Can You Ever Be Friends With An Ex?

Can You Ever Be Friends With An Ex?


Dr. Nerdlove,

I need your full, honest opinion if I should continue to remain just friends with this guy (Let’s call him “A”). Let me give you a backstory (I apologize in advance for the length):

“A” and I met through mutual friends when we were teenagers and were instantly drawn to one another emotionally and physically. We were able to talk about anything for hours and had a lot of common interests. We were able to be there for each other when things were bad, good, and everything in between. But there was also the sexual attraction that couldn’t be avoided. We went out a few times that always ended up with us making out at some point, but nothing more. We were never “honey, sweetie, baby, I love you” to each other.

Fast forward to a few years—“A” had previously moved away and seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. His phone number was no longer the same so I had no way of contacting him. However, thanks to social media and mutual friends I was able to re-connect with him again when we were just about 20. It was like nothing ever changed. We were still able to make each other laugh and hang out with friends and watch movies like no time had passed. “A” had an on-again-off-again girlfriend and I had just gotten out of a terrible relationship from high school. We were able to talk each other through the weirdness of it all. However, this time when things got a little heated between us, it went all the way, but once and only once (we were both single at the time of the hook up, of course).

I think –without saying it out loud to each other—“A” and I knew our wants and needs in life were totally different and our paths were not the same. We kind of mutually knew that a true romantic relationship wasn’t in the cards for us because we knew deep down it would never work out long-term. We had continued to hang out a little after that and never really talked about our hook up after it happened. It wasn’t bad or awkward, but I just don’t know if it was truly meant to happen.

“A” had confessed to me one night that his ex-girlfriend recently admitted to him that she was a few months pregnant with his child. He was beside himself at how his future was going to look and I got uncomfortable. Kids were never something I wanted for my future and even if I stuck around, I’d know he’d always be tied to this unruly ex-girlfriend that he always complained about. I’m ashamed to say it, but I kind of politely ghosted him after that. I had texted him one day telling him I wasn’t sure if we should see each other or talk as much anymore, especially because he was so torn about what he should do moving forward with this girlfriend (he wanted to be a good father and try to make amends with the girlfriend and I didn’t want to get in the way of that). He was sad, but understood and we kind of just ended it there. I would find him online years down the road (I didn’t friend request him or anything) and saw he remained in his relationship with his girlfriend, and they welcomed a second baby since our “split”. It seemed to be going well for him and I was happy.

I am now in my 30s and have been in an amazing, loving, and supportive 10+ year relationship with the most wonderful man I have ever met. We’ve been through everything together, have no issues, and we know that we’re both in it with each other for the long run! But recently, “A” found me on Instagram and messaged me that he was thinking about me and he hopes I’m well. I politely messaged him back and said the same. He admitted his same previous girlfriend had left him after 11 years after admitting to cheating on him for quite some time. He was heartbroken, but I picked him up and brushed him off and talked him through it. He clearly sees through my photos I am serious with my boyfriend. I told him how stable and happy I am and “A” tells me he’s happy that I’m happy.

“A” and I got to messaging each other about our past and he mentioned how weird it was that things just never lined up for us. I agreed but admitted to him that I truly think we were never meant to be a couple, but just friends. He agreed to this…. and now… what?

Is it possible for two people who have had such an intimate relationship in the past be friends today? I understand that our situation was clearly a “friends with benefits” circumstance, but it’s really hard for me to see this person and not think: “We’ve had sex”. I also know that my current boyfriend has no issues with me being friends with other guys, but this particular situation is for some reason not sitting well with me. Is it possible to get over this? Is my gut telling me this cannot happen? I know if I had to end this friendship with “A”, he would understand, he’s never been cruel or a jerk, but I would feel like an A-hole again for being the one to cut ties.

Give it to me straight—am I overthinking this and risking losing a potential friend? Or am I being stupid for considering a previous fling could ever be just a friend?

Damn Confused

Here’s what I’m seeing in your letter, DC: you and A had a lengthy friendship where you were both sexually attracted to one another.  You both knew that you weren’t right for each other romantically and you wouldn’t work as a couple, but the friendship was still deep, intimate and meaningful. At one point, you and A had sex. Since then you’ve split, reconnected, talked about your history and acknowledged that you two were never going to be a couple.

What I’m not seeing: a reason why you and he couldn’t be friends again, just because you had sex.

