We in the romance genre get accused of dealing in the worst kinds of fiction sometimes, of glamorizing or minimizing the heavy elements of human intimacy. Frankly, other genres can keep the heartache. ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,’ and so on.
But it’s out there, that specter, haunting the edges of our happiness, and maybe now and then we should talk about it.
It feels our modern way of life does more damage to our well-being than any romance novel. We live in societies that homogenize intimacy, applaud attachments that have less of a bond than worn out velcro, and encourage a selfishness that has us grooming everyone around us to be as unselfish as possible – for our singular benefit. We call bare acquaintances ‘friends’ because social media has scuttled our lexicon and engineered connections we simply don’t feel, leaving our ideas about how invested we are in others turned utterly upside-down.
We’re supposed to be half-invested when we meet someone – eagerness and openness are old fashioned, silly, and even anti-feminist (What?). If you’re working toward any goal, if you wonder for even a second if there’s a chance of something that lasts, you’ve broken the faith. Getting to know everything about a person doesn’t make us bond; it makes us bored.
And when the relationship, no matter how brief or lengthy, is over, we’re supposed to be zen. Be mature. Be so adult. Because if you were totally focused on your own needs, like you should have been all along, it shouldn’t be that hard. Don’t catch feelings, whatever you do. Keep it casual.
“I want us to be friends.”
In the immortal words of Admiral Akbar, It’s a trap.
This is a trap, plain and simple. Say yes. Prove how okay you are with the situation, how you’re just doing you and it’s like, whatever. No Big Deal. You’re chill and so centered and Namaste, World; live your best life.
Now, you can say no. I mean, I guess if you want to seem stuck, and exist forever as an object of pity. If you want to be bitter and frankly, a little ugly. If you want to be the one who really made everything bad.
Be classy. Make a graceful exit. Stiff upper lip and right foot forward. Whatever other platitudes a quote generator can vomit up for you.
It sounds so great. You can just transition from romantic interests or lovers to friends. Fairly painless, all in all. You’ll still exchange funny pictures and wish each other Merry Christmas. Chat a few times a week and send inappropriate birthday greetings. It’s actually better than any romantic relationship!
You guys. It’s the best.
But it’s not. There is no getting out intact, maybe not even alive – not at first. In all my research for writing American Girl, the two women (out of 23) who’d remained friends with their former partners became friends after a year or more of radio silence. There was no magical rom-com transition after some tissues and a sentimental hug session. They had a regular, missionary position heart shredding just like the rest of us mere mortals. They got depressed. They cried. They questioned every fight, each nag.
They questioned everything about themselves, their worth.
Better Together offers so many amazing benefits. It’s special because it can’t happen with just anyone. We all have friends; some of us have lots of friends. That box is full, and sometimes we’re not looking to wedge in another person, not one that’s now pretty awkwardly shaped to our lives. Friends enrich us but they won’t give us Better Together. We’re not vulnerable in the same way, a trust that bares us fully and kindles something rare and magical.
Like our heart, our brain doesn’t care about the duration of our connection with someone. The minute we decide we like them, those gray cells start acclimating. They grow used to our romantic interest’s input, and begin to anticipate it, sometimes crave it. That person becomes a part of our story, quite literally becomes part of us on a cellular level. And when they go, that chapter closes. We have to rewrite our story without the neural responses or the sick-day care packages. We have to rewrite our story without them.
So keep them around! Try writing a main character half-in, half out of a novel. You’ll be left with confused and angry readers.
Now try that on yourself.
How many people realize what they’re doing when they ask to be friends? How many do it with negative intentions? Not many. It seems grown-up, diplomatic. It’s supposed to make everyone feel good about what’s happened. But it’s not a treaty. We’re not negotiating borders or economic sanctions; we’re negotiating our heart and our self-worth. We’re dealing with a romantic consolation prize. One half gets absolutely everything – to move on and keep the most convenient parts of their old relationship. They get to feel magnanimous. They get to feel good. The other half gets to clean up after the dinner party and go to bed alone.
Here’s why saying no is the kindest thing you can do for yourself, and your former love interest: Honesty.
Humans are the worst at grief and loss. Look at the grotesque ritual of death we practice in most countries, painting and arranging corpses of friends or loved ones so we can feel they’re with us just a little bit longer. But in short order, for practical and emotional reasons, we let go, we mourn, and we find a way to move on.
This gets a little more complicated with two living people in the mix, because they’re not gone from sight. They’re in your feed, in your favorite bar; at a conference you both have to attend. This is painful enough scab-ripping. They’ll go whole days without writing you, when once it was a few hours on a bad day. They won’t be around for the wins. You’re going to see them with someone new. You’ll have to think twice every time you start to send them a text, for a long, long time.
Why subject yourself to so much spectacular heartache on purpose? Why drag out what clearly needs to go in the ground? Because we’re rubbish, as a species, at letting go.
And for the person doing the breaking, you know you’re not getting a friend, right? You’re leaving a trail of kibble for someone you know is not okay, who you know feels more than you ever will again. If you didn’t want it when you were together, do you really want to deal with it now? There is something inherently disingenuous in the arrangement, because your former distraction is staying on the hook in hopes you’ll change your mind. They’re not your friend because they want to do fantasy baseball or catch up at the bar once every few months. They want it all and you want to be on your way. They want Better Together, and you want Better Off Alone.
In romance these aren’t themes we get to explore unless it all gets resolved at the end, and everyone gets their happy ending. It’s why romance is a wonderful escape. Critics are right: it isn’t always realistic and that’s what makes it a safe place when your heart is vulnerable. But sometimes, in writing as much as in life, it’s cathartic to go to these places, to examine the pain of these moments with long arms. In the wonderful words of Frank Herbert, “And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Maybe this is where, for once, literary fiction has it right. There isn’t always a Better Together, and we have to understand what happens when the happily ever after never comes; we need that small hope of still standing when the smoke clears. Happy endings give us hope. Endings give us a map to navigate life when we’re not friends, just exes.