How to Be an Ex in Another Person's Life

A couple hold hands near the shore of El Yaque Beach, Nueva Esparta state, Margarita Island, Venezuela on January 31, 2014. A
A couple hold hands near the shore of El Yaque Beach, Nueva Esparta state, Margarita Island, Venezuela on January 31, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Leo RAMIREZ (Photo credit should read LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

I don't know how to be a good ex-girlfriend.

The statement alone seems contradictory -- after all, why should I want to be a good ex-girlfriend?

I didn't know what to expect after my boyfriend and I broke up in the fall of 2013 after six years of being in a committed relationship. We were together most of the time, either in person or connected by text or social media. But when our relationship became long-distance when I moved to New York, certain cracks appeared in our foundation.

I could feel the door to my past and my relationship closing.

For some reason, there's this expectation that we'll automatically know what to do after a break up. We're supposed to figure out on our own how much space is good space and how much time we should spend talking about our exes, thinking about our exes and devoting to analyzing (or, in some cases, over-analyzing) what could have changed, if anything.

We're supposed to figure out how to fill these 24-hour days with chunks of time that were once spent with a person that has since been ripped from our lives, occasionally with little or no warning.

Sometimes, the decision to break up is easy. Sometimes, the significant other was toxic and you needed the support of friends and family to come to the conclusion that you're better off without them, anyway. Sometimes, the significant other did something so terrible it really wasn't forgivable.

But sometimes, when the relationship needed to end mutually and on good terms, what happens then?

There is no guide to being a good ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend in someone's life. At first, this made sense to me -- there was no reason to be a good ex. There was no reason to continue being a shadow that lingers as a constant reminder of a past life that is no longer given the light of day.

An acquaintance once told me that exes who remain in communication with each other are either f*cking or fighting, and while it does seem to be true in many cases, I think there's a third way as well: An ex can be a friend.

I'd like to think I've been a good ex-girlfriend. If my ex-boyfriend needs space, I can give him the appropriate amount of space. If he needs someone to talk to, I can be that person there for him over the phone or via text or Facebook message. If he needs support, I'm available to talk and offer advice if and when I can.

The most important thing I've realized since the breakup is that respect is a key factor in determining whether an ex can be a friend or not. To figure this out, I asked myself many questions: Have I forgiven him for anything that I was upset about while we were together? Do I have any lingering feelings, any unanswered questions, any residual regrets I haven't worked through yet?

I think a big factor in determining whether you can be friends with an ex is determining whether you're mature enough to handle that kind of friendship. If it's too painful to be friends with an ex, then you have to let them go. If you get upset whenever you talk about new significant others or if you are still debating whether you love your ex or not, I don't think it's a good idea to be friends. However, if it's a platonic love, then I think it's possible.

At times, I wonder how I'm supposed to move on with my life when so much of my past was spent with one person at such an important stage of my life. How can I cut someone out who was there through all four years of college? This was the guy who consistently backed my creative pursuit in writing even when I, at times, lost confidence in myself. He's the one who had an undying faith in us and who we were as a couple and in a relationship.

Eventually, you realize a few things about being an ex in another person's life. If you decide to remain in touch, you'll realize that there's a special kind of friendship that's created when you're friends with your exes. Conversely, you might realize that there are some exes you're not able to be friends with -- not now, and not ever.

You'll realize that when you're an ex, you're no longer that special person in someone's life, and that they are moving on. But then you'll realize that it's OK, because eventually, you'll move on, too.

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