How to Be Friends with an Ex, According to a Psychologist
Breaking up is hard to do, but it’s arguably even more difficult when you still really like the person or if you have a lot of friends in common. For this reason, we tapped a psychologist to get the full scoop on how to be friends with an ex (because yes, it's totally possible...sometimes). Here’s everything you need to know before you even attempt it.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Alyssa Roberts, PsyD., is a clinical psychologist at PracticalPie, an online resource for students and those interested in learning about psychology. In her work with individuals and families, Dr. Alyssa specializes in areas such as communication, conflict resolution, emotional regulation and attachment.
3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Exploring a Friendship with Your Ex
Why do you want to stay in contact with your ex-partner?
Per the expert, it’s important to do some soul-searching here and try to suss out your true motives before you dive into a friendship with a former romantic partner. The best and healthiest reason to pursue a friendship with an ex is because you actually enjoy the company of the other person and appreciate the platonic aspects of the relationship you shared.
Those aspects can be hard to parse from other complicated feelings, though, which is why Dr. Alyssa emphasizes that self-reflection is key to ensuring that you aren’t just entering a friendship because you have unresolved emotions or are struggling to adapt to daily life without the other person. (For what it’s worth, both those feelings are totally normal when you’re healing from a breakup—but they’re signs that the water is likely still too muddy for a successful friendship to take root, nevertheless.)
Are you emotionally prepared to maintain a friendship with your ex?
We touched on this already, but it bears repeating: “Unresolved feelings like hurt, resentment or jealousy are an indication that it might not be the best moment to attempt a friendship,” says Dr. Alyssa. And the same goes for lingering romantic feelings, too.
So if you squirm at the thought of your ex talking to you about another woman he’s been seeing or your blood begins to boil when you remember an argument you had five years ago, you’re probably better off taking some space to focus on yourself for now. After all, watching someone else move on when you aren’t quite there yet (be it because you’re seething with rage or full of longing) is just plain hard, and certainly not conducive to a carefree friendship.
On the other hand, a positive indication that friendship is in the cards would be if you have completely moved on to greener pastures yourself, or are otherwise feeling totally content with the single life and at peace with the past.
Have any of your current love partners heard you mention that you want to be friends with your ex?
“It's crucial to be open and truthful about your desire to maintain a friendship with an ex if you're currently dating someone,” says Dr. Alyssa. This is because a) their feelings should to be taken into account as well and b) if you’re reluctant to tell your new beau about the friendship, your motivation for pursuing it might not be in line with the aforementioned guidelines. Who you decide to be friends with is completely up to you, but transparency is critical if you don’t want your redefined relationship with an ex to sabotage your current romantic prospects.
9 Rules for Forming a Friendship with Your Ex
1. Establish Clear Limits
Things can get weird pretty fast in the early stages of friendship with an ex, which is why Dr. Alyssa recommends that you “set up clear guidelines for your friendship with regard to what behavior is and isn't acceptable” right out of the gate.
Is an arm around the shoulder when walking together too much? Should personal questions about your respective romantic lives remain off limits? Will this be a ‘watch movies together in your PJs’ kind of a friendship, or a ‘let’s catch up over coffee once a month’ kind of deal? Both parties should take some time to assess their comfort level and set boundaries accordingly. This will help ensure that you’re both on the same page and share similar expectations, thus minimizing the possibility of future conflict.
2. Take Your Time
Remember what we said about boundary setting? Well, the expert recommends that you take things slowly and carefully “to avoid setting off any lingering emotional reactions.” In other words, it’s often better to err on the side of caution until you’re both feeling right at home in the friend zone and then adjust the boundaries as you go, if need be.
3. Be Considerate
This one is kind of a no-brainer—it is, after all, just expected conduct in any friendship. Still, the basics are more likely to fall by the wayside in a friendship with a former romantic partner, so it’s particularly important to remember to “respect each other's sentiments and refrain from acting in a way that might offend or irritate the other,” says Dr. Alyssa. (Roger that.)
4. Leave the Past Where It Belongs
A clean slate mentality is the key to success when it comes to starting a friendship with an ex. Indeed, the expert advises that you “focus on developing a fresh platonic relationship rather than going over old romantic sentiments or disputes,” which will only lead you down a dead end road.
5. Don't Rely Solely on Your Ex for Emotional Support
It can be tempting to call up your ex whenever there’s a family drama, workplace injustice or even a disagreement in a new romantic relationship—you know each other so well, after all—but Dr. Alyssa tells us that it’s ill-advised to rely solely on your ex for emotional support. “Instead, seek assistance from other friends or a therapist,” says the expert. And again, this comes back to respecting boundaries and understanding that healthy friendships don’t involve putting all your eggs in one basket.
6. Respect One Another's Privacy
Whether or not you and your ex feel comfortable talking romance with one another is something the two of you can decide together. Still, Dr. Alyssa says it’s a good rule of thumb to “refrain from asking about one another's personal affairs or past relationships” under any circumstance—but particularly if the other person didn’t broach the subject and volunteer the information first.
7. Don’t Fall Back Into Old Behaviors
There’s a past precedent for romance, so it’s easy to slip into familiar gestures of affection without even realizing it and, regardless of your intentions, there’s a bigger possibility for misinterpretation when it comes to both body language and words in this context. As such, Dr. Alyssa advises that you “think carefully about how your ex might interpret your actions and behaviors when you’re spending time together, and steer clear of anything that might be seen as romantic or flirting” lest a big, awkward misunderstanding ensue.
8. Manage Your Own Expectations
It’s a noble thing to want to give friendship a try after a breakup, but Dr. Alyssa cautions that it’s important to keep your expectations in check. Per the expert, the best and most sensible approach is when both parties “understand that there is a chance the friendship won't last, and are ready to accept that outcome if it happens.” (Hint: Emotional preparedness means being in a good place to maintain a friendship, or walk away if necessary.)
9. Reevaluate Regularly
Needless to say, relationships evolve over time…and there’s a big difference between testing the platonic waters with an ex for the first time and maintaining a solid long-term friendship years down the road. For this reason, Dr. Alyssa recommends that you “check in with yourself and your ex on a regular basis to determine whether the friendship is still functioning and fulfilling both of your needs.”