The Hook Up: Can Exes Be Friends?


Dear Anna, I read your latest post, “On Breaking Your Own Heart,” and I wanted to ask about your response to the second dilemma. I have found myself in a similar situation, except it has been over a year since we broke up and my ex has just become involved with someone else. Up until very recently, I got the “we’re just best friends but come over and spoon me” type of thing that Complicated Mess described in her email. However, I really do feel that we are best friends and I know she cares about me, she just doesn’t want to be with me. I guess I held onto the idea of us being together because we have been acting like a couple in a lot of ways, probably both using each other for comfort’s sake.

But do you really think it necessary to now completely cut her out of my life? I really value our friendship, we trust and rely on each other a lot. I have found it really hard to deal with her dating someone else, particularly someone I don’t know at all. I’m not sure if I am jealous of the new girlfriend, or just worried that I won’t get to spend as much time with my friend anymore, but either way I suppose it means there are some residual feelings there. I’m not sure what to do. I can’t imagine my life without my ex, she really is my best friend. But since she started dating someone, she has obviously begun to realize that some of our interactions are not appropriate for exes or “just friends,” and hence put a stop to them (or at least voiced her feelings of guilt) which upsets me because it makes me feel rejected.

I’m not sure if the situation would feel different if I too had someone new in my life, but at this stage I am very much single and feeling rather depressed and alone. I don’t know how to stop feeling sad and excluded when it comes to my ex’s new girlfriend. I don’t know how to maintain our close friendship when parts of it will now have to change. I don’t know if I’m still in love with her, and I don’t know how to move on. — Sad & Confused

Anna says: You sound just like I did a year ago. My girlfriend and I had been broken up for a while, but we still spent the night together sometimes, spooned, watched Bachelorette marathons, made dinners, etc. We shared cars and phone plans and secrets. We did pretty much all the coupley things one can do, but without the sex. We even lived together for a few months after we broke up, and I remember how she cried when she signed the lease to her new apartment on the opposite side of the city from the home we shared. She cried and it was like she was confessing an affair, something truly terrible, and not her moving on with her life.

A break up is never a solitary event. It’s rituals unraveled. It’s boxes packed and unpacked. It’s wounds scabbed over and picked at until they are raw and bleeding again. Of course, only you can determine what kind of relationship is best for you and your ex, Sad. But I will say this. I am of the opinion that you should try to hurt yourself intentionally as little as possible in life.

I’m sure your ex is a lovely person. And I’m sure that you have the makings of a great friendship. But if these changes to your relationship (a new girl in the picture, no sleepovers, etc.) are causing you considerable anguish, then you can do one of two things: You can either accept the new conditions wholeheartedly and all the negative feelings that come with them, or you can back off for a bit and give yourself the time and space you need to heal. I’ll let you decide which one is best for you and your situation, since you know yourself far better than I do. But I want you to be honest with yourself. I want you to ask yourself, “What is best for me in this moment?” Because now is the only truth that matters.

For the record, I don’t think you need to sever all ties with your ex. It’s been a year, and you’re most likely over the Hump of Irreparable Sadness that occurs with fresh heartache. But you do need to scale back the amount of time you spend with her. You could also probably benefit from having some concrete boundaries that work for both of you (and now this new girl your ex is dating, who has some say in this too, I’m afraid). Spending less time with her doesn’t mean you’ll be less close or that she’ll cease to be your best friend or that she’ll forget about you. It simply means that you are taking a little time to re-evaluate the terms of your relationship. Right now you’re still in the thick of it. You’re like the fish who doesn’t know it’s wet because it’s never known anything other than constant submersion. We’ve all been there. We’ve all looked at a situation and pronounced it hopeless without even trying to imagine another word. I want you to try to not only imagine it, but live it. You can still love your ex. But you have to love yourself more.

My last girlfriend and I broke up about six times altogether. We broke up the first time when we stopped touching each other. We broke up again verbally a few months later. We broke up again when we moved into separate spaces. And again six months later when we first discussed the new people we were dating. And again when she moved to Minnesota and I would no longer be able to touch her or sleep next to her, something we still sometimes did, despite the many remonstrations from our friends. Each change to our relationship felt a little more real until eventually I felt nothing at all, not a void so much as the comforting silence that exists between two people who know each other so well. Now she’s engaged to be married, and I made her promise to let me give a speech at her wedding, and she said, “Of course.” And she said, “You’re family.” And she said, “But don’t make too many lesbian jokes.” And I said, “I can’t promise that.” And we laugh all the time still at silly things, and it’s like nothing has changed, even though everything has changed, and that’s how I prefer it, frankly.

But what made our now fantastic friendship possible was the considerable chunk of time we spent not talking to each other. We both needed that break to mourn the loss of what we had, and to carve out a space for the relationship to come, the one that was based on all the love and respect and affection we had for each other, but didn’t involve romance. Without that time apart from each other, I don’t know what would have happened to our friendship. I don’t know if we would’ve survived all the things you’re currently going through. It’s possible, for sure, but it’s definitely harder.

While you and your ex are going through this awkward readjustment phase, I want you to think about distance. Specifically, I want you to trust that distance is not a terrible or permanent thing. Distance is like emotion, it’s always changing, it’s always forcing us to see our lives in different ways. I want you to look at your current situation and own up to what you actually feel. If you can’t be best friends with your ex right now, then don’t be. If it hurts or enrages you that she’s dating someone new, then don’t stand next to her while she’s doing it. Knowing your limits doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever be best friends with her again. It simply means that you’re honoring the parts of yourself that are still fragile, still raw. You can either throw your hands up and say, “This is how it is,” or you can dare to admit that you are in charge of your own life, and act accordingly.

It is weird, though, when you share your life with someone and then that stops and picks up again somewhere else and the map you’ve been using no longer means anything, so you have to draw another one. The map is still called Love but its street signs are missing. And the Dairy Queen that was on the corner is now a Dunkin Donuts. It’s disorienting, for a time. But it works if its meant to.

What I mean by that is I have faith that you and your ex can draw a better map. Maybe not today, but someday, after you’ve both spent a little time out of water, and after you’ve contemplated not what you want, but what you need.

Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at

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