I never understood the phrase “falling out of love.” In fact, when I first heard it, I found it deeply disturbing. I’d learned about love as something that lasts forever, something strong enough to outlast any breakup.

The first time I fell in love, I honored this belief. My partner and I told each other early on that we’d love each other forever, no matter where our relationship went. The deep caring I had for him did not disappear after he broke up with me, and we remained friends for years before drifting apart. Even now, I still have love for him, though I have no romantic or sexual attraction to him at all.

Two years later, when I broke up with my second boyfriend, I told him, “Relationships don’t end — they just shift.” We’d talked about the soul-level connection we had and our shared past lives, so the idea of being completely out of each other’s lives was not conceivable to either of us. We shared the belief that love is unconditional, which means it’s not conditional upon being in a relationship. Once you love someone, you always will.

He and I still talk every once in a while about what’s going on in our lives or the world. We’ve occasionally even said “I love you” with the understanding it’s meant platonically. I’m in another relationship, which I talk openly with him about, and he’s been in other relationships at various points. As with my first ex, the sexual and romantic attraction faded, but the love did not.

Then there are the flings that never made it far before landing in the “friend zone,” as it’s called, as if friendship were a consolation. There’s the guy I dated for a month in college, stopped speaking to for a year, then begun inviting to my dorm for drinks and friendly banter. And there are several people from dating apps I took on one or two dates, decided it wasn’t a match, then became good friends with.

Most of us learn as kids that the proper trajectory for a relationship is to date, become serious, and then get married and stay together as life partners. But why is this considered a more desirable path than, say, dating, becoming close friends, then being in each other’s wedding parties? When we get too attached to one particular outcome, we miss out on the potential that each unique relationship holds.

“Being friends with an ex can have many advantages because this is a person who likely knows you on a deeper level than other people. This allows you to have someone you can confide in, aside from any partner, and who can support you,” says marriage and family therapist Patrick Tully. “It can be quite healing, actually, to remain friends with an ex.”

Still, friendships with exes can be tricky territory, and befriending an ex you still have feelings for sets you up for disappointment. “You should be certain that both of you are completely over your relationship and neither one of you wants to get back together,” says marriage and family therapist Amy McManus. “It’s extremely hard to be friends if this is not the case.” This may take a while, and that’s OK. “It can take time to process a breakup, whether or not you initiated the breakup,” says Tully.  

We shared the belief that love is unconditional, which means it’s not conditional upon being in a relationship. Once you love someone, you always will.

That’s why I’ve typically waited a few months or even years to befriend exes. I once tried befriending an ex right after we broke up, but I ended up crushed that we were only friends and jealous when he mentioned love interests. So, I now wait until I’m over a person, which often means waiting until I’m dating someone else.

McManus advises against even being friends with or following exes on social media until you’re over them. “If you are not in another relationship and you see them with another person on social media, it can be depressing, and it can easily suck you into obsessing and stalking,” she says.

It’s easiest to be friends with an ex if you broke up a while ago, are both seeing other people, and have limited circumstances under which you see each other, like when you’re visiting their city, says McManus. However, if either of you is seeing someone else, this can also add another layer of complication. “If a person still cares for their ex, it can be problematic in a current relationship,” says Tully.

If your partner feels uncomfortable about your friendship with your ex, you should ask yourself whether they have a reason to be. Even if you’re no longer romantically involved with your ex, certain behaviors like flirting or bad-mouthing your significant other may border on emotional cheating.

Perhaps you can find a compromise that helps your partner feel comfortable, like only hanging out with your ex in a group. However, if you feel your partner’s request that you avoid your ex is unreasonable, you don’t have to honor it, says Tully. The important thing is to make sure you’re not sacrificing your time with your partner to spend time with your ex, but that’s true for all your friends.

As for me, my current partner doesn’t think anything of my friendships with exes. I don’t hide them from him because I have nothing to hide, and he recognizes that. He also knows it means that even if things don’t last between us, he’ll remain in my heart as well.

Society pressures us to put relationships into boxes with labels, like “ex” or “partner” or “friend.” But the truth is, people’s roles in our lives are always shifting, and embracing these shifts is the only way to appreciate every relationship for what it is. That way, the end of a relationship doesn’t seem so devastating — because it’s really the beginning of a new one.