Back in my hometown, I lived in a small arts and activism community, and everyone dated everyone. It was a cesspool of friends and lovers mixing. I distinctly remember talking to a new friend and finding out we had dated not one, not two, but three of the same guys.
This made it difficult for me to even go on dates without thinking about all of the partners the other person might have had — people I probably knew and would inevitably compare myself to. Once, when someone I had a longstanding crush on was finally single, I couldn’t bring myself to approach him because it felt like he and his ex, who I knew, were still together. Another time, someone asked to come home with me, and I responded with a resolute “no,” because I knew the other people they were casually dating. It was all too much.
When friends end up sharing the same romantic partners, even the the most seemingly solid friendships can quickly go sour. Resentment is harbored, and group dynamics forever change. But it’s not always a fiasco, according to Coralie McEachron, LMFT, LCSW. “Not every instance has to have negative ripple effects,” she says.
It all depends on the situation, timing, value you place on the relationships, and the energy you are willing to expend.
Sometimes, the unthinkable happens.
For a lot of people, it’s difficult or downright painful to imagine a friend — especially a close or, god forbid, best friend — dating their ex. In some circles, there’s even an unspoken rule against this.
Lora*, 24, remained close with her ex for a year after their breakup. The two even continued to hook up when they saw each other. Then, her best friend started dating her ex — something Lora felt in part responsible for because she had encouraged the two to sync up.
“My ex moved to a new city and was lonely,” Lora says. “One of my absolute best friends lives there, so I strongly encouraged them to hang out. I wanted so badly for him to be okay, [which was] a trend in our relationship.”
Before Lora knew about their relationship, she made a plan to visit her two biggest support systems in one trip after her ex relocated to this new city. While Lora was there, she hung out with each person separately. Things went smoothly, but a week later, she found out the two were now dating on a FaceTime call with her friend.
“I was crushed and told her I didn’t have anything to say to her,” Lora says. “I lost two of my biggest confidantes. This has been the hardest year I’ve ever had, in part because of the mental anguish I felt from their simultaneous betrayals.” She is, however, grateful that most of tight-knit friend group voiced some sort of team Lora mentality.
I lost two of my biggest confidantes. This has been the hardest year I’ve ever had.
It’s been two years since the breakup and about a year since Lora’s ex and best friend started dating. Lora has chosen to not reach out to her ex, and she hadn’t spoken with her friend until the two were in the same wedding party a few months ago.
“The fact that I could see [my friend] at all and not burst into tears is because of time,” she says. “I’ve also tried to remind myself that people are dumb and make mistakes, and they can both care about and betray me in the same way that I can miss and hate them.”
She adds that her friend became “more human” to her rather than a “distant monster” when they reconnected at the wedding. “I feel some closure, but I don’t know if I’ll ever totally forgive them,” she says. “This is messy territory.”
Solidarity comes in unexpected places.
While sharing a mutual lover can certainly be a predicament, it can also be a godsend.
“It’s been a hilarious realization that almost every Asian girl I know shares at least one past partner, which ensures equally hilarious conversations about cringe-inducing pasts,” says Olive, 24.
Two years ago, Olive instantly connected with someone she met at a show. They had the same interests, tastes, and aspirations. But that’s not all they had in common.
“We started hanging out and somehow realized we shared the same elusive and emotionally abusive ex, who was absolutely an Asian fetishist,” Olive says. “She helped me understand and heal from that relationship in ways I didn’t know were possible. We honestly still talk about him all the time.”
Yes, the two became friends after both of their breakups with the shared partner, but even when they realized there was a year of overlap in their relationships with said partner, there was never any tension — only camaraderie.
“I feel really lucky that the women in my life are mature enough to bask in the absurdity of it all, as opposed to jealousy taking the wheel,” Olive says. “In fact, it’s a huge bonding experience, especially in cases in which both romantic relationships were totally not healthy.”
How we respond is everything.
Sometimes it is inevitable that romantic relationships overlap, especially in insular communities like small towns or college campuses. This is never easy to navigate, but when all else fails, McEachron has a powerful piece of advice.
“We cannot control others’ actions, but we always have a choice in regard to how we respond,” she says. “[This includes] not only our values, but also the importance of the friendship, our ability to acknowledge, check in with, and honor our feelings, the extent to which we have moved on from a former flame, and determining who we want in our lives.”
And who we choose to keep in our lives, be it friends or lovers, puts us in charge of our own stories. It can be black and white sometimes, but you may be surprised to find that’s not always the case, explains McEachron. “There are various shades of grey for connection and closeness.”
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters.