Maybe this title is misleading, because maybe, as a gay man who has left a relationship, you don’t want to “deal” with your ex at all. And yet lately, in my therapy and coaching practice as a gay men’s specialist and AASECT-Certified sex therapist, I’ve been helping a lot of guys on the topic of coping with a breakup and dealing with an ex (preferably in a way that is healthy, and not torturous, for either of you).
Despite the dozens of gay men whom I work with in LA, the United States, and around the world (and thousands over my 29-year career as a gay men’s specialist therapist), it can still feel like a small gay men’s community. Even in big cities like LA, New York, or London, it seems like it’s inevitable that you somehow have involuntary, unwanted, accidental interaction with exes. Or, in some cases, you want interaction with your ex – just not in the form of a romantic, sexual, or domestic relationship.
I always tell “my” couples (as I call the guys I work with) that it is rewarding work to help a gay male couple work through the challenges that make one or both of them unhappy, and help them re-invent their relationship for a better future. The topics that arise as challenges are countless, but the tools (often involving communication) to get past these conflicts are fairly similar. Most of my couples work (either couples therapy or relationship coaching) is about helping a gay male couple stay together and be happy (which is not always the same thing!). But, occasionally, it’s about helping two gay men realize that the most mentally healthy and actually humane, compassionate thing they can do for one another is to “consciously uncouple,” move on, and allow each of them to find new partners whom they are more compatible with (or at least enjoy being single and freed from a relationship that was an unhappy burden). The real question is, what next?
How to “relate” to your ex, if at all, after a breakup takes many forms in the gay community. The manifestations are many, and yet frequently I hear how a guy experiences one way with his ex, when he wishes it were something else. The challenge is to make what you want, and what actually happens, be the same thing. Our work is about closing gaps in your life, between what is, and what you would like to be.
In my observations, there are four types of “relationships to your exes” that I see over and over. Let’s look at each one:
Types of Exes and the “Post-Relationship Relationship”
The way that you relate to a guy after a breakup is what I call the “post-relationship, relationship.” You still might have some kind of interaction, even as peers on the planet earth, however close or however distant that ends up being (which can be different at the point just after breakup, versus what it is later – sometimes closer with time, sometimes more distant).
1. The “Have a Nice Life”/Firm Boundaries Type – In this kind of post-relationship relationship, there isn’t much there. If you grew apart as a couple due to different values, behaviors, interests, or other changes, you might not have much in common anymore to form the basis of a friendship if you’re not still a couple. I call this “have a nice life,” because you don’t really intend to see them again.
Sometimes this needs to be the case, holding firm boundaries against any kind of contact, because any kind of contact is just toxic exposure that undermines your mental health and well-being.
This could be especially true if your relationship had abuse or domestic violence involved, or if your ex was involved in something (such as crime, or chaotic/uncontrolled substance abuse) that you want no part of, as it might risk your physical, psychological, legal, professional, or social standing. The price he pays for mistreating you is either a formal legal proceeding (such as in domestic violence, like a restraining order) or at least to be totally shunned from having the privilege of knowing you any longer. With this type, you might block him on all social media, change your phone number, block his number, move away, etc. Even in cases that aren’t as extreme, you might make the choice that no contact at all is the healthiest for you in order to move on with your life, restore your own sense of self and equilibrium, and allow yourself to seek greener pastures in the form of a new and better guy who more closely aligns with your values and the life you want.
2. The “See-Ya-When-I-See-Ya” Type – In this type of post-relationship relationship, there isn’t really a safety issue involved or a need for a total communication embargo, but it’s more of a passive thing where you just don’t care to stay in touch. You might run into each other at the supermarket, at the gym, a bar, a club, or a house party, and you might even say, “Hey,” but you don’t get into conversations (or at least long or meaningful ones). There isn’t exactly an animosity, but there isn’t any social enthusiasm, either. This is perhaps the most frequent type that I hear about in my practice. It’s a certain détente: you leave me alone, I leave you alone, and if I see you at a party, you better not take the last carrot stick on the buffet table, cuz bitch I’m on a “pre-Atlantis cruise diet” and that’s my dinner.
