I know why relationships that end with “let’s be friends” are both infuriating to the dumpee and also never actually turn into friendships. The reason is simple: most relationships of the romantic sort actually skip friendship entirely and go straight from bare acquaintances to intimate lovers. In other words, friendship and romance do not exists on the same continuum of human intimacy. This is why the concept of “friends with benefits” is so hard for people to grasp properly, and also why it makes for a very appealing movie.
Friendship is something that many of us think we understand from a young age. Ideally, a friend will accept you the way you are, know your quirks and triggers, help you out when life punches you in the face and celebrate with you when things are going well. At the same time, in order to be able to do these things for you, a friend should be their own person with their own hobbies and interests that don’t depend on you. They should have their own life and their own family and be flexible enough to spend time with you when you are available, but to also be able to carry on without you when your life becomes overwhelming. Most importantly, perhaps, friends should like each other.
Romantic partners are different. Romantic partners exist inside coupledom with each of their identities being dependent on the other. A romantic partner is an object of affection into whom we pour our love and our angst. To our partner we share the part of ourselves which we believe is worthy of love and in doing so attempt to embody the role of partner ourselves. In a very real sense romantic partners “complete” each other. One of the side effects of romantic partnership is that, unlike friendship, we sometimes feel the need to hide the parts of ourselves that we feel our partners would not approve of, or that we consider unbecoming of a proper romance. Take the husband who has to go out with his guy friends in order to relax and get away from the wife. Or consider the woman who habitually chooses boyfriends so jealous of other men that she ceases contact with her male friends whenever she enters a new relationship. Romantic partnerships, unlike friendships, do not leave room for others. We can have unlimited friendships, but only one husband.
When you understand that a Relationship is different from a friendship in more than just degree of intimacy, it is not hard to see why so many efforts at friendship post relationship fail. For one thing, a boyfriend has never had to accept the priority of other relationships over himself whereas a friend knows that sometimes he is first and sometimes he is not. For another, a girlfriend who is accustomed to defining herself as “my partner’s girlfriend” no longer knows who to be or how to act when her ex is around, but is no longer her partner. Had they been friends they would have known that it is possible to be temporarily out of communication with each other without it being a death knoll on their relationship. Finally a romantic partnership, perhaps exactly because of its closed and intimate nature, suffers from its own finitude. Whereas a friend can be one of many and be loved just the same, a romantic partner is one of one and therefore any changes in the personality, goals, or desires of the other partner is a full force affront on one hundred percent of the relationship status quo. There is simply no room for a partner to think that perhaps “it isn’t me.” So simply being around an ex and seeing how that person is happy and growing without you can be very painful if you have never experienced a friendship with that person outside of your relationship.
I will be honest with you, I believe friendships to be superior to Relationships. However, I think that Relationships that include friendship can be strong and enduring. I have friends who are married and whose spouses are brilliant beautiful beings. Some of them, when I think about it now, are clearly friends in addition. They tend to have an air of calmness about them when they are together and of course their personalities tend not to differ all that much from when they are apart either. Of course we are all different people in different circumstances to some degree or another. Even at work we behave one way when at home we would not, so to be always and everywhere the same is not a necessary requirement. But some people I feel different around when they are with their spouses and I wonder if perhaps these people are more in a Relationship than they are friends, though I never ask. Ultimately it is a personal decision. My grandparents were never friends, but they were iron-strong partners in over fifty years of marriage. Even today my grandmother, though she has finally given voice to her discontent and struggle during those fifty years, would probably not have chosen a different path. To her, what they had was marriage and the idea of being “friends” with your husband was just not something to consider. This is ok. My hope in writing this short piece is not to criticize and say that one is better than the other, but instead to bring some level of enlightenment to our suffering as we flow in and out of relationships. Perhaps simply knowing that romance and friendship are two different animals, we can afford ourselves and our loves a level of kindness that we couldn’t before.