Friendships make us healthy and happy. They give us support, joy, and companionship. They serve as a valuable source for advice. And they give us a sense of belonging. But what if that friendship is with an ex-romantic partner?
Being friends with an ex presents some key challenges. How do you navigate the shift from an intimate, affectionate, sexual relationship to a platonic friendship characterized by some, but not too much, emotional intimacy? How do you manage the emotions of a breakup so that you can maintain a connection with your ex, but still feel free to move on to a different romantic relationship?
Recent research from the University of Kansas documented four key reasons why people stay friends with an ex and looked at whether they predict positive or negative friendship outcomes (Griffith, Gillath, Zhao, & Martinez, 2017). Earlier research by Mogilski and Welling (2016) also tried to figure out the motives for why people are friends with an ex. Together these studies suggest that there are a variety of reasons, not all of them helpful, why people decide to stay friends with an ex.
Should you try to be friends with your ex? Research suggests it depends on your motives:
Friendships make us feel safe and fulfill attachment needs, so it's no surprise that security is a key reason people stay friends with an ex (Griffith et al., 2017). Building a friendship with an ex for security motives is tied to positive outcomes in that friendship (e.g., feeling good and safe in the friendship).
This reflects what Mogilski and Welling identify as sentimentality. People view these positive emotions as the number-one reason to stay friends with an ex (Mogilski & Welling, 2016). Maybe you shared a lot of great times, you're used to talking to him or her, you trust them, and enjoy their company. Emotional support, comfort, and connection are strong motivations for keeping a friendship after a romantic relationship falls apart.
2. Practical Reasons.
Forget about emotions: Sometimes people stay friends with their ex for purely pragmatic purposes. Maybe they benefit from an ex's money, gifts, food, or power (Mogilski & Welling, 2016). Other practical reasons include hookup potential with an ex, the ability to manage shared friends or to navigate shared resources, pets, or children. Griffith et al. (2017) suggest friendships formed for practical reasons like these don't usually last for very long, but are associated with positive outcomes.
Maybe you don't really want to be friends, but you do want to be polite and are considerate with your ex's feelings. These are documented reasons to maintain a friendship with an ex (Griffith et al., 2017). For some people — especially those high in attachment anxiety — it might be easier to be friends than to engage in a potential confrontation. A "positive-tone" strategy to dismantling a relationship may make it easier, but the friendship isn't likely to last.
4. Unresolved Attraction.
It might not end well (Griffith et al., 2017), but plenty of people pursue a friendship with an ex because they still have romantic feelings for them (Mogilski & Welling, 2016). They're still in love, can't imagine the ex with someone else, or didn't want the relationship to end in the first place. All of these reasons can drive someone to keep up a friendship with an ex-partner.
In addition to the above reasons, some people transition to a friendship because, well, the spark is gone (Mogilski & Welling, 2016). Maybe they were never really very attracted to the ex, felt the love dissipate, the relationship didn't mean much, or there were no hard feelings after the breakup.
No matter your motives, navigating a friendship with an ex isn't always easy, but you're not alone: Some evidence suggests that most of us (roughly 60 percent) are friends with at least one ex-romantic partner, with about 20 percent reporting that they're friends with more than one ex (Griffith et al., 2017).
Interestingly, data suggest that LGBTQ individuals tend to maintain more post-relationship friendships than heterosexuals (Griffith et al., 2017). This builds on evidence suggesting a particularly heightened emphasis on friendship and intimacy in LGBTQ relationships. This perhaps suggests that the centrality of friendship to a romantic relationship might be part of the equation that helps determine if a friendship might develop post-relationship, and if it could be a good one.
Griffith, R.L., Gillath, O., Zhao, X., & Martinez, R. (2017). Staying friends with an ex-romantic partner: Predictors and outcomes. Personal Relationships, advanced online publication.
Mogilski, J. K., & Welling, L. L. (2017). Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship. Personality and Individual Differences, 115, 114-119.