3. The “Renamed Relationship” Type – In this scenario, two people decide that while they aren’t material to be a romantic/domestic couple, they also have a reservoir of goodwill toward each other, share common interests, and generally get along, which we usually just call “friendship.” And so, sometimes what needs to happen for a couple is just the act of “renaming” — stop calling it a relationship in the romantic, sexual, or domestic sense, and call it a “friendship” instead. That involves less commitment, less compromise, and lower stakes overall. For every gay man, there are probably plenty of guys he wants in his life as friends, but they just don’t pass muster for reaching the level of “partner” or “spouse.” I’ve helped various couples do the “renaming” thing, and years ago I once had a therapist help me do that. It was one of the most helpful interventions I’ve had my own therapists do, because it was a relief, it was practical, and it really helped take the pressure off, so we became friends who fairly regularly socialized together, and supported each other during tough times (I stayed with him after the 1994 earthquake in LA briefly damaged the building I was living in). The feeling of “taking the pressure off” can be very welcome. Then, when the right guy for a relationship comes along for each you, you’ll know it, and it will make it easier to make a higher-stakes commitment to that person, and you’ll understand the difference. When it comes time to really commit to a partner, or even be ready for marriage, you do that in the context of knowing what other guys are “out there,” and it helps you to make that choice.
4. The “We Now Live in Different Cities” Type – This one is fairly easy, in that your life paths have taken pretty drastically different curves. Even if the post-relationship relationship is a fairly decent friendship, or even a pleasant but rather unremarkable acquaintanceship, once either you or your ex moves to a different city, it usually means you’re just not on each other’s radar very much anymore. You each become part of separate cities, separate LGBT communities, and separate professional/personal/social paths. You might stay in touch on Facebook, Instagram, etc., as so many nationwide or worldwide friends do, but there is no opportunity to “do lunch and catch up” or be at the same holiday parties or birthday parties, for example. In this type, for better or for worse, the distancing is done for you by circumstance. I’ve also experienced this, and while I have a lot of fondness for this guy, he existentially had made a new life for himself as an American expatriate abroad, and I took from that a lesson about what Fate and our Destiny in life have in store for us. (That topic, about existentially re-inventing your life by changing the city, state, or country where you live, might be a topic for another time, because it’s an interesting phenomenon, and I’ve helped a number of clients through the years do this, and it’s a bit surprising to me how they have always been glad they did it!)
Special Issues in Relating to Exes
So, beyond these different “types” of relationships you can have with an ex, there are also some special considerations, and questions to ask yourself, as you reflect on the relationship that you used to have with him, and where your head and feelings are now.
For example, do you stay in touch on social media? Think about the pros and cons of doing this. There might be some of each, but don’t it for granted that you will “always” be Facebook friends, or follow each other on Instagram, etc. And please resist the urge to “snoop” or “monitor” him on social media surreptitiously; that, to me, indicates what we shrinks call an “anxious attachment,” and it indicates that there is a lack of closure or “unfinished business” that you have with this guy, or what the experience of being in a relationship with him mean to you. Why do you feel a need, or an urge, or habit, to “monitor” him? Do you feel competition about who is having the better life, post-breakup? Have you not fully processed the loss of him, in a certain grief-and-morning process? Do you feel the urge to somehow control him from afar? Is it a power struggle of some kind? All of these questions would be good discussions in therapy, about the nature of what an almost-obsession with him does for you, what function it serves psychologically and emotionally for you. And, think about what it might mean if you could achieve closure, and really let him – and that part of you that was with him – go.
Do you get together to hook up for sex, because maybe while having a relationship with him was not tenable, the sex was always good?
That’s fine, but try to hold no illusions about that. Maybe the shift in status from boyfriend/partner/spouse to “fuck buddy” is one that needed to happen. The tricky part (so to speak) in this is, does that keep you from being truly sexually and intimately available to someone else?
Can you have conversations with an ex about whom you’re dating now, without that devolving into jealousy, competition, or awkwardness? Can you genuinely be happy for one another who is dating someone they like, or at least “gettin’ it on?”
After your breakup, who gets the friends? Have you found that your friends group “takes sides,” leaving either him or you socially alone?
