Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Staying friends with an ex is possible but not always desirable

As we kick off the new year, reflecting on relationships and growth is important. Two writers share their takes on the age-old question of whether it is possible to remain friends with ex-partners. 

Emma Wilkes

Sometimes, when I’m with my boyfriend, I think to myself – whatever happens to us, I hope I never find myself hating you. I don’t have a good track record of staying friends with my exes. To this day, I only speak to one of them. I did make an effort to stay friends with another one of them, but that only lasted a couple of months. He showed an uglier side of himself that I hadn’t seen during our relationship, related to how we broke up, and I cut him off.

I admire people who can be friends with their exes. It is more than possible for it to happen harmoniously without any elephants left in the room. It’s more than possible for the line “Can we still be friends?” to be more than an empty attempt to soften the frequently crushing blow of a relationship ending.

I admire the maturity it takes to actively fight against any sense of awkwardness, and sometimes to forgive someone and keep them in your life. It says a lot about the kind of relationship, even without romance in the equation, that the people are in it could be willing to work against a history of feelings in the name of keeping each other around in some capacity.

The circumstances of the breakup can play a big part in whether two partners will stay friends

Of course, it’s not always possible. Sometimes there is no desire there to keep an ex around in your life. I think the circumstances of the breakup can play a big part in whether two partners will stay friends after they’ve broken up or not.

I broke up with the ex I am still friends with because of mental health issues and I was determined for us to stay friends because it didn’t make sense for us to drift apart over something beyond our control that drove us apart romantically. It wasn’t as hard as I thought – I was just glad to still have him in my life. If a relationship just fizzles out or seems to have run its course, staying friends with an ex is hopefully easier to envision.

It takes an even bigger person to remain friends with an ex who hurt you badly. If someone cheated on me, for example, I’d never want to give them a chance at friendship and I don’t think that is unreasonable. Some people can and do manage for whatever reason and I admire that too.

Sometimes it’s just not possible to keep an ex as a friend

Sometimes it is out of convenience – Ross and Rachel would have never spoken beyond season three of Friends if they hadn’t had mutual friends to convince them to be civil and not cut each other off. I don’t think I’m so forgiving, especially since I’ve been dumped more than I’ve dumped someone else.

I started thinking about the people I know and the relationships that they’ve had and I struggled to think of many people who had managed to stay friends with an ex, even if not all of their relationships ended badly. I wonder if it’s because of how relatively young we all are. Ending our teens, entering our twenties, we’re kissing a lot of frogs – we’ve all done it, and it’s normal. It’s part of learning about yourself and what you want from a relationship. I wonder if immaturity, to a degree, gets in the way, but not in the way you might think. We make mistakes in relationships sometimes that we grow out of – and some of those mistakes are harder to forgive.

Sometimes it’s just not possible to keep an ex as a friend. Sometimes, people are toxic and need to be cut off for the sake of your own wellbeing. That is more than okay. Healthy relationships don’t have to fracture because they’re not romantic anymore – and when they can withstand something like a breakup, you know you have someone good around, even if they’re not a love interest anymore.

Fee Merali

With the development of the internet and social media in the 21st century, dating has become increasingly digitalised, and relationships have simultaneously become more publicised and increasingly private. While posting that first candid photo of your beaux with love heart eye emojis is now seen as the first step towards becoming official, on the flip side you can block your exes to stop them from stalking your online profile.

In our culture of information and public romance, it is impossible to remain friends with your ex but that isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s worth a try. According to psychologists, it is certainly possible to be friends with your ex but there is a catch, and that is that both parties must recognise that a romantic future together is no longer an option on the table.

That means that you both need to be in a place, mentally and emotionally, where you can accept what went wrong in the relationship and why it ended. There is also a consensus among professionals that if your relationship grew from friendship, then you both could return to being just friends, provided you establish healthy boundaries.

Their presence is a constant reminder of what you had together

For me, it’s the fine print that means friendships with your ex are doomed to failure, no matter how much you care for them, or how many times you both assure one another that you still want to be friends. I speak from personal experience when I say that no matter how amicable the breakup, the pressures and hurts that split you up in the first place will follow you into your friendship, and you might even part ways on even worse terms than before.

This is because there is always at least one party who holds on to ideas and feelings from the relationship, no matter what boundaries are set, in the hope, or misguided assumption, that you will get back together again.

The problem with being friends with your ex is that even if neither of you has an ulterior motive for wanting them to stay in your life, their presence is a constant reminder of what you had together, which can do more harm than good. Experts recommend that you should take between six months to a year on average to get over a person before reintroducing them into your life as a friend, but this is no exact science.

The mention of boundaries is especially important

Even if you do take that long, there is always the possibility that their behaviours may trigger unwanted memories, feelings and even traumas. This can only be detrimental to your mental and emotional wellbeing.

In my personal experience, attempting to be friends with my ex because I still cared for him and liked him as a person only served to make me see him in a different light. He continued patterns of ignoring boundaries that I set for myself, and it exacerbated my healing process in a way I could have avoided simply by removing him from my life. It most likely had the same effect for him, and so made the breakup harder for both of us.

The mention of boundaries is especially important. Jumping straight from a breakup to a friendship is dangerous not only because you are already placing yourself in a vulnerable position, but you also don’t give yourself enough time to decide what a healthy friendship with your ex would look like for you personally, and how best to build it. For example, if you think it would be best only to see each other with mutual friends, then it is imperative that you consider and talk about this before diving into the deep end.

Holding onto the past often makes things worse

Not only this, but you also have to be able to stick to your guns and defend your boundaries, which gets messy if there are feelings still involved. One exception can lead to many.

Some of you might disagree with me – maybe you have established a friendship with your ex, maybe you’re getting on really well. Maybe you don’t hurt anymore. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to break up with a person.

In my experience, holding onto the past often makes things worse, although it can also be a growing experience for both of you. In 2020, I became my strongest self so far. Whatever you decide, proceed with caution.

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