How do you become friends with your ex after a shitty breakup? The short answer: Time heals all wounds. The long answer? Well, that’s a little more complicated. And it’s especially complicated if your ex has done something incredibly douche-y or terrible to you. Case in point: My Crappiest Break Up Ever (™), in which my live-in boyfriend broke up with me over IM while we were both at work. Even while it was happening, I knew that some day, in the very distant future, I’d find that incredibly funny. Like now. When I can laugh with him over Gchat about it.
I never thought I’d get to that point with Alex, or that I’d ever want to. But lo’, three years later, and we’re totally buds. How did this happen?
1. Erase. As soon as Alex broke up with me — day of, over the IM did I mention that? – I deleted his number and pretended like he didn’t exist. This was step one in a four-point triage program that included sleeping with someone else, rearranging the furniture and working all the time. It was like this:
2. Know your limits. A few months later, I found out that Alex had moved four blocks away from me. It was inevitable that we’d run into each other, and of course we did, at the coffee shop I worked out of. He sat down and immediately launched into telling me about his family problems, as if I cared. I wanted him to acknowledge how fucked he’d been to me, but he didn’t seem to get it. He went through the motions of saying the right things, but didn’t seem to actually feel them. I wanted so badly for him to have some revelation of culpability, but it just wasn’t happening, so I told him to stay the fuck away.
3. Check your expectations. Your ex is never going to come to some breathtaking, earth-shattering revelation that what they did to you was really terrible. Or okay, maybe they will, but it won’t be on your timeline. If you are not okay with this, you should return back to Step One (prompt denial of existence). If you are, then maybe you can begin building a new kind of relationship. But first you have to …
4. Stop demonizing them. For months after we broke up, I was convinced that Alex was a total sociopath. I read The Psychopath Test and checked off all the corresponding data. I mean, who breaks up with someone and then moves four blocks away from them? That just seems cruel, right? One day, I was telling Kate about how the moving-four-blocks-from-me thing was a clear sign of his sociopath tendencies, and in her calm wisdom, she said, “Well, he probably moved there because he was already familiar with the neighborhood, not because he’s trying to fuck with you.” It was a perfectly reasonable explanation, and one that I’d totally ignored because it didn’t fit my particular narrative of victim/victimizer.
After that, I slowly began to realize that Alex was just a person. He hadn’t done these deeply inelegant things to me to intentionally hurt me. He’d done these things because he needed to do them for himself. And the demise of our relationship was simply a byproduct of this. The sad reality is most people are doing what most benefits them. We’re not trying to be dicks, it’s simply self-preservation. I stopped taking what Alex did as a personal affront to me and my totally butthurt ego.
5. Wait until you’re really, truly over it. Ten months after we broke up, I realized I kind of missed Alex. I’d spent so much time hating him, that I’d neglected all the things about him I’d liked in the first place. I texted him and asked if we could get a drink and catch up. He showed up completely stoned out of his mind, and slightly incoherent.
And I felt nothing. Nothing good, nothing bad. Seeing him made me realize that I was fully over it. I didn’t have pangs of anger or regret. I wasn’t itching to tell him every single bad thing he’d ever done to me, to make him wallow in the crappy feelings I’d felt in the months after we split up. I was just present and able to see him for the person he was. Quirky, weird, a kid really. A kid who I’d once lived with and loved, but who was definitely, certainly not the person I wanted to be with.
And that was totally okay.
Seeing Alex, getting to that point was the thing I needed to do to get over myself and move the fuck on. Really, really move the fuck on. Seeing him and confirming my ambivalence allowed me to focus on the future instead of wondering about the “what ifs” of the past. I’m convinced it was a big step in making me open and present enough to be in the healthy relationship I’m in now.
6. Be honest with yourself about your intentions. Are you doing this because you really want to be friends, or because you secretly want to get back together, break up with them and crush their soul? Either are perfectly reasonable plans, but I’d suggest that if it’s the latter, you may want to go back to Step One.
7. Give up the relationship talk. You could spend your whole life analyzing what happened, what went wrong, why you’re perfect for each other, or terrible. If you truly want to be friends with this person, you’re going to have to let go of all that. Being friends with your ex does not give you cart blanche to constantly needle them about that time they cheated on you at the bar. If you are still feeling butt-hurt about that (which is totally understandable), you’re going to need to go back to Step One. Who wants a passive-aggressive friendship? Not this guy.
8. Maintain boundaries. What kind of friend do you want this ex to be? A coffee or beer friend? An occasional email friend? An “invited to parties” friend? You need to decide what works for you. Me and Alex occasionally see each other in person, but the majority of our friendship occurs online. We chat and share our favorite new bands. He catches me up on his art career and I tell him about my favorite weird news stories. We aren’t going to have Deep Intimate Times with each other (which, if I’m honest, we didn’t really have when we were dating, either), but I know that he will usually laugh at my dumb jokes, and that’s good enough.
9. Remember what it is you like about this person in the first place. Alex is a super talented artist. He’s funny and always into new music and creative projects. He is a work in progress, and so am I. And he is my friend.