DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So, I’m in a spot that feels like sitcom plot, and I’m trying to fight my way out of wanting to behave that way. My partner broke up with me, and I’m still in love with them, but also we want to stay friends and I have no idea what that, or how people try again as couples, actually looks or works in the real world.
Let me rewind though. My partner and I started as good friends, and then after their partner ended their relationship, we became f--k buddies during the pandemic. It was good, they weren’t sure they wanted a relationship, so I ignored my interest there unless there was some spark. Then we got stuck in the Snowpocalypse together, and after that kinda fell into it being a relationship, but without ever having that talk (yes, we’re dumb and bad for that, but we treated it well) We seemed pretty happy for a year, then last few months things became a bit rockier. They were a bit distant, and we both were struggling with some mental and emotional things, and I admittedly wasn’t great at being aware of my own, but in the end they ended things citing those.
I respect them for ending it for what they think was best for them, and I do fully believe in not pursuing someone who has shown their not interested in pursuing you. I took some time for the last month without contact with them (past one touching base thing to clear some air and hand off personal effects) and doing the healthy person stuff. I told them then that I needed time and space because I couldn’t be a friend without that romantic interest, and moved on to therapy, friends time, working out, reacquainting with hobbies/finding new ones. And honestly, I feel more in touch with my personal issues, and aware of them, and with that feeling not ready for anything romantic, so I wanted to see about reconnecting as friends.
They had presented a very friend-mode message when we had that touching base, and even before that, so I thought this would be fine. Asked for another coffee to touch base again before just starting to message. Unfortunately they had a death in the family recently that they cited as a reason not to as they’re emotionally rough place, and then also said they felt I was changing gears oddly fast, and referenced another dating column saying it should be 3-6 months before trying to be friends again.
I respect, and am honoring their request for more time and space, but I also am a bit lost on where this goes.
Yes, I know I love them, and I’m not sure it’s a love that I’ll lose. I keep love for the people I open up to in my life, and it doesn’t die even if I haven’t seen them or talked to them in a decade, it’s just who I am. Unless they wrong me or people I care about, then I always will. So, while maybe it’ll change, it’s definitely here to stay.
And yes, I’d like us to try again. But I have no idea how that happens in the real world. I just know I’m not going to push them for it. I want to shout it from the rooftops and do all the big gestures and stupid s--t from movies, but I also won’t try to pressure someone I care about into something they’re at best unsure on with me. And if they don’t love me, then no I don’t want to pursue them because I know that’s unhealthy.
And, lastly, I’m sure I want to keep them as a friend no matter what. Even as friends before hooking up or dating, we got along way too naturally. We were far to easy to being open with each other. They are a person I feel a great connection with and can’t imagine not having any place in my life, even if its not as a couple.
So how does one deal with love you’re willing to go unrequited, but wanting it to be, but also wanting to be friends? Am I dumb for trying to keep both open? Can they both be kept open in my heart at the same time? Can I be a friend if a part of me will hope we get to try again? I really don’t know, so I hope your knowledge can help.
Lost In Heartache
DEAR LOST IN HEARTACHE: Oof. Ok, LIH, I feel for you. There’re parts of this letter I could’ve written myself, particularly the “went from a hook-up to a relationship even though they weren’t ready to be in a relationship just then, then we broke up and I’m trying to be friends” part. So I absolutely understand what you’re feeling right now. There’re likely a lot of conflicting emotions rattling around in you right now like meth’d up weasels in a sack with paint stripper on their nipples. This is completely normal; you’re feeling the pull between “I want this person in my life, so I’ll accept friendship” and “there HAS to be a chance that this can still work out, right?” This emotional vortex makes it incredibly difficult to think clearly because… well, honestly because dickful thinking is a thing and it frequently does a very good job of sounding like mature reasoning.
Now, having been there and done that, I can tell you, from experience, that yes, you can have a relationship with them going forward. The bad news is… it may not be for a while.
Here’s what I’ve learned after dealing with my own experiences with a similar mess: if you try to be friends too soon, you run the very real risk of being a Nice Guy. It’s not necessarily something you’ll be conscious of; like I said, that dickful thinking that says “there was something there, this can’t possibly have just ended, right?” is very good at sounding like reasonable, rational logic. But it isn’t. What’s happening is that you’re thinking one thing but feeling another, and what you’re thinking is acting as a Trojan horse for what you’re hoping for.
So even if you’re trying to do the mature thing and force those feelings down… well, they’re gonna bubble up in unexpected places. It doesn’t take very long before you realize that you’re doing things like asking them out “as a friend” to do things that are… well, let’s be honest, that’re really unmistakably dates. There’s still that part of you that hopes that these “totally not a date, just two friends doing stuff” non-dates will reignite that spark. But just between you, me and everyone reading this… everyone knows what’s actually up. And the problem with this approach is that even if your ex takes this in the spirit in that you are intending on the surface, you are inevitably heading for the moment when you’re forced to admit that you may want them back… but they’ve moved on. It’s the split-screen “expectations” vs. “reality” from 500 Days of Summer, leading to the moment you discover that they’re now with someone else… and then your heart breaks all over again.
