Remaining friends for the wrong reasons can end up hurting you both.
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Your ex is your ex for a reason. But he or she was also an important part of your life for a significant amount of time, and it’s understandable to want to hold onto that relationship in some capacity. Many former couples, whether dating partners (link is external) or spouses (link is external), try to remain friends after a break-up, and some are able to manage this transition successfully.
Research suggests, however, that on average exes tend to have lower-quality friendships (link is external) than opposite-sex friends who were never romantically involved. They are less emotionally supportive, less helpful, less trusting, and less concerned about the other person’s happiness. This is especially true, not surprisingly, for former partners who were dissatisfied with the romantic relationship (link is external), and in cases when the break-up was not mutual. (link is external)
The probability that a friendship with an ex will be a positive rather than painful experience depends in part on your motives, including those you’d rather not openly acknowledge. Here are 10 reasons that can get you into trouble:
- You have the same friends.
Research suggests that if your friends and family (link is external) want you to stay friends with an ex, you are more likely to do so. But that doesn’t mean you have to. Staying friends with your ex for the sake of social harmony is a noble goal, but if it’s your only reason for maintaining the friendship, it can be problematic. You have a right to spend time with your friends without your ex present, and you also have a right to decline invitations to events that your ex is also attending. Even if you are okay running into the ex from time to time, this doesn’t mean you need to be friends. It may be hard to see your ex as just another acquaintance when you have so much history together, but over time that history won’t be in the foreground anymore.
- You feel bad for them.
If you initiated the break-up and your ex is not taking it well, the last thing you probably want to do is hurt them even more by rejecting their friendship. But it’s not your responsibility to nurse them through their heartache, and your support may actually make them feel worse. Research suggests that people like to know that support is available if they need it, but they do not like to feel needy. In the moment, your ex may crave your comfort, but at the end of the day your support is unlikely to help them move on if they continue to feel dependent on you. Instead of shouldering the burden yourself, make sure they are getting support from other people in their life. And if you owe them an apology, give them a genuine one, but don’t drag it out.
- You want to keep tabs on them.
Even if you know that a relationship wasn’t meant to be, it can still be painful to think of your ex finding happiness with someone else. Staying friends may allow you to stay in the loop about their dating life and even give you some influence over it—a tempting prospect. But becoming your ex’s confidant may not benefit either of you in the long run, especially if you have mixed feelings about their efforts to move on. Even just remaining Facebook friends can give you a window into your ex’s life, for better or worse: in a Men’s Health survey of 3,000 people, 85% admitted to checking an ex’s Facebook page (link is external), and 17% said they did it once a week. But Facebook “stalking” tends to increase anxiety and jealousy (link is external). If you have trouble resisting it, you may be better off de-friending your ex, both on and offline.
- You’re lonely.
When you go through a break-up, it can feel like there’s a hole in your social life, and that hole can take time to fill. If you’re feeling lonely on a Saturday night, having your ex over for a movie and take-out might sound more appealing than making the effort to go out and meet new people. But it can also lead you onto the on-again/off-again relationship rollercoaster (link is external), which research suggests is characterized by lower satisfaction, less love, more uncertainty, and more communication problems. It’s understandable to miss the intimacy of a romantic relationship, but putting yourself in the danger zone of hooking up with an ex may not be worth the short-term comfort. When you’re feeling lonely, turn to friends and family instead, and find ways to make the most of your alone time.
- You’re having “grass is greener” syndrome.
If you’re not totally satisfied in a new relationship (link is external), research suggests you may feel more interested in keeping up contacts with your ex. It’s easy to romanticize the person you’re not with, since you’re no longer regularly exposed to their irritating habits. But this way of thinking is a trap, because if the grass always seems greener somewhere else, you’ll never be satisfied wherever you are. If you’re unhappy in your current relationship, it’s worth trying to address those feelings with your current partner rather than turning to an ex for support or as an escape. Adding the ex to the mix when your relationship is already in a complicated spot is only likely to complicate things further.
- You hope that maybe someday they will change.
Maybe you broke up because your ex was unfaithful or drank too much, but you’re holding out hope that they will learn from their mistakes and eventually grow into the kind of partner you want. By staying friends, you’re able to keep them in your life and maybe even help them make changes. In some cases, hope for reconciliation (link is external) can motivate people to improve, but if your ex senses that it won’t be so hard to win you back, they may be more focused on trying to prove that they have changed than on making real changes, and you may be setting yourself up for more disappointment.
- You want to keep them on the back burner.
A more cynical version of the preceding item is this desire to keep your ex around just in case you can’t find someone better. Needless to say, this approach is unfair to your ex, but it can hold you back as well. As I wrote in a previous post, playing it safe is not always the best approach when it comes to love. Sometimes you have to close one door, and close it fully, if you want another door to open.
- They won’t take no for an answer.
You might not want to stay friends, but what if an ex does, and won’t leave you alone? As stated above, you have every right to say no to friendship. Make sure that you are direct with your ex about your feelings (and don’t be afraid to get the police involved if they push things too far). While a little Facebook “stalking” may be relatively harmless, true stalking is scary and unacceptable. And it is surprisingly common. In one set of studies, 40% of college students surveyed reported engaging in at least one stalking behavior (link is external) following a break-up, and approximately 10% engaged in six or more. These behaviors included things like contacting an ex after being told not to, or showing up at an ex’s residence uninvited. Anger, jealousy, obsessiveness, and need for control all predicted greater stalking behavior, so beware of these traits.
- They still love you.
If your ex is still in love with you and you don’t feel the same way, the best thing you can do for them is to let them go. Spending time with them might make you feel good about yourself—who doesn’t enjoy being adored?—but it could be painful and confusing for them, especially if it gives them false hope. Even if you make it clear that you just want to be friends, it may not be clear enough to your ex. People see what they want to see, and rest assured they will be on high alert for any sign of returned affection. Your best bet in this situation is probably to minimize contact and let your ex move on.
- You still love them.
Being in love with your ex, and secretly hoping to win them back, can be a powerful motivation for staying friends with them, but it’s also unfortunately one of the most dangerous ones. If your ex doesn’t want to be with you, there is probably little you can do to change their mind. Trying in vain will only lead to repeated heartbreak and make you feel bad about yourself. Spend time with friends who make you feel loved and appreciated. This ex is probably not one of them.
Why stay friends?
Are there any good reasons to stay friends with your ex? Sure. If neither of you has ulterior motives like the ones listed above, and if your friendship doesn’t interfere with your current relationships—a good litmus test is whether you’re comfortable hanging out with your current partner and your ex together, and whether your ex’s partner is comfortable with you—it could very well work. Ulterior motives can be sneaky, though—our minds have ways of disguising them as more innocent aims. So make sure you are being honest with yourself about what your true intentions are.
Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.