The Eternal Debate: Can You Ever Really Be Friends with Your Ex?


This week’s episode of Girls was a marvel, offering a perfect snapshot of the horror of the rebound date, and more importantly, reviving the age-old question of whether you can ever really be “friends” with an ex. On the latter quandary, I say the jury is still out.

I say “friends” because I have never quite figured out what it means to still be buds with someone you used to sleep with. I used to be friends with nearly every ex I’d ever had, a move I always saw and defended as sophisticated—mature, even. If you care about someone enough to have a long-term relationship with them, how could that not be based (at least in part) on liking them as a person, independent of the romantic side of things? And if that is the case, how could you not want this person in your life anymore simply because the romance didn’t pan out? Even an uneasy friendship seemed better than scorched earth.

Of course, that was easier said when I was the person who wanted out of the relationship. And yet, there is still such a high appeal in putting bad feelings aside, in transcending the pettiness of breakups in favor of friendships, or being the bigger person. But how does this ex-befriending work? How do you trust that the person is really your friend? Are they secretly hoping you’ll get back together? Are you? And what about your new partners? Is it fair to expect them to endure you continuing to meet up or talk privately with an ex? Do people ever really pull this stuff off? What if the next person they date is one of your best friends?

The concept of “friends with an ex” also depends a lot on what you mean by friends, anyway. Best friends? Monthly dinners? I had a boyfriend who was still best friends with an ex. He insisted nothing more was going on, but they would often text each other that they missed each other, she flirted with him constantly and acted really jealous in front of me, and after we broke up they hooked up again. So. Yeah. “Friends.” They were just friends.

Unless both people are truly over it, being friends has always seemed a bit tricky. That was the case with last’s nights GIRLS, where the former partners of Mimi-Rose and Adam intersected to hilarious, awkward results. I don’t always like the reality the show lives in, but I have always appreciated the reality of each character on the show. It’s gotten especially interesting to watch Hannah confront Mimi-Rose who is, in essence, the seeming antithesis of everything Hannah is.

In a previous episode, we learned this by seeing how chill Mimi-Rose was about her abortion. Anna Merlan covered it here, noting:

Mimi-Rose is taking shape as a sharp, almost too direct contrast to Hannah: she’s self-assured, confident, pulled together, she gives TED talks, and she doesn’t need saving, mothering, or to be carried by a shirtless Adam through the streets while suffering a mental health emergency. She’s so self-sufficient, she tells Adam, it didn’t occur to her to let him know about the abortion until after the fact.

Part of the beauty of this episode is watching that carefully constructed façade that is Mimi-Rose crack a little. In fact, everyone cracks a little in this episode.

We start out seeing Hannah on an upswing—life seems to be good after the breakup with Adam. She’s keeping calm and carrying on, beginning with landing a job as a sub at St. Justine, where she nails the role of cool teacher keeping it current. Then, in the teacher’s lounge, she meets fellow educator Fran, a good-looking, affable guy who smoothly leads the conversation to a drinks invite that night.

When Hannah accepts, and later confides to Elijah that the breakup with Adam served a purpose—clearing her path to marry Fran—it looks like she’s now back in the game and maybe even fine with the breakup. So much so that when she and Fran continue to hit it off over drinks and she casually suggests they head to an art show she wanted to see that might be shitty, you don’t necessarily see what’s coming.

What’s coming is that the art show is Mimi Rose’s (and is, in fact, shitty), and Hannah has pulled a pretty pathological move showing up immediately with a new beau in tow, proclaiming that it’s fine because they are all part of the same big friend group.

It’s not fine. Adam is hostile; Fran quickly realizes he’s a pawn and then bails; Mimi-Rose’s ex Ace shows up, acting suspiciously charming, and Mimi-Rose suggests they all head to the after-party, but not before everyone pretends to be sophisticated again. The foursome split, boys and girls, into separate cab rides to the party, because Mimi Rose wants Adam to get to know Ace, who is a big part of her life. This is where things take a delicious turn.

By delicious I mean in part, the turn you expect: Ace confesses he is playing a waiting game, acting the part of friend but planning on reclaiming his status as Mimi-Rose’s significant other. He tells Adam as much. And then there’s a turn you may not expect: As the scene moves to a bodega and then a Laundromat, we learn that Mimi-Rose has a shapeshifting quality about her, and that her willingness to include Hannah so openly is less about her ability to transcend normal human jealously, and more about her desire to manipulate people and feelings to a desired outcome. They hash it out in a back and forth with penetrating honesty: Hannah accuses Mimi of stealing Adam. Mimi asks Hannah if she’s more upset because she gave up on Adam or because she gave up on art. Burn.

At one point, Mimi even offers Hannah her ex back, but only if they do it as a collaborative project, where she slowly distances herself from Adam while Hannah incrementally moves back into his orbit. It is one of the more fascinating bits in the entire episode, as disturbing as it is funny.

Real life people are never quite so slick or quite so self-possessed as this, but there’s a truth to the twentysomething dating dilemma that is pretty universal here. It’s hard to escape your friends and exes when you’re still in college or just out, hitting the same bars, shows, movies, and get-togethers. Everywhere you go is littered with the ghosts of your past relationships. This isn’t high school—it’s awkward to expect people to pick a side, to stop going to regular haunts, to not attend this friend’s New Year’s Eve party or that friend’s engagement. You’re supposed to be grownups now, at least sort of. And meanwhile, a drama worthy of a soap opera still plays out in the subtext because of all this forced interaction.

Over at The AV Club, Joshua Alston wonders if the show has failed to portray more realistically the way breakups “invariably reroute the connections of a social network.” But in my experience, they don’t necessarily reroute it, at least, not until you’re older. This is a problem especially unique to twentysomething and early thirtysomething existence. By the time everyone starts marrying off, the complicated passion play that is “whether or not you and your ex are friends” starts to fade in favor of more serious pairings. People move away, take other jobs, get married, or have kids and retreat into family life.

And here’s a thing that will quickly put it into perspective: When the ex you thought you were really good friends with doesn’t invite you to his wedding because his future wife has a no-exes rule, you realize that the term friendship is perhaps not all that meaningful anyway.

I used to want to be friends with all my exes. I used to think it was easy, the most natural outcome of a love affair that just didn’t work. But then I realized in some cases, there are either too many feelings still, good or bad, for that to ever be possible—and too much drama to subject a more serious relationship to. If it works out, great. If not, oh well.

And over time, I began to see these things as highly case-by-case. Not every once-romantic partnership settles so easily into tension-free friendship. Not every former lover goes so gently. And sometimes you’re the one nursing a grudge, or worse, still in love with your ex. In some cases, being friends is about as natural as polysorbate 80.

Image via HBO

Contact the author at [email protected].

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin