For people who are dating or dealing with the starting and ending of intimate relationships, a certain question tends to arise… can ex-partners maintain healthy roles in each others’ lives? And if so, when, where, how, and (most obviously) why? Sometimes an ex’s role is clear; for example, a couple who has children together will most likely continue as co-parents in the event of a separation. Other post-breakup scenarios have less obvious answers. Exes can, often unintentionally, fall into dysfunctional roles in each other’s lives, such as a baggage-laden “friend”, convenient sexual outlet, or receptacle of lingering animosity. Deciding how to continue forward, together or separately, after a relationship dissolves can be tricky for anyone. However, for several reasons, this quandary appears to be particularly challenging for lesbians.
First of all, gay women’s friends and lovers are typically the same gender, making boundaries around friendships and romantic relationships more flexible. This is a challenge unique to lesbian relationships, simply because women—of any sexuality—tend to forge their closest bonds with other women. The potential for any gay-leaning friend or acquaintance to become a lover adds a level of challenge and confusion to many lesbian social circles. It is very common for lesbian friendships to morph into a more intimate configuration for a period of time, changing the interpersonal patterns within their friendship group. If the romantic relationship ends, it is often natural for the former couple to try to return to being “just friends”. It may sound simple in theory, but the physical and emotional intimacy shared and corresponding bonds established are not easily severed. And it’s not always the most comfortable of arrangements for the exes or for the new partners involved, to say the least.
This leads to another issue contributing to lesbian post-breakup complications… both partners in the couple are guided by the emotional physiology of the human female. In heterosexual relationships, a hormonal balance is generally struck so that reactions may be tempered through differing intensities of experience and response to emotional stimulation. Meaning men are often less emotionally reactive whereas women tend to be more highly sensitive. When both partners in a couple are sensitive women, the resulting emotional intensity can create significant difficulty for the ex-couple.
An anecdotal social review suggests it is uncommon for lesbians to neatly pronounce the death of a relationship and simply move forward separately without looking back. This may be related to the neurochemistry involved; women experience much stronger effects than men of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, which promotes nesting, monogamy, pair bonding, and emotional extremes. This hormone is activated very easily; a single touch starts it flowing and further intimacy-creating activities (including sex) break the dam. So, two neurochemically typical women will naturally create very tight bonds which only break with great difficulty and emotional pain. Many women avoid completely detaching from an ex in an attempt to minimize the pain involved with a breakup.
An additional piece of scientific information helps explain the difficulty of intimate breakups between women. Brain researchers have discovered that emotional and sexual intimacy between individuals creates a physical connection in the brain which cements that relationship neurologically as a meaningful attachment. The evolutionary purpose of sexual contact and its related hormonal processes is to bond people together— and these hormonal and neurological operations are especially effective in women. So when a breakup occurs, the critical healing task is to break that physical bond of intimacy in the brain in order to move forward with emotional freedom and strength. While the bond remains in tact, so do the feelings associated with the loss of the bonded object: sadness, fear, anger, shame, and love. Again, women experience and process this connection more intensely than men do, so an intimacy bond between two women can be even more difficult to break. This phenomenon is evidenced by the number of lesbians who choose to keep their exes in their lives as friends or some permutation of such. Full severing of the intimacy bond requires physical and emotional distance, negative associations with the ex-partner, and forgiveness.These goals cannot be achieved with continued contact immediately after the breakup. Any true friendship or healthy continuation of contact is possible between exes only after the bond of intimacy is completely broken.
The conclusion to be drawn from this information is that after a period of separation and deep emotional healing, ex-partners may be able to occupy space in each others’ lives. Offered below are some healthy scenarios for continuing contact with an ex, with cautions to consider.
Exes as friends. Intimate relationships are typically based on a combination of shared interests and sexual chemistry. After the chemistry dies and the emotional intimacy vanishes, the shared interests will likely remain. Rather than avoiding the places, groups, and activities they both enjoy, exes may find it more convenient to develop a civil and friendly relationship with one another in order to be at peace when their paths cross. When an intimate relationship is lost, it can be additionally painful if a cherished social circle or activity is also affected. It may, in fact, be possible for exes to resume a functional friendship after each has thoroughly healed from the loss and resolved any lingering feelings related to the relationship or breakup.
Caution: Sharing interests with an ex may be possible, but emotional sharing or activities which may rekindle the bond of intimacy (read: substance use and/or amorous exchanges) are strictly to be avoided to keep things healthily platonic.
Exes as support. If a relationship ends constructively and sufficient time has passed for the emotional fallout to settle, continued contact with an ex may serve a purpose of support in times of need. This scenario can be tricky because, again, the support being offered cannot be emotional in nature. Sharing feelings is something to be done with intimates only, if healthy boundaries are desired. If, after recovering from a breakup, an ex-partner maintains residual concern for someone with whom she spent a significant time of her life, she may be psychologically prepared to help out during a time of need. It can be nice to have a connection with a caring individual in life, as the coming and going of hard times is a fact of human existence.
Caution: It is important for exes to monitor their feelings around their supportive interactions and regain personal space as needed to resolve any lingering emotions that might threaten their peace of mind or current relationship.
Exes as history. Intimates who have experienced important eras of their lives together are irreplaceable emblems in one another’s lives. Although they move forward on their life paths, retaining a connection with the past is something that can offer comfort and a sense of continuity along life’s long and winding road. Googling someone from long ago or occasionally checking in via email can be a perfectly reasonable way to enjoy a bit of nostalgia, reflect on the past, and gain perspective on the present.
Caution: When relationships begin to sour, human nature instinctively nudges people to reflect on the past with rose-colored glasses. It is helpful to be honest with oneself about the reasons for seeking re-connection with an ex to ensure one is not escaping from a problem in their current relationship or resurrecting emotions formerly associated with their ex.
Many people believe that negotiating intimate relationships is the crux of life’s purpose. The bonds of love and intimacy formed with others bear witness to the value of human interconnectedness. The memory of loved ones cannot easily be forgotten and, as mentioned above, new roles can sometimes be assumed once the intimate nature of a relationship has changed. These are tricky waters which require emotional strength and stamina to navigate successfully. Observing a new partner’s decisions around her relationships with exes can provide valuable information regarding her emotional needs, boundaries, and strengths. And noticing one’s own tendencies in this area can highlight areas of mental and emotional health and areas in need of attention. If personal growth and deep healing are desired, discarding exes as emotional crutches and severing outdated intimacy bonds will strongly support the goal of moving forward in a healthy, happy way.
© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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