Breakups. The dominant cultural narratives are: someone must have been an asshole; can’t possibly remain friends; the earth, it is scorched.
There’s no shame in having a difficult breakup, and even many ultimately happy breakups are difficult. Breaking up is just very very hard. And there are, of course, cases where there is real hurt and/or abuse wherein it wouldn’t be appropriate to stay friends with your ex.
But if you were dating someone, there (almost certainly) must have been a strong connection to begin with. And breaking up doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We know so many people, including ourselves, who shifted to a different shape of relationship but didn’t need to place blame or cut anyone out of anyone else’s life.
We don’t hear these stories often enough. And we believe that if there were more of these alternate breakup narratives, the culture around breaking up might begin to shift for the better. Authenticity and communication are the sexiest, regardless of what stage of relationship you are in.
So we asked our (super smart and sexy!) listeners to send us stories of happy/healthy breakups, and we are deeply moved by those we received. Here are three of our favorites:
“So in 2012, Rudy and I were 23 and had been together since we were 19. We had lived together, spent holidays with each other’s families, had the Big Fights and worked it out, talked about The Future, agreed about priorities (marriage in a couple of years, kids  probably but career and travel first, get a dog but never a cat, everything from engagement rings to preferred milk fat content), the whole long-term couple shebang. We were also really young and navigating a bunch of problems that we had no context for and no way of handling, like the fact that my libido had been decimated by birth control, or his struggle to re-enroll in school after a financial leave. There was a lot going on, but at the base of it, we had grown into different people from the ones who fell in love.
A few months post-breakup, he fell in love with someone else, and I slowly gave up on us getting back together. That hurt too. We found new boundaries, like what I could hear him talk about and what was too much. He respected what I needed, and I respected his relationship, and we stayed close. He told her from the jump that my presence in his life was a nonnegotiable. Just as much as ever, we had each other’s backs. When he had conflicts with our managers at work, I went to bat for him. Eventually, the friendship filled in the hole left from the breakup.
This January, we got dinner at a pizza place in the West Village, and he nervously told me he was proposing the next day. And I was happy for him — happy enough that in two months, I’ll be one of the people standing beside him when he marries that girl. It was awful for a long time, and I don’t think there are many breakups that aren’t, no matter how close you stay or how many compromises you make. It just sucks. That’s what breakups are. But we’re both always glad we didn’t let ourselves confuse the hurt from the breakup with aversion to one another. At this point, we’ve traded so much love and trust that I think of him like my family. Whoever else comes and goes, we have each other.”
“After dating for close to a year, my gut was getting louder and more insistent – the relationship I shared with Alex wasn’t working. The idea of ending it (and especially the idea of potentially hurting Alex) filled me with so much sadness, but I knew that we were no longer being our best selves with one another, and that the truly loving thing to do was to be honest and create space for us to change and grow in new ways. So with a heavy heart, I began the conversation that I’d been rehearsing in my head for weeks: “Alex, I feel like this isn’t working.”
Given the amount of time I’d been preparing for this, you’d think I could have come up with something more eloquent than that, but in truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what my desired outcome was, and as it turned out, opening the door was all that really needed to happen. It quickly became evident that we were on the same page – Alex had also been feeling stuck and unsatisfied in our relationship, but unsure of how to reorient. Soon, we were both crying, talking about all the things we loved and appreciated about one another and affirming the goodness and beauty that had been found and created in our relationship. It was perplexing to us both – we’re both great! And good looking! (And humble!) Why wasn’t it working? But even as we showered each other in praise and affirmation, the clarity of our reality remained – it was time for a new chapter in this sweet partnership that had already offered us both so much goodness and taught us so much.
The negotiation of that shift would take time (now, six months later, we’re still stumbling along the messy but beautiful path toward post-dating friendship) but that night, with tear-streaked cheeks and raw, tender hearts, it was already clear that even as the nature of our relationship changed, our commitment to one another was steadfast. Trusting in that, I knew that we didn’t have to figure it all out right then and there. Glancing up from my snot and tear-soaked hankie, I said, “Do you want to take a break?” Alex smiled and nodded, and soon after we were curled up on the couch together, watching cute kitten videos on YouTube and laughing about how very, very gay we both are.”
“My wife and I got married young. We didn’t particularly want to get married but we did it because she was from another country (or, as she likes to say, because I was). A lot happened in the years we were together. She went from being a femme anthropologist to a butch vegan baker, and I transformed from a nervous Woody Allen type into an avid cyclist. She got sick, she got better, I wrote a dissertation, she grew a mohawk, we built a home and a community, and we loved each other a bunch. But after eight years of being together, we were pointed in different directions, so we parted amicably. The divorce was easy, though we bickered over money. But we got through it, and I’m thrilled that we did. Today we live in different cities but we’re still close friends. She helped me through my last breakup, I flew out to take care of her when she had surgery. The background photo on my phone is a picture of my new love and my ex-wife hanging out, without me, in California. They both knew how important they were to me, so they arranged to meet. Every time I look at that, I smile.
Your loyal listener.
(This story has been edited and approved by the ex, who is also a listener.)”
Have a happy/healthy breakup story of your own? Please send it to us as firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you and keep adding to this collection.
Stephanie Johnstone is an NYC-based human / composer / organizer / theatermaker / muckraker / sexuality educator with a fierce commitment to celebrating and cultivating interdependence.
David McGee writes mostly plays but other things too, sometimes. His writing has been published by n+1 in the book “Trouble is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street” and cited by Against Equality (Queer Challenges to the Politics of Inclusion).