Rick Miller LICSW

Unwrapped

No Matter What, We Will Always Be Friends

Staying friends after a breakup is often more challenging than we expect.

Posted Sep 15, 2015

Time and time again my gay clients insist that they will remain friends after their breakup.  The truth is, however, that two very important components need to be in place for that to actually happen. First, the partners need to individuate from each other in order to form separate individual identities.  Second, both parties must be prepared for the full experience of grief that comes with breakups, including pain, confusion, and anger.

Certainly, these aren’t issues of concern only to gay men; they emerge in all breakups. Gay men, though, sometimes have the impression that they will be able to segue easily because they have greater flexibility in gender roles and because their friends won’t be split immediately along gender lines (female friends aligning with the woman, male friends with the husband).  In other words, everyone will stay one big happy family; a little rumble but nothing overwhelming.  Unfortunately, this is rarely if ever the case — at least, right after a split. The idea simply doesn’t take into account the full impact of the transition.

Sometimes it is hard to predict how the friends of the couple will line up. And friends create an important part of the support system. The stress of a breakup takes its toll no matter how amicable the former partners seem to be. There is an intense readjustment period that has to be respected. And the friends also need to adjust, even move through their own feelings of grief, having once related to the couple and now having to orient differently.

During this phase, former partners (or spouses) are busy establishing new independent identities for themselves. They are transitioning from “we” to the still-evolving “me.”  Where before the partners may have seen themselves in the reflection of one another, now they will want to understand themselves without those parameters. Simply put, in living with someone else, certain preferences are given up and others are expanded for the sake of protecting the couple. 

As each man is now free to explore new interests, personality traits will likely shift during this time as well. Such change may cause resentment as one partner is forced to witness the other “moving on” — often in ways that he had always wanted when the relationship was together! 

My clients often find out pretty quickly that the wish for everything to stay the same even as it changes is not very realistic. “That is not how a friend treats me” is often the fast realization.  It is a solid insight.  In reality, an ex cannot be a friend, at least not immediately.  The readjustment period must be acknowledged, respected, and gone through, not skipped over.

Some realistic guidelines following your breakup:

  • Allow for a certain period of time to pass without harboring any friendship expectations. The hurt and betrayal that are experienced after a breakup are normal. 
  • Consider whether it might actually be easier to create some distance from each other for a while.  This is obviously more difficult for those who have children, or own animals or property together. Still, there are ways to allow for more distance even as the partners deal with shared responsibilities.
  • As you continue to adjust to this new situation, allow for all sorts of fresh experiences. Enjoy this as a time of new opportunity.  Instead of replicating the life you had with your ex, expand your horizons by pursuing interests you may have neglected in the past or that you didn’t even know you had. Be open to new people and adventures. Important warning: your ex will be doing the same thing!
  • Work to detangle from your ex. This includes maintaining more distance on social media, blogs and apps. Try your best not to check up on them and, if necessary, un-friend him until it becomes less painful.  Instead of tracking his activities, and monitoring how much fun he appears to be having or how many new “friends” he is attracting, devote this time to your own emotional hygiene.
  • Really be honest with yourself in addressing what is best for your own healing.  Would you benefit from seeing a therapist, or joining a support or therapy group?
  • Be careful to not triangulate mutual friends by putting them in awkward situations.  Even though it may be tempting to do so, asking them to report in to you or indirectly pressuring them to trash your ex maintains an unhealthy connection with him.  It also creates disconnection from the friends, who feel pressured and used.  
  • Acknowledge to yourself that after a breakup comes a normal reshuffling of friendship alliances. Mutual friends may align with one person or another because if feels less difficult.  It is often this simple, and not necessarily an indication of greater love or preference for him over you.

If the plan is to remain friends following a breakup, both people must accept that it may not happen for a long time.  It may take months or even years to get here.  With a lot of work, minimizing of expectations and accepting new ways of being in each other’s lives, you may be able to establish something very special.  The reconfigured "chosen family" can have room for everyone -- friends, new partners, and former partners -- and be very rich energized!  

Viorel Sima/Shutterstock
Source: Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

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