4 Points To Consider Before You Try Friendship With An Ex

Not sure if you and your ex can handle a post-breakup friendship? Here's two signs that you can—and two that you can't.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 20, 2024

"I hope we can still be friends." If you've ever experienced a breakup, then you've likely heard this loaded statement before—and maybe even considered it. The immediate idea of staying friends with an ex can seem like a good way to soften the blow of heartbreak. But, in practice, this is rarely as straightforward as it sounds.

Breakups are emotionally charged, and shifting from a romantic relationship into a platonic one can be decidedly tricky. However, whether exes can actually remain friends depends on a wide variety of variables—both at the breakup and individual level. By assessing and understanding these factors, you'll be better equipped to make a concrete decision when stuck in this position.

When Exes Can't Be Friends

There are a variety of studies that have explored friendships between exes, as well as the factors that negatively impact this platonic shift. However, two factors stand out:

  1. When there's unresolved romantic desires. A study published in Personal Relationships found that when lingering romantic or sexual desires exist, it's challenging to push those feelings aside in favor of friendship. Breakups are undeniably hard; the aftermath involves grieving the love and bond shared, and it's nearly impossible to eliminate those feelings overnight. This process takes time, and skipping it can disrupt healing. When there's unresolved romantic desire, staying friends with an ex can complicate and prolong your emotional recovery process. Being around someone you still have feelings for can keep those wounds fresh—making it difficult to move on, as well as hindering the possibility of forming new, healthy relationships. For a friendship to be healthy and satisfying, both individuals need the capacity for what it takes to be friends—and lingering love leaves little room for a clean transition to a platonic relationship.
  2. When you're in a new relationship after a recent breakup. Another study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, examined how lingering attachments to ex-partners affect current relationships. Finding new love after a breakup is nothing to be ashamed of—after all, love happens when we least expect it. However, the research suggests that choosing to remain friends with a recent ex can be detrimental to the new relationship. No romantic relationship can flourish when you're trying to balance a new attachment to a partner while maintaining a friendship with an ex. These are two separate paths—new love and old love-turned-friendship—that are complex enough individually, and managing them simultaneously can lead to confusion, which can curb the development of your new relationship. When you're in a new relationship, your focus should ideally be on building and nurturing that bond. But if you're still emotionally invested in a past relationship—even if only platonically—tension and insecurity can brew in your current partnership, ultimately undermining its potential.

The saying "time heals all wounds" isn't just a cliché—it's a reality. For the wounds of a breakup to heal without infecting other areas of your life, you must allow yourself the necessary time to process and recover before exposing yourself to situations that might reopen those wounds. This means taking a step back and giving yourself space from your ex, especially if unresolved romantic feelings linger or if you're embarking on a new relationship. By allowing time for emotional healing, you increase the chances of forming healthy, fulfilling relationships in the future—whether they are platonic or romantic.

When Exes Can Be Friends

On the other hand, the prospects aren't all gloomy when it comes to staying friends with exes. Research highlights several factors that suggest there can be a good possibility for exes to be healthy, uncomplicated friends—with two standing out:

  1. If you were friends before you dated. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that exes who were friends before becoming lovers were better able to remain friends after their breakup. Additionally, the more satisfied they were during the romantic relationship, the more likely they were to remain friends and keep up with friendship maintenance behaviors—such as regular communication and support. The bottom line here is that, if you were friends before, there's no reason to dismiss the idea of returning to friendship. And if your romantic relationship was healthy, there should be few hard feelings to complicate the friendship. The existence of a prior friendship can make it much easier for exes to transition from lovers to friends—after all, you've done it before, just in the opposite direction.
  2. If you had a healthy breakup. Research from the Journal of Social Psychology also found that friendship prior to the romantic relationship is a significant predictor of remaining friends after a breakup. However, it was also found that a healthy, respectful breakup—one that was mutual, or at the very least amicable—is a good omen for exes looking to become friends. This can form a solid foundation for a new platonic relationship, as a respectful breakup indicates that both parties are mature and considerate, making it easier to maintain a positive, platonic relationship. This reciprocal respect can help exes rebuild a new kind of relationship based on understanding and support—and, importantly, one that is free from resentment, bitterness or hostility.

For many people, exes are exes for a reason. If your breakup ended for a good reason, you probably don't need research to tell you that a friendship isn't a great idea. However, if a platonic relationship seems like it could be possible, but you're not entirely sure—some introspection is required first.

Do you both want this? If you have new partners, would they be okay with it? Are there any romantic ties left that you haven't cut yet? If these aren't resounding yeses, then start with letting time work its magic. After that, when you're truly emotionally ready, you can feel free to make the transition to friendship. Always, the key to successfully being friends with an ex lies in not rushing.

Do you think you have the emotional intelligence to handle a friendship with your ex? Take the Emotional Quotient Inventory to know more.

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