A Conversation with My Ex About How We Stayed Friends

Building valuable, healthy relationships are central to living a positive and productive life. Bumble has helped change the way we interact, breaking down old-fashioned power dynamics and encouraging women to make the first move. Over the next month, we’re celebrating love. We’ve partnered with Bumble to highlight interesting ways to start a conversation, how to find love in the digital age, how to cultivate intimacy as we emerge from isolation and more. Alongside our helpful and inspiring content, we’ll also share stories of ‘the one that got away’ — because sometimes it’s the love before that leads you to The One.

Kat and I met when we were 12 or 13. I had just moved from Australia to the UK and ended up at the same school as her. We became friends almost immediately. About four years later, we started a relationship.

We travelled Europe together and went to the same university. Four years after that, we made the mutual decision to break up. By that time we were 21. It’s now 6 years later and we’re still close friends.

We recently caught up to discuss how we make our friendship work, after so much history. I know it’s a common curse or maybe it’s a myth, that you can’t be friends with an ex. But here’s why that’s not always the case.

Here’s my conversation with Kat… 

Kat: I remember we were sitting in Porto [in Portugal], in bed, discussing what we were going to do. We decided pretty much that we were going to break up or needed to break up at some point. I just remember us tearing up but being able to discuss this really intense, hard topic with so much respect for each other. 

I knew we handled it well in that conversation at the time, but I don’t think I realised just how well until later, when trying to have emotional conversations with partners after that.

In that moment, we were able to say that we needed to do our own thing and be more independent, and we talked about breaking up in such a respectful way because we really wanted what was best for the other person.

Jack: That break up felt very rational. It felt like we both understood that we’d outgrown the relationship a little bit. We were quite young when we got together, and although we really liked spending time together, it almost became constricting.

We didn’t feel like we really knew who we were as people when we were that age. It just wasn’t the space we needed to develop or grow. I think we kind of reached that understanding and then thought, “Well, it’s logical that we break up”. I think I agreed with that but then later on the emotional side of it hit me more. Because I think I probably dealt with the break up worse than you did. Is that fair to say?

Kat: Yeah, I think I was very busy though. The break up probably affected me more later. Every time I’ve got into a new relationship, whether a new fling or something more serious, it kind of puts you back in a relationship headspace. And in that first stage of something new, I think a lot about the previous relationship. Is that weird? I’m with someone new, I shouldn’t be thinking about the previous person.

It’s less about comparison and more just that you’re back in that head space. When you’re single, you may not really think about those things, but then you start being with someone else and you’re like “Oh, this feels different to how it did before”. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s quite natural. 

“We were able to say that we needed to do our own thing and be more independent.”

I remember having a harder time with the break up when I started to be with other people, which then made me think about our relationship a lot, and I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, Jack treated me so well. This was so easy with Jack before, why is it so hard with this other person now?”

That process has been quite difficult in subsequent relationships, which maybe weren’t as healthy, and really made me think how good we were and in some ways. I guess that’s good but it’s also hard. 

Jack: I think our relationship was different because of how we were able to handle problems and be upfront with each other. I think a lot of that came from being friends first and knowing each other’s history and knowing who we are as people.

We were able to completely be ourselves from the start and not worry about what the other person was going to think, which I think is something that takes a long time to develop in a relationship if it’s fresh and you don’t know the person that well. I think because we were able to experience that, it gave us a much wider sense of what a good relationship can be.

Kat: Yeah, there was so much respect there. And when we were friends, it was so easy. I  remember talking to you for hours. Thinking back, what the fuck did we talk about? I remember when your dad got sick and you would open up about that, and there was never anything that was out of bounds. It wasn’t like we were just in the same friendship circle; I feel like we would gravitate towards each other and be able to talk very freely.

Jack: I think we identified that in the break up and decided that we hadn’t really met other people who it was possible to interact with on that level, and so we thought there was something worth salvaging or saving from that relationship.

Aside from the fact that we hang out in the same friendship circles and we had to make it work because of that, I think feeling like there was something worth salvaging was a big part of what made it easier to get through it.

