You Need Help: You & the Ex Are Friends — But Fight Like You’re Still Together

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q: My ex-girlfriend and I broke up a little more than a year ago now. Obviously there are many nuances to our relationship, our break-up, and our current dynamic, but I’m going to ask this question without any of those qualifications (besides that she was my first love and my first long term relationship): When trying to remain friends with your ex, is it “normal” (I know this really doesn’t matter what’s normal or not… maybe I mean healthy? maybe I mean common? maybe I mean expected?) to fight with each other somewhat often? I am of the belief that fighting isn’t a bad thing, especially when it leads to some kind of understanding… so the concept of fighting isn’t in itself the problem I don’t think — it’s that I don’t fight with any of my other friends, and yet me and my ex fight and scream and cry just like we did when we were together. Is this fucked up? Are we just continuing the dynamic we are familiar with? Does this mean that we aren’t really allowing ourselves to be just friends? Some/all of our fighting is definitely based on issues we accumulated during our relationship (trust issues, resentment, etc). I certainly take 50% of the responsibility for our situation, and every time we blow up at each other it isn’t pleasant, but eventually we resolve it and we feel better about it, but it still makes me wonder if this isn’t right… like, if she’s not my girlfriend, why am I doing this? Maybe we shouldn’t be friends? Again, I know you aren’t getting the fully convoluted backstory so you’re going in with limited information to work with, but does this sound fucked up to you or not?

A:

Oh sugar! I think there’s a long answer and a short answer here. I’ll do the short answer first, in case you’re in a rush today: I think you know something is off here — it doesn’t seem like anyone outside this friendship talked to you about this or suggested to you that it was fucked up, I think you’re writing because on some level you think it is, and what you really want to ask is “Am I right in thinking this is fucked up?” I could be totally off here! But in the event that I’m not, and you know that this situation isn’t working for you and what you’re asking for is permission to end it: you have permission, and you don’t need to stay friends with this ex, regardless of your history, if it isn’t a situation that you’re getting something out of. No jury would convict you. You should probably either undertake the work of stemming the arguments and shutting down that aspect of this friendship, or:

jojo

Here’s the longer answer. There are, I think, two things to talk about here: being friends with your ex and fighting as a practice. Let’s talk about the second one first because that’s just the kind of day it feels like from over here.

There are so many generalizations and sweeping absolutes we repeat about fighting that sometimes it can be hard to have a real conversation about it. Like there’s the idea that you have a ~perfect relationship~ if you never fight (some of my worst relationships have been ones where we never fought, because it meant everyone was burying their feelings about everything!) or that fighting constantly means you’re REALLY in love because there’s ~passion~ in the relationship (there are lots of ways to demonstrate passion that aren’t constant fighting!)

So that leaves us, largely, on our own to figure out what healthy fighting looks like and when fighting is a sign that something isn’t right. We can try our best to figure those things out collectively (like our lesbian fight club — #5 might be particularly relevant for you), but on some level it has to be an individual rubric. For me personally, there are a few things that I feel make a fight ultimately constructive and worthwhile:

+ Was something about my relationship with this other person transformed in some way? Did I learn about what they do or don’t need from me, or set a precedent for how I want to be treated, etc?
+ Did I learn something or better myself in some way? Learn via someone getting mad at me that something isn’t okay to say, or decide to re-evaluate how I approach a certain topic?
+ Did I exercise/get practice with a communication skill that’s hard for me, like saying no or setting a boundary or getting angry without apologizing?

And so on! And so forth!

I’m not going to ask you to adopt my thoughts on this topic, that would be weird, you’re your own person, but I will ask you to consider this: when you say the fights you have with your ex lead “to some kind of understanding,” what does that mean? Is it an understanding that makes you better off in some way for having had the fight at all? Or is it an understanding that serves to end the fight, for the time being? This, I think, is a question for any of us to ask (although of course the latter type of fighting is kind of inevitable, and all relationships have SOME fights that are just totally awful and bitter and painful and the resolution of which is unsatisfying and nothing good ever comes of it and your best option is to try to forget it even happened, amen).

Are the fights you’re having with this person serving to enrich or educate you in your life outside this relationship? Or are the fights you’re having only pertinent to the relationship itself? If it’s the latter, then I think the reality may be that you’re paying a mortgage on a relationship you’re no longer really living in. I don’t have answers to the following questions, but I’m going to ask them because I think that thinking about them might be productive for you: How much of your time spent with your ex is spent fighting or trying to avoid a fight or processing a fight that already happened? How often, when you’re with them or talking to them, do you feel joy and fun, and how often do you feel frustration or apprehension or anxiety? Are there things of value in your life that you’ve been feeling like you don’t have time or room for that energy could be going towards?

