What It’s Like to Truly Be Friends With Your Ex

“We can’t always neatly break things into ‘friends’ or ‘more than friends.’ There’s different kinds of love.”

illustration in which two people stand inside crumbling bride and groom sculptures
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two friends who used to be married. They discuss their amicable—really!—divorce, how they reconnected afterward, what it means to be happy for someone else even if their decision hurts you, and what friendship has given them that marriage did not.

The Friends:

Matt Long, 37, a teacher who lives in Denver, Colorado
Julie Rattelmueller, 38, a massage therapist who lives in Denver, Colorado

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Can you give me a brief history of your romantic relationship?

Julie Rattelmueller: Well, it was 12 years.

Matt Long: We met in February of 2004 in Montreal, Quebec, at an audition for the National Circus School of Canada.

Julie: Neither of us got in. I came from 15 years in the ballet world, which is very cutthroat and competitive. The [circus] audition was the complete opposite. Everyone was so friendly—rooting for each other, hanging out, and collaborating.

Matt: I started juggling when I was in elementary school. When I went to university, I met a circus performer, [who taught me] how to unicycle. I spent more time unicycling than in class. So I dropped out of school, gave up a full scholarship, auditioned, and didn’t get in, but I met Julie.

[At that time] she was living in Denver. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, with my parents. Julie came to visit for a week.

Julie: I brought my [aerialist] fabric. We hung it in a tree, juggled, and played circus at his house.

Matt: I moved [to Denver] in the late spring of 2004 with a backpack and a unicycle. She was working retail. I was line cooking and bicycle messengering. We were both having some job problems, so I called up the Boy Scout camp I used to teach at in North Carolina and asked if they were hiring. They said, “Yeah, we’d love to have you back.” I said, “Do you have two jobs?” We tied everything we owned on top of her car. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies.

Julie: By the time we got to North Carolina, the tarp was shredded and waving like jellyfish tentacles in the wind.

Matt: After the summer, Julie decided to go to massage school and I decided to go to welding school. We both graduated in 2007, and that September we flew to Bisbee [Arizona] and got married.

Julie: Bisbee’s where my parents live.

Matt: Had a big party. It was a lot of fun.

Julie: We lived in Bisbee for a few months.

Matt: To help Julie’s parents out with their grocery store. We didn’t have any kids. We didn’t have any debt. We didn’t really have anything else going on, and we figured we might as well have an adventure.

Julie: It was fun. Bisbee’s just not big enough for me. I’m a big-city kind of person. I was missing Denver, so we moved back. Then we moved back to North Carolina again.

Matt: I wanted to go back to school for something other than welding. Something a little more white-collar. Welding was so hard on my body that I was not being a good partner.

Julie and Matt
Julie and Matt at their wedding (Courtesy of Julie Rattelmueller)

Beck: It seems like, to condense somewhat, your marriage was characterized by lots of moving around, lots of change?

Julie: Yeah. When we moved to Charlotte we got into contra dancing. Matt introduced me to it. The Charlotte contra-dance community was the best. I define community around them. Everyone takes care of each other, when you’re not asked to. Even after moving back to Denver again later, they still feel like family.

Our first polyamorous relationship came from contra dancing, but ultimately she got accepted to a college out of state, and she moved away. We were grateful, because we could feel that it needed to end, but we were able to all stay friends.

Matt: In 2013, we moved from Charlotte back to Denver [again]. We ended up buying a house, which is where Julie is interviewing from right now. Then things got really hard.

Julie: We tried to get into contra dancing in Denver, met another woman through that, and tried a second polyamorous relationship. That lasted through our breakup, and she was really great in supporting both of us.

Beck: Can you tell me what led to the decision to end your marriage?

Julie: Over our 12 years, there were moments where I observed two women in a relationship and had a thought, That looks like something I would want if I weren’t in a committed relationship. But I was in a committed relationship, so that thought never developed any further.

Polyamorous relationships are often described by shapes. There’s a V, a triangle, a square. Our first one was a V.

Matt: I was in the middle of the V.

Beck: So Julie, you weren’t involved with the first woman?

Julie: Not in a romantic relationship. We were friends.

Matt: But the second one was a triangle.

Julie: [The second woman] was okay with getting into the more romantic side of the relationship. That was the first time I really was able to explore my feelings about women. That, and the need to explore spirituality in a way that Matt didn’t, were probably the two biggest reasons that I needed to leave the relationship. It took me six months to figure my thoughts out, and Matt was the most patient, wonderful partner throughout that.

Beck: Matt, what was going on in your mind at that time?

Julie: He was asking a lot, “What can I do better? What have I done?” It sounds so cliché, but, really, it’s not you. It’s me. I need to figure myself out.

Matt: Which is fair. We had been together for 12 years and married for nine. Initially, it was really hard. I remember very distinctly that when Julie felt comfortable enough to open up and to ask for what she wanted, she sat down in the backyard and was sobbing.

