You Need Help: How Do I Survive My First Breakup to Stay Friends on the Other Side?

Q:

My first gf and I were together for two years, and we split when I went off to school- now 3000 miles away, I’m trying to reconcile how to end a relationship (something that lots of lgbt advice columns don’t focus on, because we’d rather focus on the success stories, right?) and stay friends with someone who’s an important part of my life.

Sincerely,
Brokenhearted In Boston


A:

Breakups suck, and I’m sorry that you’re going through this for the first time. But your letter contains a little hint as to what might be going on for you underneath the surface, and I want to follow that thread a bit. You say that “lots of lgbt advice columns don’t focus on” ending relationships “because we’d rather focus on the success stories, right?” and I’m sorry but I did actually laugh at that!!!! I don’t do math ever, but if I had to guess the percentage of questions that come to THIS very You Need Help advice column that pertain to breakups, I’d put it at like 65%. Autostraddle has as much breakup content as it does dating content. I personally wrote an entire biweekly column for a whole year about the end of my last relationship.

Now, why am I so focused on this throwaway line you included in your letter? Well, I think it hints at something specific you’re struggling with in ending this relationship. I don’t have all the details as to why you and your first girlfriend broke up, but it sounds like it might have to do with the distance. And since you still want to be friends with her, I’m assuming things ended rather amicably. It’s definitely a misconception that amicable relationships are “easier” than messy ones. No breakup is easy. I think you might be putting loads of extra pressure on yourself about your breakup because YOU want to focus on the success stories of queer couples.

I think it’s possible that you feel pressured by outside forces to have a storybook perfect relationship. I know a lot of queer people who struggle with this, especially if they have people in their lives who aren’t fully accepting of their queerness. They feel like they need to prove to these people—or society in general—that they can be happy, fulfilled, and problem-free in a queer relationship. I’ve been there. One part of why it was hard for me to leave my ex even after she betrayed me over and over is that she was the first partner I’d ever had that my family had met and I didn’t want them to see me fail. Lots of folks feel the pressure to make a relationship work even when it’s not, and I think there’s an extra burden on queer people because our lives and relationships are already stigmatized as somehow broken by homophobic and heteronormative systems.

The weird thing about breakups is that when you’re going through one — especially your first major one — it can feel really, really isolating. The fact of that matter is that most people go through breakups; they’re such a common experience. And yet nothing about it feels common. Everyone feels like their breakup can’t fully be understood by others, and in a way that’s true, just like no one can understand a relationship between two people as fully as the two people in that relationship. The fact that you don’t think there are enough (or any?) advice articles out there specifically about queer breakups makes me think that this kind of thinking is holding you back a bit, too. You’re heartbroken to the point of feeling alone in this experience. But check out the Autostraddle breakup archives. There are so many people who are going through/have been through similar — if not exactly the same — situation as you. You might be able to learn something from them or be able to look at your situation from different perspectives. For me personally, reading fiction about breakups when I was going through a breakup was super grounding and useful…WAY more so than reading about “success stories” would have been. Looking at others, even fictional others, can sometimes unlock things about ourselves. You’re not alone.

If you and your ex want to stay friends — and it sounds like you do — then it will take communication, boundaries, and work. Exes can definitely be friends! But also, make sure that’s what you really want and not yet another result of external pressure to keep things friendly. In the immediate aftermath of a breakup, space is usually good. It can get too confusing if you end up talking to your ex every single day. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting the past, but it does require some space to let your brain and heart breathe. What kind of friendship do you want with her? You need to really think about this in as specific terms as possible. You already know her well obviously, but think of it as starting a completely new relationship with her, because it IS.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is currently a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Catapult, and The Offing. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 273 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Such good advice here! “No breakup is easy”–so very true.

    I felt so much pressure to stay friends with my first girlfriend—we had been friends before we started dating, and the thought of losing that longstanding friendship as well as the relationship was just too hard. Plus we had so many friends in common that there was a lot of surrounding social awkwardness.

    But I learned the hard way that the only way for that to happen was 1) for both of us to take space apart to heal and 2) reassess later down the line if that made sense for both of us. And as it turned out, our healing processes took really different timespans and shapes, and it didn’t make sense. (She got into another serious relationship very quickly, and I couldn’t be close to that when I was still hurting, no matter how many friends yelled “But you broke up with her!”) But you can’t predict the future, and you REALLY can’t predict the future when you’re going through a breakup.

    So much love and affection to the letter-writer on this one!

    • “you can’t predict the future, and you REALLY can’t predict the future when you’re going through a breakup.”

      This is so right. Break-ups can really warp people’s perception of reality and can be extremely disorienting. This makes sense because of how neurobiology and nervous systems work. And, not a great time to make big decisions. So I agree with the wisdom in this comment – Space to heal and then reassessing later when you’re back to baseline.

  2. Just want to push back against another point of framing in the letter: relationships aren’t successes or failures. Your relationship wasn’t a failure just because you broke up. If you tell yourself you failed then of course it will be hard to face what comes next, because you’re telling yourself you’re not capable. You are capable and you didn’t fail, you had an important connection with another person and you’ve decided to stop or change that connection now, but that’s fine! That’s part of life. You can of course reflect on things you’d do differently next time but it’s still a valuable experience to have had.

  3. Hi, my ex broke up with me 3 weeks ago. The last time we met for a meal she didn’t say much. I initiated to have a talk with her during which she mostly blamed me and was very eager to cut me short, and it was as though she had suddenly become another person and it was impossible for me to breakthrough her thoughts and rationalize with her. She then initiated a break up via text. I replied to her around a week half later and didn’t hear from her since then. She just got on a new job and prolly gave that as an excuse to break up with me. I really feel blindsighted and struggling to move on. What do you guys think?

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