We Can Be Friends: On Queering the Relationship Between Exes

By: Judy Punch



C’mon fellow queers, we’re all about reinventing and reviving the potential for all sorts of relationships that have been stifled by the oppressive nature of kyriarchy and enforced heteromonogamy, right? And yet, there is a certain type of oppressive relationship model that I think we are reifying, and it’s one of the very worst ones: the relationship between exes.

Just in case you’re not already in agreement that the standard model of how exes interact needs serious work, let’s take a look at what the current script looks like:
You find someone that you really like who likes you back and you get really excited about it! Then you start intertwining your lives together, going grocery shopping together, spending holidays together, taking showers together…you share your most intimate thoughts with this person, and you memorize all of the little details of their life. They only like ketchup on french-fries, and their second cousin is allergic to dogs, and their favorite teacher was their 8th grade math teacher. And this is all great until, suddenly, there’s trouble in paradise! The two of you have a big fight and someone storms out. Now, with few people to turn to, as you’ve likely been depending on your now ex-significant other for all of your emotional needs, you face devastation and loneliness. Suddenly you’re terrified to see this person, who just last week you were baring your soul and body to, a few seats behind you on the subway. And all of that work you put into building up your relationship, all of those little details you memorized lovingly, welp, apparently it was all for naught.

Does that not sound like we’re deliberately setting ourselves up for some very serious trauma? And if you’re thinking at this point, ‘it’s just the way things have to be,’ well then I say that that’s a very poor argument, and probably not one that you would endorse in other contexts. Do you really want to argue that it’s natural to link the whole value of a certain relationship to its ability to persist over time as an exclusive romantic entanglement, to have our romances endanger our friendships?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that breakups aren’t hard, or that maintaining relationships with exes can’t be at times by its very nature be heart-wrenching. But I think that we need to give ourselves more credit, and that we’re capable of and owe it to ourselves to make the default script so much better than this. And having had as many breakups as I’ve had has put me in an excellent position to figure out a smooth transition from lovers to friends. It actually can be done. And I have some tips to share with you all.

But first, a serious disclaimer. Some relationships do need to be cut off completely. Relationships with unhealthy power dynamics, relationships that involve a frightening amount of codependency, relationships that are in any sense abusive. These relationships just need a clean break in order for healing to happen, even when you’ve been very much in love. My advice is not meant to apply to these situations, and obviously there is a lot of discretion required in defining what the future of any relationship should look like. You and your ex are the only ones who can decide that. Respect boundaries! These tips are far from applying across all circumstances; my hope in this article is just to lay down the foundation to pave the way for a new normal.

1. Don’t Let It Get to the Point of No Return
The number one thing you can do to make your relationships with your exes better is to have better relationships with them before they become your exes. Of course this is easier said than done, but even if your romantic relationship with someone is going very poorly, it’s still possible to respect them as a human being and as someone who has at the very least invested a lot of time and effort in you. And in my opinion the best way to show someone that you respect them is by being incredibly transparent with them. This involves a lot of honesty and a lot of communication. Those things are vital in relationships anyway, but they will also make break-ups go a lot smoother, because if you’re being transparent with one another, the break-up is not going to seem like it’s coming out of left field. Also circumvented will be the we’ve-both-bottled-things-up-and-now-we’re-arguing-about-a-toaster-or-something breakup. Two of the biggest reasons it can be hard to face an ex are that the break-up seemed either completely shocking or completely incomprehensible. If you’re transparent with one another, those sorts of breakups just aren’t going to happen. Of course your breakup will probably still feel terrible, but you’re going to feel a lot more equipped to cope and to set the terms for a future friendship, if you’ve been engaging in a conversation about the issues you have in your relationship.

2. Don’t Stop Hanging Out Cold Turkey
I know, I know. You feel like this is something that you’re just supposed to do. But why? Coping with the fact that you’re no longer going to be sharing a romantic or sexual connection with a person you’ve been really invested in is hard enough. Why couple it with having to cope with a period of time of no longer having this person’s presence in your life at all? Agree to meet up for coffee in a couple of days. Cry in front of each other. You’re both going through a difficult time and acknowledging that you’re both in pain is probably a lot healthier than trying to hide it, don’t you think? You may have to repeat this step several times, and yes, it will be emotionally draining, but you’re going to feel a whole lot better being in touch with them than you would accidentally awkwardly bumping into them at a bar and trying to analyze whether or not they seem happier now that you’ve broken up.

3. Don’t Act Weirdly Around Their Friends
Hands down one of the best tips my mom gave me when I was growing up was that if you’re trespassing somewhere, as long as you walk confidently and just look like you know exactly what you’re doing, no one will question you. Some of that wisdom applies to these circumstances as well. If you run into your ex’s friends, they will probably be just as unsure about how to handle the situation as you are. But if you’re confident and address them as you ordinarily would, you get to set the tone. They will follow. This can be particularly difficult for us queers who tend to have fairly insular communities, as we end up having a lot of mutual friends with our exes. Don’t turn all your safe spaces into living nightmares; be upfront with your ex about wanting to be able to feel comfortable going to the same spaces, and negotiate what that might look like. For example, with one of my exes we decided that even if we had been hanging out beforehand, we didn’t want to show up to one of our weekly queer meetings ‘together.’ Talk about this stuff. Everything is easier if you talk about it.

4. Don’t Lie to Them About New Partners
So this is, admittedly, a difficult step. Sometimes it’s easier to maintain a friendship with an ex when the breakup is still the biggest thing going on in your lives, but then after using each other to angst about the breakup for a while you move on and leave them in the dust. Don’t do that. Chances are you’re going to meet someone new who you’ll get excited about and who will play a big role in your life. The thing is, if you don’t share this with your ex, then your friendship isn’t going to have much to latch onto. Unless you fancy making a lot of small talk about the weather, tell your ex about your new romantic endeavors. Let them tell you about theirs. Despite any fantasy you may have about them never being able to find someone as great as you ever again, if you actually care about this person then you’ll want all aspects of their life to be rich. Jealousy is worth working through.

Why do all of this work to get to this point, you ask? Well, presumably there’s something about your ex that makes them worth being in your life. You probably didn’t start dating them for no good reason. Additionally, at this point you already have a huge arsenal of personal jokes and shared experiences. This person knows you a lot better than many of your other friends do, and can give you amazing advice. It is so comforting to have people in your life who have been through heavy experiences with you and who are still along for the ride.

One may object on the grounds that this sort of transition into friendship comes at the cost of having a sense of closure. That may in some sense be true, but personally, I’m highly suspicious of the whole idea of closure. When you’ve loved someone, there’s kind of no undoing that. Some of my most challenging and beautiful friendships are with my exes, and no it’s not always perfectly easy, things rarely are when you’re straying far from the normative script, but really, I wouldn’t want it to be.

Judy Punch is a kinky poly queer living in and loving West Philly. She has degrees in philosophy and creative writing and tries hard to strike a balance between spending time in the world of academia and the world of the arts. Among other things, she’s a huge fan of dark beer, logic puzzles, choral music, and coloring books.


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