I’ve been on holiday in Brazil with my ex-boyfriend and his current boyfriend, while my boyfriend is back home, studying and working. It looks like a pretty odd situation from the outside, I have to admit.
I have to admit this because every person I have told – without fail – has said it’s odd, to the point that I was mildly relieved during the brief moments of awkwardness.
They must mean, I told myself, that I am not impervious to social norms and customs, that I do realise the strangeness and fragility of our interaction and that I cannot be, by extension, autistic or eye-avertingly socially inept.
I was told it was going to be strained, that I wouldn’t be able to stand the new boyfriend, that I would realise I still loved my ex, or that I didn’t even like him anymore. And I was guaranteed, upon announcing that we were sharing a triple room for a few nights to save money, that we would end up in an threesome.
The lectures were so persistent that I began to feel like an angsty teenager – like no one understood me, and no one knew what it was like (cue the angry Alanis Morissette music) to be such good friends with an ex. But despite thinking that all my friends were talking rubbish and no one knew my relationship with my ex better than I did, part of me began to worry.
Was I being naive? How could I be sure it would be as natural as it seemed in my head? We’ve hung out before, but everyone seemed to think Rio was romantic. Does an exotic holiday automatically mean some ulterior motive if it’s with a friend who is also an ex? And do we ever really know if we’re feeling the emotions we think we are? Maybe my friendship with my ex was just a deep-seated belief we would one day get back together, wrapped in denialism and sprinkled with habit. On strict instruction, I began to feel a little nervous.
And in my friends’ defence, they had reasons to be so cautionary. My ex-boyfriend is not some shag-like-bunnies-for-a-week-and-break-up-at-the-first-fight ex. We had dated for years. We had lived together for years. We knew each other’s families and secrets that no one else knew. For my early twenties, I thought he was my Big Love Story, the happily-ever-after so many kids daydream about.
“Is it really possible to be good friends with an ex when you have someone new? Or is it only possible once you both have someone new…”
A large part of the reason we had broken up was geography, and geography is not enough to fill break-ups with the anger it takes to sever ties and move on. And I had, in fact, sabotaged relationships after a visit to see him in London, after realising that I still loved him. My friends didn’t want that to happen to my current boyfriend. And damn right they shouldn’t (he’s lovely).
But somehow I knew it was different this time. I knew we were the friends we claim to be and that there was no danger of emotional or carnal regression. Despite never getting to see each other, we speak all the time on the phone and it never feels like talking to “an ex”. It feels as natural as talking to a brother. And since we had both always shared a love of travel, and we seldom get to see each other, meeting somewhere new seemed like the most obvious thing in the world.
And it was, in fact, brilliant. We had so much fun getting lost in the cemetery where Eva Peron was buried, and getting soaked in Iguazu Falls. We went for jogs on the promenade in Rio, sang along loudly and shoulder-shimmied in its gay bars like only embarrassment-free foreigners can. Though we have both grown up, we essentially picked up where we left off.
And there was no sexual tension or wistfulness. Time has granted me the ability to see that that we had not been perfect, and what would not have worked if we had stayed together. And when he and his boyfriend shared moments of closeness they were beautiful. They inspired in me, not envy or nostalgia, but happiness for them, and the simple and healthy feeling of missing my boyfriend.
Watching their relationship threw mine into relief, reminding me of all the little things I love about my boyfriend, that are different and specific to him, and how happy I was to have him in my life. It was a strange kind of feeling, like closure but less sad.
It was the reassuring feeling that my ex and I will always be there for each other, and that our lives taking different directions is good for us. It was a kind of gratitude for closeness that did not need to be romantic to be real. It also confirmed to me that it’s often worth ignoring how other people label your relationships and what they expect of them.
But how could I expect my current boyfriend – or my friends – to believe that nothing but good times would happen? It took a massive leap of faith on his part (for which I am very grateful) to trust me like that. Especially when I really struggle when he hangs out with his exes. I become very jealous and take the time they spend together as a slap in the face.
Is it really possible to be good friends with an ex when you have someone new? Or is it only possible once you both have someone new, because the sense of possible rekindling is gone? At what point do we stop referring to an ex as an ex and start referring to them as a friend? Because it seems bizarre to let how the relationship began be the determining factor in how it grows and what we expect of it as the years go by.
What is the point of discriminating against a great friend because you happened to be lovers once? After all, we usually date people that really resonate with us, and after all the drama of a break-up has died down, often there is still a friendship there worth fighting for. Too many people throw the baby out with the bathwater when they break up, giving up a connection that meant something to them. They don’t realise that the people who occupy a special place in our hearts don’t displace anyone else, but merely grow the room for special places.
There surely must be less controversial people to go travelling with, but it seems quite fitting to me to have been in Brazil; a country so effortlessly integrated and joyfully relaxed (when South Africa seems so anxious and so keen to box people again) to realise that anything is possible, that there is more than one kind of love, and that our lives are big enough for more than we think they are. Just let go. And move to the Samba a little…