Friends Without Benefits

I found my ex-boyfriend on Facebook.

Did you raise your eyebrows? What did you assume was going on? Do you think this is a good idea? How do you imagine this story will end?

Would it change your mind if you knew that we broke up in 1978?

I met John when I was 13; we dated briefly when I was 14 and then seriously from just before my 16th birthday until I graduated from high school. My mother still calls him “Jay’s first love”, and he was. He was also my best friend. We were friends before and after we dated, and when I lost touch with John in my mid-20s I missed him terribly. He was the first person I looked for online when I understood that such a thing was possible, but he keeps a deliberately low profile and I never did find him – not until Facebook.

I don’t know what I expected when I friended him, but it wasn’t what has developed over the last year. John and I have an ongoing Email conversation; we talk on the phone a few times a week; we check in with each other when we’re traveling. We’ve written volumes about what happened way back then – about the choices we made, the places we went, the ways in which we hurt each other and helped each other and taught each other and loved each other. We’ve dug up old photos and traded new ones. We’ve had lunch together, alone, and we’ve visited each other’s homes. We’ve even visited each other’s mothers, who both still live in the houses we grew up in. John’s mother started to cry when she saw me walk in the door. My mother keeps asking when he’s coming back to visit her again.

And many of my friends are astonished and skeptical. Not my husband – Sam is unconcerned – but my friends. I didn’t expect that, either. “Playing with fire”, they observe. “I could never do that”. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” “Are you still attracted to him?” Well, yes, actually, I am, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to end up in a hotel room together.

I’ve always been friends with men; until I was 35, most of my closest friends were men. Nobody ever seemed surprised by that. It’s clearly the idea of being friends with someone with whom I’ve had a sexual relationship that bothers people. I wouldn’t want to have sex with someone who wasn’t my friend. I’ve had three major relationships in my life, and I was friends with each man for a while before anything else developed. I’m monogamous, and I’ve been married for 25 years, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt attracted to anyone else. I don’t see attraction and friendship as mutually exclusive.

There’s a lot buried under the shock I hear from my friends. There’s a fear that sex is a potent, toxic force that can destabilize relationships, and I suppose that might be true if my marriage weren’t sexually satisfying. There’s also a model of hetero marriage in there that troubles me. My feminist, egalitarian friends don’t buy into the idea that men don’t talk – they expect to have intimate, emotional conversations with their husbands, just as they expect to share parenting and housework. And with that expectation comes the assumption that all of our physical and emotional intimacy needs are supposed to be met by our partners.

That’s a lot to ask, especially for an extrovert and external processor like me. I want to talk about everything. A lot. Sam needs time and quiet to sort out what he’s thinking and feeling. For years, I felt like there was something pathological about me, or something wrong with Sam, because he couldn’t meet my need for intimate conversation. After a lot of therapy, I’ve come to see it differently, and we both know that our marriage is better when I have some of my needs met by other people.

My life is richer because it includes both Sam and John. That’s the best benefit of all.

15 comments for “Friends Without Benefits

  1. L
    August 3, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you for this.

    I have just had “what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity”.

    I’ve been sitting here for days and weeks trying to figure out what’s wrong with my marriage, and you just gave me the answer.


    It seems so incredibly obvious now, but 10 minutes ago it didn’t.

    Thank you so much.

  2. August 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    This post was really fun to read; you’re a great storyteller. I also related a great deal, especially:

    …I’ve come to see it differently, and we both know that our marriage is better when I have some of my needs met by other people.

    My husband and I have similar differences, with me in your position.

  3. Nonny
    August 3, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    When I was in college, I took a marriage & family sociology class, taught by a professor who also did marriage counseling for upward of 30 years. One of the things she brought up was the inherently unhealthy idea that one person must meet ALL of their partner’s needs. That’s a lot to expect from one person, a lot of pressure, and it frequently is not possible.

    (I’m sure there will be people who respond and tell me, well, their partner does, but just because there are exceptions doesn’t mean it’s true for most.)

    People deal with that differently. I dislike the expectation, too, that if you’re getting your needs met elsewhere, there must be sex involved. Yeah, no. There are various friends of mine who meet needs I have that my partners can’t fulfill simply due to time or interests — and while I am polyamorous, I don’t sleep with everyone I have a meaningful, fulfilling relationship with! *sigh*

  4. August 4, 2010 at 8:23 am

    I met my es boyfriend via facebook, too. I am younger than you, I am 21. Justin I broke up when I was a Spohomore in High School and I we never talked again after that, not until the all mighty facebook! I am with a another guy now, it’s been two years now. I give Justin advice and help him through stuff but mostly I keep my distance. Justin is really somebody I don’t want to be with anymore, he is jealous, controlling, and a know-it-all. And too manly for me!!! I am a bisexual woman who likes a little feminine in her man, lol. Anyway I am glad to be friends with Justin again since he broke up with me because of my best friend.

