You Need Help: I Feel Like a Bad Queer Because I’m Not Good at Being Friends After Breakups

Q:

Hi,

I was wondering if I could hear advice/multiple perspectives on friendship after breakups. (I would be excited to read the comment section.)

Basically, I feel sad and conflicted about a recent breakup. I’ve noticed that all of my relationships follow an arc where we go from friends to best friends to dating to broken up with and asked if I can still be their friend and I hate it. When we’re friends after the breakup, it’s felt confusing because everything feels the same to me intimacy and connection-wise, minus the fact that we’re no longer having sex. I hate how I feel. I hate how I notice a change in energy where when we were together they were slowing becoming increasingly disinterested and pulling back but now that we’re broken up, if we meet up, there’s a bounce in their step and they are so much brighter and happier and more engaged with me. (I know I shouldn’t take it personally, but it still feels shitty. I’ve tried gently sharing this with my most recent ex but she didn’t want to acknowledge/didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy for her.)

I feel like a bad queer because I’m not good at being friends after breakups.

I know a lot of the expectation/pressure I feel is internal, but I think the idea is so encouraged by my queer POC community and poly friends. Did I mention my ex is a friend of a friend? After the break, we immediately spend months apart to help get over each other but I don’t think it’s enough for me. Does anyone have advice on (friendship) boundary setting with exes after breakups? Can anyone affirm not wanting to be friends after breaking up? This is probably a larger conversation, but does anyone have advice on forgiving an ex after a breakup?

Sincerely,
Bad at Being Friends

A:

I am famously against the idea of being friends with exes.

Okay, that’s a little extreme. In reality, I just think that being friends with an ex — as with a lot of things having to do with sex, dating, and relationships — should be approached on a case-by-case basis. The reason why I’m so loudly a proponent of people cutting off their exes is because of what you wrote here: “I feel like a bad queer because I’m not good at being friends after breakups.”

I think it’s very, very easy to internalize the narrative that queer folks stay friends with exes. There are a million memes about people being codependent with their ex-girlfriends. Sometimes, those memes are funny! But as with a lot of humor about stereotypes and expectations about queer life, they can also affect us in deep ways that are difficult to unpack and unlearn! I too have felt actual pressure to stay friends with exes simply because of all the jokes about it.

You write that a lot of your romantic relationships started as friendships. I think that can make things especially hard. I told an ex once that it would not make sense for me to be her friend — firstly because she betrayed my trust as a partner, and that shit doesn’t just magically go away when you break up, but also because we did not have a friendship before we dated. If we were going to pursue a friendship, it would mean building something new entirely. There was no friendship to fall back on.

That said, people can of course choose to build a friendship with someone they’ve dated who they weren’t previously friends with. That’s valid! But I think me pointing out to my ex that we weren’t friends before was easier for her to understand than it is for your exes to understand why you wouldn’t want to be friends. Because in your case, there was a friendship before. So that must mean there’s a friendship to fall back on, right? WRONG!!!! That is what people sometimes do, and it makes things complicated and confusing. In reality, even if you were friends before, after you date someone, breaking up and then returning to friendship also requires work and rebuilding. In most cases, simply defaulting back to the friendship from before doesn’t work — at least not for both people. A new friendship with new boundaries needs to be formed. As a very straightforward example of what I mean: Maybe you and your ex used to talk about the people you’re hooking up with before you dated, and maybe you no longer want to hear about those things after you’ve dated and broken up. Under those circumstances, if you’re both defaulting back to the original friendship, you’re going to wind up hurt and confused.

You write: “I hate how I feel.” This is a rather overt sign that you need to set a firm boundary. If being friends with an ex makes you feel terrible, do not force yourself to be friends with an ex! But even more than that: I hope you can reframe how you think about this choice/boundary and not see it as a failure. My general rule is that if a friendship takes away more from you than it provides, it’s not a friendship worth maintaining. And to me, it seems like the balance is definitely way off in that regard.

