Saturday, October 6, 2012

Can Exes Really Be Friends?

I don't know how they do it. My mom and dad. Their 27-year marriage -- like many that last that long -- had as much tumult as any literary drama based on material from another medium. And that unexpected twist after the final act could probably drive its own spin-off, or the syllabus for a master class: How to divorce amicably. Throughout the extended quarter-century-long epilogue, I don't believe I've ever heard my mother say a bad word about my father, which, in my book (one that would make an excellent miniseries: The Helligars?), qualifies her for sainthood.

I knew they'd remained close over the years, despite living in different states (he in Florida, she in Georgia), but I never realized how close until a recent Skype chat with my mom. Apparently, they now talk practically every day. About what, I have no clue. My dad never really had the gift of gab. If it was sitting around unwrapped all those years ago, that would be a shame. It could have saved their marriage. Better late than never, right? At the rate they're going, if Mom were ever to remarry, I wouldn't be surprised if she asked Dad to walk her down the aisle.

In the realm of relationships, it's probably one of the best examples my dad has ever set. Being besties with exes just doesn't come naturally to me, though I've managed to stay civil, if not in regular contact, with most of them. I'm even friends with a few on Facebook. But I wouldn't expect any late-night phone calls just to shoot the breeze or an invitation to any important family gatherings, and neither should they. It's not like there are kids involved, making co-existence a more pressing requirement.

And that's fine by me. Considering the hardline stance I used to take with ended relationships -- When they're over they're over," I'd pronounce. "People break up for a reason" -- I've come a long way. In the general scheme of things, though, I wouldn't exactly call any of them "friend."

I suppose that segueing from lovers to friends might be easier to do if you begin as friends. Or if true friendship develops over the course of the partnering. Once "I love you" enters into the equation, the relationship shifts to a new level. Even if it doesn't end in a fit of fury and a shitstorm of accusations and recriminations, even if there are no hard feelings, returning to the emotional safety of a platonic relationship is a complicated process.

In the absence of a considerable lapse of time, I believe exes can be friends under special circumstances only: If no one was to blame, no infidelity, no violence, no felonies, if at the time of the break-up, they were more like brothers, or sisters, or brother and sister, if sex and sexual attraction had long ceased to be key components in the coupling, more power to them. In general, though, I think it's easier for exes to be friends if they aren't really trying to be. The question "Can we be friends?" is like the kiss of death.

I recently received such a request from an ex. It arrived like the unexpected party invitation that you're thrilled to receive at first. But when you start to think about it, you begin to come up with myriad reasons to RSVP your regrets. To the ex's credit, he didn't actually use the word "friends." He just wants me in his life. But considering that we're living on two different continents (he's in Melbourne; I'm in Bangkok), that he's moved on, and that I'm finally ready to as well, the implication is clear: We can only be friends... for now (yes, a loaded addendum, and one that represents possibly the biggest hurdle for these would-be lovers-turned-friends).

But how do we continue as friends? It's not like we've had practice. Not to give away all the nuts and bolts of the relationship, but we were never really pals. For reasons too complicated (and personal) to detail here, we never did all those things that normal friends do, like going to the movies, eating out in restaurants, hanging out in pubs with other friends. Reaching out to me at all was a brave gesture on his part, but was his presumed endgame realistic? Where would we stuff all the baggage that we've been lugging around and just be casual buddies with both hands free to hug each other in that breezy "hey, mate" sort of way?

It was probably easier to make the overture from a comfortable physical distance, but if we lived in the same city, would we pretend to still be continents apart, communicating solely on Facebook, or would we upgrade to text messages? Would we meet up for lunch, hiding behind dark sunglasses and our best "I'm fine" smiles, while making awkward small talk and ignoring the elephant at the table? It wouldn't be nearly as dysfunctional as Chris Brown and Rihanna's on-again, off-again "friendship," but is that saying much?

For exes who dare to actually use the F word, how do you define "friends" anyway? Does it mean that you re-friend each other on Facebook, too? Do you occasionally "like" each other's status updates, email a few sentences once every several months, keep it at the indifferent, non-committal level at which we conduct most of our Facebook interactions? Do you respond to texts and emails selectively, taking weeks to write back, if you do so at all? Do you ignore each other altogether? Aside from on my birthday, I never hear from 95 percent of my Facebook friends, and after I press "accept," for the most part, I forget about them.

If exes are going to be so casual about being "friends," why even bother discussing it? If the subject is important enough to discuss, shouldn't the friendship be important enough to put a little more effort into? I'm all for long-lost friends messaging me out of the blue and announcing, "I'm coming to Bangkok, let's get together." But am I really interested in meeting up with an ex I rarely hear from and whomever he's currently dating?

I'd rather see him the way I did my first ex, Derek, and his then-current boyfriend in a train station in Florence some 13 years ago -- completely by accident. They missed their train to wherever so they could hang out with me until my coach to Pisa arrived. Then it was goodbye -- no blood, no sweat, no tears. What if I had run into Derek on his own, though? It's funny that I've never wondered that until this moment. What if we'd planned it? If an ex is traveling solo, would it be wise to actually set up an encounter, open a Pandora's box of messy?

Continuing on that train of thought, does moving into friendship mode mean that you have to close the book on romance completely? If so, then you probably should finally have that post-mortem conversation where you confront the elephant and excuse him from the table. You just don't go from lovers to strangers to friends without some kind of analysis of what went wrong -- closure, for lack of a better term -- just because one (or both) of you wants the other in your life.

If you're going to go ahead and be friends more on paper than in practice, remember to do it off Facebook. Just because you treat your ex-turned-friend like a Facebook connection doesn't mean you have to make him one. Facebook stalking has never been my thing (I can't remember the last time I've actually looked at someone's profile), but why give my curiosity the chance to get the best of me? If any of my exes and I are ever going to end up like my mom and dad, it's probably best that I don't know what he's up to every second of the day.

Full disclosure can come later. For Mom and Dad, it took decades to get to where they are now. Rome wasn't built in a day. Sometimes great friendships take as long as great empires.

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