  5. Bushfire
    August 4, 2010 at 9:01 am

    I loved this article, and I completely agree. I especially enjoyed the questions you ask at the begining to point out people’s assumptions.

  6. August 4, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I am fortunate to have a very understanding partner who knows that I am still friends with women (and some men) with whom I have had an explicitly sexual relationship. This includes former relationship partners and also those with whom I had a primarily sexual relationship.

    I have to be careful I don’t say mention too much detail around her, else she be jealous, but she genuinely gets why they are in my life.

  7. A
    August 4, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks so much for this piece. I recently stood up for my ex at his wedding as his Best Woman. While most people seemed OK with the idea of a woman as Best Man (though they frequently asked if it was a same-sex wedding), they completely changed when they found out we’d dated once upon a time. No matter how much I explained that our relationship was more sibling-like than anything these days, I was told “if I was his fiancee I wouldn’t even let you come to the wedding” and that our close friendship should have ended the day he proposed. (“Thanks for helping me pick out the ring and plan the proposal, now scram!”?)
    It’s refreshing to hear someone acknowledge that sometimes exes fulfill a need for us, not to the exclusion of our partners but to the benefit of us and all our relationships.

  8. M. Little
    August 5, 2010 at 2:50 am

    I have many man friends and a fiance who understands. While he is my love and partner; but he doesn’t have an emotional bone in his body. He also is a little caveman. He gets that I need guy friends to vent to because he doesn’t do small talk. I wish you the best of luck; good to hear I’m not the only one.

  9. August 5, 2010 at 2:54 am

    Absolutely fascinating post, thanks Jay.

  10. Dana
    August 5, 2010 at 3:44 am

    Great post. To be honest, not being particularly monogamously orientated, sex did feel like a potent force that kept me questioning my relationship, for years.

    But we’re still together, I’m still friends with my exes, and he’s still friends with his, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    It is so strange the idea not only that your partner should fulfill you utterly at all times and be capable of it, but that that’s a healthy trait? Humans are social creatures; it’s an unusual person who doesn’t need multiple relationships and loves (if only we had more than one “love” in English!), and even then I would think such a person needs their own company alone to enrich their life as a whole person.

    My partner and I do everything together. We don’t get sick of each other, we don’t fight, and we don’t have separate friends that excludes the other. We are happy this way. But that doesn’t mean we do not have relationships with other people, of all genders!

    I feel lucky not to have people with such a fearful view of sex and relationships in my life. (Not that they are bad people, but I’m glad I attract other weirdos. :D)

  11. August 5, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    I love this. I’m on the opposite end of the situation – my husband is Facebook friends with his ex-fiancee.

    My mother was really concerned when she found out about it, insisting that the ex was just waiting for an opening. I don’t think so, and I don’t think my husband would go for it anyhow. She’s also about 1000 miles away, so there’s not much chance for anything more than friendship. Even if she were nearer, I wouldn’t worry. I know too much about what broke their relationship up.

    He has another former girlfriend he’s been friends with for a long time. It’s no big deal.

    And he didn’t freak out when I got in contact with an old crush. He was happy for me. Trust is a part of a good marriage.

  12. Carrie
    August 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    My boyfriend, also named Sam, is coincidentally the same in terms of internal processing, while I am totally external. I know nothing is “wrong” with either of us, but sometimes I am appalled at how fulfilled I feel when I talk to other men. Even some of his closest friends have opened up to me and spoken more freely than Sam ever has, even though we’ve been together for over a year now. I’m realizing that a deep conversation with someone else does not mean my relationship with Sam isn’t good enough. He gives me a lot of what I need, but it’s silly to assume that in order to be “enough,” he has to give 100%. This is a very good post :) Thanks for sharing.

  13. August 8, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I wonder if the sense of surprise and discomfort around being close friends with exes is a particularly het thing? Or maybe it’s more of a cultural thing, or maybe it’s just something that doesn’t really come up in my particular social circles, which tend towards the queer/poly/etc-friendly side of things and have an awful lot of overlap?

    I ask this because I have always valued some of my exes as some of my closest friends, and a lot of my social circle are similar. Maybe it’s because our circles all overlap so much that it’s hard to avoid exes, so you learn to tolerate them. And from that tolerance, you often learn that what attracted you to them in the first place can be a damn good basis for friendship? Maybe it’s a more sex-positive thing of being happy and open about our sexualities and entirely okay with the shifting dynamics between people? It seems to me that in straighter circles there would be more of an actual possibility of entirely cutting ties with a person, which would allow for a taboo around being close friends with exes.

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