You can be happy for an ex and still not want to be their friend. Those are two separate things entirely, so I wish your ex hadn’t conflated them. Because ultimately, if you don’t want to be friends, then it’s not just best for YOU to pull away but also for the ex! Because if you’re forcing yourself to be friends with someone, it’s going to affect your dynamic in small and large ways. It’s not sustainable.

I definitely affirm your desire to not be friends with an ex. And I know I used my own dramatic personal example, but I don’t even think it needs to have been a fraught/dramatic breakup for you to not want to be friends with an ex. Some people just can’t forget about the previous romantic intimacy when they’re around an ex, and that’s fine! It sounds like you at least know about yourself that this boundary is something you want, and that self-awareness is great! Now you just have to give yourself permission to act on it. Also know that you can experiment with different levels of this. You don’t have to cut an ex off right away if you don’t want to. You can try out different boundaries like suggesting you only hang out in groups instead of one-on-one. Then, see how you feel about that and adjust if you need to. It can be a slow fade if that’s what you need.

And to address the last part of your question: I’m also famously anti-forgiving exes. Again, I’m exaggerating! But I do think forgiveness is romanticized. I’ve written about closure and also forgiveness when it comes to breakups before. What I’ve said specifically about forgiveness before I still believe: “I think it gets conflated with the concept of ‘letting go.’ In reality, sometimes realizing that you don’t need to forgive someone is what letting go really looks like.”


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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kaylakumari

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. 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 322 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Nope, you’re not a bad queer. I’m friends with one ex and indifferent to a different ex play partner. The rest can go fuck themselves. And the one friend it took YEARS apart, her getting sober, and me fully getting over them to get where we are today. Who knows, maybe you’ll get there too one day, but plz don’t treat it like a race. And don’t see it as a failure if you never want to see them happy or angry or at all ever again.

    • I’m very good friends with an ex who was my first girlfriend and we were friends first from school. I think it took around four years and some periods of time apart to heal before i could say that we where just friends again, no hard feelings and now ten years on our relationship has no negative bearings on our friendship.

      I’m currently trying to navigate a friendship with my more recent ex (we broke up a year and a half ago) and at the moment i’m finding that difficult.

      I think i expected it to be like my above breakup/friendship however we weren’t friends first and this breakup caused more hurt and feelings of resentment, some of which still remain.

      I’ve figured out that i think i do want to maintain a friendship with her but it has to be in a way that feels okay with me and at the moment that means meeting for a coffee (or other situation i can easily leave from) every few months. Enough to catch up and see how she’s doing but not long enough to feel irritated by her/have old feeling resurface. I also try and avoid having conversations with her that are topical to the hurt from our relationship. I’m hoping with time maybe the situation will improve however i’m also not putting myself under pressure to make the friendship work. If it fizzles out then maybe we are just exes!

      Hope that maybe that helps with your situation :)

    • I am absolutely on board with BitterLemonLesbian response/approach. With one of my ex, it had taken us some years to rebuild our friendship and I can say that now we are both in a good place, with each other and within. We both had to grow, mature, go through our own issues, patterns, projections, insecurities and heal them first within ourselves. But she was also so confusing for me after our break-up (her saying that I am too much work? okay, I do not wish to be a work for my woman – she is with me because she wants and enjoys it, not works on it!). She kept all the intimacy, including coming to my room/bed and sleeping there, opening her arms widely into her cuddling when I got home from my night shift – WTF?!? So confusing!

      With another my ex, again we were friends before but not after, no thank you, no way. Once the trust is broken, I am gone. I even gave that one another chance as she tried (for a friendship with me) but she kept repeating the same behaviour not aligned with me (let’s just say toxic) so no, no friends. It was a difficult decision as she’s a mother of our princess so I had to find a balance, space within me to accept that she will be always in my life as in that role but no, we are not friends. Clear boundaries are essential!! I choose my friends carefully.

  2. I tried being friends with my ex for about a year after our breakup. It was my first relationship (mid 20s) that had lasted a few years, and I didn’t have the self awareness or confidence to say that I needed space to be on my own. I also found it emotionally confusing trying to still be there for her as a friend while she was going through some bad stuff (drugs/mental health issues). We now don’t talk at all but I’m actually really glad as it allowed me the space I finally needed to heal and move on to a much healthier and happier relationship.
    I wouldn’t judge the OP at all for not going down the friends route, you have to look out for your own happiness and mental health at the end of the day.

