“Listen,” I said, laughing, “Don’t be mean, but don’t let her walk all over you, either.” I playfully punched the arm of the guy in the driver’s seat, who had just confessed his insecurities with a budding fling.
“Women,” he shrugged.
We were idled in my driveway, the car’s heater slowly thawing my frozen toes. Our eyes connected for a moment, and we exchanged a look we’d shared for years through some of the highest and lowest moments of both of our lives.
This was my ex-boyfriend. My high school sweetheart ex-boyfriend. One who I’d dated for two and a half years, then on and off for two as we tried to figure ourselves out. He had shared some of my most difficult moments—fights with my family, applying to colleges, high school sports, ACT tests—and also some of the most wonderful memories—prom, graduation, my eighteenth birthday, the start of college.
“What about you?” he asked, “any new guys in your life?”
I rolled my eyes. Guys weren’t really on my radar lately. To be honest, I was working too much and focusing my attention selfishly (and guiltlessly) on myself to have time for a boy.
My ex nodded, and the conversation shifted to breakups, to college life, and to random things that had happened since the last time we’d seen each other. The conversation was truthful. It was vulnerable. It was innocent. And it was wonderful.
In that idling car at 2AM there was no kissing, no touching, and no falling in love. It was the pure, honest bless of a friendship that had grown over the course of six years.
I’ve never understood the idea that you can’t be friends with an ex. I mean, to some extent I get it, especially given the circumstances. Perhaps if you end on bad terms, perhaps if there’s underlying anger, it’d be tough to be friends. But over time, after growing apart, it’s definitely possible to care about someone you used to love on a friendship-level. Personally, I don’t know how you couldn’t. You used to love this person. Aren’t they worth enough to still be a part of your life?
Being friends with your ex is hard at first. You have to let go of a lot of things, emotionally detach yourself in many ways, and truly devote yourself to the idea of friendship—of caring for someone with honesty, and no selfish desires or strings attached.
To be friends with an ex, you have to first acknowledge whether or not you have the ability to. If you’re hoping to get back together in the near future, if you’re hoping to fall back in love, then you’re not truly wanting to be friends. You’re looking for a relationship.
Then you have to be honest. This means that when you spend time with that person, you aren’t sugar-coating yourself, or your reaction to them because you have feelings for them. You talk to them truthfully, as you would any friend. And you learn to love them in a different way, as a person rather than a lover.
Then you open yourself up. You allow yourself to truly be friends with this person. To not only laugh at the same jokes and go to the same places with your group of friends, but genuinely give a crap about their life. You ask them about the potential dates they’re talking to, about the crap going on with their family, about their biggest fears. You trust them with things that are important to you, and you keep things exactly as they are—a friendship, a strong bond.
Then you define boundaries. You don’t call that person for every little thing that’s going wrong. You definitely don’t call them when you fight with a current boyfriend or girlfriend. You let them into your life, but you give them space, too. You don’t dip back into the past unless talking about it serves some purpose for your current relationships. You don’t reminisce in an unhealthy, missing-you type of way. And you stick to your values—you don’t kiss, you don’t cuddle, you don’t flirt because that would not be a friendship.
Ultimately, you love. You love this person innocently and platonically. You love this person because they hold a huge chunk of you in their palms. They know the past you, the you-you underneath the layers and walls that may have built over time. And you know them.
So you care about one another, you keep one another in your lives, and you talk about the hard stuff—love, breakups, new relationships—building one another up and caring about each other’s well-being because even though that person plays a different role in your life, they matter. And in a healthy, not-ruining-your-current-relationships type of way, they always will.