My wife and I have been together for many years. We opened our relationship years ago, but until recently it had been primarily physical (friends with benefits, etc.). About a year ago, I began to see my girlfriend, the first connection in our open relationship that was not only a good physical one but turned emotional and serious in a way that neither of our prior open relationship experiences had. Just a few weeks into dating, my girlfriend had some real world stuff hit her hard that would have made her homeless, and my wife and I took her in because we had plenty of extra room in our house.
As I said before, feelings got quite serious in this relationship. Suddenly, my wife and I were having our first talks about polyamory — where in the past the idea had never come up (since neither of us had had particularly strong feelings during our open relationships before for anyone else).
It went great. My wife and my girlfriend became very close friends. (They never dated.)
Anyway, a year later, my girlfriend and I ended up breaking up. She’s also moved out.
Now for my turmoil: I still love and care for her, but it just seemed like we were so toxic to each other when we were in the relationship.
Against advice from a few other people, we’re trying to still be friends, as we both still love and care for each other.
I also need to add that this is my first ever breakup. My wife was my first ever relationship, so I’ve never been through this before. And being a polyamorous breakup, I’m not sure if it’s different than monogamous breakups.
My question is, am I tormenting myself by still being friends with her, the person who I’ve developed a special bond with? Is there a point when the pain finally stops and I just move on?
Before I begin to answer the question you’ve asked me today (which is a good one), I would like to link to all the times I’ve written about breakups. I’ll be referencing some of that work in my answer, but I figured I’d make sure I shared it so if there are other questions you don’t know you should be asking that you want answers to (for most people, there are), you might stumble onto them by browsing those.
Does It Happen? Absolutely. Will It Happen to You in This Case? No One Knows for Sure.
Here’s the short answer. The bottom line:
Do people ever get to a point where that can happen? Where they are able to be friends with an ex and it’s not painful? Yes, it absolutely happens sometimes. To certain people. At certain times. With certain exes. It is not something that never happens — not by a long shot.
Will it happen in your case with this particular once-girlfriend, now friend? I don’t know. No one does. It depends on a ton of different factors. Here’s a list that includes some of the common factors (but is far from exhaustive and won’t catch everything that could come into play):
- Your personalities.
- How hard and how you both do emotional work.
- How much self-control you have.
- Your levels of motivation to achieve this.
- Whether or not you both act in good faith.
- How compatible you actually are as friends.
- The influence of any outside parties you actually listen to (friends, partners, spouses, family members, etc.)
Looking at this list, there are only certain elements you can control. And even with those, you can only control your half of it. Your ex-girlfriend has her part, too.
If It Does Happen, It Will Likely Take Time
Another thing to keep in mind is that if this is a situation where it could happen, it will almost certainly take time, especially in the case you described. It probably won’t be easy or automatic.
As I said in another advice letter that came from a reader who wanted to break up with someone but was worried about losing him as a friend:
If you do decide to break things off, I hope your boyfriend takes it well enough that you can be friends eventually. If it’s going to happen, it rarely happens right away. A lot of times people need a little space for a while after a breakup.
But you might never be friends again. You don’t get to decide whether he wants that. He does.
So, depending on how gratifying this budding friendship is between the two of you, the other question that you may find yourself asking is if it’s worth it. Sometimes it will be worth a lot of effort; sometimes it won’t. The friendship juice might not be worth the squeeze (#1 in that article can also apply to friendships).
Are Polyamorous and Monogamous Breakups Different?
As far as whether polyamorous and monogamous breakups are different, please see this post where I answer that question thoroughly and with research for a reader who was grieving after their first polyamorous breakup. The quick and dirty answer is not as different as you would think. And the other surprising finding is that most of “common knowledge” of monogamous breakups — what most people think they know about breakups — is wrong, and research contradicts.
One example given in the post is the fact that most people think rebound relationships are doomed to failure; the research shows that rebound relationships aren’t any more prone to instability than people who wait a long time between breakup and dating someone new — despite the very popular advice that you must take a break and work on yourself a while before seeing anyone new. Also people who have rebound relationships apparently get over their former breakup faster.
So unless you’ve studied the research on breakups, you probably have been told a lot of things that aren’t true.
More Alike Than They Are Different
Anyway, are polyamorous and monogamous breakups different?
They are not exactly the same, but they are more alike than they are different. It’s all relationships between humans with feelings.
