Long before I wrote Getting Past Your Breakup, which popularized the idea of no contact after a breakup, the question, “Should I be friends with my ex?” plagued many of my clients.
A person who agonizes over this question is typically not the one who initiated the break, or the person may have friends who declare, “I’m friends with all of my exes!” These boasts are unhelpful, because unlike these few myopic (and quixotic) individuals, most of us cannot remain friends after a breakup. If it is to be, it should be much later. For most, the healthiest step is to make a clean break from an ex immediately after a breakup. Here are 8 reasons why:
1. Even after the most amicable breakup, people need time to work through their feelings and sift through the ruins of the relationship. And just because your ex isn’t ready to do that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Being alone and apart from your former love is the best and healthiest course. Don’t let their failure to do the healthy thing persuade you otherwise.
Even if your breakup was not an emotional high-wire act, as so many are, there needs to be time apart to break the bond of "the couple.” Each partner needs to separate and go back to being an individual without being a part of a duo. They need to lose their "couple" identity, to deal with the breakup in their own way—separate and away from the scrutiny of the person with whom they just broke up.
This is part of the grieving process. During the grief process, the mind tries to put the world back together the way it knew the world to be. That is why so many struggle with "no contact" because the mind is trying to put your former lover back in the role he or she played. When the ex is still there, it stalls the process and confuses the mind. If you were in love and very close, the healthiest thing is to be apart while you work out your grief process. If you are to be friends, it has to be after the healing happens.
2. The atmosphere immediately following a breakup can be too emotionally charged for a friendship to happen right away, if at all. You may not even realize that there is anger, resentment, and residual hurt. You might not realize that you care, really care, what this person thinks of you. You might not realize that there are things you cannot tolerate in a friend that this person has—or that they lack things you need in a friend.
If you are tending to your grief process, emotions run high. During this time, you may have lost perspective on how to handle a spike in anger or pain. That can play havoc with any friendship attempts with your ex. Again, it's not a good idea to do so until things cool down. The most important thing in dealing with any loss is to work through your grief process. If you cannot do that while remaining friends with your ex, that is normal and natural. Don't let others (especially your ex) try to derail your process by injecting fantasies of friendship into your grief process. Many people do not complete their grief process after a loss which leads to unresolved loss. If you are to be healthy and happy in the future, each loss must get its due at the time of the loss. Right now that is your charter, not trying to bend yourself inside out to be friends with someone who had hurt you.
3. You treat this person, and will continue to treat this person, differently than all of your other friends. You will get more easily offended. Little things will bother you that would not bother you with your friends. And you absolutely will think about this person a lot more than any of your other friends. This person will be in a category no one else is in and you probably won't know how to handle it. There are not a lot of guides written on how to be friends with your ex and there is a good reason for that. Most people are not and most people don't want to be. Exes are exes for a reason and very often that reason is that they hurt you. If you are hurt and in pain, you are probably not feeling friendly toward the person who hurt you. If they were not hurt and have less feeling toward the entire thing, it is probably so much easier for them to enter into a friendship. The relationship did not mean as much to them. They don't have as much to grieve. They want to be friends? That doesn't mean you should be.
4. When you are friends with the ex, especially right away, you exist in an "in-between" world in which you're no longer lovers but not really friends. The landscape is different and sometimes difficult. It's a strange place most people should never visit because it's tough to adjust to. Some couples that were friends before dating make the mistake of thinking they can magically act as if the relationship never happened. That is a fantasy.
Yes, sometimes both partners are truly okay with a breakup and have good prospects for a friendship down the road—but right after the breakup is not a good time to launch it. Part of the grief process is to grieve the hopes and dreams that came with a relationship. Many times, upon a breakup, you may have dislike or even hatred toward an ex but you still value the hopes and dreams for a "happily ever after" that came with the budding relationship. It takes a while to let that go. The person who did not have those hopes and dreams and never saw into the future may have an easy time of being friends but the person who had those hopes and dreams is struggling. When they are in entirely two different places, that makes the friendship difficult. If two people both saw no hope for the future, it's easier but that is rarely the case. Usually one is much more vested in the future than the other. When that happens, a friendship is simply not possible for the more-vested partner.
I know one couple that had dinner every now and again after they broke up. They told everyone they were friends and liked to check in with each other every so often. One night, about two months after the breakup, the dinner turned into a teary shouting match. Neither was prepared for it but both were moving on to other people and that revelation brought up all kinds of emotions neither knew were still there. This is why, if you're ever going to be friends, the first six months is probably not the time to start, no matter how amicable things seem on the surface.
5. The person who pushes to be friends is usually the one who has unfinished business—but often doesn't want to own that. Or they don't want the responsibility of the relationship but are unwilling to completely relinquish the ex. That is a selfish motive and not fair to the other partner. Do your healing work and let the other person do theirs. It's not fair to string someone along as a "friend" because you can't deal with the pain of having them out of your life completely.
