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Should You Stay Friends With an Ex?

Your reasons for wanting to stay connected matter.

Key points

  • To dampen the hurt of heartbreak, people commonly try to lessen the pain by maintaining a connection with their former partner.
  • There are four key motivations for wanting to stay friends: security, practical, civility, and unresolved romantic desire.
  • Staying friends because of lingering feelings created the most problems; however, practical and security reasons had some positive outcomes.
 Everton Vila/Unsplash
Letting go of an ex can be hard. But should you try to stay friends?
Source: Everton Vila/Unsplash

Breaking up is hard to do. So hard, in fact, that we often have a difficult time completely ending a relationship. Making a clean break can feel too final, too absolute, and too harsh, especially with someone you’ve been so close to. To dampen the hurt of heartbreak, it’s common to try to lessen the pain by maintaining connection (Tan et al., 2015).

One solution is to cut off romantic ties but remain friends with your ex-partner. On one hand, it makes a lot of sense because, like good friends, you two have a lot of history. On the other hand, your romantic relationship ended for a reason. Ultimately, whether staying friends with your ex is a good idea depends on why you want to preserve the friendship. What’s your motivation?

Reasons for Staying Friends

To determine people’s reasons for continuing friendships with former partners, researchers had 288 adults (ages 18–62 years) review a list of 29 possible reasons for wanting to stay friends (e.g., “being polite,” “not wanting to be alone”) and indicate how true each was for them (Griffith et al., 2017).

Those ratings revealed four key motivations for wanting to stay friends:

  1. Security: staying friends to not lose the ex-partner’s emotional support, advice, or trust; keeping them around because of shared memories or to have someone to count on.
  2. Practical: staying friends to avoid losing the ex-partner’s financial support or the social status associated with the relationship, or because you have a child together or shared possessions.
  3. Civility: staying friends simply to be polite, to not hurt the ex-partner’s feelings, to avoid confrontation, or because you feel guilty about breaking up with them.
  4. Unresolved romantic desire: keeping the friendship because you don’t want to be alone, to maintain the sexual contact, and because you still hope to rekindle a romantic relationship.

Motivations Matter

Everyone wants a happy ending. But, it didn’t work out that way for everyone. The underlying reason for wanting to keep the friendship connection is related to how the relationship turned out. Those who wanted to stay friends because of unresolved romantic desires experienced a range of negative outcomes such as feeling heartbroken, worse mental health, more depression, greater tension in the friendship circle, and increased jealousy. Staying friends due to lingering feelings was also counterproductive for forming new relationships because it made it harder to make new friends and more difficult to find a new romantic partner. Those who wanted to stay friends for practical or civility reasons were also more likely to have the friendship end in the future.

But the news wasn’t all bad for those who want to stay friends with an ex. If participants kept the relationship intact for security or practical reasons, they had more positive outcomes, such as feeling more secure, and they experienced more positive feelings.

Who’s More Likely to Want to Stay Friends?

Overall, a majority of participants (59% in Study 1 and 65% in Study 2) remained friends with ex-partners. However, some people were more likely to want to stay friends with their partner after the breakup. In particular, men in Study 1 were more likely to want to stay friends than were women (though Study 2 found no difference). Personality was also a factor, such that those who were less extroverted and more agreeable wanted to stay friends. Individuals with more avoidant attachment (i.e., uncomfortable with closeness) and less anxious attachment (i.e., strong desire for closeness) were also more likely to remain friends. Finally, they found that LGBTQ individuals had more current and lifetime friendships with former partners compared to heterosexual participants.

Take Home

When the romantic side of a relationship doesn’t work out, it feels like common sense to salvage a friendship. Lots of people do it, but the reasons why you may want to stay friends matter. Generally, if it’s because you still have romantic feelings, maintaining the friendship creates more problems than it solves. It can be painful to let go, but trying to hold on in hope of rekindling the romance isn’t likely to work out.

References

Griffith, R.L., Gillath, O., Zhao, X., Martinez, R. (2017). Staying friends with ex‐romantic partners: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes. Personal Relationships, 24, 550–584.

Tan, K., Agnew, C., VanderDrift, L. E., Harvey, S. M. (2015). Committed to us: Predicting relationship closeness following nonmarital romantic relationship breakup. Communication, 32, 456–471.

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