Interrelationship Emotional Transfer / Emotional Labor
The biggest difference that I’ve seen in working with people who are in polyamorous relationship systems mostly impacts people who have other partners after the breakup. How the emotional fallout from your breakup could potentially affect your wife is a novel aspect of polyamorous relationships (same for anyone else your ex-girlfriend might be seeing). It’s similar to — but distinct from — how a best friend might be affected by your nasty breakup, particularly if they were supporting you a lot. Usually more intense, especially for people who are new to polyamory.
Small Town Phenomenon
Depending on how enmeshed you are in your local polyamorous community, there’s also the “small town phenomenon,” whereby in a polyamorous breakup it might be harder to not run into your ex, particularly if you both frequent a lot of the same local meetups. Where avoiding a monogamous dating ex might be easy so long as you steer clear of places that they frequent (provided this isn’t how you met or something, that you both tended to go there). Yeah, see? Again, there’s another parallel.
Keep In Mind: If You Don’t End Up Friends, That’s Okay
There’s something else I want to make sure I say. If you don’t end up being friends, that’s actually okay. I know some folks who basically half-destroy themselves trying to stay friends with every single ex they’ve ever had.
I also know people who say it’s impossible to be friends with exes. They say it doesn’t matter which exes — burn those bridges and run, honey.
Me? I’m actually somewhere in the middle. I have certain exes I am great friends with. (In some situations we are much better friends than we were lovers.) And I have other ones where we are friendly when we show up in the same place but don’t really hang out. And I have ones that I completely avoid who are shunning me back (as far as I know since we don’t talk).
I also can easily think of two exes where I would like to be friends with them, but they don’t want to be friends with me. And I respect those boundaries. As best as I can tell from what they told me when we broke up (I don’t talk to them at great length these days, that’s kind of the point of leaving them alone), it’s too painful for them to be my friend without the rest of what we used to do (sexual, romantic, and domestic stuff with one of them, since I used to live with her but not him). But they might secretly hate me or something. How would I know? I just presume that the original talk was truthful and not designed to get me to leave them alone in a way that saved my ego.
I wrote a more thorough exploration of this issue in a response to a reader who wrote in because they felt guilty about not staying friends with all their exes and worried it might make them “less polyamorous” (whatever that means).
But the bottom line is that not being friends is an okay end state if that’s what makes sense in the situation.
A Wild Guess About Your Case
When I weighed in above on whether it would happen in your case, I was honest: I don’t know. No one does.
But I will provide a wild guess — based on what you told me, how you said it (the original letter was quite long and has been edited to preserve anonymity), and my experience as a researcher, working with clients, and dating a ton myself.
I think it’s theoretically possible, but odds are better in your precise situation that you won’t get what you want out of this friendship. Not that you couldn’t get something of value. And I don’t think that trying to do this will certainly have disastrous consequences. But I think you’re going to suffer a lot and be ultimately disappointed with this friendship.
Why I think you have long odds, when you combine them:
- Your lack of experience with breakups. Now, it’s only one factor and not a hopeless thing on its own, but it makes your odds longer.
- People in your life telling you it’s a bad idea. Again, this isn’t an automatic disqualifying phenomenon. I don’t know these people. They might have good judgment, they might not. But they’re also probably at least slightly less biased than you are re: this situation (although this depends on who they are).
- The fact that you described this relationship as “toxic,” and you didn’t say anything in your letter (even the extended version) that made me think that if you’d never been lovers with this person that you would have ended up friends anyway. So this might not be a natural friend for you — but rather you trying to make sense of the confusing feelings of heartache and loss while still feeling emotionally bonded to someone. (These confusing feelings can occur whether or not this person would be a good friend for you.)
I Think It’ll Probably Not Go the Way You Want It To, But That You’d Learn A Lot From Trying
Does this mean I think you shouldn’t try? Nope. I think there’s a case for trying, actually. You said it yourself. You don’t have a lot of experience. There’s a lot you likely have to learn about yourself, how you and other people work, etc., in this one very specific context.
But please, if you do try to be friends, do what you can to make sure you don’t do anything ridiculously destructive in the process. (No one dies, almost dies, goes to jail, gets pregnant when they don’t want to, etc.)
Now, you don’t have to try. Only if excruciating effort that results in disappointment but also long-term personal growth appeals to you.
Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.
Your letter and my answer might be featured in Advice Friend. I regularly change identifying details and/or completely rewrite letters to preserve anonymity.