Let’s just be friends: An honest appraisal of post-breakup friendships.

It is my experience that when a long-term relationship ends, one of the first questions your friends and family will ask is, do you think you’ll ever be friends again? It has always been my response that I hope one day we will be friends again. I thought this is normal. However, this response can be polarising and begs the question, can one truly move on from an ex whilst remaining in contact with them?

While I poured through endless accounts of failed romantic relationships during my research, one thing became very apparent, friendships with exes are risky, very risky. Fortunately, there might be way to make it work. Firstly, both individuals must understand that they do not work together as a romantic couple and that neither wish to date one another again. There must be zero romantic feelings for one another. Secondly, both individuals must be able to recognise what worked about the relationship, and what did not. Should both these criteria be met, many experts believe successful post-breakup friendships (PBF) are achievable. There are many accounts of successful post-breakup friendships to back this up. With that said, Rachel Sussman, author of the Breakup Bible, believes under no circumstance should a friendship be rekindled from a toxic or abusive relationship, and that even with healthy relationships caution should be exercised.

The problem is that this is far easier said than done – romantic chemistry doesn’t just disappear. We’ve all tried convincing ourselves that being friends straight after the breakup is better than nothing, after all this person was once the centre of your universe so how can they just disappear from your life after a single conversation? Or that if we could just be friends for a bit then we might be able to rebuild our relationship. Indeed,research pertaining to attachment theory suggests that in times of stress (e.g. a breakup) our attachment systems activate and guide us to those who can provide care, e.g. an ex. Thus, it is no wonder we are naturally inclined to want PBFs as they allow the attachment needs provided by a former romantic partner to be continued. The alternative, figuring out how to deal with the void left behind by your ex, is not very appealing. However, contact too soon after a breakup makes it very hard for either person to come to terms with the fact they do not work together romantically. This is important because reasons for initiating a PBF are predictive of its outcomes. Research shows that staying in contact with an ex because of unresolved romantic desires is a predictor of multiple negative outcomes. Take Ashley Brett as an example. In a post by Times, Ashley recalls being stuck in a ‘friends with benefits’ scenario with an ex that lasted over 5 years. While she states she did find it enjoyable, it made her reluctant to invest in new romantic relationships. She explains that her and her ex were never able to separate the new friendship they were attempting to build from their previous romantic relationship. She admits it was helpful at numbing the pain of the breakup but research has shown such pain to be a catalyst for personal development, and therefore a pivotal part of moving on.It is for that reason, Dr. Sherrie Campbell suggests a 6-12 month healing period, without contact, before reintroducing an ex into your life. Susan Elliot, author of the book ‘Getting Past Your Breakup’, similarly recommends a minimum of 6 months without contact after a breakup. 

The healing process can be difficult to navigate and is largely dependent on the circumstances of the breakup and the behaviours that follow. Although understanding the cause of a breakup is outside the scope of this article, attachment types can be used to predict post-breakup behaviours, namely breakup strategies, and thus give an indication whether a PBF will be successful. A variety of strategies with varying degrees of empathy have been investigated. For instance, people with anxious attachments become preoccupied with the breakup, use reconciliatory breakup strategies and exhibit more unwanted pursuit behaviour towards their ex. Conversely, people with avoidant attachments exhibit a weaker emotional response and employ indirect breakup strategies that minimise proximity-seeking behaviours. Such behave is not conducive to a successful PBF as maintenance behaviours are directly linked to relationship satisfaction. Securely attached individuals demonstrate less destructive disengagement strategies and experience more successful PBFs. Therefore, an understanding of attachment types will help prepare you for the likely behaviour of you and your ex after the breakup.  That said, the healing period is also a time to focus on yourself and to work through our emotions and mourn the end of the relationship, as advocated by psychotherapist Kathleen Dahlen deVos. She suggests this is a good time to enlist the support of a therapist/trusted friend or turn to personal practices such as journaling and meditation to overcome and clarify residual emotions.

Once enough time has passed and you feel ready to begin a platonic relationship with an ex, there are relational variables that should be considered. Unsurprisingly, a mutual breakup and friendship prior to romantic involvement are indicative of a successful PBF. Researchers posited that prior friendship develops a schema for a platonic relationship that can be drawn upon to reshape the romantic relationship. Likewise, relationship satisfaction and commitment also predicted successful PBF and friendship maintenance behaviours. In particular, emotional intimacy during the romantic relationship has been consistently linked with successful PBFs. Conversely, a lack of compromise and feeling taken advantage of during the relationship lead to unsuccessful PBFs. So, once you feel sufficiently healed and at peace with the fact you and your ex don’t work romantically, it is important to honestly assess the relationship. An honest appraisal of the good and bad will inform the likelihood of a PBF being successful and therefore whether it is worth a shot.

Having overcome any romantic feelings for your ex and honestly appraised the relationship, it is important to understand the dynamics of a PBF and its implications before initiating contact. When contact is reinitiated, clear boundaries should be introduced to ensure a healthy relationship is maintained, according to Carolyn McNulty, a licensed mental health counsellor. In particular, individuals should be cautious of social media. What may start as an innocent interest in what your ex is up to, can very quickly turn into something akin to stalking with every action of theirs being monitored closely. Constant reminders of your ex may reverse the healing process and rekindle romantic feelings towards them. Similarly, contact frequency should be monitored. Daily or regular contact, comparable to that of the relationship, is going to make slipping into old habits and feelings all too easy. This can be a great time to recruit the help of a therapist to ensure healthy boundaries are set. 

The impact of a PBF on other relationships is also notable. New partners may feel warry of the friendship and suspicious of the motives behind it. Consequently, they may invest less in the early stages of the relationship, prohibiting it from flourishing properly. Similarly, it is important to monitor the effect it has on your existing friends. If your existing friends are unsure of the motives behind the friendship, they may be unsupportive and distance themselves from it. This is important, not only for the sake of maintaining existing friendships, but also for the success of the PBF, as research has shown socially supported PBF are more successful. Therefore, the need for clear boundaries is not only for the benefit of you and your ex, but for new romantic partners and existing friendships. It makes the relationship easily recognisable as a friendship and nothing more. 

In summary, post-breakup friendships are risky but can work for the right reasons. Success depends on both individuals being over one another, a clear understanding of why the romantic relationship broke down, high levels of satisfaction during the romantic relationship and an amicable breakup. It is also important to be mindful of the effect it is having on your existing and future relationships and ensure clear boundaries are set.