Should You Be Friends With Your Ex?

Proceed with caution: The dos and don’ts of pursuing a friendship with an ex.

Posted Apr 29, 2019

Pexels / CCO
Source: Pexels / CCO

Can we still be friends? It’s likely one of the first questions that come to mind when a relationship ends. At first, post-romance friendship feels like a given, a necessary consolation prize for what was lost.

  • Of course we’ll still be in each other’s lives.
  • We’ll always be friends.
  • I still want to see you.

These niceties always seem genuine. You still must care for each other, right? After all, it was only moments ago when you considered each other soul mates and lovers. How could your entire relationship suddenly shift from deep intimacy to cordial strangers over the course of a singular conversation? It’s unthinkable…

Yet, it might be the only way to ever move on.

Now I know some of you disagree. Some of your exes are now your best friends or remain a significant part of your lives. You, my friends, are special.

For the rest of us, trying to preserve a friendship with our former romantic partners mostly feels messy, complicated, and painful—which is why I sought to understand if it’s really something we should be pursuing in the first place.

According to the experts, friendship with an ex is possible, but there’s a catch.

You must both be willing to admit that you don’t work together as a couple. Maintaining a healthy relationship post-breakup requires both people “to recognize what worked about the relationship and what did not,” says Dr. Christine Selby, a psychology professor at Husson University. If you can also see that “what brought you together was a strong friendship, then it may be possible to reestablish the relationship as a friendship provided there is a clear understanding that neither of you wants to pursue dating [each other] again.”

Pexels/ CCO
Source: Pexels/ CCO

This is probably the primary reason why I have never succeeded at being real friends with any former flames. It takes me so long to get over heartbreak, most of it spent pining for them to come back, plotting ways for us to reconcile, or seeking psychic guidance on when our paths might cross again. In hindsight, I suspect that these activities actually exacerbated the healing process.

And because of our tendency to pine and plot for past partners, author and clinical psychologist Dr. Sherrie Campbell suggests taking “six months to a year of no contact to fully get over that person” before re-entering their lives as a friend. “This way, you’re through the heartbreak feelings and will be able to handle seeing your ex with another person.” In other words, the key is to avoid feeling jealousy.

(If you’re not OK with seeing your ex with another person after a year, you should probably keep waiting until you are . . . which, in some cases, might be never.)

But What If You Really Can't Let Your Ex Go?

Look, there’s zero judgment here. I, too, have spent many a Saturday night stalking the social media of loves from yesteryear and imagining Sliding Door-style alternate realities where things actually work out this time. At times, I’ve even attempted to reconnect as “friends”—but my ulterior motives always seem to emerge sooner or later. 

If you have also found yourself struggling and convincing yourself that “being friends is better than nothing,” or that friendship might be a gateway toward reconciliation, here are a few things to consider:

  1. The breakup happened for a good reason. Whether we know it or not, breakups happen because “there was a lack of attunement between you and your ex,” says sex therapist Tanya Fruehauf. Therefore, “rekindling a relationship with your ex could be emotionally dangerous . . . especially if the breakup had to do with trust issues.” What’s to prevent these issues from recurring if you got back together?
  2. You might be a back burner. Maintaining a relationship with your ex puts you in danger of being a back burner or “side option” to that person, which can be pretty damaging to your self-worth, says Dr. Campbell. While back-burner relationships aren’t anything new, modern technology (particularly social media) makes it easier than ever to keep potential love interests waiting in the wings, since chatting or texting with someone online seems more innocuous than meeting up with them in real life.
  3. Boundaries are imperative. In order to stay in your ex’s life in a healthy way, you need to “establish boundaries with each other,” says Carolyn McNulty, a licensed mental health counselor based in St. Petersburg, Florida. For example, you can agree to only reach out to each other via social media or meet up for the occasional lunch. Therapists can be a helpful resource to help you set healthy boundaries.

Letting go of someone you still love is one of life’s most painful experiences. While there’s no definitive right or wrong way to handle a breakup, clinging to the past is probably not the wisest move. Whatever you do, remember your heart is fragile, so proceed with caution.

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