My younger sister instantly turns ex-boyfriends into best friends like some sort of relationship magician. Even the bad ones. Like the guy who broke up with her at a bus stop and then ran away (literally — ran) when she started crying. Or the one who refused to abstain from hitting the bong before their dates and once rested his head on the restaurant table to take a nap during dinner. Two dudes who, in my opinion (which I’ll pretend counts in this situation), don’t deserve her friendship or time. Yet, she gives them lots of friendship and time. I was with her over Thanksgiving, and nearly every time her phone dinged it was a text from one of them. Though it’s not like she’s the first brave soul to befriend an ex. I have a good friend who kept up a close relationship with a former boyfriend of two years even after they broke up when she found out he cheated on her multiple times. And another friend who lived with her ex for six months after their split and had to watch nonchalantly as he brought home new bedmates.
The post-breakup friendship is such a widespread phenomenon of our generation that it’s become something of a cultural hallmark. Think of New Girl — after Jess and Nick break up, not only do they continue on in the same apartment, but they stay living in the same room together. (And a couple episodes later, they go on a romantic couples’ cruise as “friends.”) The Happy Endings (RIP) friend gang was founded on a pair of exes, one of whom left the other at the altar. (Because that kind of trauma seems super-easy to get over?) Contrast that to the most famous relationship comedy of two decades ago — Sex and the City. When Carrie Bradshaw sees one of her exes walking her way down a midtown street, she dives behind the nearest hot-dog cart.
Seriously, what happened to cutting exes? (Out of your life, but sure, also with a knife if need be.) They’re called exes for a reason, and that reason is a good reason: They no longer like you in a special way or you no longer like them in a special way. As the age-old birds-and-the-bees talk goes: Sometimes when a man doesn’t love a woman very much, they part ways, never to touch genitals again. Breakups are supposed to be hard. Relationships shouldn’t linger on casually just because your ex happens to own the closest Wii within a five-mile radius. It took a long-ass time for America and Britain to be friends again, and even now, they offer each other passive-aggressive gifts like the Iraq War and Piers Morgan. And here’s an unscientific fact: 90 percent of the time one of the parties entangled in a post-breakup friendship is unhappy and hoping for reconcilement. This is sad. And maybe unhealthy. Moving on is a lot easier when you’re not sitting across from the person you loved two weeks ago at a casual dinner. And if you’re not the one hoping to get back together, then you’re probably the one using someone else’s undying love as a security blanket while you dip your toe into the dating pool again. Good job. That’s a very empathetic thing to do.
Look, I’m not suggesting everyone should immediately un-Facebook every person with whom they’ve ever shared a bed. Truth be told, I keep in touch with most of my exes (save for the truly heinous) on a friendly acquaintance level — emails once in a while, maybe a drink once a year. And I’m sure there are ex friendships that totally work. Maybe you two are really soul friends. Kudos. But I get the sense that the uptick of couples staying friends after a relationship has less to do with an actual desire to be friends, and more to do with saving face. After all, staying friends leaves no room for heartbreak or pain or vulnerability. There’s no Bridget Jones–style crying into an ice-cream pint. Or shit-talking with your friends. Or giving his favorite T-shirt to the homeless guy outside Starbucks. It’s a move that keeps things light and casual — we had sex for a year? I hardly remember! — which, by extension, makes the person doing it cool and casual. Isn’t that just the most beloved trait of our generation? Nothing looks better than appearing to be unfazed by pesky things like emotions. Whether it’s about casual sex or relationship needs or an actually devastating breakup. There’s a social premium on keeping cool. But you know what? Nothing feels better than letting it all out. It is like a colonic for your soul! And we get so few opportunities to go a little batshit nowadays. You can’t actually Jerry Maguire your boss or Home Alone your weirdo Craigslist roommate who never does the dishes. But you can hate your ex and take time to feel your feels. Openly and freely and with the love and support of your friends. Try it some time. Dive behind a hot-dog cart. Or better yet — push over the hot-dog cart.*
*It’s okay, it didn’t tip over. No one has the upper-body strength to do this.