7 min

How to break up with me

Becoming friends with my ex wasn't easy, but it was worth it

In late 2006, Philippe, my partner of six and a half years, ended our relationship. After an initial six months without contact, we began the difficult work of becoming friends again. Last month, I sat down with Philippe to ask him how we did it.

Nicholas Little: What was it like for you in those first six months?

Philippe Hamelin: It was hard. You go from being extremely close and having this person with whom you talk every day and then suddenly all ties are cut. It’s a forced detachment and it’s hard. My goal was not to think about it until you were ready to talk again.

NL: We both lost our lover and our best friend at the same time. That’s a big loss.

PH: Yes. The first idea that comes to mind when breaking up is that we have lost everything. Not just the future of the relationship, but its history too. When you’re with someone and you have all these good memories, you know that there are more good memories to come. You can project everything that’s been good about the past into the future too. But when there’s an abrupt stop to a relationship that cycle is suspended.

Through our discussions later on I found peace so that it no longer felt like it was all lost. Our relationship changed and I knew it wouldn’t go back to the status it was, but I also knew that everything that had happened was not lost.

Can you talk about the time that you needed off, with distance, and how you needed that and if it was helpful?

NL: I’m quite glad that I took that time off. I actually think I was in shock for a long time. Like when you experience something but you have no means to explain it. Your belief system and your vision of the world can’t make meaning of it so there’s this dissonance. You can’t rationalize why it happened. So you’re tumbling without meaning. That’s how I was for six months.

I lost a big part of my identity. I had found this long-term relationship that made me very happy and I felt pride and I had all these dreams and hopes for the future. And so I lost all of those things. And my lover. And my best friend.

I’m really glad that I took that time to go through that process on my own. I think that if we had been in contact during that time, I would have said a lot of things that I didn’t truly mean because I felt anger and I was melodramatic. Rather than say all those things to you, I went to a counsellor instead.

She coached me through that internal process. And then at one point during those six months she asked me, “Do you even want to be friends with Philippe?” And I remember quite consciously deciding, “Yes, I do.” She asked me, “Do you still want Philippe in your life?” and I said, “Yes. I do. Very much.”

But had I been asked that question a month after we broke up, I think the answer would have been no. Not out of spite, but out of hurt. It took a fair amount of healing work to be in a position to say, “Although it’s not the intimacy I used to have, I can still see what great value it would be to be friends with Philippe.”

PH: When you break up, it’s often because the situation is just not sustainable or it’s too hard, but I think with time you forget those last moments where you felt, “This cannot go on.”

Instead, those last moments become one part of a much larger span of time that includes more positive memories. So you don’t see the relationship only as what it was at the very end. You see it for what it was overall.

Time on your own also gives you the chance to see who you are because that’s something you can forget in a relationship. Time helps you to divide responsibility or hurt. Sometimes there are feelings you attribute to your relationship, but with time you come to realize that it was actually just you.

And I think the six months allowed me to rebuild my own strength. The distance allowed me to stop associating you with the idea of someone who might hurt or challenge me.

NL: In those first six months, I was so disoriented and angry and disappointed that something so important to me had ended. I wasn’t yet able to take account of my own actions. Afterward, when some of those intense feelings dissipated, I no longer saw things quite so black-and-white. And then, if you can be honest enough, you admit to some of the mistakes you made. That’s quite a painful process.

I feel like we lacked a model of how to resolve some of the challenges we faced respectfully. The last couple months of our relationship were sustained crisis. And in moments of crisis, my words and actions can be defensive. Whereas what’s needed is patience and calm and flexibility and generosity. I recognize that I said and did things that I wish I hadn’t, but I was doing the best that I could.

PH: It’s a kind of shock to realize, “I love this person and I know they love me, yet still it doesn’t work.” It was my first long-term experience and I was putting a lot of trust in that idea that “Love can overcome anything!” Learning otherwise is hard. Not only for that specific relationship, but also for your perception of what love is and what relationships are. For me, it was a source of grief.

That said, although I do consider myself a romantic, I also don’t think that coupling is the ultimate form a relationship can take. I don’t think that we should see a transition from being in a relationship as a couple to moving on to being friends as something that is weaker.

NL: Well, it seems that one of the reasons we’re friends now is that we did all along love each other and we did all along respect each other. I quite admire your personality and who you are.

So in some ways after you’ve gone through this process of pain and then healing, it makes sense to be friends. We didn’t break up because we stopped loving each other or stopped feeling respect and admiration for who the other person is.

My counsellor said to me, “Nicholas, Philippe’s goals were simply no longer in synch with yours. What Philippe wants from his love life and his romantic partner is not what you want from your love life and your romantic partner. It’s not a commentary on whether you are a success or failure as a couple or as individuals.”

It was actually a great relief when I could see it that way. It meant that I hadn’t lost who I am as a person and all that effort I put into the relationship wasn’t a waste. And it also meant that I don’t have to disregard you.

PH: I think there are challenges you can get through for love — it’s worth going through — but beyond the couple there is the individual and I am more at peace now with the fact that a coupled relationship is not the sum of what people can exchange and what people can become.

I see how each of us has changed after not being together and I find it’s very positive. Even if it hurts while it’s happening, even if you love each other, it can sometimes be a good thing not to be with someone.

NL: Do you find it difficult to see me dating other men?

PH: No. Not now. I’m pretty sure that I would have closer to when we broke up, but now I feel more detached. I think I would still feel sad or concerned if I felt like you were not getting something good from your relationships. But I sense that they bring you a lot, so I feel peaceful with that.

I’m guessing for you it was hard because I started seeing someone right after we broke up.

NL: At the start it was hurtful because I was already in a painful place. But I didn’t feel resentful. Some of my friends wanted me to jump to that conclusion, but I didn’t feel it.

But after that initial six months, and particularly once it was clear to me that we would become friends, it bothered me even less. And then eventually I got to the point where it didn’t really bother me at all.

PH: I think our experience of breaking up has turned out fairly positive in the end. I think that this happened partly because when you got back in touch with me, you were able to make yourself vulnerable and you were able to create a context where I could be vulnerable too.

I also think that what made friendship possible was that we didn’t play games. Or if we did, we did it unconsciously and then, with distance, revisited those choices and made amends. That’s a key thing to becoming friends, to rebuilding that confidence back and to feeling respected.

NL: I agree. I have absolute trust that you would not intentionally do me harm. When I felt ready, I knew that if I made myself vulnerable you wouldn’t take advantage of it. Because you never took advantage of it.

PH: For me, this was my first important relationship and my first time going through an intense break-up. It has shaped me.

It has shaped my perception of what makes a relationship worthwhile. For me, one thing I learned from this relationship is that it is worth it to make yourself vulnerable. When you love someone, you should be able to be fragile in front of them. And if you feel like that person will respect that and will create a zone of safety around your vulnerability, then it is someone who is worth being with.

Obviously you need a partner who will challenge you. But you also must feel safe enough to take risks and to step away from power or pride, knowing that the other person won’t take advantage of you. For me, that’s what makes relationships worthwhile.

As I age, I am less and less interested in playing games with people I care about. I am not interested in having power over others or playing mind games. I find it a far more interesting challenge to find the comfort to be yourself before someone. To seek people who will respect you.