(Incidentally, Marc Webb still owes me royalties for cribbing from my life so blatantly. I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN, MARC.)
I don’t know where your ex got the 3 to 6 month timeline from precisely, but they’re not entirely wrong. I don’t believe there’s a fixed amount of time that you need before you can be friends, but you do need time apart in order to heal, process what happened and – importantly – let go of them. It’s very, very hard to be friends, even when you genuinely want to, when you’re still hoping to get back together. This is a recipe for getting the 12″ dance remix of the heartbreak you just went through, just faster and with a more intense backbeat. Again: been there, done that, it wasn’t pretty.
This is one of the reasons why I advocate the Nuclear Option after a break up – muting or unfollowing them on all social media, removing all ways you have to reach out to them and so on. As I’ve said before: the purpose of this isn’t “you broke my heart SO NOW YOU’RE DEAD TO ME!!!!!11!”, it’s that you can’t heal when you keep reopening the wound. Having so many ways of checking in, touching base and – let’s be real – keeping tabs to see if they’re dating someone else does very little except to make you hurt more. It’s far too easy to convince yourself that you’re over them when you’re not, too easy to fall into old habits and routines and to just hurt yourself over and over again. Cutting ties, if only for a little while, is often the most vital part of the process; it hurts like woah, but it’s a pain that eases much faster than a thousand tiny heartbreaks that just build on one another.
Now the good news is that you’re doing what I would tell you to do in order to survive this break up and heal. Reconnecting with friends, making your physical and mental health a priority and re-engaging with the things that feed your soul are incredibly important when it comes to healing. There’s also one more thing to consider that will help you recover: you need to get your other needs met – needs for physical contact, validation, even just comfort. Part of why break ups hurt so much is that love isn’t just emotional. When we talk about having chemistry, we’re not just using a colorful metaphor; love and attraction is also a mix of dopamine and oxytocin. Break ups hurt and hit us so hard because our partners tend to be our chief supplier of dopamine; once we break up, we’ve been cut off from our dealer and we’re going into withdrawal. Finding other sources of dopamine production can be a vital part of getting over someone; it helps get us past the long dark nights when you feel at your lowest and loneliest, when your jerkbrain insists that this was the best thing you could’ve had and now it’s gone.
This, incidentally, is part of why the idea of “get over your ex by getting under someone else” is actually not wrong. Orgasms are a trigger for dopamine production in the brain – it’s part of why folks will catch feels for their FWBs and casual hookups. But while you may not be ready or want to date, even casually, there’re other ways of getting your dopamine fix beyond a romantic relationship. Physical touch, laughter, even good conversation all trigger dopamine in us; this is why it can be important to reconnect with friends and why we want to find the things that satisfy our minds and give us ways of expressing ourselves. Even just getting a massage can help ease the pain of the loss; that simple, intimate level of touch can stimulate your brain to give up the happy juice.
What I would also recommend is to do some exploration of why the relationship ended. This can be important, not just so that you can give yourself closure, but so that you and your ex can be friends down the line. It’s very hard to be friends if you (or they) are still holding on to grievences or don’t take responsibility for your end of things – even if your end of things is as minor as “yeah, I guess I could’ve handled this better”. Self-awareness is important… as is self-compassion. One of the things that makes it hard to be friends or have any kind of relationship after a break up is holding onto regrets and what-if’s. Being willing to forgive yourself for not being perfect or able to “fix” things or for the dreams that will now never happen is a vital part of healing. You did the best you could then, with the knowledge, resources and experience you had; now you can do better and do things differently.
In fact, doing things differently is the final – and most critical – part of having a relationship with an ex, romantic or otherwise. Your previous relationship ended. You need to let that relationship go; it’s over and you can’t get it back, in the same way you can’t step in the same river twice. What you may, and I stress may, have with your ex in the future will be new and different. You need to approach that future with the understanding that this is a different relationship than what you had before. It’s going to be defined by what happened before; there’s no getting around that. This doesn’t mean that any future relationship is damaged or doomed by what has come before, simply that it changes the context of what you will have going forward. This is part of why you can’t keep them as a friend and hope for a reunion; you’re hoping that you can ignore or undo what came before and you can’t… not even if you had access to a Flux Capacitor or a madman in a big blue box. It’s a fixed point in time and there’s no undoing it.
Now, I wish I could tell you “Do X, Y and Z and everything will be taken care of,” or give you the perfect checklist that will let you speedrun things and get back with your ex. There isn’t anything that can do it for you. This needs to happen in its own time, and there’s no getting around that. Time is an integral part of the healing process. Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels. But if you give yourself some space, mentally and emotionally as well as physically, you’ll have a much easier time healing and growing. And while it may not be in three months, six months or longer… with time, perspective and experience, you will be in a place where you and your ex may be able to build something new together.
Whatever that may be.
Until then, focus on healing and taking care of yourself. It hurts, I know, but that hurt will fade with time. You will feel better and you will find love that makes you feel the way you did before. I promise.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org