Can You Be Friends With Your Ex? According to Relationship Experts, That Depends

Photo: Getty Images/ Carlo Prearo / EyeEm
There’s no question that breakups are tough. They can happen for a variety of reasons. Some breakups don’t involve any hurt feelings or betrayals and are more a case of the wrong fit, while others end in broken hearts and bad feelings on one or both sides.

Because many people say they want their partner to be their BFF, the idea of losing a friend (not just a S.O.) can make the transition from lovers to strangers even tougher. As a result, the idea of staying friends with your ex may come up as you uncouple, or even later on. But relationship experts say pursuing—and maintaining—a healthy friendship with your ex is challenging under the best of circumstances. So before you slap a new label on your relationship, it's worth taking some time to determine whether or not it's in your best interest.

Experts In This Article

What to consider when it comes to being friends with your ex

Numerous factors go into whether a friendship with an ex is possible, such as: who dumped who, the reasons for the breakup, how each partner took the breakup, and how long the couple was together, according to Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for dating apps Tinder and Bumble.

Dr. Carbino says whether it’s possible to be friends with an ex has a lot to do with how serious the relationship was to begin with and how much “connective tissue” remains. For example, it'll be a lot easier to establish and maintain a friendship with someone you casually dated briefly because there isn’t as much history, responsibility, and potentially pain there, compared to someone you dated for years or lived with.

“As people age and relationships become more serious, particularly with relationships involving cohabitation, that type of friendship becomes very much an impossibility in my mind,” says Dr. Carbino, though she does add that it's potentially easier to be friends with someone you've had a lot of time away from, like a high school sweetheart.

There's also a difference between being friends and being friendly. Dr. Carbino points out that couples who have deep ties to one another, for example through sharing kids, have more reason to remain friendly with each other than others.

Regardless of whether they are parents as well as partners, "a couple takes on a shared identity while they're together, with shared friends and activities, and breaking up severs that identity," Dr. Carbino says. In the aftermath of a relationship running its course, you may find yourself splitting friends and activities—a normal part of the process—but trying to stay friends to keep these bonds intact can get messy fast, so be mindful about your intentions. Seeing friendship as a softer landing pad after partnership may inadvertently lead to harder feelings down the line.

"The process by which people uncouple is a social process and involves creating separate identities from that other person, which would involve the cessation of contact."—sociologist Jess Carbino, PhD

Plus, truly healing and moving on after a breakup requires introspection and time to yourself—a process that may be impeded if your ex is still in the picture. “The process by which people uncouple is a social process and involves creating separate identities from that other person, which would involve the cessation of contact,” says Dr. Carbino.

What to consider before deciding to stay friends with your ex

According to Kara Kays, LMFT, regional clinic director with the mental-health platform Thriveworks, a healthy relationship that adds to your life is one built on trust, honesty, and respect. If it's not possible to have that with your ex, don't pursue friendship, she advises. She also recommends really considering what you're asking for when extending or accepting an offer of friendship with an ex. Are you trying to keep the bond intact because you're not ready to let go? Or maybe you're the one breaking up with your partner and you want to soften the blow to be polite? Ask these questions to decide what you want out of the relationship, and use the answers to evaluate whether it makes sense or not.

The most important thing, she says is to not offer to be friends if you don't mean it. Breaking up is a painful, tough process, and extending an offer of friendship may seem like a kindness—but it isn’t if it's not genuine. Dr. Carbino recommends not offering to remain friends if you don’t really mean it because an inauthentic offer of friendship can be hurtful, confusing, and disingenuous—not the goal if you’re trying to break up with someone respectfully and effectively.

If you’ve decided you’d like to pursue a friendship with your ex, see below for the do’s and don’ts of this new type of connection.

The do’s and don’ts of staying friends with an ex

Do: Decide what kind of relationship you want to share

There are different types of friends, as well as different levels of friendship. Determine what type of relationship you'd like to pursue with you ex and then clearly communicate the nature of the new dynamic you're looking for to ensure that you're both on the same page upfront. Figuring out what role you want this person to play in your life will be helpful to set boundaries and dictate the grounds of the friendship, Kays says.

Do: Give yourself time

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can certainly soften them. Kays says you don't have to make a decision immediately after the breakup about whether you want to attempt a friendship with your ex. The passage of time will make it easier to gain perspective and make a decision that feels best to you. "Give yourself as much time as necessary to redefine what this new relationship is going to look like with this old person," she advises.

And on the flip-side, if you've tried being friends with an ex and it's not working, you're not obligated to continue. Just like any other platonic relationship, a friendship with an ex can run its course, too.

Do: Understand that they have a say, too

Even if you've decided you'd like to stay friends with your ex, remember that they also have a say in whether there's a relationship moving forward. Even if you want to maintain a friendship, your ex has every right to reject that offer. "At the end of the day, you can ask for what your need is, but somebody else doesn't have to oblige and they don't need to step into that role," Kays says.

Do: Set (and respect) boundaries

Take some time to set boundaries to guide how you'll engage with your ex as a friend. Is this person going to be someone you go to coffee with alone, or someone you see only on outings with your wider friend group like a trivia night or house party? Kays recommends deciding this ahead of time.

Part of setting healthy boundaries is redefining this person's role in a platonic context. It’s not fair to expect the same things from your ex in friendship as you did when they were your partner. And remember that this goes both ways.

Two boundaries Dr. Carbino recommends setting are agreements to only meet in public places and to not drink together to eliminate any chances of hooking up or being physical, which would move the relationship back into the romantic arena and muddy the waters.

Don’t: Do all the activities you did as a couple together

You know what they say about returning to the scene of the crime—don’t do it. Don’t slot your former partner, now friend, into their previous role just without the romance. For example, if you had a standing farmer’s market date, returning there together may be confusing and weird; calling your ex when you're sad because you relied on them to cheer you up when you were a couple probably won't work, either. Instead, interact in a way that won't bring up old and potentially painful memories or resurface old habits.

Don't: Let them hold you back from exploring new romances

One important consideration to make when deciding whether your ex belongs in your life as a friend is whether their presence will discourage you from pursuing new romantic relationships. Dr. Carbino recommends really thinking about whether seeing your ex as a friend is influencing you to avoid or slow walk coupling up with someone else. "If [the friendship] is diminishing [your] likelihood of getting together with someone else, I think that that would be an issue," she says.

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