7 Reasons You Might Stay Friends With Your Ex
Why do it? Why not?
Posted Oct 03, 2016
For many of us, the idea of staying friends with an ex is hard to stomach. Romantic relationships are deeply personal and, in the aftermath of a breakup, we often suffer through complicated grief, anxiety, and depression (Boelen and Reijntjes, 2009). Forget about working on being friends with an ex; newly single people often focus on directing their energy toward rebuilding their own lives without their ex, investing in friendships or new relationships, and in general, trying to move on.
But for some, becoming friends with an ex is a natural or necessary transition. Why are people motivated to keep their ex in their lives? Who keeps up the relationship, and who gives up on an ex? A recent study by Oakland University's Justin Mogilski and Lisa Welling surveyed more than 800 individuals to try to determine the their motivations for post-relationship friendships, and to figure out if certain personality characteristics predicted the perceived importance of these motivations. They found seven primary reasons why people stayed friends with an ex:
- Your ex is a reliable person and has sentimental value. For some people, the qualities of an ex are too good to lose. Their humor, trustworthiness, or support, for example, coupled with a shared history, make a compelling case to work through the transition and be friends. Participants who saw this as an important reason tended to be more negative but also more agreeable as a personality characteristic.
- You can use your ex. Some people are opportunists when it comes to friendship with an ex. “They had a lot of money,” “My ex was a good cook,” and “They were a useful social connection,” were reasons cited by a few participants. The individuals who saw this as an important reason to maintain post-relationship friendships tended to be more extroverted, more antagonistic, and less honest or humble—and men viewed this as a more important reason than women.
- You still have feelings for your ex. Giving up a romantic relationship isn’t easy, and some people stay friends because they still harbor feelings for an ex. Survey participants reported lingering attachment: They wanted to get back together with their exes, they felt still in love, and some just missed their partners. More negative emotions post-breakup, and less honesty/humility, predicted seeing this reason as an important one for forming a post-breakup friendship.
- You have shared investments or occupations. Some situations make it challenging to not be friends with an ex. Participants reported that they stayed friends because they shared children or pets, debt or property, or worked together. Such situations make it difficult to move on.
- You are so over it. Sexual tension in a friendship isn’t a problem when there’s no romantic attraction. For many people, being friends with an ex is possible because their situations have changed and they’re simply no longer attracted to each other, have no lingering romantic feelings, and are not hurt by the breakup.
- You have mutual friends. It’s bad enough to lose a romantic partner; it's worse to lose friends at the same time. Mogilski and Welling’s research shows that many people stay friends with an ex because of their wider social circle: They don’t want to make things awkward and want to keep the drama minimal.
- You liked the sex. If a relationship ends, does sex, too? For some people, post-relationship friendships allow for the occasional hook-up and an available sex partner. In general, men rated this reason as more important than women, and ratings of its importance inversely corresponded with participants’ honesty/humility and extroversion.
In sum, there are myriad reasons why people maintain friendships with exes. Some are utterly self-oriented (“They would buy me nice gifts or food”) while others reflect consideration for others (“Wanted a good environment for our children”; “To prevent awkwardness in our friend group”). Some suggest dramatic changes in the quality of the former couples’ interactions (“I was totally over my ex”) while others mirror the reasons romantic couples stay together: e.g., “I couldn’t imagine my life without him.”
Clearly, not all post-romantic relationship friendships are the same, and their quality and stability vary as well. This is a burgeoning area of research and we have much more to learn about how these relationships differ from those without a romantic history, how they change over time, and how they address the needs of each person in the “new” friendship.
Mogilski, J. K., and Welling, L. L. (2016). Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship. Personality and Individual Differences. Advanced online publication.