Taking a Break to Be Friends Is the Most Baffling Activity Known to Humankind


I used to think being friends with an ex was the decent, sophisticated, mature thing to do, but then I realized that is crazy, and I only really meant it when I was the one doing the leaving. And yet people remain friends with exes they are still in love with all the time, in spite of the unimaginable torture it brings. Explain yourselves!

In a recent Modern Love column for the New York Times, author Elinor Lipman recounts the story of her slow courtship with an online beau, Jonathan, that may stand as the most tepid account of falling in love I have ever read in my entire life. They meet online. She’s a novelist. He’s British. He’s read one of her novels. He liked it. Their first date goes pleasantly. They are well matched. The second date is pleasant again. And in spite of the lack of any detectable pulse, they continued to email. And meet.

Finally, it gets really exciting—when they break up. Lipman writes:

Thirteen months of suboptimal dating passed. Several times I announced I couldn’t see him anymore because I had feelings for him that weren’t reciprocated. That went nowhere. If he looked (in my opinion) stricken, I would take it back.
Finally, we had words, harsh ones, via email. He said I made him nervous, that I wasn’t his girlfriend, that I was deluding myself. I asked him not to reply to my hotheaded rant of an answer.

But then, Lipman writes, here is where it pays not to hold a grudge. Six months later, Jonathan invited her to an art gallery opening. She was busy, but having now accepted that things were chummy at best, she gave him a friendly call and said perhaps another time. They met up later, and things took on an equally glacial pace yet again. Read the rest to see how things net out, because it’s a pretty fascinating story of a relationship that seemed doomed, only to somehow magically come together in the eleventh hour.

But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m mostly amazed at her ability to keep hanging out with someone she clearly had feelings for who showed no interest back. Staying friends when you really want more: How does anyone do it? What kind of masochist even tries? An obvious response is that people don’t really stay friends—they are lying and pretending to be friends.

An article at Vogue earlier this year made an important distinction—being friends is one thing, being friendly something else:

Friends means we watch Netflix at your apartment and I complain to you about my new relationship. Friendly means that if we pass on the street, I’ll smile and say hi, rather than try to fashion a weapon out of the objects in my handbag.

Another important distinction the author makes: how things ended have a lot to do with how you’ll proceed in the post-breakup friendship department. Cheating is not the best recipe for friends after the fact, neither is loads of lingering sexual tension. Here, write Karley Sciortino makes a solid point:

Personally, I believe the only way to truly be friends with a serious ex is if you had already entered the friendzone before the breakup. Because when you end a relationship that’s still sexually charged, or that one person isn’t ready to give up, it’s impossible to hang out afterward without wanting to fuck, marry, or kill each other.

Ultimately, in order to be truly friends with someone after dating, I think you both have to be over each other. But most people aren’t quite there yet. As this post at Mic on staying friends illustrates, saying “‘We can still be friends’ is like saying ‘The dog died, but we can still keep it.’”

It’s not that I can’t understand the impulse to try. Sometimes having someone out of your life post-breakup feels simply too tragic to handle—after all, the closeness, the love, the time invested, the feelings. But being “friends” in this instance is really just staving off the inevitable grieving process, a patchwork solution for two codependents who don’t know how to be without each other just yet.

What’s more likely and more common is that everyone discovers that the realities of just being friends still are far too brutal—you feel exactly the same as before, only heartsick, and now you have to pretend you don’t care if they fuck someone else. Oh, but you do care. And you’ll know it when you see your “friend” at a party holding hands with their date for the evening and your heart becomes engulfed in flames as you lunge for the nearest exit. Surely only the most self-loathing among us would sign up for such a fate.

Readers responded to Lipman’s essay. Susan from Brooklyn notes:

If you hadn’t taken that break, you could have had a long-term, unfulfilling relationship full of disappointment. Nothing can replace a sense of self-respect, and a good friend is better than a noncommittal lover.

But arguably better than both of those scenarios? The feeling of having moved on.

Image via USA/Celeste & Jesse Forever.

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