by Andrea M. Darcy
It’s a loaded question that can cause mental spirals. “Should I stay friends with an ex?”.
And research suggests if we do decide to try it, we aren’t in for an easy ride.
A study from the University of Connecticut looking at cross-sex friendships found that if you were once romantically involved, your friendship is far more likely to have negative qualities than if you were only ever platonic friends. It’s also likely to still contain romantic feelings.
Questions to ask before considering being friends with an ex
Given that being friends with an ex is a challenge, what questions should you consider first?
1.What does ‘being friends with an ex’ even mean to you?
‘Friends’ is a wide concept. And your version of friends might be far from your ex partner’s version. It’s often this lack of clarity that causes confusion in the future.
If your version of friends means an occasional game of tennis and drinks in a group, it’s a far cry from someone else’s version which means texting each other daily and sharing all your secrets.
2. Do you truthfully want to be friends?
Broke up with them, and feel like you ‘should’ stay friends to be ‘nice’? There is nothing nice about doing things out of guilt. The nicest thing to do here is to make a clean break.
Feel you have to be friends so your ex doesn’t get upset? Then you might have been in a relationship with codependency or even coercive control.
An unhealthy relationship does not lead to a healthy friendship.
*If a relationship was in any way abusive, and you are scared to cut them out, seek proper support. A good start can be calling a confidential helpline.
3. What are your intentions, really?
If there is one thing you really need when considering being friends with an ex? It’s a huge dose of honesty with yourself.
If your intentions are purely practical — If you share kids, or work together? The hallmarks of friendship, such as trust and openness, become indispensable for things to go smoothly, and are worth investing in.
Or deep down, is there something else you want? Like:
- friends with benefits
- the chance of texting your ex when you are bored
- to avoid being lonely
- attention or entertainment
- to have a say on who they date next (have power over them?).
You can tell yourself ‘it’s no big deal’ or that ‘I do still like their company’, but these reasons mean you are using the other person. And it does come at a price. Negative actions effect your sense of worth and capacity to trust yourself.
Sometimes we are simply avoiding emotional pain. The problem is that we also might end up avoiding the personal growth that proper breakups are connected to. A study on attachment styles and breakups found that the more anxious and difficult the breakup, the more the personal growth.
4. Were you ever really friends in the first place?
photo by: Kelly Sikkema
“My ex is my best friend,” you moan to whoever will listen, “we can’t just not talk.”
But is this true? Or did you instead rush into the relationship heedlessly? Was it dramatic and unstable? You spent more time fighting than getting to know each other?
Then think again.
It’s more likely that you are simply wanting more drama, which you are addicted to. It’s time to look at your unhealthy dating issues and learn better ways of relating.
Were you friends for years before you dated? Did you go to school together, share friends, do you know how to be in each others lives as friends? Then perhaps friendship could work.
Were you in a dragged out breakup that meant for years you were really more friendly than lovers? Living together and sharing your life on all fronts is actually not really friendship, but a netherworld between friend and partners. Trying to continue that without a timeout might mean that you still aren’t really broken up.
5. Will your ‘friendship’ continue even when you are in another relationship?
Perhaps the question that needs to be asked first here is, ‘will I even attract another relationship if I am still ‘friends’ with my ex?’
Keeping your ex around means you have less room in your life for new people. Less time, less energy, and less ‘connectivity’.
Our ability to connect to others is not unlimited. Research shows our brains do tend to cap how many people we can ‘manage’. The most famous research here is ‘Dunbar’s number‘, by evolutionary anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar. It states that we only really maintain five intimate relationships, then up to 15 ‘good friends’.
If you are already in a relationship and now wanting to reconnect with an ex, it goes back again to intention and integrity. What is the point of a friendship? Does it make practical sense? Or are you creating problems? As for integrity, have you discussed this with your current partner? And taken their opinion into account?
6. Is this a pattern?
photo by Toa Heftiba
Again, be really honest here. Is this a pattern in your life and relationships? Do you often push/pull people? Or not let go? Or panic if you feel abandoned and do anything to hold on?
And if so, what is this really about? Is it about wanting to be friends with your partner? Or is it that you have a relating issue stretching potentially right back to childhood that you really need to get support over and deal with?
7. What are your doubts and fears and what do they tell you?
Your doubts might be about yourself. If, deep down, you know that you are just wanting attention, again, there is a price for this kind of dishonest friendship.
Are your doubts are about them? Do you suspect they just want to control or manipulate you? Listen to those doubts.
If you feel uneasy around the question of being friends or not and aren’t sure why, try journalling answers to:
- What am I afraid of here? Of losing, of being, of changing?
- What’s the worse thing that can happen if we don’t stay friends?
- And what’s the worse thing that can happen if we do?
8. Do you actually know how to set boundaries with your ex?
Do you really struggle to say no to others? Put your own needs last?
Then being friends with an ex might be a bad idea, particularly if you were in a codependent relationship always taking care of them.
9. Is this question really as pressing as you want to make it?
If there is no practical reason like shared kids, work, or social circle, then also ask yourself, what’s the rush?
If you are meant to be friends, then there shouldn’t be a date on when that can start. A clean break first (including of social media) to remember what it’s like to be you solo can only be a good thing.
And if it’s an ex from long ago, and you want to give friendship a try, remember that you are always free to change your mind. Do a trial run then don’t be afraid to reevaluate.
Can’t get over an ex and it’s time to get some help? We connect you with highly regarded London talk therapists. Or use our booking site to find UK-wide counsellors and online therapists.
Still have questions about staying friends with an ex, or want to share your experience? Post below.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and mentor, with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy