Can You Really Be Friends With Your Ex?

Is there any truth behind “we can still be friends”?


The first girl I ever really had feelings for was a close friend in high school. We’d known each other for two years, sat side-by-side in classes and hung out together, but all under a platonic pretext.

Then, the summer of my senior year, everything began to change. I’d already come out as bisexual, but she was discovering her own interest in women for the first time.

I’m not sure when I started to look at her romantically — or if I always had — but once she opened up about her sexuality, our friendship began to blossom into something more.

While she was away at college, we talked over the phone every day, and when she returned home for the summer, we started hanging out. Although our relationship never developed beyond the beginning making-out-and-feeling-each-other-up-in-the-back-of-the-car stage, we did have a relationship. The border between friendship and romance had been crossed, and there was no going back.

Still, our affair didn’t last long — we both realized fairly quickly that we wanted different things from each other. She wanted a serious relationship, but I wasn’t ready to commit myself to someone who lived hours away.

Not to mention, her religiously devout family had no idea she was bisexual. She didn’t plan on telling them anytime soon, and I was unsure about what a serious relationship would look like with someone who couldn’t even bring me home.

The decision to end things before they got too serious was a mutual choice. Although my heart ached at the thought of letting her go, I also knew that I wasn’t ready for a serious long-distance romance — and a fun fling wasn’t enough for her.

“We can still be friends,” she said, “I don’t want to lose your friendship.”

“Neither do I,” I told her. And, honestly, I didn’t. After all, we had been close friends before our short-lived romance. Two years of friendship couldn’t possibly cancel out a few months — right?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to learn that being friends with your ex is like navigating a minefield.

Your conversation topics are limited

Before we dated, I could talk to this girl about anything — relationships, crushes, private feelings.

Afterward, I began to notice that our topics of conversation were limited. I could no longer tell her about the cute guy in English class or the pretty barista — even admitting that I found people attractive or had a crush felt awkward.

Our conversations were limited to strictly-platonic topics like work or school. Occasionally, we drifted into deeper subjects, but there was an invisible tension between us. Our friendship that had previously been like a thick, metal wire was now a thin, straggly thread.

As much as I wanted the tension between us to disappear, there was no simple fix. We had crossed a line in the sand, and there was no way to go back.

I’ve since discovered that this is probably the biggest issue in trying to be friends with your ex. Unless your relationship happened decades ago, there’s going to be awkwardness in the air. You can’t really talk about your love life — not when you’ve already been intimately involved with each other.

And, speaking of intimacy, friendships with the exes can only become so close. If you aren’t careful, one-on-one hangouts can begin feeling like dates. A platonic trip to the movies or a friendly dinner can bring long-lost feelings bubbling to the surface. It’s hard to get over someone when you’re surrounded by them.

It’s painful to watch them move on

While we were in the midst of a post-breakup friendship, my ex confessed that she was seeing someone. Although I didn’t think I still had feelings for her, knowing that she was in a new relationship was surprisingly painful.

In an attempt to clear some of the awkwardness and restore our friendship, she tried telling me about the guy she was seeing — like we were still the same teenage girls laughing and gossiping on her bed. If anything, knowing the details of their relationship made our already-strained friendship even tenser.

What was I supposed to say to that?

Gee, thanks for letting me know that you’re still sexually active!

Glad to see you’re moving on, but while you’re out on dates, I’m eating oatmeal with my cats.

Eventually, I settled on, “Oh, wow! I’m so happy for you,” as if I didn’t feel like someone had socked me in the stomach.

Every conversation with her felt like a painful reminder that she was happy and moving on, and I hadn’t caught up to her yet. If this was a race, she was winning by a landslide.

Although the pain of your ex moving on might be easier to bear as time goes on, it’s suffocating in a fresh breakup. It’s like someone pouring salt into an open wound every time you communicate with your ex. If you aren’t still friends with your ex, you might only have to see evidence of their new relationship online or through mutual friends.

However, one of the terrible cons of ex-friendships is that you’ll always know first-hand about their new relationships, and it will feel like the wound of your breakup keeps being reopened.

Being friends with an ex is (almost) impossible

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that you shouldn’t be friends with your ex — at least, not right away. The classic, “We can still be friends,” is much easier said than done.

Most of the time, any friendship you do have will be limited. It doesn’t matter if you were best friends before — it’s just not the same. Not to mention that, in the process of pursuing friendship, old feelings may arise and prevent you from moving on with your life. Or, even worse, you may have to watch your ex move on while you stand on the sidelines.

I’m not saying that friendships with your ex are impossible — every person and relationship is different, but I do think that it’s challenging. In my case, the post-breakup friendship I had with my ex eventually drifted off into nothingness. I think we both realized that, if we ever wanted to rekindle our friendship in the far future, we first needed space from each other.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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