For queer people, sex, dating, and relationships generally look and work differently than they do for straight couples.
Polyamory, sexual fluidity, and other nontraditional romantic configurations are commonplace in many queer communities, and depending on where you live, queer social circles can be small and close-knit, changing the way relationships and breakups operate.
Stereotypes about “U-Hauling” or L-Word-level relationship drama can be harmful and tend to pathologize same-sex partnerships between women as being overly emotional or codependent. Moving in with a partner you’ve just met probably isn’t a great move, but it’s also possible that dating rules and relationship timelines are just different for queer women. Heterocentric ideas about who makes the first move, whether it’s cool to date your ex’s friends, or when the relationship is “moving too fast” don’t really apply the same way they do for straight people. Communities of queer women can be especially insular, and being part of a tight group can be tough for someone looking for a clean break. Still some queer women say sharing a social circle encourages them to breakup up more consciously, amicably, and stay friends with their exes long after the breakup.
“Particularly around breakups, queer folks are much more likely to stay friends, or connected in community in some way,” said Berkeley-based psychotherapist Jennifer Vera, who specializes in working with LGBTQ clients. “I’ve seen this across gender lines, but I’m most familiar with it among queer women.”
As Vera explained, relationships between queer women typically exist outside the confines of traditional “gender based expectations” that often make post-breakup friendships so fraught for straight couples.
“A lot of the sort of stereotypes around gender socialization that I think come up in straight relationships make it pretty hard to stay friends afterwards. These don’t come up the same way as the do with queer women,” Vera said. She believes that, in some heterosexual relationships, a desire to stay friends after a breakup might raise questions like, "Why do you still want to be friends with your ex?" or, "Does that mean you’re not over them or are still hoping to get back together, is that attraction still there?"
“A lot of our sort of gender-based stereotypes, and I think inherent sexualization in our culture of opposite-sex relationships, can really make opposite sex relationships kind of complicated in a way that doesn’t quite play out the same way with queer women," she told me.
Maintaining a friendship after a breakup can also be a natural byproduct of shared experiences between queer women. Sexual exploration, coming out, or a shared involvement in activist and queer liberation circles can all be meaningful bonding experiences that don’t go away just because a romantic relationship is over.
“There’s a historical, and I think marginalization component, that I think can impact queer women’s breakups as well,” Vera said. “Historically, as a marginalized community, your community is only so big. So if you can’t stay friends with your exes, or if you have to divide up your whole social circle every time you have a breakup, you don’t have anybody.” Those living on a coast or a major city might have an easier time finding a new circle of queer friends after a breakup, but for those living in rural areas, or who aren’t “out,” a fresh start isn’t always easy. Even if a relationship doesn’t work out, shared histories can often make staying friends somewhat of a survival mechanism for individuals and their communities.
“I think, in some ways, it's a matter of numbers,” said 30-year-old Heina Dadabhoy. “There are so few of us we can't afford to burn bridges lest we lose our social support system.”
“There aren’t enough of us out in the wild to be dicks to each other when we break up,” agreed Alex, a 30-year-old queer woman in Nashville who has asked that I withhold her last name, as she's not out at work. “Straight couple breaks up? Fine—find a new group of friends. Lesbians break up? Y’all know too many of the same people to act crazy. That shit follows you for life.” Alex went on: “The lesbian community here is way too small for folks not to hear about it when you break up. There aren't enough of us to just hop to another friend group. So the choice then becomes either don't go out to the bar (the bar here, not a bar) or go, and play nice, and keep your friends, and try to ignore your exes. I think by the time I was 25, I couldn't walk into the gay bar on lesbian night without literally bumping into at least two exes.”
This doesn’t mean breakups between queer women are any easier or less painful for the people involved, but “I think queers in general tend to accept that their friend groups will inevitably contain their exes and their significant others’ exes,” said Sydney Blanchard, a queer woman in Louisiana. “The old lesbian adage rings true: ‘What do you call a group of lesbians? Ex-girlfriends.’ Our numbers are so small, especially in rural and Southern areas, that it’s impossible to avoid rubbing elbows with exes. Ex drama isn’t something we can tolerate, otherwise we’d lose our friend groups. So I think lesbians and queer people are better at sucking it up and moving on from a breakup so as not to disrupt their social circles.”
“The need for solidarity, I think, helps set the norms around staying friends with your exes," Vera said. "You still just need each other.”
“I’m still friends with my exes, but didn’t see it happening in the first 6-12 months post breakup” said 28-year-old Canadian Holly, who has also asked that I withhold her last name for work reasons. After a couple of particularly tough breakups made more challenging due to some struggles with mental health she was experiencing at the time, Holly says she and one of her exes “definitely needed space and no communication for a while, but we all chatted about the process of the breakup. Sometimes we talked it through during rough bits. But made really clear boundaries as to be respectful to each other."
Now, Holly says they still talk online and maintain a healthy friendship. “The community is so small and I still love them as friends just not as partners together.”
“There’s a little bit more recognition that the interconnectedness doesn’t go away, or that you’ll continue to be in the same spaces,” said Vera. “Often there’s a real valuing of, ‘I still want this person in my life, and this may be very painful, and maybe I’m going to need some time and space before I’m ready to really be friends.’ There’s more of a feeling of, ‘If I’ve loved this person and they’ve been really important to me for this long, why would that just disappear overnight just because our relationship is changing?’”
As Vera pointed out, however, close-knit queer communities can be “kind of a double-edged sword.” Though the historical context within communities of queer women can make staying friends or connected in a community more socially acceptable, “I think there’s also some social pressure around that,” Vera said. “If you’re not able to figure out how to transition that relationship, you might be in a situation where you’re having to pick sides or opting out of events you might want to go to because you don’t want to see somebody. It opens up possibilities, but it also makes it pretty hard if you don’t want to stay connected to somebody.”
Often, close ties can be especially difficult to undo. “For some people, their partner is also their best friend, chosen family, roommate, and support system,” Blanchard said. “It can be harder to just walk away. I’ve seen so many lesbian couples in my friend group go through months-long breakups where they’re together but not together, and it seems extra painful and confusing for everyone.”
The looming possibility of running into an ex at a social event isn’t always helpful or affirmative, and can be a huge source of anxiety for some. Bad breakups with bad people can happen to anyone, and particularly in cases of domestic abuse among LGBTQ individuals, insular community and social structures can make it harder for those who experience intimate partner violence to seek or escape a dangerous situation. “You just don't have the freedom to disappear,” Alex said. “And if you do, it's not into another group of queer friends.”
For most people, queer or not, breakups are going to hurt, and be messy, and it’s unlikely anyone will ever master the art of the drama-free breakup. Breakups between queer women might be characterized by their own brand of heartbreak and “the drama and eruption of emotions that come with same sex relationships,” as Holly said.
“At the same time,” she added, “that is the beauty and wonder of it all. There is a deep emotional understanding and connection.” Relationships and breakups are as varied as the people involved, and there can be a time when burning bridges is the healthiest, safest option. For Holly, it helps to “pause and acknowledge the pain and resentments leftover between exes,” she says. “We all make mistakes. We all fuck up. We all grow in different ways at different times. It takes strength and maturity to suck it up and talk through your shit and pain.” She’s been through personal and emotional struggles that have impacted many of her romantic relationships—and she’s had her heart broken too. Still, her advice is to “keep loving. It never gets easier but love and the different kinds of love never stops surprising you.”
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