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An illustration showing a man and a woman wearing broken heart friendship necklaces, the two have contrasting expressionsVicky Leta

Can you ever be best friends with an ex?

Two writers have their say...

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.

Two male friends meet for a coffee. Steam rises from one coffee in the shape of a broken heartVicky Leta

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.

An illustration of a woman riding a bike looking mournful. In the background a couple ride a tandem bike in the opposite direction.Vicky Leta

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.

An illustration showing a man and a woman wearing broken heart friendship necklaces, the two have contrasting expressionsVicky Leta

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

 

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by Marthalawson

    30 Jan 2019 2:13
    This comment was removed because it broke the rules. Explain
  • Comment number 19. Posted by Green Eyed Boy

    27 Jan 2019 22:09
    The comments on here seem to fall quite clearly into the obvious two camps. As someone already said there are no rules here. It depends on personalities and circumstances. I admit I’m biased because I’m still friendly with almost all my exes, some of whom I see regularly (and platonically!). With others we just check in now and again. I found the ‘pro’ comments ‘if you liked someone so much why wouldn’t you want to keep in touch and enjoy the connection’ far more inspiring (moving even) than the rather dogmatic and negative comments of those who say it can’t work, shouldn’t be done etc. I suppose that’s mainly because I know from my own experience that they are wrong (sorry!). Maybe it didn’t or couldn’t work for them but my friendships with my exes (thanks to the understanding of my emotionally intelligent partner) have been precious to me. I loved reading so many positive reports of how well it can work. May those friendships continue to flourish!
  • Comment number 18. Posted by robcrawford

    27 Jan 2019 21:39
    You can't make any hard and fast rules. Some people will not be able to handle friendship with an ex, it will work for others. I am in touch with 2 of my exes, and they are great friends, for whom I retain love, affection, and friendly intimacy. There is one other ex, who is very clear she wants no contact, so I respect that even while regretting it.
  • Comment number 17. Posted by Phil

    27 Jan 2019 15:57
    Very glad to read lots of people here saying that yes of course it's possible. I was a 'serial monogamist', with female friends who evolved into girlfriends. We were friends before, so it'd be a terrible shame if we couldn't go back to that afterwards. In each case it took a year or two of time-out before we could revert to normal friendship, but in every case it worked out. When I eventually got married, five of my exes were at the wedding, and one of them even served as a witness! Most of them are also married with kids now, so there's just no issue. As far as I can possibly tell, physical attraction between us has evaporated, but our relationship history remains as something special where we know each other in ways other kinds of friends wouldn't. We understand what we're really like below the surface, and that makes for great friendship.
  • Comment number 16. Posted by Evil Overlord

    27 Jan 2019 13:36
    I've stayed close friends with all of my exes - at least for a while. We've eventually drifted apart, as with most friends, but in the beginning, we've been friends, stayed in touch, discussed the same things as before. We've even discussed our new love lives.

    My family often found it strange, but to me, it's completely natural. You liked the person before; why wouldn't you now, even if you don't want to live with them anymore? All of my break-ups have been amicable, if not necessarily happy.
  • Comment number 15. Posted by Lola

    27 Jan 2019 12:23
    My first ever relationship was with my best friend, who I had been head-over-heels in love with for 10 months prior to us getting together. It only lasted four months before he cut me off. In the space of a few weeks, he stopped returning my texts and began to act so coldly towards me. I still had to see him every day though as we went to school together. I was determined not to give up on our friendship at least, even if he did not want to date, but that was partly because I saw it as a means of getting him back.

    We did not speak for the entire summer holiday and when we returned to school in September, we shared all the same classes. If it had not been for that timetabling miracle, I'm not sure our friendship would have healed. Two months later, we were once more best friends, staying up late video-chatting and soon we went to the cinema together, marking our first trip together in eight months. Things have only headed uphill since then. It took me a further year to finally get over him but nowadays I can say with absolute certainty that we were not right for each-other. He has since apologized for the way he treated me several times and explained his actions and he remains my very closest friend to this day.
  • Comment number 14. Posted by Peanut

    27 Jan 2019 11:37
    Get on great with my ex husband and his really lovely second wife - to be honest when we meet up it’s her my daughter and I most want to chat to. It took hard work on my part to get to that stage but we have two now adult children together and weddings are so much nicer if you don’t have to worry that the oldies will behave like toddlers. My new partner doesn’t have a good relationship in anyway with their ex despite being extremely generous financially inc maintainence until children finished full-time education and the main victims of that are the children. Doesn’t hurt me in the least or my partner but it has had a truly rotten affect on children forced to take sides. One has broken ranks and has a good relationship with us but she still gets sniped at over it as do her children.
  • Comment number 13. Posted by François

    27 Jan 2019 11:32
    I would even say that you can ONLY be real friends with someone of the opposite sex if he or she is an ex. I've had wonderful platonic friendships with ex-girlfriends. I would suggest that you have to get the "sex thing" out of the way first. The break-up hs to be amicable on both sides, though. Mind you, that was forty years ago but I still remember one frankly asking for my advice when she had sex problems with her current boyfriend... Any comments?
  • Comment number 12. Posted by Jean Lyon

    24 Jan 2019 19:45
    Definitely, my ex is one of my best friends. I have remarried and so has he. He has been to stay with us and we all get on wonderfully.
  • Comment number 11. Posted by fatboyslim

    24 Jan 2019 19:01
    Never have and never will it's just best to sever all ties and move on!