Let’s let that be for a second and put it on the back burner while we talk about being friends with your exes. This is another thing where there isn’t a clear-cut set of rules, no matter what people say — some people swear by staying friends with everyone they’ve ever dated, some need a clean break 100% of the time, most of the time it’s on a case-by-case basis. I don’t know when is the right time to stay friends with an ex and when isn’t! I just don’t. I wish I did because I would sell a book about it that would make a million dollars. I think we can agree, though, that on a fundamental level, if someone is an ex at least one of you has decided that your romantic relationship wasn’t working, and so if your friendship is going to work, it should be substantively different in some way. You say that “some/all of our fighting is definitely based on issues we accumulated during our relationship” — to be honest, nothing you’ve said here makes it sound like your fighting style (or much else) has changed since you broke up.

I know that in this case, there’s history here that’s important to you — your first love! It’s complicated, and I don’t want to dismiss that. I do think, though, that history aside, it’s important to look at this relationship in all its past nuance and ask yourself “What about this relationship do I want to keep in my life? What’s been good?” I’m betting that the answer doesn’t include “constant fighting,” even if you do think that fighting can be okay sometimes. When you make a list of the good things you want to continue experiencing via having your ex in your life, how many of them are still reflective of the people you two are now? Which is a way of asking, are you friends with your ex because you want to keep the person she is now in your life, or because you want the friendship as a memorial to the first important relationship you had? You asked the question yourself: If she’s not your girlfriend, why are you doing this?

Those aren’t meant to be leading questions! It’s totally possible that you and your ex still share a deep passion for standing paddleboarding and she’s the first person you call when you want to talk about Great British Bake-off and she manages to understand and support all your weird family stuff without being judgy about it! Maybe all that stuff has survived the end of your romantic relationship and functions perfectly fine and platonically. Regardless, though, it seems like your fighting is bothering you on some level, and that’s worth addressing.

You could sit down and have a talk with your ex about this. You two have been through a lot already; it should be possible to discuss this. You can say “we fight just like we did when we were dating, and it’s not something I want in my life anymore; can we agree to a different method of dealing with this stuff, or decide that some topics are off-limits now that we’re not together?” You can also ask, if you’re comfortable with it, that they go to other people about frustrations with you before they start a fight about it. It doesn’t have to be talking behind your back, it can just be recognizing that it’s not always fair to make the person you’re having feelings about be the point person for talking through those same feelings. You can commit to, at least on your end of things, de-escalation responses; deciding that you’re not going to engage in these fights, changing your responses to frequent argument triggers, and see if your lack of participation in that dynamic causes it to shift.

Or you can (for now, at least), end this friendship. You broke up once; you could do it again. You can tell her “this friendship seems like it’s replicating some of the worst parts of our dating relationship and I think we should take some time and space apart while we both learn other styles of relating to people.” When you imagine doing that, what does it bring up for you? What’s your instinctive reaction? Is it sadness? Anxiety? Relief? A combination? Whatever that feeling is, it’s going to give you probably a more honest and helpful answer than I ever could.

Good luck, small butterfly; I feel confident that you know the answer to this, even if you don’t know you do, and that you’re gonna make the right choice.


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Rachel

Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. Thank you so much, Rachel. I needed this. I think I’m going to be reading your response over and over for a while before I get the courage and certainty to act, but this is really helping me to take a step back and look at what I have in front of me. I really want this situation to improve. Thanks for the advice and encouragement!

  2. I’m so glad that there is something out there that says you don’t have to be friends with an ex. I’ve often just wanted a clean break and felt like I was the only lesbian out there who needed that.

    There has to be space to heal and move on. And sometimes the reason you broke up with someone is a perfectly valid reason not to be friends with them.

  3. Life is hard enough as it is, you don’t really need friends you fight with, you need friends you love with (disagreements and all), so … letting an ex slip off your friend list needn’t feel like a debasement of fundamental values, it just happens. Good advice Rachel.

  4. I know this is old but I need to explain this so everyone knows.

    Since the year 2000 you are able to have whatever you want instantly. It’s called instant gratification.
    You order something it’s delivered next day ect.

    Except there is 2 things that you can obtain instantly and they are 1. Job satisfaction 2. Relationship satisfaction.

    When you have been in a job long enough and you start to enjoy going to work and being able to do whatever you want at work with no fear of losing your job then that’s called JOB SATISFACTION.

    When your new in a relationship you don’t argue once. But when you have been marriad 40 years you argue every day with no fear of the relationship being over. That’s called RELATIONSHIP SATISFACTION.

    If you made a graph of new relationships and long relationships against number of arguments you would have a straight diaganal line going up to the right.

    The fact that you can argue with your ex and then maintain friendship afterwards tells me you probably should still be in a relationship with her.
    You have relationship satisfaction but because you and other people think arguments are bad for relationships then that’s why your not together.

    Arguments is the indicator to know how strong your relationship is.

    It’s like a trust without fear.

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