I'm Not Doing Emotional Labor For Past Lovers Anymore

My hands gripped the elliptical as my exasperated body swung back and forth, and I wished I could politely put in my earphones to tune out the conversation to my left.

Friends confide in other friends about the troubles they are having with their partners, but that line blurs when your friendship is based on past romantic ties, making every conversation feel much deeper.

This was one of those conversations. I am, yes, a queer woman who has stayed friends with all her past lovers and exes. 

After a few years of forgiveness, I was finally able to spend time with one of my exes— an ex who had cheated on me with his current partner. The conversation kept moving toward the issues he was having in the relationship and whether or not he could end it amicably. He chatted away on the parallel elliptical while I stared straight forward as the sounding board for his current relationship — the one right after his with me ended. I can’t do this to myself anymore, I thought. Yes, we are friends, but this kind of conversation should be issued to your other friends. The ones you haven’t seen naked. The ones you don’t already have an immediate connection with.

This has happened to me multiple times: my relationship ends on tumultuous ground but eventually picks back up into a sticky friendship filled with subtle references to our past sex life and insides jokes.

It’s a delicate balance of a compartmentalizing friendship and romantic relationship, often wavering into some major flirting instead of keeping past feelings where they belong: locked away somewhere, never to be opened again. I play this feeling in the back of my mind, trying to step out of what's happening to see the situation more clearly. And yet, I’m still there, watching my ex flirt with the person (me) they gave up for a new person — while also asking for advice on their relationship with said new person. Cool. 

It’s possible that I’m still seeking closure from the situation, which is why I keep these conversations going. Or maybe my kindness tries to rationalize it as a way to move on. Or that I just want the uncomfortableness to wash away from all parties. Maybe I have a hard time letting go. Or maybe we haven’t laid the groundwork for a platonic and productive present as pals.

Honestly, no matter the situation, it always gets to the point where my ex starts to flirt, confide, and yearn for the best parts of our relationship.

My desperate need for us to move on overshadows how emotionally draining it is to be both the me from our romantic past and the me in the present. It’s the worst kind of fast-forward. As I try to speed through how shitty that person made me feel, I end up with an ex-turned-"friend" who feels very familiar with me and the subconscious pangs of a less-than-equal stake in the conversation. 

I wonder: Is this something heterosexual people go through as they date? The only reason I bring it up is because of the overlapping nature of queer relationships, friendships, and communities. It’s already a very small group of people — now let’s add sexual intrigue and breakups to the mix! Oh, you go to this queer dance party too? Shocker! It’s all one big constant reminder. 

I simply cannot do this anymore. 

 I’m being cast as the guardian, the emergency contact, the confidant — well above and beyond my role as just a friend.

The moment came threefold all in one weekend: An ex g-chatted me to say that the new lover in his life couldn’t understand his sexual interests the way I used to. "What should I say to her? Maybe you can try talking to her?" Up until that point, it was a lot of me giving bits of advice and then swiftly trying to change the subject. This plea for "help" was actually a direct comparison between myself and his new partner, one that would lead me to convince his new lover to something she might not be comfortable with. 


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Another ex texted me a few ominous messages about wanting to just get on a bus and leave without letting her girlfriend know. When I asked why, she danced around wanting to break up with her, a conversation that led into how much fun we used to have with each other. Finally, she said she was going to hop on a bus to Atlantic City for a few hours — but only telling me of this information. Now, I’m being cast as the guardian, the emergency contact, the confidant — well above and beyond my role as just a friend. The last one came in a singular, lacy piece of mail with a wedding invite inside from my elliptical buddy — a person who for several gym dates in a row confessed that his relationship needed to end

Taking stock of one’s friendships is a little self-involved, as it’s always driven by what a person brings to the table. But it's needed when you're looking to cleanse your life of the people who might be dragging you down. I scrolled through my contacts and identified all the perpetrators and sent a message: “Hey, I really don’t want to talk about your relationship anymore. It doesn’t make me feel very good to have those kinds of conversations.” Silence followed. 

The amount of emotional labor I had put into these pseudo-friendships was immediately swept away with one single mention of my own personal discomfort; a sad reflex filled my body with the understanding that I was only there for my ability empathize on a deeper level than my exes’ other friends. We had shared love and life with each other, so clearly I was the perfect person to avow to — but my inability to see my own needs made it a tricky combo. Lesson learned. 


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