You Don’t Have to Be Friends With Your Exes

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There is a rumor going around that lesbians are all friends with their exes, which means that every queer friend network is full of smutty backstory that any newcomer will have to contend with. There’s often a strong sense of unfinished business in this story, and when one-half of that ex-couple meets a new person, there are inevitably big blowout fights about still being in love with each other, but the other person will never change, etc. I hope this has never happened to you.

What seems more common is that women remain friends after breaking up because reorganizing social networks feels too complicated, and any lines drawn lead to fallout and lost friends. There is also the question of scarcity of queer community, and of shared history with the people your ex connected you to, and the trouble of re-organizing your social structure and routine in the aftermath of a breakup. There are lots of reasons to not want to rock the boat and just fold up the messy feelings and carry on in whatever way seems easiest to everyone around you.

I would like to propose that everybody stop trying to be friends with their exes. The whole piece of “let’s stay friends” after a breakup, while often sincere, is impossible to do immediately after a breakup. Keep in mind, we’re talking about relationships, not dating. There’s a greater likelihood that you can date somebody briefly, and then send them on their way with minimal resentment or shit-talk to your friends. But relationships on the scale of “we bought concert tickets together” and “you met my friends”’ are absolutely people that you need a pause with before moving right on to being friends.

Maybe it’s being socialized in a way that makes setting boundaries uncomfortable and trying to be nice to every goddamn person, but it’s a problem. Lesbians, in particular, seem really challenged by the notion that you need some time and distance from a person who rejected you to be able to process your feelings away from them. You cannot process your feelings of rejection with the person who rejected you—that is just badgering your ex to keep having intimate conversations with you.

Here’s another thing: you don’t have to stay friends with your ex if you don’t want to. Full stop, no justifications, no contact- that gets to be a thing you can choose. If you two have kids, you may have to remain polite and distant, but then you have all the rest of your time when you’re not actively refraining from scowling at them to work through your feelings. Short of kids/negotiating divorce settlements/you owned a business together and now are untangling those, it doesn’t make sense to pursue a relationship you resent.

Now, how long should you leave your now-ex alone for? There are all kinds of rubrics out there, but I say minimum two weeks, but preferably closer to six for a total social media/texting blackout. You’re allowed to say hi at events, but if you need to negotiate with them (“Can you not come to this queer lady dance night this month? You can have it next month.”), that would be helpful.

If your ex doesn’t want to stay friends, don’t hassle them. They may have a lot of built-up resentment, and you may not agree with the reasons they have for resenting you, you just have to leave them alone. While it’s possible that over time and not being weird to each other you may develop a semblance of mutual affection, but those have to be cultivated over a long period of time.

If you have a very tight relationship and an easy breakup, it’s still important to give each other some room so that you can do the work of transitioning your relationship to friendship. Friendship is such a great and important thing! But you cannot treat it as the dumping ground for all unresolved feelings.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer in Seattle. You can follow her at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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