Dear Wendy: The Deal With Post-Breakup Friendships

About three months ago I broke up with my first really serious boyfriend. It was messy, because I wasn’t expecting it. We’ve since started talking again, and I’d even call him a friend — albeit a long-distance one. I went through a really rough period a few weeks ago, and he was incredibly supportive through it all. I know he values my friendship very highly, too. The problem, as you’ve probably guessed, is that the more often I talk to him, the more I find myself wanting him back, while he has made it clear he doesn’t feel this way at all. We were really good friends before we started dating, and I appreciate his friendship too much to completely cut him out of my life, but I have a feeling that’s the only way I’m going to get completely over him. My saving grace is that he lives across the country from me, so IM, texting, and phone calls are our only interactions. So my question, I guess, is what to do — cut him out and lose a great friend in order to protect my heart? Or, keep talking to him and try to keep up my guard so I don’t get hurt again? — Friends Without Benefits

You’re mistaken. Your ex isn’t a “great friend.” He’s your ex. That’s how you see him. That’s the frame (of reference) in which he exists in your life. When you discuss him with your friends — or an advice columnist — you’re talking about him as your ex, the person who was your first serious boyfriend and with whom you just had a “messy” breakup three months ago. Maybe, eventually, when you fully process that breakup and have the luxury of distance from it, you’ll begin seeing your ex in a new light rather than simply through the lens of retrospect. Or, maybe you won’t. Maybe he’ll always be your first love and nothing more (and nothing less).

Losing someone — in this case, your first love — is painful. It’s so painful, that we’re often tempted to create shortcuts through the pain. But there aren’t really any shortcuts to healing. There are roadblocks and detours that may seem like shortcuts, but they actually make our journey through the pain even longer. The best route is pretty direct. You keep your eyes ahead. You trudge through the bad weather, stay on course when the road gets bad, and ask for directions when you get lost. There are a lot of us out there who have been down the path before and know the general way.

Your ex is always going to be there. You won’t lose him forever — even if you bypass the detour that (you think) leads back to him. Even if he’s never again what he once was to you, there’s still a box on a shelf of your experiences labeled “First Love” and he’s in it. He’s right there. Whatever happens on your road through the pain, that part of your personal history will remain untouched. And if you’re careful to avoid the detours — to skip any side trips that may add to your trip and make your feelings and relationship to this other person more complicated than they have to be — you may find a new person at the end of your journey. You may find two new people, actually. And if you’re lucky, they might just be able to be friends with each other. Perhaps even “great friends.” But prolonging your trip won’t make that happen any faster or more easily.

In your letter to WOE you emphasized the importance of eye contact: ‘Eye contact is crucial; it may be the most important kind of “physical contact” on a first — or any — date. If you have trouble looking women in the eye, you need to work on that. Practice with some of those female friends of yours. Lack of eye contact makes you look insecure, indifferent, or uninterested, and is a big turn-off.’ Well, I am a 25-year-old woman with limited dating experience, and eye contact is an issue for me. I have intermittent strabismus, which means that occasionally when I am looking at someone or something one of my eyes will wander away while the other one maintains contact. I have had this condition for most of life and though it doesn’t affect my vision, in middle school I was teased about it, so I had surgery to correct it. The surgery is not always effective long-term however, and my eyes have started to wander again (I don’t want to have the surgery again and currently can’t afford vision therapy, which is another corrective option).

Now that I’m trying to date I’m worried about how to address it. My eyes don’t do it all the time, and I can’t tell if it’s happening unless the other person says something or makes a face. Should I write it on my online dating profile? Wait until the first date to bring it up? Or not bring it up at all? I have never talked to anyone about it — not even my best friend. For the most part I don’t think about it, I look people in the eye for short periods, and I wear sunglasses (my eyes are also sensitive to too much light), but when it comes to dating and job interviews I worry that it is hurting my chances. What can I do? — On Eye Level

There’s a difference between people who avoid making eye contact with others because they fear intimacy or have a lack self-esteem and those who are physically unable to achieve or maintain eye contact, and hopefully, most people can tell the difference. What you’re describing doesn’t sound like something that would easily be confused with a lack of interest or confidence, OEL, and I wouldn’t worry about it hurting your chances in interviews or on dates (as long as you’re not going out with a**holes). I would avoid mentioning your strabismus in online dating profiles — after all, it doesn’t affect who you are or how you function — and wouldn’t even acknowledge it on a date unless you’re directly asked about it.

It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but it also isn’t anything you need to draw attention to. Those who notice it probably figure it’s a physical/neurological issue anyway, and those who don’t notice it really don’t need to have it pointed out. As for job interviews, if you feel your strabismus is distracting or needs an explanation, you can always tell the interviewers that you have an eye disorder they may notice but that it doesn’t affect your vision and you don’t have any special needs connected to it.

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