Here’s the thing: for all the power and importance that people assign to sex and sexual attraction, at the end of the day, attraction is just attraction and sex is just sex. The “meaning” of the act, or the attraction, tends to be whatever people are bringing to it, not something inherent to the act itself. The idea that men and women can’t be friends without sexual attraction getting in the way has far, far more to do with bullshit ideas around male and female sexuality and toxic ideas about masculinity than the inherently transformative power of sticking tab A into slot B or whatever combination of genital metaphors you care to think of. The reason why sex “gets in the way” of cross-gendered friendships (and yet, never seems to be a problem for gay, bi and pan folks) is because of how much bullshit gets heaped onto the idea of sex and What It Means. Folks assume that being attracted to someone and acting on that attraction means more than just “I think you’re hot, you think I’m not”,  guys use friendship under false pretenses to get sex or — as I suspect is the case — people just are afraid to actually talk about their feelings with each other and hope that not saying anything will somehow make it all better.

Case in point.

If the question were just “can two people who had a close friendship and were physical in the past be friends”, then yes; there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t, just based on the fact that they fucked once, twice or, hell, every day and twice on Sundays. It’s the rest of your history that makes me hesitate.

I think you’re massively overthinking things, DC. In fact, you’re overthinking things so much that I’m wondering what the real issue is here, because I’m pretty sure it’s not just you bumped uglies. If anything leaps out at me in your letter, it’s the fact that you bailed on A after he told you his ex was pregnant. You say that kids were never something that you wanted and that he’d be tied to his ex… but what, exactly does that have to do with being friends? There’s also the fact that there’re so many caveats and qualifiers in your letter — about how your boyfriend has no problem with your being friends with other guys and so on — that I wonder if you’re sitting on some unresolved feelings about A,  your one-off hook-up and his being back in your life again. That, plus your emphasizing how much you love your husband and how great your relationship is with him is leading me to think that you wanted (and may still want) more from A than you’re willing to admit.

That is going to be a much bigger issue about having any sort of relationship with A going forward than the fact that you two banged, once, more than a decade ago.

Now were I a betting man, I’d say that the real crux of the issue is the fact that y’all (and by which I mean, mostly you) tried to avoid talking about your hook-up. It sounds like A was more interested in at least discussing the nature of things with you and you’ve shut him down a few times. So while I’m going to give you a break — very few people are great at dealing with complicated emotions in their early 20s, especially when all of pop culture keeps telling us that men and women can’t be friends without sex getting in the way — it sounds like there’re more than a few unresolved issues lingering around.

I strongly suspect that most of the hesitancy around whether that relationship could’ve worked was coming from your side of things, and I’m wondering exactly what the issue was. Was it just a values dissonance, where you and he had disagreements on something fundamental that would’ve caused problems down the line? Was there something about him that made you feel like you shouldn’t want him despite the fact that you very clearly did? Is it possible that there was some sort of disconnect between who you thought you were “supposed” to date vs. what you were feeling?

That, I think, is the question you should be asking yourself. What about this relationship is causing you so much hesitancy and why? If you were to actually dig in and explore why, despite this mutually fulfilling, emotionally intimate and sexually charged connection, you felt like you and he couldn’t work and why you had to cut him off once his ex was pregnant, I think you’ll be able to answer your question. Getting some clarity there will, at the very least, help you be more honest with yourself about why this is troubling you so much.

While I freely admit I’m Captain “Yes, Be Friends With Your Ex”, that doesn’t mean that you should try to maintain a relationship with every ex or former FWB. If there’s some underlying cause for feeling weird about your history with A, or that being friends with A would prove detrimental to your life or emotional well-being, then there’s no real need for any handwringing. Hell, you can just choose not to be friends with him because you just plain don’t want to be. But based on how much it seems like you missed having him in your life and how strong the hesitancy you’re feeling is…I think you should put a little more energy into a deep dive of your own feelings before you worry about next steps.

Good luck.

Hi Dr. NerdLove,

I’m a male in my early 30s, and I’ve been a longtime reader of your writing. I’ve especially appreciated and benefitted from your treatments on the subject of adult virginity – not least, because I lost mine just a little over a year ago to a wonderful woman who is now my partner. Still, the process of getting there was difficult at points, fraught with fighting internal stigmas and stereotypes associated with it – which is what made your site so helpful. Now, I want to do the same thing for others still in that situation, as I’m a writer as well (of the philosophical and fictional varieties). I guess one of the big questions comes down to: how?

On the one hand, I’m aware that a lot of the stigma against adult virgins is self-imposed (which also risks being self-fulfilled), but even you acknowledge that the external stigma towards those who are is real, and that would be the focal point to address. However, there is a common thinking within psychological literature that sexual initiation does represent the transition to adulthood. Problem is, if that is true, wouldn’t it suggest the stigmas and stereotypes against adult virgins are justified? Full disclosure here: I admit that an answer in the affirmative would cut deep. Being a thinker by nature as well as a writer, I’d like to think myself as someone who can offer a mature and credible insight on such matters (regardless of my personal level of experience, as that would suggest my point-of-view only became valid recently, and only by the actions of another). I guess you could say there is a lingering air of stigma even after the fact (I’ve felt this on more than a few occasions), so it’s almost as if I’m left with two competing self-concepts: one where I see myself as intelligent and insightful, and the other, where I might feel naïve, impaired, less of an adult than my peers (because even though I’ve crossed that threshold, disparities in experience are still noticeable at my age). So, quite a gap! However, I’m still convinced that these stereotypes deserve to be challenged, but I also don’t want to do so out of residual insecurity (always better to be clear-eyed). Is such a task worthwhile in the way that I’m thinking?