Do you stay in touch with your ex’s parents, siblings, or other members of his Family of Origin? Does he, with yours? Sometimes, your relationship with them (or his) is a separate thing from how they knew you as “in-laws,” where you form friendships in a way that exists outside of what your relationship with him was, or is.
Part of answering these questions involves thinking about the quality of the relationship you shared. How did he treat you, overall? How did you treat him? Was there honesty, integrity, and reasonable thought? Or was there psychological pathology? Dishonesty? Chaos? Violence?
Do you feel better spending time in his presence now, or worse? Does he bring out the best in you, where you find yourself comfortable, smiling, laughing, relaxed, or amused? Or does he make you insecure, anxious, annoyed, and wanting to escape to somewhere else? Can you successfully detach emotionally enough to make yourself emotionally available to a new boyfriend/partner with the current post-relationship relationship that you have? Or would your new boyfriend think that’s weird, and that you’re enmeshed and so hung up on your ex that you’re really not available and paying attention to him the way a true boyfriend should? It’s one thing to ask a new boyfriend to understand that you remain platonic friends with your ex. That’s not an unreasonable thing, and your new boyfriend is being unreasonable if he “forbids” that (the way so many straight women forbid their boyfriends to have any contact with ex-girlfriends, which is just neurotic if the basic trust is going to be there). But only you know if there is something about your way of relating to your ex that you somehow have to keep secret from your new or current boyfriend. It’s not cool to hide things like that. Keep firm boundaries.
In relating to your ex, can you reflect on the whole experience with him, and reflect on any life lessons that you learned from your time with him? What lessons are learned that carry over to prepare you for the next relationship? In hindsight, were there any red flags in that relationship that might have indicated that things were not going to end well that you kind of ignored? Were you being unrealistic? Were you failing to set good boundaries that protect your self-esteem? Were you sacrificing too much of yourself, in a way that built resentment? Were you failing to speak up for yourself? Can that experience help you commit to assertively communicating your thoughts and feelings in your next relationship?
Were you honest, or can you commit to being more honest in the future with your next partner, even if to talk about tough subjects feels intimidating? Are you taking responsibility for your side of the breakup, and making him take responsibility for his? What do each of you have to “own” in order to be able to relate to each other civilly in the future?
These kinds of reflections can help you cultivate what therapists call “self-insight,” and make you more empowered, confident, and skilled in relationships in the future.
Changes in life, like breakups, are often the time for therapy, self-reflection, and “remodeling” to update yourself to your current sense of self developmentally, such as assertive communication skills, self-love, or coming into yourself of how you really are, not how others (parents, student colleagues, exes, bosses/coworkers, industries) defined you. Maybe you’re at a different age, or phase life, now, than when your last relationship began. Sometimes you just change as you get older, and hopefully for the better. Some couples endure through these developmental changes, and some don’t.
I always think it’s good if you can at least try to have a civil friendship with your ex. Some of my current friends have been guys I originally met by dating them. I think trying to have mature, friendly, cordial, healthy relationships to exes is part of contributing to group cohesion in the broader LGBT community; sticking together as a gay men’s tribe or brotherhood, where even though we might not always agree, we support one another in a broader local, national, or even global community. Being on reasonably good terms with your ex, assuming he’s not toxic for you, can help a new partner to understand that you are a gracious, mature individual, and it will improve his confidence in you, which can pave the way for a loving commitment to you. Try to look for that in others, too, because it will tell you a lot.
But, do what you need to do for you. Almost all gay men have “exes” in their life, and it’s just “living life on life’s terms” that you need to decide how to handle them. You’ve got this.
For help on your own “relationships to exes” or more, consider services from GayTherapyLA.com. We have two options, and two price-points, either to see Ken or his associate clinician, Michael Pezzullo, LMFT. We can explain the difference between therapy (in California) and coaching (outside of California) services when we talk. For more information, or a complimentary 15-minute consultation, call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. For the podcast show, search “Gay Therapy LA with Ken Howard, LCSW” wherever you find podcasts, or visit gaytherapyla on Instagram or Facebook. Sex Therapy services are also available, as Ken is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, the national credential. Michael is also a gay men’s specialist therapist, from the LGBT program at Antioch University Culver City. We would be happy to help!