When relationships end, especially in long-term situations, everyone’s first impulse is to try to salvage the friendship. After all, this person has presumably been a very important pillar in your life for a long time, so the desire to lean on them during a difficult time is understandable—even if your relationship is the cause of said difficult time. While I personally think people who try to be friends with their exes are slightly masochistic, I recognize that plenty of people make it work. Good for them. They are not wrong, and you might one day be one of them. There’s also a contingent of folks who, while not friends with their ex per sé, are friendly with the people they’ve dated. That—for my money—should be your goal. But there can be no polite hugging at a farmers market run-in or texting about this season of World of Dance unless you first cease all communication with your ex for six months.
Why six months? Because I said so. That’s why. But also because six months gives you time to recover, breathe, and rebuild your life without them. I’ll explain.
First and foremost, while you definitely do owe it to your ex-partner to be respectful of them, their family, their copies of Gabriel García Márquez’s short stories and that weird “nightstand” they rescued for you from the street, you do not need to be their friend. Not ever, and certainly not right away. You cannot help your ex do any of the emotional work of getting over you, nor can they help you. It’s like using a knife to clean out a knife wound. No matter how good it’ll feel to talk to this person who has provided you with comfort before, who was—as of perhaps a week ago—your “best friend,” continuing to lean on them for emotional support after the break up will only cause you to fixate on the relationship’s end for far too long.
Is cutting off contact excruciatingly painful? Yes! But this person is categorically not a friend; they’re an ex. So there’s no need to try to shift them into a new position in your life at a breakneck pace. Being around them might even feel like it’s healing, but it’s not. The hair of the dog might help your hangover, but it isn’t exactly sobriety.
Surely you can just ration yourself a bit? Not text them as much? Restrict conversations to emotionally-benign topics like season 3 of The Crown and whether you might take up rollerblading? NO. No you very cannot. Scaling back might work when you’re trying to eat less sugar, but it doesn’t work when you’re both trying to untangle yourselves from the life you had together. You’re going to have to slowly (and probably painfully) rebuild your life brick-by-brick in a new way to fill up the time, support, and fun they used to occupy.
Now, it might seem impossibly cruel to suggest this cold-turkey no-talking period, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to say, “I’m breaking up with you; do not speak to me for six months. Shhh. No talking. Shhh. I’m grabbing my things now. Not a word.” That would be sociopathic. Instead, after you’re done with the actual breaking-up part, the hashing and rehashing of what went wrong, the division of books, the recollection of your sweatshirts (optimistically), you can say, “This may seem harsh, but for the sake of making a clean break, I’d like for us to not talk for awhile. I need some space to actually get over this hurt, and I think that if we keep talking, we’ll keep getting caught up in one another.” Do not mention the timeline of six months unless they ask, with extreme desperation, “For how long?!!?” Bringing up a timeline that you’ve already had in mind will likely read as calculated and cold. If they insist, you can say, “Let’s start with six months and see how it goes.” Six months will feel like a lifetime when you’re heartbroken—in fact, it is a lifetime when you’re heartbroken—so you can expect pushback, especially if you’re the dumper. Hold firm. You are not being unreasonable or unkind. You’re setting a boundary that will ultimately help both of you.
And then follow through. If you need to have a friend hold onto their number so that you can delete it off your phone, do that. If you need to mute them on all social media, do that. Dating someone always involves a reshuffle of your life so that there’s room for a Them-sized space in it, and when they leave, you’ve got to fill that space up again with other things, like watching I Think You Should Leave for the fourth time and getting really into natural wines. If you keep talking to your ex, that space they’ve left behind will only be half empty and you’ll never know what you need to fill up. You’ll be stuck in a permanent limbo. So you have to follow the plan. Do not communicate unless it is necessary, perfunctory, or transactional. If you work together: stay professional. If someone’s parent dies: send condolences. If you need your Nintendo Switch stand back: ask for it back. Otherwise, leave them alone.
Who knows! In six months, after the ex ban has been lifted, you may just find that you’re actually doing okay without them; that you don’t need them to fall asleep; that you’ve been better about actually showing up to your friends’ shitty stand-up gigs. You may find that you don’t need them to fold a fitted sheet (you can just not fold it), or amuse you on Gchat during yet another unnecessary work meeting (make a work friend), or to remember to buy paper towels (set a reminder on your phone). Maybe you do check in with them a few weeks after the six months pass—you don’t want to seem too thirsty—and you remember how nice it is to have them as part of your life. Maybe you both slowly tiptoe towards friendship together, realizing that you’re both different people after this time apart-apart.