Have you ever been around two people who were once seeing each other but are no longer dating? Who were once intimate together but are now platonic friends? Whose relationship ended for reasons apart from the sex life they enjoyed?
If you have, or have ever been a party to either of these scenarios yourself, you may have questioned whether such an arrangement is actually possible and whether it can be sustained over time.
How you come out on this question likely depends on whether you make a distinction between friends who were once lovers and friends who were historically “just friends.”
I have always found post breakup friendships interesting. As a school age child I remember my parents going out socially with two men my father had met and become friends with in college and their current spouses. One night while my parents had these two couples back to our house after an evening out, I overheard my parents say that the wife of one of the men had formally been the live in girlfriend of the other man before they each became married to their respective spouses.
Even as a kid I found this arrangement incredibly intriguing, and I questioned my parents at the time whether the current spouse of the woman who once lived with her husband’s friend cared that his wife was his friend’s former girlfriend. My parents, at the time, shrugged off my question with a quick and easy no, and left the subject at that.
Perhaps it was a function of my impressionable age that I received no further explanation, but the image of these two couples casually laughing and joking with one another in my circa 1970s family room as though “nothing had happened” stayed with me.
Reared by parents in, as I would like to describe, a more sexually repressive home where conversations about sex were relatively infrequent, and when they did occur were accompanied by admonishments to not cross certain lines with a boy (which I eventually did) because if that happened there would be no going back and, not surprisingly, to remain celibate until marriage (which I did not).
Sex, as it were, became for me equated with a prized gift, one not to be given away to just anyone. And I gave that gift to only one before I married him. Though I recognize the value in sexual relationships outside of monogamy, and have had those experiences post-divorce, such arrangements have always been a source of conflict for me and, as such, I shy away from causal relationships to this day.
But where there once existed an exclusive relationship followed by its dissolution, and the prospect of a friendship afterward, I question whether or not old habits die hard and whether or not, much like someone battling alcoholism or substance abuse, we can easily slip and fall back into a situation that may be either unhealthy for our emotional well-being and a potential compromise of the values we espouse.
Sexual intimacy engenders a familiarity like no other, especially when it occurs in the context of a relationship in which two people genuinely like each other and share interests apart from sex. But where there was once sexual chemistry and a relationship that failed for reasons having nothing to do with sex, I argue that the potential for such intimacy to occur again always remains a possibility. After all, if the chemistry once existed for sexual intimacy to occur in the first place, what is to stop it from overtaking a newer, non-sexual relationship should the stars one day realign?
Yes, sex with the ex is a tempting prospect. It can be amazing while in the midst of it. But when the relationship that used to feed that intimacy is no longer present in its afterglow, the confusion and emptiness that potentially follows can feel overwhelming.
The decision to stay friends with an ex following a breakup rests on how adept two people can be at keeping sexual attraction in check. If the sexual chemistry is still present, but the relationship goals are no longer in sync, it is probably best to hold off on pursuing that friendship. Because the only thing worse than losing someone once is losing them again.