Is it possible to remain friends with your ex? Should you?

I pondered these questions after the end of my first long-term relationship with another man. During my first thirty years in straight relationships, I did not see many successful post-breakup friendships. The societal expectation there, at least traditionally, is that men are not just friends with women.  While I certainly did not subscribe to that norm, it was rare to find a straight male-female friendship uncomplicated by sex and love, and rarer still to find a straight pair that remained close friends after a breakup. To be clear, I am talking about real friendship here, not that new brand of “friend” you just follow on social media while pretending to have an actual relationship. I mean someone who is truly engaged in your life on a regular basis–someone with whom you share confidences, laughter, and mutual support. You know, the way friends do.

I had a handful of gay friends before I came out, but it was not until I started dating Phillip that I really began to understand the way (at least some) gay men build friendships and community. Through Phillip and others, I realized that it was not uncommon for gay men to turn former lovers into true friends who remain closely connected long after the sex and dating end. That realization came after some amount of discomfort,  and of course, jealousy. But, ultimately, it transformed the way I think about the place of former lovers in our lives.

Coming from a heteronormative world where doors were often firmly closed on past relationships, I was initially wary of the relationship that Phillip still maintained with Greg, a long-term boyfriend that he studied and lived with during graduate school. Phillip treasured and relied on Greg the way I did Janet, my female soulmate and best friend of 20 years, whose supportive presence I could just not live without. In the early days of my romance with Phillip, I was jealous of Greg. I of course denied my jealousy and pretended to be comfortable with their friendship. That was not lost on Phillip who, much to his credit, carefully explained that his romance with Greg had morphed into a much more important and enduring bond. I was skeptical and insecure at first, thinking that the door could not be fully open to me unless it was shut tightly to Greg. I was wrong.

In witnessing the relationship between Phillip and Greg, I learned something important about friendship, especially those among gay men. It is not uncommon for gay men (or other LGBT people) to feel disconnected from their families of origin. Some LGBT people are outright rejected by their families, and even those with accepting families can still feel isolated and desperate to connect with others who can understand their minority stress. To build a supportive community for themselves, gay men often keep former lovers in their circle of friends. After all, friends are the family we make. I saw how Phillip and Greg–two gay artists in a big city, miles from home–created a new home for themselves by refusing to give up on the friendship they developed through loving each other. When my jealousy faded, I realized what a touching bond the two shared, and that I too wanted to be part of that family.

Of course, not every relationship (gay or otherwise), can be transformed into the lasting friendship that Phillip and Greg have built.  And, I’m sure that their road to friendship was not an easy one. Because even in the most amicable and loving of partings, where there is no “wronged” party, it can be difficult to let go of the emotions we held and positions we took that ultimately lead to breakup. And, even when we do let go, remaining friends can sometimes be triggering and uncomfortable. Despite how much happiness we wish for each other, it can be difficult to watch as our new friend moves on–the pang of “why not me” can be a haunting feeling.

But here’s the thing: The people worth holding on to, and it certainly will not be everyone, are those who bring the most into our lives. The failure of a relationship might not unwind all the connections you built. The flames of passion may fade, but the understanding, support, compassion, laughter, and sense of belonging that you found with a former lover can live on. These benefits do not have to end because of incompatibilities, or even infidelities. You can take those pieces of who you were together and create something new, and possibly something even better. Like Phillip and Greg, you can find home and build family.