When I was young and foolish (Ha! “When…”), I made a grave error in judgment. I had a friend with a great dry wit and a masterful use of language on whom I suddenly and out of nowhere developed a crush. Not Serious Feelings, but a fun crush with a side of pants feelings. When we started spending more time together and hooking up, I made the assumption that he felt the same way I did. I was very honest from the beginning about the fact that I was also dating other people and in no position to be attached to anyone. And while that was a true sentiment, I specifically wasn’t super attached to him.
Over the first couple of months, it became apparent that he had a real, serious, deep, romantic attachment to me that I didn’t reciprocate. While I earnestly cared for him and felt a lot of intimate affection for him, I didn’t feel the same way he did… but I continued to date him. I finally asked him to coffee five months in and broke things off with him, afraid of hurting him more than I already had. He later told me that he was in love with me, and that I had been careless with his heart. He was right – I had been. He cut off communication with me, and I lost a good friend.
For years, I never understood why our friendship had to end just because we stopped dating. I couldn’t see past the end of my nose. “But we had such a great connection!” I thought. “Surely, that’s worth saving?” Because I hadn’t had the excruciating experience of being in long-term love with someone who was in a short-term relationship with me, I couldn’t truly empathize with the fact that he needed to stop seeing and talking to me in order to preserve his mental and emotional well-being. Now, I can see how if we’d stayed friends, every time I brought up a significant other who I had a deep, long-term, and loving commitment to, it would have killed him.
Some say that when it comes to exes, you can either be the type to burn your bridges or fortify them. For the longest time, I tried to be one of those people who could be friends with all of their exes, no matter how hurtful that friendship was to me. I would put a huge, Frozen Smile of Enthusiasm on my face when meeting an ex’s new partner, even if I felt like an earthquake was ripping through me. I thought that in order to show how cool and strong I was, I had to push through my panic and self-loathing and try to be a good friend. The older I get, however, the more I realize: I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to do things that make me unhappy just because they might be what other people want.
I’ve only recently come to realize that it’s okay to let go of a friendship when it doesn’t feel good. I am genuinely friends with some exes for whom I have a deep and abiding platonic love. I like their partners and feel grateful for the value that their friendships add to my life. With some of them, the transition from dating to friendship was easy; with others, it took the work of giving and receiving sincere apologies, forgiveness, and empathy. Once in a very great while, though, the most simple and kind thing for me to do has been to release myself from a friendship that’s not working for me – just like my friend-turned-lover did so many years ago. Each time I have, it’s made me saner, more confident, and more joyful. Sometimes, letting go is a necessary act of liberation and self-preservation.
Side Note: I wrote this after receiving a lovely email from an ex with whom I’d cut off contact; he wanted to send me a piece of post. I spent an agonizing 45 minutes crafting the wording of eight short sentences telling him that I’d made the right decision, and I didn’t want to stay in touch. I laughed after I sent it, realizing that the reason it took me so long to write this email is because I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of this boy who absolutely fucking crushed me. That’s what women mean when we say we’re socialized to please others.