This may be the most hypocritical article I’ve ever written, because I’ve done at least most of these over the years. But on the other hand, I am absolutely the Voice of Experience. Learn from my mistakes, ladies. DO NOT GO THERE. It will not end well.
1. Bombarding your ex with communication.
You’ve broken up. Whether you instigated it or otherwise, there’s nothing to be gained by continually raking over the ashes. Wrangling over the issues that arose in your relationship after you’ve split up is a) pointless, because it’s not going to help; b) damaging, because you’re likely to make your ex feel upset and persecuted, considerably reducing the chances of a healthy friendship further down the line; and c) counterproductive, because you’re preoccupying yourself with the past and attempting to maintain a connection that at least one if not both of you have decided isn’t working anymore, thereby d) neatly preventing yourself from picking up the pieces and moving on. This goes double if the person in question has actually asked you not to communicate with them at all. (Anybody who hasn’t read the great Captain Awkward on this *really* should do.) You both need time and space to heal, and by refusing to accept that you’re making it more difficult for both parties. That said….
2. Staying friends.
Actually, under some circumstances this one is potentially quite acceptable. It depends on the breakup in question. If you have kids together, if you just drifted apart and amicably decided to call it a day, or alternatively if you’re stuck living together for an indefinite period of time and are forced to be in daily contact, it might be worth making a stab at ‘staying friends’. It needs to be done with care and sensitivity from both parties – no unexpected group sex in your shared living room without warning, please – but if you’re careful and respectful, it’s possible to resurrect an ongoing friendship-shaped phoenix from the ashes. If, on the other hand, it was a nasty breakup, one-sided, unexpected, infidelitous and/or it’s possible to keep some distance while you recover and heal, that’s probably a good idea. It’s really, really difficult to maintain anything even vaguely like a functional friendship with someone you’re secretly still desperately in love with or deeply resentful of for betraying you. Nb. This is not to say that in the long run – say, in six months to a year or two’s time, depending on the length and seriousness of the relationship – you can’t be friends, just that the immediate aftermath of a traumatic split is not necessarily the time to be focusing on doing it.
3. Sleeping with their friends.
We’ve all done this, or at least I have, and it’s about as far from being a good idea as it’s possible to get. Particularly in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. Leave it a year or so for everyone to move on and you’re probably fine, but neither the ends of healing nor of common human decency will be best served by leaping into bed with your ex’s friends, particularly if said ex is well aware you’ve always had a bit of a thing for the person in question. (One caveat: if your ex has already cheated on you with one of *your* friends, literal, er, tit-for-tat becomes somewhat more forgivable. As long as all parties are fully aware of what’s going on and what everyone’s feelings are. Sleeping with anyone just to make someone else jealous is a really shitty way to behave.)
4. Dating a bunch of people you’re not actually attracted to in an attempt to distract yourself.
This should not be confused with its close relative, ‘dating a bunch of people you find attractive in an attempt to distract yourself.’ If the feelings are there, go for it. Go forth and copulate. But if you’re really just grabbing at the first offers you get regardless of who they come from because you’re desperate to feel something other than grief, maybe don’t do that. Maybe hang out with your close friends who love you and do cool stuff and maybe try some new activities or classes and wait to try dating people until you actually feel a spark.
5. Pretending everything’s fine if it’s not (even to yourself).
This doesn’t mean you have to go around pretending you’re okay if you’re not, to yourself or anyone else. In order to acknowledge and process your feelings, you need to admit they’re there – whether they’re best dealt with by regular application of sobbing and icecream or by going out dancing or both is up to you. But talk to people who care about you – friends and family – as much as it feels comfortable to do so, snuggle your pets, eat whatever you feel like, go for walks, have hot baths, visit new places, activate self-care mode however it works best for you, and give yourself some time to recover. This doesn’t mean don’t date – if you’re attracted to someone, go right ahead and get in there – but a) let them know you’re just out of a relationship and take things slowly and b) certainly don’t force it in the misguided impression that transferring the feelings onto someone else is the same thing as dealing with them.
6. Maintaining an ongoing friendship-with-benefits.
In a vanishingly small number of cases, this works, because you still have sexual chemistry and affection but you both feel an actual relationship isn’t working. Vanishingly small. The rest of the time it will end up a monumental mess, as one party still harbours Feelings whilst the other blithely ploughs on in the assumption it’s cool until they meet someone else and/or decide to stop and Emotional Consequence ensues.
7. Continuing to act as if you’re in a relationship with attendant fidelity expectations.
This is the inexplicable inverse of 6), that thing where you are definitely Broken Up but continue to act like a couple except for the sex. You talk all the time, you attend social events together, you are each other’s sounding board, you use the phrase ‘my girlf-, I mean, my ex’ a lot, and should one party dip even a tentative toe into the crystal waters of the dating pool, all hell breaks loose. See 2) – by all means work on being friends in the long run, but you really need some time to get over each other before you focus on doing it. If you find yourself doing this, it’s worth having an Actual Serious Discussion over whether you want to be broken up. If not maybe you could put yourselves and everyone else out of their misery – and if you do, go cold turkey for six months and then see where you are.
I mean this. Breaking up is a horrible, traumatic, messy experience that rips to the heart of all our vulnerabilities and deepest fears – am I good enough? Am I lovable? Will I spend the rest of my life alone? How can I ever be happy? It’s horrendous and it often destroys the practical structures of our lives alongside the emotional ones. But you are good and strong and time genuinely is a great healer and you will keep on opening your eyes and closing them and living your life and one day things will start to have meaning again. It won’t be soon enough, and yes, it will be pretty hellish getting there, but it will happen. Promise.
Thanks again to Toni for invaluable assistance, and to all the poor unfortunates who lived through all this with me.