There are a number of reasons to stay amicable with a former partner, and if you're currently in post-breakup purgatory, there are some dos and don'ts when it comes to being friends with an ex. Maybe you were dating a co-worker and you want to keep things friendly, you hang out in the same group, or you were good pals before taking things to the next level. Whatever the case, you may be treading in uncharted territory, and to move forward, certain aspects of the past must be left behind — and it's not always an easy process.
"It's important to remember that when a relationship ends, we're not just grieving our ex and what we had together, but also the future we thought we would have," points out Dr. Valeria Chuba, integrative sexologist and host of the Get Sex-Smart Podcast. "It can take a very long time for us to let go of that future."
But first thing's first: Experts agree that if your relationship was toxic or harmful to your health in any way, it's probably best to keep your distance for good. However, being able to form a (healthy) friendship in the future is certainly not impossible.
Ahead, three therapists sound off on the best ways to transition your relationship from romantic to platonic, plus the first-hand account of someone who's been there. If you're in the throes of a split but you hope to be friends down the road, read on for some expert advice.
Decide Why You Want To Be Friends
Jennifer Gunsaullus, PhD, sociologist and intimacy coach, and author of the forthcoming book, From Madness to Mindfulness: Reinventing Sex for Women, notes that being friends with an ex isn't inherently good or bad; but the reason behind your continued connection can be. She explains the difference: "If it's for practical reasons, like [you have] kids together or have to share the same spaces, that makes total sense. If it's because you had a solid friendship and want to continue that, that makes sense as well. But make sure you're not doing so because you're secretly hoping to get back together, you want a 'friends with benefits' situation, or because you are trying to avoid the pain of losing them from your life. All of those reasons can lead to much more heartache and keep you stuck in life."
In the midst of your self-reflecting, she suggests taking it a step further by deciding what you want from your new platonic relationship — and how you plan on going about it. "Once you determine that your reasons are healthy and grounded, do some journaling on how you envision your friendship playing out, in terms of areas like discussing future dating, frequency of seeing each other or texting, and how close of friends you want to be," she says.
Have A Candid Discussion
Dr. Chuba says that if a former couple wants to be friends, an amicable chat is the best place to start. The conversation should help clarify the kind of friendship you wish to have and your plan of action (which you may have already jotted down in your journal).
Further, you may want to reach an agreement about topics to avoid talking about — like new relationships — at least for a little while. "If you know you tend toward jealousy then don't ask questions and ask them not to share," advises Dr. Gunsaullus. "While you can hopefully get to the point where you're able to discuss dating without an uncomfortable visceral reaction, we all have different set points for jealousy and our ability to handle that discomfort in a responsible way." Whatever you decide, Dr. Chuba says the most important thing is to "make sure you are on the same page."
Make (And Maintain) Boundaries
To that, Dr. Chuba mentions that being respectful involves making and maintaining healthy boundaries. "This includes keeping the intimate details of your relationship and breakup private," she explains. "Whenever you talk about each other, don't overshare, and strive for as neutral a tone as possible."
It's also important to set boundaries for yourself so you don't slip back into old habits; after all, you broke up for a reason. Dr. Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist and couples and sex therapist on faculty at NYU Langone (@doctorsuevarma on social media), says to avoid any behavior that may blur the lines of a clean (romantic) break. "No flirting, no sex/physical/emotional intimacy of any kind, including making verbal comments or references," she says. "Even complimenting or reminiscing between two people with shared histories has a way of turning a person’s mind to the past, and it’s a slippery slope."
You may even want to set boundaries for spending time together. Robbie W. from Maine says that having some breathing room was key for the eventual friendship between him and a former boyfriend. "I was much more invested in the relationship than he was, and it was fairly heartbreaking when he ended it a few months in; but he expressed interest in wanting to stay as friends," he explains. "Personally I needed time to grieve from the relationship. I remember being invited to his birthday party about three months after the break, and I wasn't ready. Fast forward another three months to a New Year's Eve party, and it was the first time I felt comfortable and not awkward. About a year after the break is when I truly felt the friendship."
Dr. Chuba adds that time is a healer for many exes, and it's crucial to remember that it's different for everyone. "One of you may need more time and distance post-breakup than the other," she says, adding, "Make sure you respect each other's wishes."
Be Mindful Of Social Media
Dr. Varma reminds that it's important to be mindful of what you post online, too. "Don’t throw things in [your ex's] face," she says. "That includes being responsible [and not being] overly gushy on social media with your new beau. In general, all the FOMO and depression that social media is causing is playing into other people’s insecurities, jealousy, inadequacies, etc. (even outside of the romantic context)." And if seeing your former boyfriend or girlfriend's posts is making you miserable? "Unfollow your ex; don’t think twice about it," she instructs. "What purpose does it serve? We are nosy and curious as humans, but it doesn’t serve your mental health."
Treat Your Former S.O. Like A Friend (Not An Ex)
It's sounds obvious, but it's easier said than done: If you want to be friends with an ex, you should treat them as such. In addition to being cordial, this involves keeping personal information that you learned about each other, or shared in confidence, completely private. "Staying loyal to each other in this way, even though you are no longer together, can help both of you maintain mutual trust and respect, and help you transition into a deeper friendship over time," says Dr. Chuba.
Robbie recalls that the turning point for him was changing his mindset. "I stopped thinking about him as my ex," he says. "'Ex' seems to have a negative connotation, and I wanted to associate our friendship with something more positive. Instead, I thought of him more as 'someone I used to date.' That turned into thinking of him as 'a friend, and oh yeah, we dated once a long time ago.'"
He adds some final words of advice: "Friends you wish the best for, especially in relationships. If you still harbor hurt feelings, or jealousy, or any real negative feeling towards the ex, that might be a good sign that friendship won't work. You both need a clean slate, and if you can't get to that point, it will never work." And you know what? Sometimes, that's okay, too.