Can We Still Be Friends?

When you’re gay, is it always good to stay pals with the ex, or could it keep you from meeting someone new?

By Tracie Potochnik

hether it’s a side effect of our smaller dating pool or just our general good nature, plenty of homosexual couples stay friends after they break up. Though there are exceptions — we probably won’t see Ellen and Alexandra go bowling anytime soon — many singles are able to carry on with former partners on a strictly platonic level. But sometimes, staying friends can be a link to a past that’s best left behind. We asked experts (and exes) to help evaluate when to salvage the friendship and when to give up gracefully.

When to stay friends
Sometimes, it’s just practical to stay friendly with an ex, especially if you’re likely to still be seeing one another around
Are you secretly thinking, “If we stay friends, my ex will realize how great I am and we’ll get back together”?
town. Unless one of you plans on moving, you’ll probably have a hard time avoiding each other in the usually small and close-knit gay communities, so letting go of the anger may simply be necessary for day-to-day life. If there are children or mutually beloved pets involved, you’ll be compelled to stay civil toward one another for their sake.

Another big pull is that the tough process of coming out often makes gays and lesbians want to keep the emotional connections they do find. “Some gays and lesbians feel distant or estranged from their families, so their partners become a new form of family,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., author of Gay Relationships: How to Find Them, How to Improve Them, How to Make Them Last. “These ties are not easily broken." Stacey, a travel consultant from Cambridge, MA, agrees. “My ex and I were best friends before we hooked up,” she says. “Going into our relationship, we made a deal that whatever happened, we’d stay friends. With her family becoming my surrogate family, breaking it off completely would have been unbearable.”

From lovers to friends
The transition from lovers to friends might take a little — or a lot — of time, particularly since one of you probably didn’t want to end the relationship. Instead of assuming your ex is emotionally as healed as you are and inviting them to see Broken Flowers with you or come to your company picnic the next week, let the dumped party make the first move toward friendship when he or she is ready. Though it might be difficult, the two of you need to have a frank talk about making the transition to friendship and to establish new guidelines: how often you talk, what topics are off-limits conversation-wise, what activities are fun to do together as friends, and which ones will just be painful reminders of love lost. “Time helps heal wounds, yes, but direct communication is even better,” says Thomas Fronczak, LICSW, ACSW, a Rhode Island psychotherapist specializing in GLBT individuals. “Talking about what each of you wants makes moving forward and redefining the relationship possible.”

Expect some bumps along the way; jealousy flare-ups, for instance, are common. While palling around with your ex may seem easy in theory, the first time one of you goes on a date, you could feel confused. What’s more, the friendship can also stop you from moving on. Any time a date doesn’t go well, you may find yourself wondering if you should just get back to your ex. If you find yourself idealizing your past relationship, rely on honest friends to help you remember all the reasons that the two of you broke up in the first place. That’ll help you get some perspective on the situation.

When the friendship should fall by the wayside
Sometimes, the chances are slim for making a friendship work. For example, if you and your ex are hanging in limbo — often with one of you still holding a torch — that’s quite a problem to contend with. You’re not exactly partners anymore, but you’re still doing all the same things you used to—maybe even still sleeping together. “Too often, when you try to stay friends with someone, you’re secretly thinking, ‘If we stay friends, my ex will realize how great I am and we’ll get back together,’” says Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, co-author of It’s Called A Breakup Because It’s Broken. “It’s not going to happen, and you have to cut off contact to accept that it’s over.” It’s hard to do when you still have feelings for a person, but being strong enough to get them out
Let the dumped party make the first move toward friendship.
of your life is the only way you can really heal—at which time, you may find that you can be buddies. Tyrone, a television editor from Los Angeles, learned to stop being so “friendly” the hard way. “No matter how much you both promise you’ll be able to be friends, when your ‘friend’ tells you about someone he’s dating — because that’s what friends do — you wind up crying in bed for three days,” he says. If it’s your ex who isn’t moving on, state your position and take on the responsibility of breaking things off, at least for a while. “It’s better to disappoint your ex and hurt his or her feelings than to allow hope where it is not possible,” says Tessina.

The one thing to remember
In the end, only you can determine if maintaining a friendship with your ex is ideal because you’ll be the one living with the feelings it causes. “If it feels like redefining a relationship with your ex is contributing to your further growth or development, rock on,” says Fronczak. “If it feels painful or fruitless, why put yourself through it?” Spoken like a true friend.

Tracie Potochnik is a staff writer for the website Television Without Pity and co-author of the political satire Monica! The Musical. She lives in Providence, RI.
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