right. Still, you want to think of your friends as your army, solid and alert at your back.

“Caring about her,” another says, “doesn’t mean I care about you any less. Plus didn’t you say you hoped you two would stay friends?”

At this point you can’t imagine being friends with your ex. You’ve come to realize part of what kept you with her was her undermining mode of protection; the way she labeled you weak to make herself feel strong. Still, why shouldn’t your friends stay in touch with someone they only know as genuine and kind?

Not a question for which you have a ready answer. Nor do you know what you want from your friends in the aftermath; or what you truly deserve. In the end, people make their own choices. You can’t control, well, anything. But maybe if you keep talking, you’ll learn to trust the sound of your own voice.