Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hi Carolyn: I’ll try to keep this brief. I’m really bad at breakups. Like, really bad. I have broken up with two people in my life, but am still in messy “friendships” with both. I genuinely can’t handle the idea that someone who has become my very best friend, my family, my partner in crime for goofy ideas or adventures will just disappear from my life for a reason so stupid as that I don’t think they are the person I’m going to marry and have kids with (though I have legitimate reasons for feeling that way).
For context, I don’t have a biological family, so maybe boyfriends become even more important to me than is normal.
Continuing to maintain these “friendships” isn’t an option though, because neither is purely friendship: both guys want more and, long-term, are not OK with me dating someone else. So at some point, this messiness has to end. But how do people just stop speaking and never see each other again? How do you become OK with that? How do I say goodbye to yet more family members?
I don’t think you sound “really bad” at breakups. You make a valid point on which a lot of people agree with you, that you don’t like “the idea that someone who has become my very best friend … will just disappear from my life.” This is the basis for an untold number of warm, respectful, perfectly healthy friendships between exes.
Where I think you get into trouble is in having a blanket approach to something that is ultimately highly individual. Just because you see these exes as part of your family, and just because you don’t have biological family members, doesn’t mean these exes want to or can serve in that role for you. Some might match your warm but no-longer-romantic feelings, but some might want a clean break, and some might not want to break up at all.
In those situations, you just have to accept there are limits to what you’ll get after a breakup. Sometimes you have to identify what isn’t working — say, when you reach the not-OK-with-your-dating-someone-else point — and address it head-on. “I hear what you’re saying, that you’re not comfortable with my dating someone new. My feelings for you are platonic now, though. That means I am going to date other people. When you’re ready to accept our friendship on those terms, I hope you’ll get back in touch.”
I would also caution against seeing the people you meet, and even love, as “family members” in the sense that you will interact with them regularly for the rest of your life. Again, just wanting or needing this of them does not make it so.
And, too, family is a relationship that exists even when you’re completely estranged. Heck, even when a family member dies, you’re still family. So maybe build a little more flexibility into the way you regard, rely on and even stay in touch with this family you’re creating: Count on the connection existing whether you see them or not, then free yourself to stay in touch only in ways that make sense.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.