Former Older V-Card Holder

Well, let me start by offering my congratulations on meeting an awesome woman who was the right person for you to have your first time with. Here’s to hoping that this — and all future relationships — continues to be as positive, meaningful and nurturing as it’s been so far.

With that being said, here’s a question for you, FOVCH: is this about helping others, or is this more about dealing with your own internalized sense of shame and stigma around having been an older-than-average virgin? Yeah, you did the deed, but it seems pretty clear to me that you still feel like your having taken “too long” is bad… somehow.

I mean, let’s be honest here: is it really “common thinking” within psychological literature that your first sexual experience is a transition to adulthood? Or is it just your jerkbrain leveraging confirmation bias against you that’s making you zero in on things that tell you that you’re weird for having your first time in your 30s?

(Spoiler alert: it’s the latter. That’s not the “common thinking”; ask actual psychologists.)

And for that matter, what does that literature actually say? Is it saying that the act of sex causes an actual transition to adulthood? In which case, is someone an adult just because they had sex at 13? Or 10? Or — more likely — is it saying that it’s treated as such because we’ve got how many centuries of stories and cultural build-up that’s treated sex as a coming (as it were) of age? And that’s before we get into the question of what they’re calling sex and how heteronormative the idea is…

It’s also worth noting that just because a concept is common or accepted in some circles — authoritative or not — doesn’t mean that they’re actually true or correct. Cultural, racial and sexual bias is a thing, even — and especially — in the sciences, both hard and soft, and we bring our  biases and preconceived notions with us to everything we do. Considering how scientists had to discover the true size and shape of the clitoris three separate times, how racism gets baked into supposedly neutral algorithms and how many doctors will treat BIPOC patients differently than white patients with the exact same symptoms, I think you don’t need to worry about the ‘validity’ of the stereotypes. That, I feel very safe in declaring, is just your own lingering feelings about being an older virgin continuing to haunt you.

I also think that you’ve presented yourself a false dichotomy. Your choices aren’t “write about this like a gimlet-eyed veteran of a thousand messy beds” or “wide-eyed newbie who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground”. In fact, I think that approach actually works against you.

Part of why there’s so much stigma around virginity — self-imposed and otherwise — is because of how often folks just accept the premise from the jump and work outwards from there. This is what’s known as begging the question — when the argument assumes the validity of its conclusion from the start. I mean, look at how you frame this: “regardless of my personal level of experience, as that would suggest my point-of-view only became valid recently, and only by the actions of another”. In the span of a run-on sentence, you’ve disqualified yourself from talking about losing your virginity because you’d only just lost it and “only” because someone else (from the way you phrased it) took the initiative. So… if your partner was the one who made the first move, does that make your first time somehow “lesser” or not as meaningful? If you didn’t set out to seduce her or something, does that make you a Lesser Sex Haver, somehow?

I think, rather than positioning yourself as An Authority or something, the best thing you could do is tell your story. I think one of the best ways to break the stigma and stereotypes around virginity, especially around older virgins, is to talk about it. Share your experience, without shame or rationalization. Don’t justify why you were 30+ before you had sex for the first time, just lay it out as facts: “here’s why I made the choices I did, here’s what influenced me, here’s my experience with this.” Let folks see what your experience with it was like.

It doesn’t have to be an opportunity for A Valuable Lesson, nor do you need to get into “this is why I’m not a weirdo for taking this long”. What would be better would just be showing folks the person who had this particular experience. Talking plainly, clearly and matter-of-factly, without being embarrassed about it, goes a lot further towards demystifying and destigmatizing being an older virgin. Show folks your lived experience puts a face on the concept, rather than a collection of assumptions, bullshit ideas about sexuality and self-limiting beliefs. And, quite frankly, it would show folks that they’re not alone, not weird and not doomed to be one of the Eternally Untouched.

So just tell your story. Let folks see the person instead of the stereotype in their heads. Help normalize talking about sex and sexuality in all it’s weird, wonderful messiness and variety. Let folks know they’re not the only person out there who’s had a difficult time with sex and sexuality. Your story will likely resonate with far more people than if you were to preach from the metaphorical mountain tops about sexual expression and virginity.

That, to my mind, will help a lot more people and a lot more effectively.

Good luck.