Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Remaining Friends With Your Ex Is Easier Done Than Said

The secret to a successful friendship with an ex is watching what you say

When a relationship ends, people tend to do one of two things. The first is to purge — to scorch the ground upon which your roots had grown. This part of your life is now over, and nothing can be gained from looking back on it.

The second is more akin to the Japanese pottery technique Kintsugi, which is essentially the repairing of broken pots using gold to fix the cracks; rather than being discarded, the breakage is used to turn it into something new. Back in relationship terms, this means there’s an acceptance that something has been broken and can’t be put back together in the same way, but also a desire to salvage something, to go out with more than what you came in with.

The latter option is laden with pitfalls and very hard to navigate. You could backslide, which gets messy. You could realize that maybe when you’re not in love with someone, you actually don’t like them very much. You could fall in love with someone else, who may not be so hot on you staying friends with someone who’s previously seen you perform a hilarious-yet-erotic dance to Michael Jackson’s “Ben.

Possibly the trickiest change you’ll need to make if you’re going to try to stay friends after a breakup, however, is in your language.

Relationships are built upon a shared language specific to the parties involved. Look at pet names: They’re a universal, cross-cultural fixture of relationships with a multitude of semantic and etymological roots. Some transcend language and international boundaries—e.g., “honeys,” “babys,” “sweethearts” and “sugars”—while others are culturally specific. The Dutch, for instance, call their significant others “licorice.” Germans prefer “little bear.” And one Chinese pet name refers to an old proverb about a woman so beautiful she made fish sink and wild geese fall.

But as Elizabeth Landau suggests in a blog post on Scientific American, pet names also can be used to reinforce a hierarchy within a relationship, with male pet names often taking the form of something aggrandizing and female pet names representing something more childish. Or you get words like “babe,” arguably gender-neutral now but which seems to have become the preserve of the patronizing put-down.

If your pet-name usage did take on this uneven power structure, even subconsciously, it’s all the more reason to avoid it post-relationship. You’re already likely to be in the roles of the dumper and the dumped. So if you start pushing that power structure again, you’re just going to feel shitty, or make someone else feel shitty.

Relationship expert and professional matchmaker Sarah Ryan is clear about why she thinks people fall back on this language post-break-up: “Pulling on cues and codes as a means of communication is a foot in the wrong direction to heal both hearts — and one party, if not both, will only be doing this to find a way to tie themselves back to the relationship and what you had. If you find yourself doing this or are in a situation where your ex is doing this, you must ask yourself if a line has really been drawn.”

That said, it’s a natural impulse to go back to the language you used while you were in a relationship. The problem is that those words no longer mean the same thing; they’re imbued with too great of an emotional significance for you to keep using them. At best, it’s awkward; at worst, it can be badly triggering.

But there’s also an issue of going too far the other way and trying to construct a new kind of language for your new platonic friendship. When you’re in a relationship so reliant on pet names, using someone’s real name could be code for anger, frustration or annoyance. Now, it might be all you have left. The alternative is to crowbar in a gender-neutral term of endearment — “dude,” “buddy,” “pal.” But again, there’s a power dynamic here. It reinforces your new roles, and it’s jarring.

Edrina Rush, a board-certified hypnotherapist who specializes in relationship coaching, sees the passage of time as the only way to solve this language problem:

“It’s important to have some space after a breakup and do things you enjoy for yourself. A breakup happens for a reason … and one of them is to discover yourself again. Let the other person live his/her life until you both are ready to be friends again without the emotional charge. Ideally, keep the interactions friendly as if how you would get to know a friend initially, quite like starting from scratch.”

The thing is: Breakups are trash. The ugly, plate-smashing, volcanic-eruption breakups and the evaporating, silent, mutual breakups alike. After those words have been said and the decision has been made, you’re now and forevermore looking into the eyes of someone who has broken your heart, or whose heart you have broken. (It’s sad to be the dumper, but it’s still objectively worse to get dumped.) If you think you can both do the friendship thing, that’s great, but you’ve got to accept that there’s a huge vocabulary that’s not available to you anymore.

If that doesn’t sit right with you, then it’s probably not going to work out.