RELATIONSHIPS Being friends with an ex.
HAVING A FRIENDSHIP WITH AN EX ISN’T IMPOSSIBLE. BUT HOLDING ON CAN ALSO HOLD US BACK, SAYS NATALIE LUE
On a number of occasions, I’ve sat with friends and clients as their ngers hovered over the delete/block function on their phones. Mouths dry, palms clammy – genuine anxiety gripped them. “What if I hurt their feelings? What if they think I’m a ‘bad person’? Agh!” Now, it’s not as if they were without reason: they were severing ties with someone, who had at one point meant very much to them, for the sake of their emotional, mental and physical wellbeing and the health of their future relationships.
We can undoubtedly remain friends with an ex with whom we share a genuine mutual friendship; one that is out in the open, boundaried, and a valuable addition to our life, and that also doesn’t encroach on our dating future. But what we can’t do is cling on to a friendship with an ex as a means of living in the past or avoiding moving on.
Holding on to exes, no matter how tenuous the link or how unworkable the situation, is all about validation. It feels like con rmation that we’re ‘good enough’ to be kept in their life in some capacity, and it’s also social proof that we are worth keeping around: ‘I’m someone whose exes want me to remain in their life’. But what we, or our exes, aren’t always comfortable admitting is that holding on is a way of avoiding things. Perhaps that we settled for less than what we need, that we didn’t treat our partner with the love, trust or respect they deserved, or that we’re not truly facing up to ourselves.
The people pleasers amongst us, who neglect ourselves to cater to everyone else – our exes see us coming. We continue to be ‘nice’ even though our gut might burn with hurt and resentment at being taken advantage of. We hope that, one day, they’ll realise what a terrible mistake they’ve made, and move heaven and earth to make things right. Instead, after doing their laundry, helping them move, writing their CV, or sleeping with them ‘without expectations’, they sheepishly drop it into the conversation that they’ve met someone. Cue heartbreak.
Being polite, worried about hurting feelings, or even afraid that we’ve missed the memo that someone we went on a couple of dates with could be The One means that we might be in touch with numerous people who pop in and out of our life. I once helped a client delete and block 37 contacts. Farewell anxiety and shame, goodbye being treated like a pop-up entertainment centre, and hello to space for her to listen to her needs and pursue her desires.
In an age where breaking up now involves cutting ties across multiple platforms, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Pre-internet, we could save face and pretend to be cool with our ex without having to interact or being privy to the minutiae of their life. We had to put on a trenchcoat and wig and hide behind lampposts! Now we can lose signi cant chunks of our time passively tracking them online, or nd them popping up on our feeds just when we’d started to move on.
Genuine friendship between exes can, of course, happen. Often this stems from a prior association, or because through their romantic relationship, they both recognised that they were better as friends and harbour no romantic feelings.
There isn’t the overhang that exists in all the other situations as a result of one or both parties having hidden agendas. But when we’re not being truthful with ourselves about why we’re doing it, friendship with an ex is a vehicle for auditioning for our old role. Trying to have him/her on some terms rather than none fosters a sense of neglect and feeling undervalued. Sometimes we don’t even want them back – we want to win. And sometimes, we quite simply don’t want to deal with any and all feelings to do with loss, disappointment and rejection. We avoid feeling ‘too much’.
But at what price does this kind of friendship come? For starters, it takes up emotional, mental, physical and spiritual space in our life. And if the way in which we relate to an ex is unhealthy to our sense of self, is causing us to numb or escape feelings, or is delaying taking the next step, it’s too high a price to pay. We’re also delaying the inevitable: accepting that it’s over and the reasons why. This blocks us from using what we’ve learned from this experience to make better choices in our future relationships.
When it comes to an ex, we need to ask ourselves where they’re going to t into our future (and us in theirs). We can’t take ‘everything’ with us, and so part of the journey of life is learning to let go when we need to so that we can make space to listen and feel, and for the relationships, opportunities and things we desire. Letting go doesn’t mean that the relationship was a waste or that we’re a ‘bad’ person; it just means that it’s time to move forward with love.
NATALIE LUE has been writing her blog www.baggagereclaim.com for 12 years and is the author of five books aimed at helping people pleasers and overachievers to break unhealthy relationship patterns and harmful habits. Follow her on Insta @natlue