The One Question to Ask Yourself Before Trying to Stay Friends With an Ex
DEAR DR. JENN,
After three years together, my boyfriend dumped me. He has been my best friend, my confidant, my greatest supporter and my lover. While we didn’t ultimately work as romantic partners, he is a cool guy and I don’t want to lose him in my life. I want to be friends. Can exes ever really be just friends? —Friend, No Benefits
To figure out whether or not you and your ex can be friends you need to examine your true motives and what the potential repercussions might be if you did go the pals route. A study that examined why people maintain friendships with exes found four reasons: 1. security (emotional support, advice, trust), 2. practicality (shared possessions or finances), 3. civility, and 4. unresolved romantic desires. With the exception of civility, in the case of shared children, I am not a fan of people being friends with their exes after a breakup. Here are six reasons NOT to mess with the friends route, and the single most important question to ask yourself to figure out if it might work for you.
1. You can’t separate.
In my clinical experience, taking time off from all contact immediately after a breakup is beneficial. This is the time for boundaries. Having clear-cut rules of engagement is crucial to your healing process. This detox time allows you to let go, grieve the loss of the relationship, and have some distance which gives you new perspective. I always recommend taking one year of space, no less than six months. If after taking that break you still want to be friends and you can answer the question I propose at the end of this article in the affirmative, you might have a potential friendship to develop.
2. One of you still has feelings for the other.
One person usually has an agenda. Typically one person wanted to break up more than the other. Therefore, one of you is likely to still have romantic feelings. Spending time together when you have romantic desires is not clean. Think about it: Are you spending a lot of time dressing up, trying to look fabulous, and seem cool and desirable to your ex before your "platonic" hangouts? If so, you aren't just being friends, and you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
Hanging out with your ex when there are lingering feelings in either direction prevents you from grieving the loss of the relationship and feeling the feelings you need to experience in order to let go. It creates a sense of denial about whether or not the relationship is really over. In order to be available for a healthy relationship — either as friends with your ex, or romantically with someone else — you must grieve the loss and let go first.
3. You still hook up, or may if the mood strikes.
There is likely to be leftover sexual chemistry. Not that long ago the two of you were sleeping together. When a breakup is recent, those sexual feelings are probably still in the air. This really complicates the whole "just friends" endeavor if there's any possibility of adding "benefits." If it's not a clean break, it is not a possibly pathway to friendship.
4. You’re looking for a serious relationship (with someone new).
Your ex is likely to be a cock block. When you have energy, time, connection and a bond with your ex you are unlikely to meet emotionally available potential new partners. When your emotional needs are being met by a former flame, you are less likely to open your heart and want to spend your spare time giving new potential suitors a chance.
In fact, a recent study found that people who still have longing feelings towards their exes tend to have less successful relationships with new people. Who needs that?
You might be asking yourself, “Who needs a new boyfriend that is jealous or uncomfortable with my dear friend who happens to be my ex-boyfriend whom I used to sleep with?” And that is a very bad sign. It's fair and expected for potential new partners to be uncomfortable with you confiding in your ex about them, or still going out drinking with him, and nurturing the bond you share. That energy is better used towards a new healthy relationship that has the potential to have a future.
5. You’re extremely invested in if or whether your ex is dating again.
All too often, I see people stay friends with their former partners in order to keep an eye on their dating life and attempt to influence it. Advising him against the hot girl he met in the bar is not being a protective friend, it is an attempt to manipulate his future love life, or even keep him to yourself. This is not good for either of you.
In my clinical experience, people tend to be more likely to want to stay close to their ex when they have a sense of dating scarcity or believe that they cannot do better. But spending time with an ex only reinforces these dating anxieties and is harmful. If this pertains to you, give both of you a chance at a better next relationship and don't waste time being friends.
6. Friendship feels like a consolation prize.
If you started out as romantic partners, downgrading to a friendship is likely to be less than stellar. A study of the quality of friendship between exes found that there was a strong association with negative qualities, the more romantic desire was present. This means you have to be really honest with yourself about whether or not you still have feelings in order to assess whether or not an honest friendship is even possible.
So, can you and your ex stay friends? Ask yourself this one question:
The single most important question to ask yourself is, “If my ex met someone new and fell madly in love, would I be genuinely happy for them both?" Can you see yourself going out to dinner to celebrate with your ex and their new partner — even if you are still single? This is the ultimate litmus test you must hold yourself to. If you cannot honestly answer that you would be comfortable hanging out with them both, and truly happy your ex had met someone, you should not be hanging out. Ideally you would wait six to 12 months after a breakup before even asking yourself that question. And if there ever was any abuse in the relationship, don't ask it at all — focus on getting distance and moving on. After any breakup, you want to make sure that you put your well-being first. If you're doing that, and you can answer a resounding "yes" to this question, then, sure, your ex can be a friend in that time of growth and need.