When You Should (and Shouldn't) Be Friends With Your Ex

It may be time to rethink the way you approach romantic breakups.

Posted Feb 11, 2015

In my clinical work, I find that most men and women avoid their ex like a nasty foot fungus. The vast majority of people often live their romantic lives in absolutes: We’re either together or we won’t speak at all. I wish for all relationships that they could continue as friendships after the romance ends—as long as a few conditions are met.

Seeking to stay friends with an ex shouldn’t be expected across the board. In cases of maltreatment, there should be no road ahead for two people who once inhabited a sick, tearing-each-other down type of relationship. I’m not just talking about physical abuse, either. If your ex was disrespectful, routinely cheated on you, or took you for granted in other significant ways you must accept that this other individual is not supposed to be in your life—as friend or lover.

Though many relationships end, they still hold potential in that the two former partners could go on to have a meaningful friendship or at least some connection. Acknowledging each other on birthdays or holidays is a nice way to stay connected without having to share the day-to-day intimacy that comes with romance or very close friendships. 

Self-disclosure alert: One of the most painful experiences for me in past relationships was always having to lose that ex entirely from my life. My thinking begged the question, Can’t we just maintain the parts of our relationship that worked and continue to care about each other despite the loss of the romantic part of the relationship? Why must everything end in relationships when it no longer works romantically?

A major challenge for expired relationships is the fact that, in many cases, one person wants to keep it going. For that person, having a friendship actually creates more emotional suffering. To be with someone who wants less closeness than you—especially when you once shared that—is self-destructive. In the case of relationships where the breakup is not mutual, I propose an alternative.

Even if someone breaks up with you and you’re brokenhearted, I have found that time and distance will change your perspective so that you ultimately see that your ex truly wasn’t the one for you. I inevitably find that, if one person is unhappy, the other person probably is, too—even if he or she doesn’t yet know it.

My ultimate point is that we should learn as a culture to value romantic relationships differently. We should accept that love doesn’t really change, even if two people no longer mesh well romantically. Instead of leaving our past relationships on the curb as if they're trash waiting for a pick-up, we should recycle expired romantic love into friendship whenever possible.

As a culture, let’s stop discarding romantic relationships totally when they don’t turn out to be the relationship we’d always dreamed of. Perhaps the takeaway is that your ex was brought into your life romantically but was actually meant to be more of a friend. 

Feel free to check out my book on relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter!