Yes: “Some exes are absolutely worth staying friends with”
Robbie Harb, 30
I always thought break-ups were simple affairs. There’s no point getting sentimental about someone once it’s over. Much better to take a practical approach: delete their number, block their social media accounts and purge their leftover belongings from your home.
But then, B happened.
Unlike my other exes, I didn’t meet B on an app or anonymously at a bar. He was my best friend. We grew up together in Sydney and had one of those freakishly close relationships that only really develop during childhood. We shared everything: from school gossip to family problems. He was the first person I came out to, and I was his.
We started going out in our mid-twenties when he moved back to Sydney after several years away. The relationship was, well, complicated. Every conversation seemed to turn into an argument.
I wish I could say there were good parts but the truth is, it was ugly from the start. Things that we wouldn’t have thought twice about as friends, such as innocent teasing or being late to dinner, became a source of bitterness. I was vile, and he was vile back. And because we were already so close, we knew where to land our verbal punches.
We lasted about 18 months. One day, after a particularly nasty fight, something between us broke for good. We both felt it.
“So I guess that’s it?” I said. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess it is.”
He moved out a few days later. We'd been living together for about four months and he didn’t give me any warning. One day he was there, and the next he wasn’t. That hurt. I had secretly wanted him out for months, but once he was gone the flat felt empty.
We didn’t speak for six months. It was easier to convince myself that he was a bad person, that I’d had him wrong from the start, than deal with the tangle of feelings in my head.
And for a short while, it worked.
But then I got an email with just one word: “Coffee?” It was the shortest olive branch I’ve ever seen, but a peace offering nonetheless. “When?” I wrote back.
We met – and within the first 30 seconds of seeing him, I realised that I wasn’t in love with him any more. When we were going out I either wanted to pounce on him or punch him, but my feelings had mellowed.
That meeting made me realise how much I missed him – not as a partner, but as a friend. Although we avoided certain topics, such as dating other people, there was an easy comfort in the way we chatted. For better or for worse, I wanted him in my life and he felt the same. We agreed to give it a go.
Over the next few months, we met up regularly.
Sometimes we ran out of things to talk about and there were awkward silences. Sometimes it was tense, especially when we tried to talk about issues we had faced in the relationship. Emotional landmines were stepped on, by accident and on purpose. We both had to learn to hold our tongues.
When he first told me he was dating somebody else, I felt sick to my stomach even though I was doing the same.Robbie Harb
Sometimes we’d go for a nice dinner and laugh like old times and I’d go home wondering if I was falling back in love with him.
But that’s all part of the process. We were working out where our boundaries were by a process of trial and error. So we sucked it up and stuck it out for the long game.
Eventually, the tension eased - we relaxed, and let our guard down. Our conversations started to flow more naturally and we started to talk about dating other people. When he first told me he was dating somebody else, I felt sick to my stomach even though I was doing the same. But with time, I got used to it and now it feels totally normal.
We’re still very close. I’ve stopped seeing him as my ex and started thinking of him like a brother. He has the keys to my flat and comes and goes as he pleases. We even bought a dog together – he keeps her during the week and I look after her on the weekends and when he’s away for work.
One of my friends calls it “a relationship minus sex”. And I’m sure to some people that’s what it looks like. But we’ve worked hard on our friendship, and I’m confident that it works for us.
People say that you can’t be friends with your ex as though it were a universal truth. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t make it impossible. We deal with difficult relationships all the time – at work, with our friends and with our families. Why should an ex be any different?
Sure, not every relationship is worth the effort. I have friends who would rather wax their scrotum than go for lunch with their exes. But some people are worth investing in – and for me, B was one of them.
No: “It does nothing but prolong the pain of the break-up”
Marie-Claire Chappet, 29
As if you can be friends with an ex you were once in love with! When it comes to the type of love that shook you to your very core, whether it ended on good terms or broke your heart, friendship is not an option. I learnt this the hard way.
I met my ex – the great love who shoved my heart in a blender – at university. He was instantly attractive in that maddeningly generic way: tall, dark and handsome. We were a one-night stand that somehow turned into a friendship, that somehow turned into a relationship.
We were together on and off for three years after we graduated, with weekends of coupled-up bliss spent holed-up in his London flat, punctuated by fierce arguments about commitment. Our break-up was as convoluted and protracted as our time together: full of false starts and regretful make-ups.
That said, when we ended our romantic entanglement, we agreed that the friendship that had initially kick-started our relationship was worth saving. Which is why we all but pinky-swore to remain BFFs for life - promising to still talk, still meet up and still be part of each other’s lives. Our so-called terms included telling each other when a future romantic exploit was growing into something serious.
Despite seeing other people, my heart did acrobatics every time we did a ‘catch-up’ brunch.Marie-Claire Chappet
I should have known it was doomed from the outset. Plus everyone – from parents to friends – told me we were heading for disaster.
Shortly after our break-up, I went into hospital for a jaw operation. My ex visited me, and brought flowers. This moved me – but not in the way you should be when a mate brings you flowers. My heart jumped the way it does when that person you fancy does something nice for you.
My heart continued to behave in strange ways throughout our ‘friendship’ - if he texted me late at night, if we met up for coffee and if he lingered on a hug. And without realising it, I was soon analysing his every move as if he was still a romantic prospect. I was jealous when he mentioned girls, I was hopeful when he called.
It's because so much of our relationship remained unchanged. Navigating the shift from couple to mates was weirdly easy because the only thing we had stopped doing was anything physical – besides those lingering hugs. We still shared a Netflix account, we still messaged each other all day every day, we still spoke for hours on the phone. I had started dating other people, and true to our promise, I could only assume he may have been doing the same – but with no serious prospects.
Yet despite seeing other people, my heart did acrobatics every time we did a ‘catch-up’ brunch. My emotions were running a marathon the entire time we were pretending to be ‘just friends’. And, ultimately, that is what we were doing: pretending. Though I never voiced this to him, I can’t help but look back and think my feelings were glaringly apparent.
Of course, this all came crashing down six months into our friendship. I was at a house party, and a mutual friend asked if I had met my ex’s new girlfriend. I stammered through a response, saying I had no idea. He was surprised: “Oh really? They’re pretty serious – I thought you guys were really good friends now?”
No, we’re not, I ruminated teary and drunk. He is not my best friend whose new relationship I am thrilled about. He is my ex-boyfriend who has a new girlfriend I knew nothing about. I am not thrilled for him, like a good mate should be - I am devastated, like a woman who is still in love with him.
I ended our friendship the next day. He was upset and admitted that he had kept the relationship a secret, despite the fact it had become serious, because he had wanted to keep our friendship going. That was touching, yet further proof of how toxic our faux friendship had become.
However, ending it was also one of the best decisions of my life. The connection I had with my ex was too deep, too problematic and too fraught with romantic tension to ever be a friendship. What our abortive attempt at being pals taught me was that trying to transform a relationship like that into a smooth-sailing, supportive friendship, is impossible - it does nothing but draw out and prolong the pain of breaking up. It’s tempting to make a friendship with your ex the success story of your failed relationship, but often leaving it as what it was is more respectful to the time you shared.
Today, my ex is a person I only text on his birthday. He does the same with me. It’s a mature gesture, but that's as far as it needs to go. Because our relationship belongs to a specific time of our lives – in the past – and I've learnt that it doesn’t fit anywhere else. Understanding that is the first step to getting over someone. Because, if you loved them like that, you were never truly just friends, so why on Earth would you start now?
Eating With My Ex is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer