Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Can I Stay Friends with My Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m just coming out of what I think was my first relationship, but to be honest I don’t know if it’s over, or if it even started. I’m all mixed up and feeling lonely without the support she would normally be giving me. The events leading up to it are unusual to say the least so I’ll start at the beginning.

A few years ago, two friends of mine started dating. I’ve been friends with one of them – we’ll call her A – for three years, but we were never super close. I’d been friends with the other guy – who we’ll call B – for eight years. A and B started dating around two-ish years ago, and they’d been going steady ever since.

This year I started going to the gym with A. We started becoming closer, but we never hung out outside of the gym. However, things started to get rough in her relationship, and she and her boyfriend fought a bunch. It culminated in B hurting A, and doing some pretty bad emotional damage. I’d rather not disclose the exact details of what happened, but this was lifelong trauma levels of hurt.

It was… bad. They dragged out the relationship for about a month after, during which A came to me for comfort, while B turned away all the help I offered. A and I grew extremely close. I opened up in ways I’ve never opened up before, and was able to receive emotional support in a way that just isn’t really common between guys. Additionally, it felt like I was genuinely helping someone to become a happier person, and that gave me a great warm and fuzzy feeling. Over all, everything was great. I’d found someone who I could genuinely call my best friend, a title I’d never wholeheartedly given out before.

Here’s where things go wrong. A had been separated from her ex for about a month and a half, even though the breakup was only formalised a few weeks ago. At this point in time, A and I were hanging out one or two times a week, and we talked every night before bed. I realised that had feelings for A, but I didn’t really understand them. I couldn’t tell if I liked her romantically, or if she was just a friend who also happened to be extremely attractive. Regardless, I asked her out and she said yes.Sort of.

Her last relationship had left her with her trust pretty damaged, and she said she didn’t want a full relationship yet. I was about to let it go and move on when she said she’d be open to being casual, and that she’d actually had a crush on me since before the big bang that ended her relationship. I was ecstatic. I’d never been in a relationship before, and I’d never been as close with anyone as I was with A. I had been afraid that I would ruin our friendship when she turned me down, but everything was going better than planned. The next few weeks were heaven. We had sex a couple times, and we talked even more openly than before.

Unfortunately, school ramped up, and we didn’t have time to hang out. I was feeling a bit alone. I got drunk and depressed at a party. In my drunkenness, I decided to “test” her. I pretended to be sad and refused interaction from anyone to see if she would come and check on me. She sent a friend to do so because she felt she was too drunk to help.  I interpreted this as her not deeming me worth the time. It was a dick move in hindsight. Apparently her ex used to do this and she really didn’t like that I did it too. She became distant over the next week before telling me why she was mad, and I was hurt that she hadn’t told me I’d messed up earlier. It’s been downhill from there.

And now we’ve reached the present. We’ve been talking lately. Apparently what she’d wanted from “being casual” was casual hookups on top of being friends. What I thought she’d meant was an open, short term relationship. She revealed to me recently that things just got to close to a full relationship for her comfort. She’s been wobbling between wanting to be friends with benefits with me, wanting to cut things off, and everything in between.

I think I still have feelings for her, but I don’t really know. Last time we hung out was before it all went bad, and we had a great time. I want to continue to spend time with her, but she keeps jumping around on what she wants. She’s leaving for out of town soon, so she’ll be gone for a while. I’m all mixed up inside and I don’t know what to do. This is not only the first (almost) relationship I’ve had, but also the first time I’ve really liked a girl this much. I know that a serious relationship is totally out of the question, but I’d like to at least go back to how we were before.

Basically here’s the questions:

Will we ever be able to go back to being close friend’s like before? The support from that was amazing and really helped me make it through the year, and I’d love to go back to that.

Is it possible for us to be physically intimate, but also be friends, without all this happening again?

How can I tell how she feels? Everything she says contradicts something she has said, is contradicting something she ends up saying later.

What should my next steps be? I really don’t like the idea of going nuclear with her.

How do I avoid this sort of thing happening again in the future?

Best Wishes

-All Mixed Up


This was… not the best relationship for your first foray into dating AMU. While I don’t doubt that you and your friend had a real connection, there was a lot of crossed wires, miscommunications and complicated history there.

The good news is that this is also going to provide you with a lot of much-needed experience that will serve you well in future relationships. Assuming, of course, that you actually learn the lessons from this one.

And the first lesson is don’t test your relationships. Ok, look, I get it. You sound pretty young and this was your first serious relationship. You were drunk, you were feeling low and you were having doubts. But there’s feeling low and having doubts and then there’s trying to make your girlfriend jump through hoops in order to prove… something. Part of the point of being in a relationship with someone is learning to trust them and to rely on them. If you’re worried about things or have questions, the answer isn’t to see if she’ll pass your ordeals three, it’s to use you words and talk to her.

That, incidentally, is the second lesson. For as close as the two of you were, you weren’t talking with each other… not in the way you should have. The most obvious disconnect happened right at the outset. One of the most important parts of having the Defining The Relationship Talk is to actually define your terms. It’s pretty clear that you and A had very different ideas and expectations of the kind of relationship the two of you were going to have. You heard “casual relationship” and focused on the “relationship” part, not the “casual”. She, on the other hand, expected to just add sex to your pre-existing friendship without expectations of monogamy and commitment. She wanted something low key, some intimacy and comfort  while she was healing from the heartbreak of whatever it was that B did.

If the two of you had had a conversation about what you expected and defined your terms, things might have turned out differently. You might not have been quite so upset by her being busy with school and accidentally reopened the wounds that B gave her.

But you did and now the only thing to do is move forward.

So taking your questions in reverse order:

The way you avoid this in the future is to prioritize open and clear communication. Make sure you and your future partners are on the same pages about what you expect from your relationship, and don’t be afraid to express your feelings to them.

Your next step is to talk with her, find out what she needs and let her prioritize her healing; she hasn’t been out of her relationship with B very long and if things were as traumatic as you said, she’s going to need time. That may, unfortunately, mean time away from you.

You tell how she feels by talking to her and making sure you understand what she’s saying. It’s not that she was asking for contradictory things, it’s that you two were talking at cross purposes. You had conflicting ideas of what this relationship would entail and that detonated the whole thing.

No, I don’t think you’re going to be FWBs again any time soon. I think you’re going to need to get more relationship experience under your belt before that’s a real possibility, and she’s going to need time to focus on getting over her previous relationship.

Only time will tell. If you can go back to being her friend and letting go of your hope to get back into her pants, then maybe. But again, this is going to depend on her.

Unfortunately this leads into your third lesson: not everything can be fixed, no matter how badly you want it. Sometimes the consequences of your mistakes is that the relationship is permanently changed and can’t go back to what it used to be. The only thing you can do from this point forward is see what this new relationship will be… or if there will even be one.

But that’s going to depend on A. And the only way you can ever know for sure is to talk to her.

Good luck.

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