Relationships ebb and flow; it’s normal for even “successful” relationships with people we truly love to not last forever. Sometimes, the best thing for everyone involved is to let things go and make a clean break, wishing the other person the best from afar (or not!) and moving on with your separate lives. Other times, though, it feels like there may be a continued place for this person in our lives even if we aren’t dating. It can be difficult, but definitely isn’t impossible for an ex to remain in your life in a different capacity; over time, to even be more of a friend to us than an ex.
There are still plenty of potential pitfalls in getting there, though: jealousy, resentment, unresolved relationship issues, plus the same challenges that even our most platonic friendships have. How do you navigate them? While there’s no guarantee when it comes to staying friends with your ex, here’s what I recommend to set yourself up for success.
Ask yourself why you want to be friends with your ex
Before you dive in and start getting your hands dirty, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about where you’re coming from on this. Looking deep into your heart of hearts, including the feelings you aren’t proud of or would prefer not to feel: do you miss your ex and want to spend more time with them because it’s hard to be apart? Do you want to prove to them (or yourself) that you’re totally over it? Do you resent them and want to be the one who cares less to “win” the breakup? Do you want to stay in their life to see if they’re hurting, or who they’re dating? Does it feel like you “should” stay friends with your exes?
It’s extremely normal to feel any or all of these things. Noticing some of them come up doesn’t mean there’s something wrong or that you need to feel guilty; it doesn’t even necessarily mean you can’t be friends with your ex. If it feels like these feelings are overwhelmingly present — especially if you just broke up in the past few weeks or months — it might mean you need more time. But it’s normal to feel some of these things to some degree and still decide to work through them to pursue a friendship that could be important to you. Most importantly: are there other reasons, aligned with your values and emotional needs, you want to be friends with your ex? When difficult feelings come up as you work on this friendship, keep those reasons in mind.
Let yourself take a break
No matter how motivated you are to move toward friendship, the best thing you can do to make it more likely to occur is to give you (and your ex) a chance to cool off and grieve the end of the romantic relationship before moving on immediately. Our emotions operate pretty separately from our rational brains; even if we know intellectually that the relationship needed to end, our emotional centers will still spend a long time experiencing the breakup relative to our attachment blueprints — as a rejection, abandonment, or a different kind of harm. It’s important to give yourself time to process and let go of that emotional story before you try to move on into friendship, or you may end up sabotaging your attempts at friendship with passive aggression or a rehashing of your breakup.
It’s okay to acknowledge this space with your ex openly – maybe you can agree to take three, six, or nine months without contact and then reach out via a less disruptive method of communication, like text, to see if either or both of you need more time.
Start from the beginning
Once you and your ex both feel like enough time has passed that you’re comfortable trying to share space, it’s important to be intentional about how you approach the process. Think about how you pursue a friendship with an acquaintance at work or school who you’d like to become closer to. You’d likely start with low-stakes, casual hangouts that let you chat but don’t revolve around sharing too deeply: going to the movies, grabbing a quick coffee, or checking out a local event together.
This is the same level of together time that works best for the fragile state of a new friendship where there was once a romantic relationship. Getting too emotionally intimate too fast can feel a lot like you’re dating again, and end up being confusing and distressing for both of you; it can also lead to unintentionally wading back into the same issues that caused your breakup.
Instead, treat this like a new, budding friendship with a new person — because it is. You and your ex will likely both behave a little differently as friends than you did as romantic partners and the dynamics of your relationship, once it’s settled into friendship, will be different than they once were. It’s key to give those dynamics time to develop organically and avoid the temptation to fall back into familiar relational rhythms.
Be intentional about other partners
Even if it wasn’t why you broke up, eventually, you and your ex will date other people. It’s worth thinking about how you’ll want to approach this before it happens. Do you want your ex to give you a heads up if they’re dating someone? If it’s starting to get serious? Do you want to set boundaries that you aren’t available to be the friend who processes their romantic issues with them?
When you date someone new, what will it mean to still be friends with your ex? Is this something you want to bring up to potential dates? How will you respond if someone you’re seeing doesn’t feel comfortable with it? How do you foresee this friendship fitting in with the rest of your friendships and social circle? You don’t have to have answers to all these questions right now, but they’re worth thinking about as things develop.
Let things take their course
Although these tips can help things flow as smoothly as possible, at some point, the contours of this new friendship are up to you. Like all friendships, it will likely have its quirks and surprises; you may find that there are some activities or shared interests from your romantic relationship you can still comfortably enjoy together, or may find that your friendship has a completely different shape than you would have imagined. Don’t try to overthink it; as long as you and your new friend are both comfortable and fulfilled by it, it’s best to let this new dynamic take on a life of its own.