    • Ok wild that we have the same name and what sounds like a very similar experience. I tried to remain friends with my ex for about a year and it eventually completely imploded. I really wanted to maintain the relationship, but eventually going no-contact ended up being the best thing. That’s not to say it was easy, but it was definitely what I needed.

  3. There is no way to just jump into a friendship with your ex, ever. Even if you had a friendship first, I would say you should take space for at least as long as you were in a relationship. space = no contact whatsoever unless you need to be together bc mutual friends or something and even then try not to be caught alone 1 on 1. after that, maybe you’ll decide to forge a new friendship starting from acquaintanceship, but maybe you’ll have both changed too much.

  4. Also on team “you don’t need to be friends with your exes”! I actively avoid my most recent ex (thank goodness we don’t live in the same city anymore because I used to run into them all the time and I hated it).

  5. I consider myself a great queer and I am firmly anti friends with exes. (But I live in an area with a decent size queer community, so it’s not hard.) I think there’s more pressure in smaller communities where interaction is tough to avoid. But it’s still possible to be civil without being friends. Wishing you the best!

  6. Being friends with your ex is overrated. I made the mistake of being friends with my ex for 1.5 torturous years. I had all the same negative feelings you’re having. We were as close as ever but I couldn’t call her “babe” or touch her – except for one very drunken night that she immediately deemed a mistake the next morning. She relied on me for everything but would get extremely upset if I showed even the slightest discomfort when she talked about someone new she was dating. It was all very co-dependent and super toxic and it made me feel like shit. I finally realized how unhealthy it all was and that I needed space. I withdrew slowly but ultimately we ended all forms of communication and I have no doubt that it was for the best. It allowed me to heal and to fully move on from her. To the OP, there’s nothing wrong with doing what’s best for you. I hope you can create some boundaries so you can prioritize and protect your own well-being.

    • Your comment reminded me exactly why I hate the “queer codependent with their ex” memes! Actual codependency is not just like “my ex an I hang out a lot,” it’s the kind of jealousy and poor boundaries you described. I wish people wouldn’t make light of this kind of dynamic.

  7. the idea of still being friends with an ex has this air of emotional maturity that’s attractive to me, but in practice it’s never been applicable to my experiences. so far, the exes I’ve had have reacted so strongly at the idea of taking a month or even a couple weeks away from eachother post-breakup, that it took me a long time to even be confident in the idea that yes, in fact, that’s a reasonable thing to ask for during a break up. maybe one day if I break up with someone who is more receptive to that kind of boundary, I’d be more interested in friendship in the future.

  8. This was really helpful and it’s made me think a lot about my own situation…
    I am in my late 20s and it’s been a month since i was broken up with by my first relationship (we said it was mutual, but she said it was a dead end relationship and we were wasting our time because she didn’t have the energy to be in a relationship ). We agreed that we would cut off all connections, but I texted a couple of times afterwards. She said that in the future she hoped that we could be friends and hang out.
    Now as I’m trying to heal from the heartbreak a part of me is stuck on hoping that we can be friends again. But another part of me is scared because by even having that thought, I still cling on to hope that something will happen and we can go back to how it was.
    (We we’re together for a year and met through mutual friends so we are bound to eventually bump into each other at a gathering).

  9. I am not friends with my exes, and I am queer! It’s a very valid choice and honestly one that has been so good for my mental health. Obviously sometimes in smaller communities/queer circles you have to learn to be civil around each other and that’s just something that’s unavoidable, but truly there is NOTHING wrong with not being friends with your exes.

  10. If someone breaks up with you and then expects you to give them the affection and attention of a friend, I feel like that is a very good indication that they’re going to be a shit friend. You don’t owe anyone friendship, just as they don’t owe you a romantic relationship. Trust your instincts and break up with them as a friend if you want to – you don’t need any more justification than “I just don’t want to”. Xx

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