Newlywed Liz Furl ponders the perils of maintaining friendships with our past lovers.
A week ago, I made the decision to make amends and friends with my ex of 10 years ago. Though we had dated briefly in high school and had phone call dalliances up to college, once we entered undergrad our relationship became strictly friendly, almost familial. I held him when his seasonal affective disorder kicked in hard as the snows began to fall, and he held me when my long-distance relationship became too much to handle.
When I transferred away from our shared college, words spoken and texted kept the bond alive. Whenever something shook our lives, we’d make a call, regardless of the time that had passed between, and we fell straight into our friendship again, consoling, catching up, and tossing sibling-like jabs back and forth.
That’s much the way things are again now—and I had missed it … after nearly three years of silence.
Nine months ago, I made the decision to marry my husband, to take the vows and make our love and happiness legal and public. Before that, we had been engaged for two years with a relatively short courtship of six months (including one “lost month” —read: John Lennon and Yoko Ono). In that entire period of dating, engagement, and marriage, I never had a close male friend.
This past week hasn’t been the easiest. I’ve been accused of flirting, of seeking validation, and of drifting back into a past (of cheating, of emotional distance, of immaturity) that neither my husband nor I would like to revisit. I pled ‘not guilty’ to the first and third offenses, and ‘nolo contendere’ to the second—when you have father issues like mine, male validation is always sought and always somewhat out of reach.
Being friends with someone you used to date is a situation fecund with impending disaster—most of the time. If either one of you has even the smallest inkling of feeling for the other, you probably can’t be friends. If your relationship ended on bad or uncertain terms, you probably can’t be friends. If it ended under uncertain circumstances, like long-distance difficulties or a move, you might as well not even try to be friends and skip straight to attempting to date again.
And, of course, the longer you’ve been broken up, the easier.
But how much is any of this impacted by being married to someone new?
If you have lingering feelings, you could put your marriage in jeopardy. And what about your ex’s feelings? What if you both desire a healthy friendship? Is it possible?
If you ended on poor terms, that might be more easily mended within the context of marriage, since there’s no chance of getting back together. But if you ended on poor terms, why would both parties individually decide to reconcile?
If distance pulled you apart, continued distance combined with marriage can keep you apart physically—but what about emotionally? What’s to stop one or both of you from wondering (perhaps aloud) “what if?” The bond of marriage says you don’t act on those feelings, but can it stop you from thinking them?
For the curious, my ex and I (as far as I know) do not have any lingering feelings beyond friendly fondness. The circumstances of our break-up were mainly decided by distance, made complicated by my mother’s (at the time) lack of liking for him. He lives in Boston while I live in Rochester, so there’s not even the opportunity to interact beyond texting and phone calls. And, as I mentioned before, the last time we were romantic was a decade ago.
But what if, as in my case, your husband is not overly fond of the interaction with said ex? What if he suspects emotionally conflated motives? What if he believes you to be seeking something from another man—one whose tongue has been in your mouth (we never got further than that—high school and all)—that you’re not seeking, or simultaneously seeking, from him?
Do you defer to his feelings, as innocent as your motives may be? Or do you go on the defensive, constantly reminding your spouse that you’ve done—are doing—nothing wrong? Do you do as I’ve done and make a point of mentioning every conversation, to keep your loved one in the loop and make it clear you have nothing to hide? Or do you treat your ex as any other friend—where detailed reporting is not required?
Whatever the answer, I certainly don’t have it. My husband and I are working it out as we go. I’m not an expert on relating to exes; I’m still in the beginning stages of the thing, hoping to rebuild a close and lasting friendship with someone meaningful to me. But the question still lingers:
Is it possible, even if you’re married, to be friends with an ex?
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