Dater X: Is It Really Possible To Be “Just Friends” With An Ex?
Just as I began to feel satisfied and confident with my relationship-free self, guess who came back to throw a wrench in things and screw up my single girl feng shui? My college boyfriend, and one of the few men I’ve ever really loved: Don.
When Don and I broke up in college, mainly due to some of his unresolved childhood issues, we vowed to stay friends forever, even though we knew it would be hard. He was my confidante, my go-to when I was sad, and the one person I could tell everything to. We’d been through personal conflicts together, dealing with struggles as an interracial couple, health problems, milestones and family grief. We battled our demons together and came out as stronger, but ultimately different people.
For four years after college, Don and I remained close, occasionally toying with the idea of getting back together, with me ultimately deciding to leave that door closed and focus on our friendship. “The past is the past for a reason,” I would tell him. “We need to take steps forward.” But it wasn’t because I didn’t love him; It was because our history of ups and downs left me incapable of loving him the way I once did, the way he deserved to be loved, without resentment or bitterness. But that never stopped Don from loving me with all of his heart, even after there was no “us” anymore. When my beloved grandmother passed away a few years ago, several of my friends showed up to the wake, but Don was the only one who attended the funeral. Every Valentine’s Day, he still shipped me chocolate-covered strawberries, knowing I’d always prefer them over roses. When my mother retired, he sent her congratulatory tulips. And then one day out of the blue, we kissed.
We had gone to lunch at The Cheesecake Factory, where we spent the entire hour-and-a-half telling inside jokes, reminiscing about the past and exchanging glances like no time had passed since our days as lovestruck undergrads. When we left, he walked me to my car and I, impulsively, kissed him. He pushed me against the car and we made out like teenagers for five minutes in the parking lot. When we finally said goodbye, I got into my car and cried. Kissing Don was familiar, comfortable and comforting, but the passion I once felt was gone, and I didn’t want it to be. The kiss prompted one final discussion about getting back together, and when I regretfully told him that my heart wasn’t in it anymore, he insisted he needed a break from us, from our friendship.
“I’m so in love with you and always have been, but I can’t keep a smile on my face as your friend while I’m silently pretending there’s hope for us to get back together,” he told me through tears. “I haven’t been able to stay in a relationship since we split. I wake up and go to sleep wishing you’re the one next to me and it’s ruining me. You’ve been able to move on, but I haven’t. all I think about and the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I can’t function without you, but I need to try.”
It pained me to think that I wouldn’t be able to talk to Don, but he insisted that if I cared about him, which I do, I would let him have his space to see a therapist, move on from me and, hopefully, preserve our friendship. Whether it was two months, six months or a year without contact, I knew that keeping my distance from Don would help him move past the idea of us. I wanted him to be happy again. I thought about him often, occasionally hovering my finger over his number in my phone and using all of my willpower to leave him alone and let him get in touch in his own time. Now, after nearly a year without speaking, he called me.
Hearing his voice on the other side of the phone was, quite frankly, fantastic. I’ve missed my friend. Don reassured me that everything is okay, and that he was simply calling to let me know that he’s ready to open the doors of communication again, as long as I am. “I’m happy now, and I’m ready to have you back in my life,” he said. But our friendship has always had an underlying layer of hope: him hoping I’ll eventually want to rekindle our relationship, and me hoping to feel the way I used to feel about him, because even when my heart wasn’t in it, I wanted it to be.
I should be grateful that Don is finally ready to step back into my life as a friend, but I find myself having second thoughts about the relationship. Is rekindling our friendship really a good choice? Is it possible for us to be “just friends,” or will one of us always want more? Not only do I worry about Don relapsing (for lack of a better term) and falling back in love with me, but I’m worried that I actually want him to. Through all of the boyfriends and changes in my life since Don and I broke up in college, he’s remained the one constant, always there waiting to catch me if I fell. It’s only now, after a year apart from him, that I’m finally finding strength in my single status and the knowledge that I can be complete and happy on my own. Maybe there’s something to be said about the fact that I wasn’t able to feel this way before or, rather, that I wasn’t willing to feel this way before. Yet here he is again; my security blanket. I want to be happily single and eventually find someone to love when the timing is right, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that if I’m already clutching onto someone else.