What I learned when my ex asked if we could be friends

I am a pretty outspoken member of the Saved By The Bell fandom, specifically the Zack Morris sect. But one thing that I never understood while watching the show years ago? The concept of being friends with an ex. My immature mind back then didn’t see how Zack and Kelly or Slater and Jessie could slide back into a blissful state of platonic friendship after making out with each other all over school. And the drive-in. And The Max. I assumed at the time that it was because they were older than me and I would also grow up to have chill relationships after break-ups.

Well. That didn’t exactly happen. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve had terrible gut wrenching break-ups with guys whom I’ve vowed I’d never speak to again, either because I believed my heart couldn’t handle casual friendship or they had done something terrible (like cheating) and I didn’t feel capable of forgiving their misdeeds. Regardless, I have dated quite a few guys who have asked post break-up, “do you think we can be friends?” And while younger me had a hard and fast “NO” ready as a response, I’ve realized now all the things that question forces me to evaluate. Not just about the person asking but also about myself. And so here are some of the things I have learned when faced with this quandary.

Being friends is not the same as being friendly

I suppose it’s the expected thing to do, asking “can we still be friends?” It seems mature, an attempt to put a calmer lighter tone to cap off something that feels awful. I’ve found in most cases, the driving force behind it is the reluctance to part ways believing the other person potentially hates your guts. But I guess it’s weird to ask the question most of us really mean which is “can we still be friendly?” I can’t speak for others, but I know that I have brunch with my friends, call them late at night, ask for advice—all things that I don’t particularly have a strong desire to do with someone I just broke up with. And I don’t think any of my ex-boyfriends want to do those things either or we’d still be dating! But if I bump into someone unexpectedly that I used to date, I’m going to say hello, smile (even if it’s a bit forced) and that’s the end of it. Doing that doesn’t mean I’m going to refer to that person as my friend.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping your distance

A guy I dated once put a lot of pressure on me when I said that I felt most comfortable post break up deleting him off social media and out of my contacts. I said that the possibility of his whereabouts popping up unbidden in my newsfeeds seemed torturous and I felt better knowing that couldn’t happen. He said that I was being immature and that we had been important in each other’s lives, and me deleting him was juvenile. His reasoning almost convinced me until I stopped and wondered why I was allowing him to tell me how I should grieve the end of our relationship. And if I could better cope by removing a daily reminder of him, then that was my decision to make, not his. So in my opinion, being the bigger person is understanding that each person involved has the choice to do what’s best for them and not begrudging that choice.

Friendship is possible, but not right away.

I said possible not definitely! In my own experience, I’ve only been able to do this with one person I dated, and I believe it’s because of the following three things. First, neither of us had unresolved feelings for each other. Second, several years had passed since we dated. And third, we were never all that serious. But something did connect us when we first met and it seems that thing should have been friendship all along, although it took years of separation before it turned into a possibility.

It’s different, of course, for everyone. Even if you immediately believe you don’t want to be friends with someone, that could change down the line. The most important thing that I learned when faced with the possibility of friendship later on, after the dust had settled, is to be honest with yourself. If you truly think you can handle the idea of spending platonic time with someone whom you had romantic feelings for while they may be having romantic feelings for someone else, then all the power to you. But if you’re not sure you can, there’s no reason in the world to pretend that you’re fine when you’re not. Don’t force yourself into an uncomfortable position because you think you should be able to handle it. You don’t have to do anything that’s going to make you feel bad! Isn’t life great?

It has to be separate from your romantic relationship

You gave the relationship your full focus when you were together. Sometimes I’ve had the thought that there has to be some way to salvage the good of what I had with someone and maybe the solution should be friendship. But entering into a friendship with those kinds of expectations is not a great foundation. Neither is holding onto the hope that staying friends with lead to you falling back into love with each other. Anything is possible, but there’s usually a good reason for a break up and that shouldn’t be ignored.

The debate over whether it’s possible to be friends with an ex will probably always exist, and that’s because we’re all different, having different relationships and have our own personal emotional capabilities. We don’t live at Bayside High School, but I no longer believe that it’s a standard “no” in every case. I do believe it’s always important to do what’s best for yourself and to know what that is. And to remember that within your romantic relationship, there WAS a friendship, and that’s also why it’s so hard to break up with someone. You’re losing that person on two levels, and it seems natural to want to hold onto some piece of it. Do what makes sense, and make sure to take care of your own feelings first.

[Image via NBC]