Over the summer, I made plans to spend a week or so in the Pacific Northwest. Every time someone asked why I was going, I could’ve come up with any number of excuses. I could’ve said, “I need a change of scenery,” or “I’m going to go buy an official Sopranos leather jacket.” But more often than not, I simply told the truth: “I’m going to spend time with my ex-girlfriend.”
It’s a well-noted cultural phenomenon that lesbians are always close with their exes, and though exceptions obviously exist, I’m in no way one of them, being friends with (or at the very least, friendly with) just about all of my ex-girlfriends. And while I’ve often been asked by straight and queer friends alike about why I’d want to keep in touch with my former partners, I struggle to understand why they wouldn’t.
I get that there are plenty of understandable reasons to completely cut things off with an ex, but it’s a weird precedent to expect me to discard a connection with someone whom I’ve allowed to see me at my most earnest and vulnerable. It strikes me as odd that we’re just supposed to let go of loving someone who understands parts of us no one else likely does solely because it didn’t work out romantically or sexually. In my eyes, a lover is someone who makes your heart swell and your pussy wet. There’s no reason why a good friend can’t at least still do the former.
So how do you transition from lovers to friends?
If you see things are going downhill, do your best to leave little unspoken and end things as amicably as possible when the split occurs. That, of course, isn’t always possible and despite our best intentions, sometimes hurt feelings get the best of us and bonds with people we care about explode into a toxic mess. If that’s the case but you still value the connection, the best thing you can do is to de-escalate and take space.
I lived with the ex mentioned above for several months after we’d already broken up, and during that time, it was impossible to take time and distance in the ways we both needed to heal from the damage we did to each other, leaving any attempts at amiable intimacy tainted by our recent resentments and lingering romantic feelings. We wanted to stay close, but neither of us could handle the reminder of our failures. It was only after we spent nearly a year working on ourselves and mourning our romance that we were able to start talking again.
Moving on from each other is the biggest obstacle to overcome. It’s less about letting go of the feelings you have and more about letting go of the expectations of what they’re supposed to mean. You may still carry romantic emotions for each other, but you can’t try and find your way back to a place that no longer exists. Instead, come to terms with letting the shape of them change but holding onto their value.
When you’re ready to attempt to reintegrate into each other’s lives, you both have to be willing to meet the other where they’re at. It’s all highly individualized, and a level of intimacy that can work with some exes just isn’t sustainable or wise with others. Some exes I keep up with from a distance; others are an active part of my life, serving as some of my best friends. Some exes live in the same city as me, but I really only see them at gatherings; others live far away, but I chat with them every other day.
When I ask B, my favorite ex-girlfriend and one of my closest friends, for her thoughts on the subject, she tells me, “It fundamentally comes down to being able to maintain the things you loved and appreciated about each other and the ability to be flexible in changing what a relationship with someone looks like.”
The two of us shared an incredibly loving relationship and served as a lot of romantic firsts for each other. I was her first serious girlfriend and her first experience with non-monogamy. She was the first person to love me the way I always wanted to be loved, and the first partner I ever lived with. We came into each other’s lives at a very formative and turbulent juncture, caring for one another in a way that we’d seldom known before. Eventually, we moved to L.A. together, a decision that ultimately led to the circumstances in which our romance spectacularly self-destructed. The difference between our lifestyles and needs was more than we could compensate for, eventually turning our dynamic mutually toxic.
Our relationship today, though, isn’t without work. In fact, it’s essential to prioritize your ex-turned-bestie if you really care about that bond. Tend to your connection with them as you would any other homie, even when it’s hard. It took a lot of blunt honesty, empathy and compassion for B and I to each get past our grievances, but it was worth it to preserve the many unique memories and insufferable inside jokes we have together.
“You have to keep testing and re-evaluating boundaries, really shifting the expectations you have for the relationship,” B explains. The good news is, if you’re able to manage that, it should make you all the better at handling other relationships.
“Untangling romantic feelings and dynamics that didn’t work is difficult, but getting a friend who knows a very raw side of you is worth it,” B concludes. “There’s a level of trust and intimacy that develops that allows us to call each other on our bullshit because we’ve already seen the absolute worst sides of each other. There’s an ability to see the other person in a very honest but loving and empathetic light.”