It’s been said that breakups are never easy, but one of the most difficult and confusing questions is one that comes after the fact – do you stay friends with your ex, cut off contact, or something in between? And while there is no single right answer for everyone, research and experience suggest that friendships with former romantic partners are, at best, something to approach with caution. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself before committing to the f-word.
1. Do I fear change?
At first glance, it may seem like there are many good reasons to remain friends with an ex. After all, this is someone who was likely a major part of your life while you were together, spent a great deal of time with you, and knows you on a more intimate level than many of your platonic friends. And because change is frightening, it’s natural to want to minimize the disruption by trying to keep that person in our lives as much as possible.
But in the end, this is just self-deception, because the fact is that things have changed. And a romantic relationship is more than the sum of its parts – you can’t subtract the physical intimacy and commitment while expecting your platonic interactions to remain the same.
If a friendship is going to work, it will be as something built on a new foundation, not a remnant of something bigger. This is why it’s recommended to limit contact at least for at least the first few months after the breakup, allowing both parties to fully process and accept the end of the relationship as well as deal with any leftover bitterness.
2. Are we being honest?
People are notoriously good at lying to each other, and we’re even better at lying to ourselves. It’s easy to convince yourself that you have no ulterior motives and would be fine just being friends, while a tiny voice in your subconscious muses that if you did end up getting back together it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
If this sounds familiar, it’s a pretty good sign you’re not ready. While it’s not unheard of for a former romance to be rekindled somewhere down the line, secretly hoping or planning for this to happen means you still haven’t moved on and are only prolonging the pain of the breakup. And if you sense your former partner may be harboring these hopes, then distancing yourself may be the kindest thing for you both.
3. Will it keep me from growing?
Even if both of you have accepted that the relationship is over, staying in close contact may put a damper on your personal growth by keeping you from exploring new options – romantic or otherwise. And relying on the comfortable rapport and familiarity you’ve established can make you complacent about trying to build those elements in a new relationship, not to mention the potential friction it could cause.
4. Is it for the benefit of others?
The pressure to stay friends is further increased if you and your partner have children together or share social or professional networks. Nobody wants to witness awkward confrontations at social events or be forced to choose between two good friends, and children certainly shouldn’t be subjected to screaming matches or dramatic displays during every non-custodial visit. But it’s entirely possible to remain on civil terms without having to keep up a pretense of being close friends or interacting more than strictly necessary. In cases like this, it may help to think of your former partner as a business contact to whom you owe professional decorum and nothing more.
5. Is it really worth it?
Too often, “let’s stay friends” is said almost automatically without thinking. In a society that values being positive and discourages acknowledging any negative feelings, staying friends with exes is seen as a sign of emotional maturity that people are eager to bestow upon themselves. But the only good reason to maintain any friendship is if you find the relationship itself valuable. And unfortunately, studies have shown that compared to regular friendships, those between former romantic partners had overall lower levels of trust and mutual support – the things that you normally expect from a good friend.
In the end, the most important thing is to remember that, when it comes to both friendships and romance, there are millions of people around you with whom you do not have a complicated and possibly painful history. Instead of dwelling in the ruins of your past relationship, it is almost always more productive to use the time to build something new, or to shore up other friendships you may have neglected before. The right counselor can help you personally move on from a breakup, or provide a space for you and an ex to communicate peacefully.