Can you be friends with exes?

May 10, 2016 | Uncategorized

Published: The Good Men Project (May 10, 2016)

The title of this article is a bit misleading. My first thought was to call it, “Can you be friends with individuals of the opposite sex?” Then I realized this wouldn’t pose any potential ethical quandaries for homosexuals, so I rephrased it to “Can you be friends with individuals who you could hypothetically find sexually attractive?” That doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, though, so I decided to sum this up by simply asking, “Can you be friends with exes?” It’s not precisely accurate – although, to be fair, exes certainly fall into the category being covered here – but it is pithy.

Anyway, the genesis of this article stemmed from a recent conversation I had with a platonic female friend. Although she and I had dated for a few weeks back in 2012, nothing permanent came of it, and we maintained a friendship after it was decided that a romance wasn’t in the offing. This is why, when I noticed she had become a bit distant over the last month or so, I didn’t think much of asking if it was related to an argument we had had earlier in the year. Her reply genuinely surprised me – namely, that she was curious why I was reaching out to her rather than focusing “on the one to whom you’ve committed yourself?”

Since my girlfriend and I started dating about a month ago, my friend’s inquiry possibly explains her recent distance (I’ve been in several relationships since knowing her, although she lives far away and I may not have mentioned them). That said, it raises a deeper question about whether it’s possible for platonic friendships to exist between otherwise sexually compatible individuals – be they exes, people who simply dated for a while, or (as is most common in my case) strictly friends – without the possibility of romance lurking in the subtext. Can this be true if both parties are single? What if one is single and the other is not? For individuals who are in relationships, where are the boundaries drawn that separate faithfulness from infidelity? For those who are not in relationships, when if ever do they have the right to expect emotions to evolve from platonic to something more intimate?

These knotty questions can be easily answered by applying a straightforward dictum. As a rule, determine the behaviors that you believe should be exclusively displayed toward romantic and/or sexual partners, and avoid ever acting in those ways with your friends, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation. When you’re in a relationship, it will be impossible for you to be unfaithful as long as you maintain that firm separation between how you treat your significant other and everyone else; just as important, by insisting that your significant other also follow this rule of thumb, you can be secure in the knowledge that he or she won’t be unfaithful. If you can’t trust yourself to have certain types of friendships without succumbing to temptation, then you’re not ready to be in a committed relationship with anyone; similarly, if you can’t trust your significant other to maintain a wide range of friendships without being unfaithful, then you’re not ready to fall in love, at least in any meaningful sense of the term.

Granted, this rule is somewhat complicated when the potential friendship is with an ex. Personally, when I develop a substantive bond with another human being, I try to maintain that connection even if its exact form evolves, and as such I try to remain friends with women that I used to be romantically involved with. Of course, this may be easier for me because I have Asperger’s Syndrome; as my girlfriend pointed out last night, “It’s the gift of dating with autism. You understand clear boundaries and can follow them.” While some of the women I dated have been able to remain friends with me (and the same is true for my girlfriend with several of her exes), others insist on severing all ties or even becoming outright hostile. The behavior is hurtful, to be sure, but over the years I’ve learned that many people aren’t capable of analyzing and controlling their feelings in a logical way, or simply lack the emotional autonomy to stand up to their current significant others when they get possessive. I suspect this is one of those ways in which many autistics are more sophisticated and mature than their neurotypical counterparts, although it seems that for the time being, we will have to wait for society as a whole to catch up with us.

This leaves the final group – namely, two platonic friends who are both single and could (based on their sexual orientation) wind up in a relationship. As I explained in an article about the term “friend zoning,” no one should ever feel compelled to enter a romantic relationship with someone who they only view as a friend. That said, given the frequency with which people of both genders will claim that they were wronged by a friend who didn’t reciprocate their amorous feelings, I think my earlier rule is also very helpful here. By establishing boundaries that you consistently apply to all of your friends, you can at least avoid sending the wrong signals and unintentionally hurting your friend’s feelings. What’s more, if you find your feelings changing over time, you now have a solid idea as to how you can express those changes effectively and fairly. Open and forthright communication is key here – you should always know how you feel and how to convey those feelings to the other person. While this doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be hurt, it at least keeps everyone honest.

Whenever I write about dating, I always find myself tempted to use a quote by the existentialist philosopher Bertrand Russell. On this occasion, I’m going to post it again, because it wraps everything up quite neatly:

“Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.”

There are many types of love in this world. Romantic love may be the most intimate and desirable, but this hardly diminishes the value of true friendship. If anything, it makes friendships that much more meaningful. We have a very limited amount of time on this planet, and it strikes me as foolish to limit the bonds we can forge or preserve out of fear that sexual desire could get in the way. If you trust yourself, you can be friends with anyone regardless of the past and/or potential romances that you shared with them, and still remain exclusive to the one you’ve chosen to commit yourself to… and anyone worth having in your life should feel the same way.