Monday, September 10, 2007

Rules and Politics for a Friendly Breakup, a How-To Manual

This is a post I've been writing with my thoughts, words, and actions for several years now. It's the result of trial, error, and most importantly, learning from my own mistakes, which I'm putting down on paper (or more specifically, digitally on teh internets) for my own reference in the future, 'cause it's probably a good thing to have handy if I ever plan to date again. The kind of thing that you hope you'll never need, but understand realistically that you probably will. It's also a good checklist to keep in mind in my current situation. It's something I've learned a lot about, and I think I do pretty well, as evidenced by the number of current friends I have that I used to date. That said, I doubt I'm perfect. Anyway, without further ado...

So you think you want to remain friends with that person you're about to break up with. In most cases, it's certainly possible, and such friendships can be especially rewarding, because the people you date tend to know and understand you better than most others you interact with. The most important thing to think about first is whether you should attempt it at all. Each person you date, and the situation involving them, is completely different from all the others. Some are more conducive to good friendships than others, and sometimes it's just plain a bad idea. Here are some important questions to ask yourself. This would be the "figuring out if this is really the good idea you want it to be" phase.

"Why do I want to be friends with this person?"

If the answer is "I don't want to lose them completely," you should be hearing sirens and seeing flashing red lights. Wrong answer. Stop, do NOT pass go, turn around, and go back the way you came. This will not bring good for either one of you. You could arrive at this answer because they broke up with you and you still love them, because you're afraid of being lonely, or for all kinds of other reasons, but the fact of the matter is that it just isn't possible if this is your motivation. Make a clean break, grieve your loss, rebuild your self esteem, and move on (this sentence will be referred to from here on as "Plan A").

If, on the other hand, your answer in some way reflects that you would both be good for each other as friends, you're in good shape here. It could be that you were friends beforehand and work very well in that capacity, or that the relationship just didn't work because you weren't romantically compatible, but you get along great, have a wonderful connection, and would be positive forces in each other's lives under different circumstances. There are several other reasons that would work, too. If you're doing this for positive reasons instead of selfish ones, you're probably on the right track. Move on to the next question.

"Why did we break up?"

The right answers here involve neither party committing any major wrongs or betrayals. For example, "grew apart" or "different life goals" = good chances. "Someone cheated and/or lied" or "I caught him in bed with my sister" = no way, Jose. If there's been a serious breach of trust or inordinately bad behavior, you don't respect each other enough to be friends, and you won't be able to trust each other, which is VERY important to a positive friendship. See Plan A, and possibly Jerry Springer, depending on how extreme this particular case is.

"Will the benefits be worth all the trouble it takes to get there?"

This is a big one. Breakups suck, and they're pretty damn difficult without the extra pressure that's involved here. The higher your initial expectations of the relationship were, the more serious it got, and the closer you expect the friendship to be, the more emotionally taxing the road to get there is going to be. This stuff is not usually easy. It's kinda like walking through a minefield, actually. You will definitely get hurt at times, blindsided at others, and have to be the mature one at yet other times when your new friend is hurt or blindsided. You'll have to be diplomatic when you don't feel like it, and your first reaction to almost any situation will have to be to step into the other person's shoes and look at your situation through their eyes. Is a friendship with them really going to be worth all that grief? Will it bring enough good into you life to counterbalance the crap and make a profit emotionally? If the answer is "no," "I'm not sure," or "I don't know that I can handle all that," then again, see Plan A. It will be better for both of you. If you're willing to be the best person you can possibly be and you want to see it through to the good parts, it's time to move on to the rules:

1) Clearly state your intentions, and allow them to make their own decision. -- You can't force this. They need to go through the whole process I wrote about above, and it takes two to tango. If you're not both in the right place emotionally, it's not gonna work. You need to be prepared to walk away for the best interests of both of you if they say "I don't think I want that."

2) Be nice. -- This person is a human being, just like all the rest of us, with their own flaws, limitations, and sometimes irrational emotions, and they're dealing with all the same shit you are. Keep that in mind. While you won't always be able to avoid hurting them at all, you should have the grace and tact to avoid it wherever you can and minimize it when you can't avoid it. Nobody wants to hurt the people they care about, so do your best, ok?

3) Grieve alone. -- Everyone needs some time to heal after the end of a relationship, and as long as you're not doing it for an extended period of time, a little wallowing and moping is perfectly healthy. That said, it's important that you do it privately. You'll be very tempted to mope together and commiserate, but that's a very bad idea. It will extend the healing time for both of you and may tempt you to commiserate and reassure each other in ways that aren't healthy for either of you (read: ex-sex), and that would start the whole emotional upheaval all over again. Just don't do it. You should try to have your best face on whenever you see them. We're all human, and it's not always possible, but the more you can be positive together, the easier (and happier) this will be.