Julie: We had just come home. We were hangry and unable to communicate well. I don’t even remember what we were discussing, but it triggered everything else, and I went to the backyard and cried. Matt said that he could feel me from the other side of the house.

Matt: I came outside and gave her a big hug, and we started talking. I’m really proud that Julie was able to stand up for herself and to ask for what she needed, which was a divorce.

Julie: Words really did not come easily for me. Between that and my habit of doing everything for everybody else and not allowing myself to receive, it was huge for me to be the one to end the relationship.

Beck: Was the divorce process contentious or fairly amicable?

Julie: It was very amicable. It was kind of funny. When I went to the court to do the divorce, they expected me to have a lawyer and go through other people to send Matt the document. I was like “No, he’ll sign it, it’s not going to be a problem.”

Beck: So you didn’t use lawyers?

Julie: No.

Matt: When I tell the short version of this, it’s: Julie came to me, and she said, “I want a divorce.” I said, “If it’ll make you happy, because I love you, and you’ve been so unhappy.”

Julie: In polyamory, there’s a term, compersion, that pretty much means unconditional love. If you want to be with somebody else and that makes you happy, then that makes me happy. Allowing is a funny word, but him allowing me to leave because he wanted me to be happy, and that would make him happy, even though being together would be better in his mind, is compersion. It’s a perfect example.

Julie and Matt on unicycles
Julie and Matt unicycling (Courtesy of Matt Long)

Beck: What was the transition like from spouses to exes to friends?

Matt: We were together for 12 years. We were friends before we were romantically involved.

Julie: In the backyard, I told him, “I still love you, and I just can’t be in this relationship anymore.” It was clear all the way through that we both still wanted to be friends.

But I needed my space. After Matt and I split up, I was single for about a year and a half, and then my boss set [me up with my current wife]. We’ve been together for four-ish years, and married for two.

Matt found a girlfriend in Asheville, North Carolina, who apparently was not really okay with Matt being in contact with me.

Matt: No, she was not. It changed our dynamic for a few years, but [Julie and I] would infrequently reach out to each other to check in.

But that relationship with that partner got worse and worse. That’s why I moved back to Denver this summer. Julie has been incredibly supportive to me, helping me grow and process and get through this.

Beck: It sounds like your post-marriage friendship has just recently started to blossom. How has it felt getting back into a deeper friendship recently?

Julie: I am extremely grateful for my wife, who is absolutely not the jealous type. Each of us has experience in polyamory and open relationships, so we don’t have to explain ourselves to each other. She is so okay with me being friends with Matt.

Matt: I invited Julie and Mythica to come to my birthday party this year. One of my friends afterward was talking to me, and I was like, “You got to meet my ex-wife, Julie, right?” They were like, “Oh, yeah, Julie was so proud that she knew all these things about you.” We were together for 12 years—of course we know each other so deeply.

Julie: I didn’t even realize the extent of our spiritual connection until he moved back to Denver and I could feel his distress. I was texting with him every morning as we were both getting ready for work.

Matt: We still text each other “three things that you’re grateful for today.”

Julie helped me so much by not just saying, “I want to be friends,” but actually showing up and doing the work.

Beck: I’m thinking about the way people talk about “just friends” and “more than friends.” There’s an implicit comparison between romantic relationships and friendships, where one is lesser. I’m curious for your perspective on that, having been both spouses and friends.

Matt: There are a lot of different flavors of friendship. We can’t always neatly break things into “friends” or “more than friends.” There’s different kinds of love, and there’s different kinds of relationships that you can have with people.

I still love Julie. If Julie needed anything, I would do everything I could to make that happen. Even when we were going through the divorce, it was like, What can I do to make this easier? I would say that Julie and I are more than friends. At this point, I categorize Julie as my sister. It’s deeper than friendship, but it’s not romantic, and it’s certainly not sexual.

Beck: Does that have to do with what you feel friendship is? Or do you think that has to do with the limitations that society puts on what friendship can or should be?

Julie: My wife and I have this phrase: “Earth words suck.” There just sometimes aren’t the right words to describe the many different kinds of friendship out there.

Matt: The limitation that we have in our language limits our thinking about what relationships can be and what friendship can be.

Beck: Is there anything you’ve learned from your friendship that you didn’t learn from your marriage?

Matt: I learned how to authentically show up and hold space for people in a way that is not threatening or demanding. Not that I would have threatened or demanded, but to allow them to easily say no and ask for what they need. For that, I am grateful to Julie.

Beck: Julie, same question.

Julie: I realized that I had a habit of giving, giving, giving and not allowing myself to receive. And being walked all over. There were moments in our relationship when Matt would ask me what I wanted, and I genuinely felt that whatever he wanted to do, I was okay with. But that was part of the pattern. When I was single, I would ask myself, If I’m the only one involved in making a decision, what do I want? What’s best for me?

I was totally comfortable being single, then I met somebody and everything just fell into place. Five months later, she proposed. I had to really figure out how to honor myself and be in a relationship, speak up for my needs, and be there for her. I felt like I was able to step in when Matt needed me because of what I learned since we had split up.

If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.