Can you be friends with an ex? Would you want to be? This is one of my most frequently asked questions when people are transitioning out of a romantic relationship and forced to choose a direction in redefining how to relate to the other person after a breakup.
Some people are polarized on this issue while others are ambivalent. It’s difficult to have a reminder of someone you can no longer be with or who hurt you in your life. Some people think it’s silly for someone to sign up for this kind of emotional torture by being friends with an ex, but emotion can often trump logic and alter our perspective between what we want and what is good for us.
For some, there is less freedom about the decision when there are children involved. Add a dash of a bitter divorce or adultery into the mix and a friendship can lead to fireworks and not of the good kind. To be fair, there is evidence that a friendship can work between exes when divorce partners co-parent and create blended families.
So why would someone want to be friends with an ex? A sudden break from someone who you have a strong attachment to can be overwhelming for a lot of people. As a result, the maintenance of some bond lowers attachment anxiety and reinforces a sense of psychological availability. I often forewarn people when they are engaged in this kind of dynamic because it can lead to creating fuzzy boundaries, especially when one person decides to move on.
I had a reader write in about a boyfriend who recently broke up with her after three long years and was even forthcoming that he had cheated on her. She was left heartbroken. Even though she realized he was at fault for cheating, she still wondered whether it was something she lacked that lead to the infidelity. The lonely nights of crying and oscillating between sadness and anger caught up to her and she was convinced she was ready to be friends.
I find that many people are adamant on making a decision to be friends or not right when the relationship ends. I recommend that you allow yourself time to heal from the breakup before deciding whether you want or can be friends with your ex. How it ends is often a deciding factor for people when it comes to breakups. A deep betrayal often makes a friendship after a relationship more difficult because even in friendship, trust is essential.
If you decide that you want to be friends with your ex, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Is this a relationship built from insecurities? Being dumped is not exactly good for self-esteem. Ask yourself if you are maintaining this relationship to validate your worth.
2. Have clear boundaries. Your ex cannot be the person to help you get over the breakup. Friends with benefits with your ex right after your separation will also create confusion in the new relational dynamic you are trying to create.
3. Keep in mind the core qualities that you like about your ex as a person rather than a lover. This will help you build the relationship on a level that is not contingent on their qualities as a lover. You may be pleasantly surprised that even though your ex may have been a bad partner they might make an excellent friend. For those who co-parent, this is a time to be selfless and attempt to create a good emotional space for your children and model healthy communication skills.
4. Be honest with yourself and your ex. If you find that it is too soon just be honest and ask for time before you reconnect. Keep things in perspective because you will always have a relationship with someone you were close to. It’s simply the type of relationship that changes. As for co-parents, maintaining a sense of core family identity between you, your partner and your children is essential in creating a safe haven for your child.
As difficult as it is to let go of a person who you held so dearly to your heart, there is a lesson of acceptance within the process that humbles us all.
Amy Yew is a researcher and therapist. Tell us what you think and submit any questions you have to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet your thoughts on Twitter @AmyYew.