Kat: Yeah. I think that was so prevalent with us. We were so equal. Even in the break up where it was difficult to go to social events together, we said “Oh maybe I won’t go to this one so that you don’t have to experience any awkwardness” and “Maybe next social situation I’ll go and you’ll miss out just while we’re in the beginning and finding it hard to be in the same place”. But the fact we could even discuss that and be open with each other about it… I think that was huge. 

Jack: Yeah. Because of our relationship, I felt that if you and I were able to be friends. Every relationship, if you’re mature and honest enough, can become a friendship afterwards and you can salvage it. What do you think about that?

Kat: I think I was exactly the same and I kind of shot myself in the foot by having that mentality because I wasn’t open to not being friends. There can be so much stuff left unsaid that means you can’t really meet someone and be friends with them when you’ve got this history which is very bumpy.

Jack: I feel like we had to re-learn how to be friends, like how to interact in ways that weren’t romantic and geared towards a relationship. And because we already knew what that was like, that was easier.

But I think if you don’t know what that’s like with someone, it’s going to be a lot harder and potentially too difficult to do. There might be too much — as you say — unsaid stuff or emotional problems there that you just can’t really get over.

Kat: I remember the first few times we hung out we almost had to brief each other beforehand, and then have a debrief at the end. I remember that was a thing from the beginning. Beforehand we’d be like “Oh, we know we’re going to socialise with our friends, how do you feel about it? Are we going to be okay?” And then at the end, we’d also have a conversation where we would be like, “How did that go? Did you feel weird at any point?”

Being able to have all those conversations made it easier, whereas, with an ex who you didn’t have that foundation of communication with, you wouldn’t have that. 

Jack: Well, I think also that there were good intentions and goodwill on both sides, like the will to endure the sadness and the painful aspects of it. I remember saying to you “This is really difficult and I don’t want to see you or have any kind of connection with you for a while. I will come back but I just need a bit of time.” I remember I stopped following you on social media. I had to take some space to not be around you, which was easy because you weren’t in the country.

Kat: Yeah, you blocked me and I think that happens a lot with exes. The thing is, you messaged me before and you were like, “Look, I’m having a hard time, I can’t see you, I need to block you for a bit.” And then I was like, “Okay, I understand.” And then you did it.

“We were always looking out for each other’s mental health.”

We were always looking out for each other’s mental health, even if that meant not speaking. Blocking is quite… people see it as this very negative thing, but it was just a self-preservation thing.

Jack: Yeah, I think that’s how it felt. And it also felt like the only thing that was going to help me get over this was time and distance and then the situation will change and we’ll be different and it’ll be easier.

I think it took a lot of different planets aligning to be able to do this. It comes down to trust as well. If you don’t trust that person at the end of the relationship, then it’s probably not gonna work. But I think if it is a mutual break up, and it is one in which you feel like you can just say how you feel to that person, you’ve got a much better chance of getting through it.

Kat: Something that is interesting is the topic of competition with exes because I think that can be so prevalent. I guess, when you’re in the headspace of a relationship, you have to imagine a future with them, to be able to be with them. And then when you break up, you see them having a future without you and there’s sometimes a bit of a jarring nature to that. There’s that feeling of an ex doing better, and I think that can be really challenging in terms of trying to be friends again.

Jack: Yeah, I think when you see someone else living out this future that you thought was going to be your future, it can feel almost like a betrayal. 

Kat: Yeah.

Jack: You then want to one-up them or almost get back at them. I don’t know if there’s any practical advice we can give about that? 

Kat: Just respect. Just acknowledgement that they are a human being, I think. And that it’s going to be hard for both of you.

Jack: Yeah. I think that we both cared quite a lot about the other person and how they were doing and how they were feeling. I think that’s another part of being in love. If you really love someone then you care about them — even if you might be angry or upset — that care element, I don’t think it goes away entirely.

You want that person to be okay because you did care about them a lot or you do care about them a lot. I think partially what made it okay for us was that we didn’t want bad things for each other and we still cared about each other.

