How to Stay Friends with Your Ex
It can be hard to stay friends with an ex. Here's how to know when to stay close, when to draw a boundary, and when to just give up.
Photo by Zackary Drucker, via The Gender Spectrum Collection.
Relationships end all the time and in all sorts of ways: over text, in person, via ghosting, and if you’re a lesbian, sometimes over the course of about 27 years. For many people, when they breakup, that’s the definitive end—they want no further contact with their former partner. For plenty of others, though, a breakup is not an end so much as a change. The ex was an important person in their lives, and they’d like them to remain that way. But how?
Transitioning to friendship post-breakup has been a contentious topic for ages. And it’s been made more complicated by the bevy of ways, both electronic and IRL, that we now stay in touch with people. How do you avoid the pitfalls, sloppy hookups, or drunken arguments that can often accompany said transition to friendship? How do you know when to set boundaries, and when to keep that person close? In this piece, I’ll explore, with the help of a professional therapist, the nuances of going from romance to friend, the tools you’ll need, and how to know when cutting your losses is the best route to take.
Give Yourself Some Space
Taking space is the most necessary and least followed advice (even by me—a relationship advice columnist). But in order to transition from a romantic to platonic relationship, you absolutely need space and time to heal. This will look a little different for every couple—sometimes kids are involved, or pets, or shared cars or living spaces, which makes things extra tricky. Still, the more emotional, physical, and online space you can take (see my post-breakup guide to social media for more on that last one), the faster and less painful the process will be, even if it feels at first like you will actually die if you don’t talk to your ex every day. (You won’t.)
Avry Todd, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist to both individuals and couples in the Bay Area, reminds us that closure requires work just as relationships do. “All relationships have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” they said. “This is true of short term acquaintances and life-long partnerships. We need to put work into the ending just like we do the beginning and the middle.”
Todd notes that this is especially true in queer relationships, because “being in queer community by virtue pretty much guarantees running into those whom our hearts still hold some charge for.”
With my last relationship, we were living together when we broke up, so it wasn’t as easy as just cutting her out of my life. (Not that I wanted to.) Taking space within the constraints of our shared living space meant separate sleeping situations, nights at friends’ houses, and a few solo weekend trips where I could cry in peace—and in a hot tub. When you’re freshly transitioning out of a relationship, it’s important to find ways to carve alone time for yourself, including in online spaces, and to remember that all feelings are impermanent. It’s cliché but it’s true: This too shall pass.
Transitioning relationships often brings up a lot of feelings of fear, doubt, anxiety, and attachment issues, and it’s important to acknowledge those feelings, but also not be controlled by them. So, if your ex starts to feel distant, try to ground yourself by remembering that it's likely not because they don't care about you, but rather simply because their role in your life is shifting in a necessary way.
And what if your ex is resistant to taking space? This is where setting firm boundaries becomes super important, along with knowing what your limits are and being able to communicate them. When talking to a reluctant ex, acknowledge their fears and also remember that NOT setting boundaries leads to resentment and discomfort, which are going to negatively impact your relationship going forward. I’ve also found that setting a time to check-in can help assuage an ex’s abandonment fears. So, for instance, commit to taking space for 30 days. At the end of that time allotment, you can briefly check in and assess whether you need more space or if you need it in a different way.
Consider Your Motives
Once you feel enough time and space have passed—I’m not going to put a precise number on it, but will say when thoughts of your ex don’t give you a heart-sickness, rage, or feelings of vengeance, you’re on your way to healing!—the next step to think about is why you want to be friends with this person. A 2017 study in the journal Personal Relationships identified four main reasons why people maintain friendships with exes: security (emotional support, advice, trust), practicality (shared possessions or finances), civility, and unresolved romantic desires.
Unsurprisingly, the relationships of those who tried to be friends because of unresolved romantic desires and civility did not end well. But, staying friends because of security and practical reasons led to more positive outcomes. So, think long and hard about why you want to be close to this person. If your motives are, shall we say, less than ideal, you probably need more time to heal or perhaps you’re not meant to continue your relationship
What Should You Do Together
Now that you’ve taken the necessary time, tediously self-reflected on your motivations, and feel that you’re ready to see your ex again—what should you actually do? (Or more precisely, NOT do?) The answer will obviously depend on your personal circumstance, but here are some general tips. Avoid drinking/drugs, both of which may likely cause you to end up fighting or fucking. Seeing them during the day, and in public, will also curb the fight-or-fuck impulse. Meet in neutral territory—no restaurants you frequented together or parks you made out in, or any place that has emotional resonance. What’s the least erotic place you can think of? Daytime karaoke at TGIFridays? The toilet paper aisle at the grocery store? Meet there. (I’m only half joking.)
Me and my ex found neutral territory at the gym, which was a place we could spend time together that did not lead to fights. Plus, exerting ourselves helped burn some of the rage we were no doubt feeling toward each other because we didn’t take the necessary space to heal! But, hey, baby steps.
What to Do When You Run into an Ex on Accident
There are times, of course, when you are trying NOT to see your ex—perhaps, hypothetically, when they see you at the grocery store while wearing stained sweatpants, a Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt, and with a cart full of Pedialyte and Us weeklies. In these cases, Todd suggests practicing mindfulness. “If it's someone whom you're sitting with big emotions around, using mindfulness to inform our next action or non-action takes the pressure off the need to react. After taking a moment, then you can consider whether you want to smile and say hello, or just keep dancing with your friends, or have a quick cry in the bathroom. Sometimes it's all three of those options, or more.”
You might need to run away. You know what? That’s okay, too. Todd says,“I try to be honest with myself about what I need and reject any internalized or externalized expectations.”
Don’t Fall Back on Bad Habits aka Boundaries Are Your Friend
As you spend a little time with your ex, you’ll probably find that old wounds can and do surface. That’s okay! You’re human. The most important thing you can do is be aware of those ick feelings when they happen so you can avoid them next time. For instance, if he uses a pet name, or she is texting you 37 times a day, or talking about new people you’re dating feels as if you’ve been flayed and then let loose upon a fire ant colony, notice! And build a boundary around it.
Setting a boundary doesn’t mean things will stay this way forever. But it is being honest and realistic about where you are right now. You can always check in at a later date, and revise accordingly. If you make that clear while hashing things out with your ex, it may make the whole process easier.
Todd advises that we attempt to rebuild a connection with explicit intentionality. “Take your time, try to resist expectations of the other person(s) you may have once had while in relationship with them, and stay connected to your efforts to individuate.”
Boundaries are also very helpful markers when deciding whether maintaining the friendship is ultimately going to be healthy for you. An ex who steamrolls over your boundaries is not going to be a very good friend, and it’s important to notice that. Another thing to ask yourself: Does spending time with your ex make you feel shitty? Relationship researchers at the Gottman Institute note that a “healthy” relationship has five positive interactions to every negative one. We aren’t always our highest, most evolved selves when our hearts are broken, but generally speaking, your interactions should be pretty positive. If they aren’t, then that’s something to pay attention to.
That said, the biggest sign that you shouldn’t stay friends is simply: You don’t want to. You don’t need some long explanation, a therapist’s approval, or a particularly compelling tarot card reading to back you up. You only need the awareness that being friends with this person is not something you want or feel able to do.
That being said, do allow for some screw-ups. They’ll happen! It doesn’t mean you’re doomed or that you can’t “really” be friends. It likely means, as step number one advised, that you need more time to figure out how to be with this person in a way that feels good to both of you. Remember, also, that no relationship, even strictly platonic ones, are without their struggles. Revel in your extraordinary humanness, practice your boundary-making, and you’ll be well on your way to building a friendship that lasts.