Trial and Error

How (not) to survive a friendship with one’s ex.

Last week, Crunchable Editor Guy Mike Duck called to ask if I could write a Valentine’s Day-appropriate tale of woe for this month’s issue, explaining that I was one of a dwindling number of romantically-unattached Crunchable contributors.

That Mike Duck — he knows how to make a guy feel loved, I’ll say that much.

(From the eds: Sorry, Kevin.)

But he was right. My only long-term relationship ended almost five years ago, when the girl I’d been dating throughout my final two years of college broke up with me over the phone, a few weeks after I graduated. (In her defense, we were three states apart at the time.)

Obviously, I had no idea how to begin the healing process, as all of my previous couplings had lasted somewhere between a few weeks and a couple of months. In hindsight, I could have handled it better.

In the interest of helping you avoid my own errors, here’s a step-by-step guide for you lovelorn types:

1. Make a clean break.

This one should be self-evident. No matter how amicable the breakup might have been, and how sincere you both are about wanting to maintain a friendship, you — as the dumpee — should take some time to be alone. You’ve got plenty of other friends, right? Spend time with them instead. You’ve probably been neglecting them while you spent all that time with your girlfriend, anyhow.

And if the ex (the one who dumped you on the phone, remember) calls up to “see how you’re doing” — well, it would be rude to hang up on her, right? So take the high road. Just chatting for a while can’t hurt too much.

Still, you don’t want to get into old habits, so …

2. Under no circumstances should you call her.

See, she might actually enjoy talking to you, so she’s not going to come out and tell you to stop calling. She doesn’t know the extent of your wrenching pain, so it will be business as usual on her end.

Seriously, put the phone away. You don’t even have a job yet, remember? Go do something productive instead — polish that résumé, scour the Web for new job postings. If you’re going to be single, you might as well get the rest of your cards in order.

But … okay, so you’re still calling her every now and then. Maybe you’re sending her an e-mail here or there. That’s fine. You’re only human, right? Conversing a little bit shouldn’t tear open those wounds too badly, so long as you …

3. Don’t go out of your way to see her.

This one should have been a cinch. I had moved back home to the Baltimore area, and she lived three hours away in New Jersey. And even when she returned to our Maryland college for her classes in the fall, there was still an hour and 45 minutes separating us.

Of course, many of my other friends were also still at the school, and I was only semi-employed — which meant lots of visits back to campus.

Which leads me to …

4. For God’s sake, if you go back to college and insist on hanging out with her, find someone else to crash with.

DO NOT pull up a spot on her dorm room floor, even if she says it’s okay, you malingering mush head!

Seriously. I did this. I wish someone would have slapped me right in the face.

5. Also, when visiting with your ex (I still can’t believe you’re doing this), maybe take the hint when her mother calls and you overhear them talking about your ex’s other old flame.

If you’re actually such good post-breakup friends, isn’t it a little fishy that there are pictures of that other guy in her room, but none of you?

Okay, so the secret’s out now. She’s back with the other guy, and it’s probably time to back off and clear your head. You could at least salvage a little dignity by offering to crash with someone else from now on, before she brings it up herself.

No? Well, another lesson learned.

I see that you’re still intent on keeping lines of communication open. Any more ground rules?

6. When talking to her on subsequent occasions, maybe some topics should be off-limits. Like your respective sex lives.

You know what? Let’s just leave this one be and wrap up with a simple rule of thumb…

7. If you’re embarrassed to tell your family and/or friends that you’ve been spending time with your ex, there’s a good reason for it.

Believe it or not, the people closest to you usually want what’s best for you in the long run. They probably have a more reasonable and objective perspective about this situation than you do.

Okay, I admit — it’s a pretty gruesome story when it’s all laid out like that.

Eventually, things got bad enough that I took my own advice here and just cut off all communication for a few months. Now, nearly five years later, I’m back on friendly terms with her — but, take my word for it, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble and melodrama if I had just followed Rule 1 from the beginning.

So if you also choose to ignore these words of wisdom, I’ve got my slapping hand ready to go. It’s for your own good.

Article © 2009 by Kevin Brotzman