Inextricably linked on June 15, 1998…
Dear Breakup Girl,
My girlfriend of nearly a year and I broke up about a month ago. For the month before, we had been having problems and decided to be “friends” (meaning that we still spent a lot of time around each other, but avoided anything too physical), but could date other people, providing we told the other person. She went out with someone else, and did not say anything, and I found out somewhat accidentally. We got in a big fight, and childishly didn’t speak to each other for two weeks. To make a very long story short (or try), she can’t see the guy for legal reasons (she’s an instructor at one school, he’s a senior in high school at another in the same district), and while she still talks to him, that’s about all. We are both at the same college, in the same department, with the same emphasis, so we see each other at least a couple hours a day, five days a week. Plus we have the same circle of friends, etc. We agreed to try and be friends, slowly, considering the amount of trust that had been lost between us. We had been best friends before we dated, and didn’t want to totally lose each other. The problem comes in that we can’t seem to decide how to deal with each other. One week, she’s very friendly and flirty, until I think she’s getting too close, the next week, vice versa. I guess my basic question is, what the h*** is going on? Oh, to add to this sticky situation, I’m good friends with her closest sister, something of a big brother to her only brother, and her dad is my future landlord. Exactly how screwed am I?
— Zino Trope
Less so, perhaps, than if her family name were Corleone. But still, I’d watch your back. Rather, Breakup Girl will watch your back; it’s your job to be up front. You guys “can’t decide how to deal with each other” because you haven’t decided yet. If you want/have to maintain that level of contact, you’ve got to lay out some guidelines and expectations. More Draconian and explicit ones than seem necessary or appealing, at least at the beginning. How much time, outside of school, will you spend? In person? On the phone? What do you mean by being friends slowly? Do you hug when you see each other, because it seems nice, or does that weird you out? Whatever those day to day, nuts and bolts interactions are, agree on ways to regulate them that you’re both relatively comfortable with. This will help remove some of the annoying guesswork, between-the-lines reading, and other mind games that get in the way.
Two elaborations on that point: (1) Part of the key here is that you do this together. See, your letter describes only her actions. You’re letting her set — and change — the tone; but if you’re trying to negotiate a mutual settlement, well, it does take two to stop tangoing. And (2) I know this kind of martial law sounds icky for two people who were once “best friends.” True, if you were so close before, you probably do have a solid ground that you’ve never stepped off of. But even in such cases, you, unlike video store patrons, can’t just be kind and rewind. That is, the return to The Way Things Were, as you’re learning, doesn’t just happen naturally. You’ll have to figure out — together — what new shape your relationship is going to take.
Hmm. After rereading my response, I just have to say that I hope your “emphasis” in your department is not on “eschewal of mixed metaphors.” If it is, exactly how screwed am I?