Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I’ve always been a slash-and-burn kind of woman. After every breakup, I had the same routine: delete his number, block his ass on social media, and set any mementos from our relationship aflame in a makeshift backyard bonfire. No survivors.
That all changed when Billy (not his real name) dumped me out of the blue a year into our relationship. He just didn’t see us getting married, he said. It was a reversal from all those times we’d talked about having a life together — but those conversations, it turned out, were just him telling me what I wanted to hear.
As you can imagine, I was devastated. I cried for weeks after our breakup. I tried to distract myself with sci-fi movies and Suze Orman books, which did little to soothe my emotional wounds. But this time, I didn’t go into full scorched-earth mode — that would mean that things were truly over, and I wasn’t ready for that. Billy kept calling me to see how I was handling our split, and each time I saw his name on my phone, I kept hoping this would be the call where he’d change his mind and take me back.
And then came the night of many mistakes. We’d agreed to meet at a bar near his house — mistake No. 1 — to exchange the belongings we’d left at each other’s house (he wanted to return my backup teddy bear; I had his deodorant and a bottle of his contact lens solution). Mistake No. 2: In my extreme nervousness, I drank four vodka sodas in quick succession — which led to us drunkenly hooking up, mistake No. 3.
In the moment, it felt amazing to be in his arms again. But it was simultaneously heartbreaking he wasn’t my boyfriend anymore. When it was over, I knew I’d hit the turning point I needed — if we couldn’t be together, we couldn’t be in that murky gray area, either. I told Billy I needed space to heal, and that we shouldn’t communicate for a solid year. Reluctantly, he agreed.
Over the next several months, I did what I could to speed the post-breakup healing process. I enrolled in grad school. Eventually, I started dating again. Going out with other guys helped put some (much needed) emotional distance between us, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss our lively philosophical conversations and his sharp sense of humor. So much, in fact, that I knew I wanted Billy back in my life, even if it couldn’t be as my partner.
In a 2017 study in the journal Personal Relationships, researchers from the University of Kansas identified four reasons people maintain friendships with exes: security (emotional support, advice, trust), practicality (shared possessions or finances), civility, and unresolved romantic desires. Some motives, they noted, lead to more successful friendships than others.
“If your reasons are related to security or practical reasons, it is possible to have a friendship that will be positive,” says study co-author Rebecca Griffith, a clinical graduate student at Washburn University. “However, if your reasons are due to unresolved desires — hoping to get back together, or still wanting sex with the ex-partner, for example — it is likely you are in it for the wrong reasons, and rather than having a great friendship, you may end up hurt; not to mention you’re self-handicapping yourself from initiating new, potentially better relationships.”
Luckily, I’d spent the past 12 months stamping out any lingering desire or hopes of a romantic reconciliation — and as it turned out, Billy and I were both interested in reestablishing the easygoing, friendly connection we enjoyed when we were dating. When our year-long freeze-out ended, we naturally gravitated toward each other. Once I felt like I was ready, I followed him on Instagram. He followed me back. We started small, emailing each other articles about astronomy discoveries. “Saw this and thought of you!” I wrote along with a link to an article about supermassive black holes.
One day, we ran into each other at Whole Foods. We both confessed to missing each other and made plans to grab coffee in the coming week — and made sure to choose a place that we hadn’t been to together when we were dating. As seductive as it was to swing by our favorite spots we’d enjoyed as a couple, we resisted the urge to settle into our old patterns.
And we always made sure our hangouts didn’t feel like a date. At the beginning, we’d only meet up in the daytime. And since we’re both big drinkers, we were careful to avoid alcohol in those crucial first meet-ups, and to not put ourselves in a position where things could get sloppy. I always paid my way and refused to let him pick up the check.
It wasn’t a perfect transition. I let my old pet name for him slip out once — it was “Mookie”; don’t judge — and I wanted to crawl under the table out of embarrassment. The way we both squirmed told me that were definitely not in a pet-name place anymore.
I’d run constant self check-ins to see if I was falling back in love with Billy. To my delight, I wasn’t. At this point, our physical connection was almost nonexistent. In fact, I came to realize that I now regarded him more like a brother than anything. I also made a conscious effort to be supportive of his new relationships, and make sure I never badmouthed or complained about my new boyfriend to him.
After a year of establishing healthy boundaries, we even went on a double date with our new significant others. It wasn’t awkward. It was … fun. And gratifying. I was proud we’d transcended our amorous past and found ourselves in a place where we could share our lives with each other on a genuine friend level. Making those breakup-fueled bonfires may have been more cathartic in the moment — and required a lot less maturity and a lot less restraint — but my relationship with Billy, in any form, was too valuable not to salvage.