4) Live your own life, but keep them in mind. -- Don't make decisions about your life based on how it will affect them, but handle the effects of those decisions as diplomatically as possible. For example, deciding not to date because you don't want to hurt them is not a good thing. Deciding not to date because you're really not ready yet is. Make your decisions for you. That said, how you choose to expose them to the results of your decisions can be a big factor in how much you hurt each other. From the example above, if you've got a date, don't go to their favorite bar, where they might unexpectedly see you out with someone new. Don't hide things from them that may blindside them later, but don't rub your new boys or girls in their face, either. Try not to be unfair.

5) Put yourself in their shoes before you react. -- As I've said before, it's impossible to do this without getting hurt. When that happens, look at the situation from their angle. If they're doing this the same way as you are, it's highly unlikely that they genuinely want to hurt you; they just want to move forward with their life, too, and sometimes the way to handle a situation that causes the least pain to someone else is hard to determine. If you need to discuss your feelings with them, that's usually ok, but you'd better do it from the "here's what I'm feeling" angle instead of the "WTF? That was really messed up" one.

6) Be strong when they're weak. -- Ok, this has come up several times now, but just a reminder -- we're human and no one's perfect. This process is full of emotional turmoil on both sides, and there will be times where either one of you is not so much the grown up you usually are. Your job is to pick up the slack when they're in a weak place, and hopefully they'll do the same for you.

7) Spend fun time together being happy. -- Vastly important. The good should outweigh the bad or else it's not a good situation. Hang out with friends, do fun things, and don't let the negatives swamp the positives. Laugh together. As often as possible. Why be friends with someone you can't have fun with?

8) Be prepared for, but don't expect, failure. -- Even if you're doing everything right, it may not work out. You both need to be extremely mature about all this, and mutually committed to being a positive force in each other's lives. Maybe they won't handle it properly, maybe you won't be able to do it anymore, and maybe it just won't work for some other unforeseen reason. You've got to be able to walk away on good terms if it's not going to happen with your head held high knowing you gave it the best chance you could have.

9) Follow the golden rule. -- This pretty much sums up all of the above. Do unto others as you'd like them to do unto you. This is someone you care about very much, or you wouldn't even be attempting a friendship. Treat them like you care.

And that? That's about all I have to say on the subject. Yes, it was long. Deal.


care said...

well put. and little factoid for #7, that applies to all relationships, but particularly romantic ones (and I realize that this is about turning romantic to platonic, but go with it, okay?)

anyhoo, in any *healthy* relationship, clinically speaking, you should have a ratio that, at a minimum, is seven-to-one. seven good things for every bad thing. good things can be big deals like fancy dinners or small things like laughing at something silly--and the bad can be just as terrible or simple. but in any case, seven for every one--at least.

meaning that "vastly" should be at least seven to one, on average, to make it worth it.

and that's your random carrie factoid for the day.

The Brooklyn Boy said...

Lotta great stuff in here, man. Knew some, took away more. Good look.

Lisa said...

Very reasonable rules. I've never excelled at the friend thing.

Southern Girl said...

Makes sense. But what does it mean when you and your friend keep ending up in bed together? Even after a lot of time goes by?

SarahLeigh said...

You've put together a well thought out and yet concise argument here. Kudos. I'm contemplating renewing a friendship, but after readings this, I'm going back to plan a for awhile.

Dagny Taggart said...

The hardest part for me, I think, has always been keeping my instinctive reactions under wraps. Because when feelings are hurt, it's natural to want to get defensive, to call the person out on it. In reality, though, the other person is most likely just... living life. It's the fact that they're doing it well, without you, that causes the pain - not what they're doing in particular.

Thoughtful and well-written post, as always.

Kat Wilder said...

Great advice, with just one missing element that's pretty big, the one southern girl brings up.

The "keep ending up in bed together" thing, which really complicates friendship, or it just means you're friends with benefits ... a different kind of friendship.

If one person is still attracted to the other in that way, that's tough. You may be honest about wanting friendship only but if the other isn't quite as honest about his/her intentions, there's trouble ahead.

I am friendly with almost all my former lovers (we get together from time to time, invite each other to parties, try to hook up the other up with friends), but few are friends — the kind I call all the time, share all my secrets with and spend a lot of time with.

It's rare that two lovers break up with the same feelings about what's happened and what should happen between them next.

LMNt said...

CarrieStrawberry -- You have an excellent perspective, my dear.

Brooklyn Boy -- Thanks.

Lisa -- Really? I thought you would be so good at it!

Southern Girl -- I touched on ex-sex in #3, but didn't say much 'cause I figured that answer was fairly obvious... under no circumstances should you sleep with them if you want an actual friendship. Bad, bad, bad idea. Like I said, it just starts all the emotional crap all over again from square one. And if you can't avoid sleeping with them, y'all aren't ready for friends yet.

SarahLeigh -- Glad I could help, although sad for you that it's not right yet.

Dagny -- Right.

Kat -- See answer to Southern Girl above.

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