When should you stay friends with an ex?
As Rachel Sussman, psychotherapist and author of The Breakup Bible, explains, it goes without saying that exes who have children together should try to remain on as good terms as possible, seeing as they’ll be in each other’s lives forever.
However, for ex-couples without kids, she says the lines are far murkier – if you’ve dated while you were young, were friends before you started dating, dated very casually, or were only together for a short period of time, then there’s a better chance of friendship.
When shouldn’t you?
Sussman stresses that under no circumstances should you be friends with an ex-partner that was abusive, manipulative or toxic. Relationship expert and author of He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s a Good Thing), Andrea Syrtash, also explains that knowing your ex’s motives and being aware of your own motives is key, as “very rarely are two people on the exact same page following a breakup”.
If one of you wants to strictly be friends while the other sees friendship as an opportunity to get back together later down the line, or as a means to keep tabs on – and even influencing – their dating life, you’re heading for trouble.
Also consider what your ex-partner is gaining from this friendship, aside from companionship – does it also provide access to other resources, such as sex, money or information? If this is the case, they could be using you – and they could be a psychopath. According to a recent study, people who stay friends with their exes in order to continue reaping certain benefits are more likely to have psychopathic tendencies. Scary stuff.
Psychologist Juliana Breines also says it’s worth noting that if you don’t want to be friends with your ex, don’t let them pressure you: “It’s not your responsibility to nurse them through their heartache. In the moment your ex may crave your comfort, but at the end of the day your support is unlikely to help them move on if they continue to feel dependent on you. Instead of shouldering the burden yourself, make sure they are getting support from other people in their life. And if you owe them an apology, give them a genuine one, but don’t drag it out.”
What are the pros of staying friends?
Firstly, there’s the obvious: your ex likely has a solid understanding of you as a person, and you’ll probably have a lot of interests in common. It’s rare to find people in your ‘tribe’, and you could find you actually get on better once romance is taken out of the equation.
But even if there’s no chance you’ll be BFFs, making an effort to resolve issues and stay friendly, but not necessarily friends, with an ex could have a positive impact on your life. Not only can ending a relationship on a good note help you deal with the break-up, as Relate relationship counsellor Gurpreet Singh explains, “History sadly has a way of repeating itself and if you have unresolved issues from a past relationship you’re going to carry this forward.”
And the cons?
Even if you’ve passed the ‘should you, shouldn’t you’ test, studies have shown that friendships between exes are more likely to have negative qualities and less likely to have positive ones than cross-sex platonic friendships – think jealousy, arguments, passive aggressiveness and controlling aspects. And they could stop you from moving on, too.
“Sometimes [staying friends with an ex] will hold you back from going into a new relationship,” Sussman warns, adding there’s even research to back this up. “Or you get into a new relationship and you tell your new girlfriend or boyfriend, ‘My ex is one of my closest friends.’ That’s complicated. Are you giving the new relationship a chance to really flourish or blossom?”
Any tips for making it work?
If you decide to try a friendship with an ex, Sussman suggests taking a break first. “I’m quite suspicious of those couples that break up and then tell me right away that they’re best friends,” she says. “Time heals. A lot of insight can come with time and space apart.”
That goes for social media as well as IRL interactions. “I would love for couples to unfollow and unfriend each other for a few months [after a breakup],” Sussman says. “[Otherwise] before you know it, you’re checking your Instagram and you’re seeing your ex, and that brings up all sorts of thoughts and feelings which might make you, on some emotional level, feel reconnected to that person.”
As for the amount of time it’s wise to back off for, the dating experts at eHarmony say you can’t put an exact figure on it – although they do have a rough suggestion: “The assumed wisdom is half the length of the actual relationship – but we can place a guide figure of at least 6 months on it.”
When, and if, you’re back in contact, Sussman stresses that boundaries are important, though they’ll likely look different for everyone. “A healthy boundary could look like, ‘Let’s not talk every day. Let’s not text every day,'” Sussman says. “‘Every couple of months let’s grab a meal, see a movie — but not regular, daily contact.'”
eHarmony’s experts do say there are some boundaries every ex-couple should follow – these include choosing meeting venues and activities carefully: “The rules of thumb are to keep it alcohol-free, stick to daytime plans and avoid places you used to visit together as a couple if possible – at least at first. Having intimate conversations about your personal lives, being in constant contact and exhibiting close body language are all things that need to go out the window too – anything you think opposite-sex friends would avoid doing or be uncomfortable doing, is out of bounds.”
For more advice on and help with relationships, visit Relate.org.uk