Kat: I think ultimately if you want to make it work, you definitely can, particularly if there’s a need for it to work out. I know a lot of married couples with families, and they will struggle to be friends afterwards because it’s so complicated and there’s so much unravelling. But you do have parents who will manage to stay friends for the sake of the kids. If you have that need, in combination with lots of other things, that need really helps. 

Jack: Yeah. I’m wondering how rare you think our situation is? How uncommon is it?

Kat: I guess the thing is, if you have a healthy relationship built on a foundation of trust and communication, you’re probably more likely have a healthy break up that results in friendship. But with an unhealthy relationship, you don’t have those things, so how do you then build a friendship?

Jack: Yeah, I think if there’s a reason that you broke up, you know, they’re a terrible person or they cheated on you or something, then there’s nothing to build a friendship on. Potentially the bad outweighs the good and it would just be better if you didn’t speak. 

Kat: Yeah. 

Jack: I think the break up does have to be mutual as well. Or at least feel like both of you understand why you’re breaking up and think it’s a good idea that you’re parting ways. Also, it can’t be a fight. If you’re just like, “Fuck you and I don’t want to speak to you again,” maybe that’s not gonna work.

But I think if there are good intentions, you both still like each other, and you both want the best for each other — or you have to make it work through social or family connections — then I think you try, you be honest, and eventually, it gets easier.

Kat: It’s good to acknowledge that it does take time. It’s not something that just happens right away. I always thought it was interesting that I struggled with other break-ups more because I found those relationships, in a lot of ways, a lot harder to get past.

I thought about that for a while and I think it’s not due to any connection being better or worse; it just comes down to it being healthy versus not healthy. It’s not that one was necessarily harder than the other but the hard bits with our break up were so healthily dealt with.

Jack: Yeah, I think that’s true. A bad break up can haunt you a lot longer than something that gets resolved. To get closure from someone is quite difficult and I think we were lucky in being able to get that, particularly because of the intensity of our relationship and the length of time. 

Kat: I’m so happy it worked out well because of the number of people I’ve met whose first relationship was really negative. That sets the precedent! I think our history and having that foundation of a healthy relationship in the past is something that has kept me grounded.

“I’m very grateful for our relationship.”

Jack: Yeah, I mean, I’m very grateful for our relationship because I think with that first break up, you risk it being quite a traumatic process. So thanks, Kat.

Kat: Thanks! I think sometimes it’s hard transitioning from being together and talking about everything to not having those deep emotional talks. You still have deeper conversations because that’s what you do with friends, but you don’t discuss or share everything with them.

I think sometimes that’s a hard transition to make because you’re kind of like, this is the person I usually talk to about everything and now we just don’t, and that can be kind of sad or hard at times, especially if you’re both doing it at different rates

Jack: I think that aspect of, you know, who am I going to tell all my dumb thoughts to, it is quite tough because now you can’t speak to that person about that stuff. I mean you can, but it’s not always helpful or healthy.

Kat: Yes, helpful is a good word. 

Jack: Do you believe it takes half the length of a relationship to get over the relationship?

Kat: Yes. I think that’s a good guide. I don’t think it’s necessarily a rule but if it comforts you to say, then I think it’s a good thing.

Jack: With a break up, I feel like sometimes you find yourself feeling like you’re back to square one. You wake up and you’re like, “Oh my god, it’s been months and I still feel like shit” and you get frustrated. Those days become less and less but it’s fine to still be upset in those moments. I think our process of moving from partners to friends probably took about two years. 

Kat: Yeah. I think it’s also nice to have those check-ins with someone and still know that there’s an appreciation for the past, and I love that you and I have that. I’m glad that we could periodically check in with each other and be like, “Mate, thanks. You made me who I am”. It’s great. 

Jack: Yeah, I think it’s really nice. It is a respect and appreciation thing. It’s just nice to know that, looking back, friendships come and go and people come in and out of your life but there are constants.

I’m very grateful to have that and be able to look back and acknowledge that we have a lot of history together and we’re still friends and we can still talk and we can still support each other. 

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