A coworker recently said to me, "I want to be friends after the breakup and she doesn't. She's a terrific person and I don't want her out of my life." Again, examine your motives: Are you trying to stave off the grief? Are you playing a game? Are you unwilling to really break all ties but don't want the relationship, either? That's dysfunctional—as are the "friends with benefits" scenarios that sometimes follow a breakup. Never string someone along who needs to heal. If you truly care about someone, give them space if they need it.
6. Sometimes people just can't do "endings." If you can't—if you're still friends with absolutely everyone you've gone out with—you might need to think about why. If you struggle with endings, don't inject that inability to come to terms on the other person. It's simply not fair. Yes, he or she is hurt—and now you're making things worse. If the partner was so terrific, you'd still be with them. You cannot have it both ways. (And if it's your ex who just doesn't know how to say goodbye, don't let him or her lead the way.)
7. If you are the person who did not break up and is doing the reaching out, this is not a good plan. If you are e-mailing, calling, or texting, and they are not answering, stop. Sit on your hands if you need to. It's hard but it has to be done.
And if you are managing to engage him or her, how does it feel afterward? Do you feel good or did you just postpone the inevitable once again? Or did they let you know it's really over and you're just not hearing it? Better to stop torturing yourself.
8. If your ex is bugging you to be friends, say no—short and sweet. You don't need to explain it or rationalize it; just say no and not even, "Maybe later but not right now." (That will usually be followed by "when?" and you just don't know.) No further explanation necessary.
Relationships take two people; so do friendships. Your relationship didn't work. If your ex is not listening to your feelings now and still not doing right by you, a friendship is just not going to work either. Find new friends who treat you right. In fact, insist on being treated well in all your relationships.
Does It Ever Work?
Now what about those pesky people who insist that they are friends with all of their exes and that they exist in a good world where the exes just fit right in with all of their other friends. Just because it works for one person doesn't mean it's the right thing to do for everyone—or even that it's actually working for that person. Maybe this person hasn't ever really attached and therefore doesn't ever need to completely unattach. Some people just operate that way. And some people need to be friends with their exes to show just how special, forgiving, and fabulous they are. You don't need to need that because, well, it's a strange need.
Most people are not friends with their ex lover. That is the majority of people for a variety of reasons. For those who have some story of those who are, that is not the case most of the time. It is very much okay for you to take care of yourself, do your grief work, and not feel as if there is something wrong with you because you cannot be friends with your ex. Look around you. How many of your friends and family are still friends with their exes? I imagine that the number is much less than those who are not.
Don't feel as if there is something wrong with you if you can't do it. The people who struggle with this the most are "nice" people who don't like hurting someone's feelings. It's okay to not be so nice that you harm yourself. Your first order of business is taking care of YOU.
The person who is friends with the ex is the EXCEPTION to the rule. And the friendship is not always a friendship in a true way. There may be parameters that are not true in other relationships. There may be a Facebook friend type of friendship. It may be "until I'm dating someone who objects to it..."
Other times the people involved were not very deeply in love and became better friends than they ever were lovers. But in most cases where there was a serious relationship, a friendship—a true friendship—does not work. That is the norm and not the exception. So anyone who has a cute story of being friends with an ex is not being helpful to those who are wrestling with the idea and feeling guilty that they can't do it.
Don't let anyone persuade you that you should try. If they are telling you to do that, they don't have your best interest in mind. When you're in the middle of breakup grief, you must have people who have your best interest in mind.
Breakup grief is very real and very difficult and anything that makes it harder should be avoided. For most people that is the constant reminder of the ex lover who now wants to be friends. It's very painful for the person who didn't want the breakup and had hopes and dreams for the future. A friend of yours should realize that and not feed you unhelpful advice which will stall or derail your grief process. If you are friends with an ex, that's great but please don't try to push that on others who are simply incapable of that.
It is okay to not be friends with your ex. It is okay even if your ex gives you 400 million reasons why they just can't let you go. It's okay if 10 friends tell you adorable stories about these other couples who moved seamlessly from lovers to friends without missing a beat. It's still okay to say no to a friendship with the ex because it only matters what is okay with you, not anyone else. Be honest that it's not working. Be honest that the "in-between" world between lovers and friends seems a bit unsettling and takes up way too much of your emotional energy.
Trying to be friends with an ex can be a losing proposition. While some people have no problem with it, others struggle terribly. This article is for those who struggle with it and feel guilty that they can't do it. After a breakup you can be friends much later on. In the beginning, it's best to work through your issues and heal your broken heart.
Tell your ex this won't work for you and know you have the right to say it whether to an ex or anyone who is encouraging you with stories of others who made it work. Just know that the grief process is very real, belongs to you, and no one else has the right to pressure you into something that will hinder yours. It's okay to not be friends. Take care of you and know that is your number one priority.