If you’re the kind of person who makes an earnest attempt at living outside the traditional, pre-defined boundaries of human interaction, it’s possible that you might find yourself engaged in relationships that flourish beyond the constraints that “society” (those emotionally limited dickholes) would say are normal. For the most part, good on ya. Way to bring generosity and openness to all of your dealings with others. You’re likely, as a result, to enjoy a vast new range of experiences that, if you followed the “rules,” you might not get the chance to have. You’re also likely to occasionally slip up, go one step too far and assume a level of convention-challenging comfort in a relationship that you ought not to. That’s when shit gets awkward. That’s when you lose your job, or a friend, or the ability to look your mom in the eye ever again. In the spirit of keeping your dynamic relationships in a positive place, here is a list of people who, despite what you might think, are definitely never, ever, totally not your friends.
Let’s start with the obvious one. Before you start throwing your specific exceptions at me (I know them all. I’ve said them all.), let me finish. It is not possible to be friends with an ex. The experience of being romantic and/or sexual with someone triggers parts of your brain and heart that, even once they’re dormant, prohibit you from ever holding that person in your mind in the way it holds someone who was always just a friend. If you stop dating on amiable terms, and decide there’s enough good meat left on the bones after the love-animal dies, you might end up being some friend-like beast that, while possibly closely resembling a real friendship, is inescapably different. You have a certain history and certain knowledge of one another that distinguishes you from straightforward friendship. You can’t un-know the things you know. You can’t un-live your shared past. You can’t rewind and disentangle yourselves until your relationship is a simple, platonic thing. What you can do is move forward into a friendly place. You can be close with an ex, super close, even daily phone call, every weekend going out buddies close. You can do all the things that friends do. You can be honestly, completely, uninterested in them romantically. You can sit at their wedding and be genuinely happy for them, devoid of any pangs of longing or resentment. I’m not saying that a relationship with an ex can’t go on to be a perfectly fantastic thing in its post-sexy-love incarnation. In fact, acknowledging that you are not, and can never be, “just friends” isn’t a slight against your relationship with this person; if anything, it’s a more honest, respectful, and complete nod to know you truly are, which is a more complex pair.
Going out for post-work drinks, developing a secret intra-office lingo complete with inside jokes, ordering in Chinese food and powering through a late night of work together… these things make you a lucky person with a pleasant work environment, but they do not make you friends. Striving for a great relationship with your employer is a wise professional investment in having an ally in your industry, someone higher up on the ladder than you to teach you, nurture your development, be on your side if shit goes down, and be behind you with references and letters of recommendation when you decide to move on. More than that, being on good — or even fun — terms with your boss can make the workday bearable. But allowing yourself to think of them as an actual friend could push you to cross some lines that should absolutely not be crossed, like drunk texting or inviting them to a party where you plan to get shamefully intoxicated. Remembering that this person is, despite any degree of personal enjoyment of each other, still your employer will keep you on the side of being the super fun, witty, interesting, but always utterly professional young go-getter.
Be wary with this one. Casually gossiping about the neighbors, or chatting over the cheese plate at the neighborhood association meeting does not equal a real friendship. Next thing you know, you’re thinking it’s no big deal to tell them about the lease-prohibited dog you just got, or the illegal subletting you intend to do while you’re traveling next month, because no big deal, you guys are basically bros and they will totally let it slide. And then boom! Look who’s homeless.
In high school, we all knew that kid with the “cool parents.” They’re the ones whose house you always wanted to sleep over at because you knew they had a loose, if not nonexistent, curfew policy. They maybe even let you drink wine when you had dinner there. In your 20s, these are the people who turn into the “we’re friends now, we’re equals, let’s hang out!” parents. While their intentions might be to simply spend more time with you, or gain a more thorough understanding of who you are as an adult, you need to squash these attempts at parental bro-downs. People who have a 20-40 year age gap should not be sharing the same social life. If you’re 50 and hanging out with 23-year-olds in their world, or if you’re 23 and hanging out in a borderline geriatric social scene, you’re doing it wrong. It’s rad to find common ground with your parents, and find activities that you enjoy together, so long as those activities don’t include inviting each other to house parties and hitting on each other’s age-inappropriate friends. Better to draw the line at getting wasted together during the holidays.
Your ex’s new piece
No matter how long ago you dated, or how tight you still are, never forget that in the eyes of everyone they date forevermore, you are their ex. The fact that you two still hang out all the time and talk about everything does nothing to neutralize your potential threat to a new love interest. It probably just makes you way scarier to them. Take it as a compliment, and then take a step back. Even if you find yourself getting along brilliantly with your ex’s new paramour, and are sincerely interested in being true blue friendsies, chances are your ex’s new love is exercising a classic “keep your enemies closer” maneuver. Just because you know that there is nothing sexy or scandalous happening between you two anymore (or hell, maybe there is), their new significant other is likely to be understandably wary of you for all the intimacy and history you share with a person they are in a fragile, new place with. Be friendly and inclusive while your ex-turned-friend is dating this person, but getting too attached is just setting yourself up for a whole new kind of discomfort if they break up and you find yourself friends with your ex’s now-ex. Being close with an ex is complicated enough without compounding it.