It’s one of the biggest cliches of all time: “I want us to still be friends.”
From statements of celebrity splits to impromptu break-up texts, to speeches in front of middle-school lockers, there is a notion in our culture that breakups should be sweet and amicable. It’s often assumed that the best way to end a romantic relationship is to magically embark on a close, happy, friendship—where everyone is thrilled, and both parties smilingly tease each other about his video-game habits or her fondness for vintage brooches.
But does this fantasy ever work out, and is it even wise to try for it? Can you really be friends with someone you dated—even if he knows you better than anyone else? Do any great—or even average—romances ever end by segueing into a strong friendship?
The answer, many times, is no. Sometimes, of course, it can happen—with time. But certain conditions must be met. Here are six signs that should tell you that “Let’s just be friends” may not be your best option (as discussed in detail in The Friendship Fix):
- One of you really means the friendship thing, while the other is just using it as a breakup buzzword and has no real interest in being friends. When this is the case, the pain of the breakup is extended ad nauseam, as you convince yourself that he or she really wants to be friends, while your ex convinces themselves that they can just slink away if they try hard enough. This push-and-pull is often worse than the breakup itself, and can go on for weeks or even months. Just say no.
- You never had the basis for a friendship in the first place. Romantic relationships that peter out because you barely had anything other than attraction in common, or because you were never able to communicate openly without yelling at each other, are not likely to shift into all-star friendships after the sex is removed. Don't kid yourself: Was there a true friendship there that is actually worth salvaging? Or is it just a pipe dream that you'd actually want to spend time together if there was no sex involved? (Looking for a friendship that retains the sex, but without any commitment, when you used to be committed to each other? Drop me a line if that works out successfully; you'd be the first.)
- There is an absence of mutual respect. Maybe your relationship was never particularly respectful, or maybe during the seventeenth shouting match or stonewalled silence during the breakup period, the respect that you once enjoyed finally eroded. Regardless, how would you magically rebuild, or even fake, that respect during a platonic friendship? And why would you even want to?
- There was emotional or other abuse during the relationship. The most basic criteria for embarking on any friendship, even with romance and sex completely out of the equation, is the ability to trust that you will not deliberately hurt each other. When you've had an abusive romantic relationship, you can't reasonably believe that the person will actually start treating you right when you're "just friends." In fact, it could be a very dangerous situation, as the abuser uses the friendship to maintain his or her continued control or mistreatment. If you need help withstanding this, even if you've made the decision to leave, professional support would be something strongly to consider.
- One or both of you would be extremely jealous or possessive if the other started seeing someone new. This is the reality of why healthy friendships after a breakup are generally so hard to make happen, at least for quite a few months. Would you honestly be okay with the guy you used to think was "the one" talking excitedly about some awesome new intern named Emily? Why put yourself through that? Conversely, how comfortable would it be for you to be the one to have to hide a new relationship that is starting to get serious? Maybe, in time, it could happen, but probably not right away. Which leads us to…
- You have not yet given your romantic relationship the time and space to die naturally. Even if you have a feeling that you might go on to be lifelong friends—perhaps you started out that way, and you ended your romance because you knew the friendship was much better—you still need a little bit of time and space to get back to your full self, independently. Otherwise your friendship will be too reactive to—and tainted by—the nuances of your failed romance. All the various emotions that are running through your body the first few weeks after a breakup do not make the most stable platform on which to build a friendship. You've got to return to who you were as an individual, rather than half of a couple, before you can decide whether a platonic connection is right for you.
copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. Adapted from The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.
Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check. Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook.