Should You Really “Stay Friends” After The Relationship is Over?

by Eharmony Editorial Team - May 17, 2018

"We broke up last night, but it was mutual and we're going to remain friends." REALLY? Why do we try to stay friends with an ex and is it ever a good idea?

Jerry Seinfeld wisely observed that breaking up with someone was like trying to tip over a soda machine. You can’t do it in one push. You have to get it rocking. Once it is moving and unstable, only then you can push it over. Or in other words: breaking up IS hard to do.

It is difficult to tell another person, ‘I don’t want a romantic relationship with you.’ Hearing it from someone else is clearly worse. There’s pain, tears, possibly even anger. It’s a dirty business. So often times, either as a way to soften the blow or out of sincere feelings of warmth, we commit to staying friends after a relationship ends.

From an intellectual level remaining friends may seem like a good idea. The logic usually goes, ‘I do like her as a person. We have fun together. We have good talks. I’m just not that into her romantically. I like having her in my life, so we should stop being romantic and just keep the friend part.’ Sounds good on paper, sure, but that’s not usually how it goes.

If both individuals are emotionally mature, and completely lacking in romantic feelings for each other, then a jump straight to the friend zone might be possible. However, this very rarely happens. Mutual breakups are usually not mutual, and the breakee is holding on to some strong romantic desires. The ever present danger for these types of friendships is a backslide. One night you’re out as friends, you have a couple of drinks, somebody leans in too close, and BAM! It’s just like you never broke up. Only this situation is much more confusing, hurtful, and sad.

So if you’re asking ‘should I stay friends with my ex’?—consider these tips and words of wisdom before answering:

Is it hard to turn off the romantic feelings?

You see it in the paper every day. Someone throws away a prominent career because they have fallen in love (or lust) with someone they shouldn’t. This person knows that it is a bad idea, but controlling our emotions in this way takes a discipline that most folks can’t muster. If you’ve ever been dumped, and agreed to staying friends after a relationship ends, you know deep down inside you still want to get back together. Even if you don’t want to…you want to. Each time you get together as friends you’re hoping and praying that you’ll end up in each other’s arms. You may even subtly be pushing things in that direction.

If you did the dumping, the knowledge that this person—this new friend—would love to kiss you will always be in the back of your mind waiting for the right moment to lead you exactly where you don’t want to go. You’re not asking ‘should I stay friends with an ex’?—but rather, ‘how long can I keep them in my back pocket’? Neither of these situations are fair.

Are you feeling mixed messages?

Friends do things for each other. They call when you’re sick. They take you out when you’ve had a bad day. They give you a gift on your birthday. It is very easy to get mixed signals in the midst of all this kindness, love, and support. That’s why staying friends after a relationship ends is tricky: It’s easy to wonder if feelings have changed. If there is some spark underneath all that effort. ‘Would she really come over and cook me dinner if she didn’t love me and want to be with me?’ you might ask.

Keeping it all straight can be a full-time job, and a single misinterpretation could lead to the backslide.

Are you—or the other person—remaining hopeful?

One of the worst things that can happen to your dating life is getting hung up on someone who doesn’t love you. You pine, and they move on. Each new person that comes your way and expresses interest is swiftly blown off, because you are desperately hoping you can rekindle the flame with your ex.

In a situation where both people part ways and don’t see each other again this can be a problem. Your memories may haunt you, and make it difficult to find someone new. But imagine the likelihood of this happening if you’re still seeing the person regularly. You can’t meet someone new because your old love is still in your life—hanging around being your pal and reminding you how great they are. If you have any sort of hope left in your heart (and be honest)—don’t wonder ‘should I stay friends with an ex’ and instead, strategize how you’re going to move forward.

Can you take a cooling off period?

There is almost no way that a human being can go from being romantically attracted to someone to being just friends in a short period of time. If you’ve figured out how to do it—let us know so we can share the wisdom! Emotions aren’t switches that get flipped on and off. The old saying is that it takes half the length of the relationship to get over the relationship. So, a six-month romance requires a three-month healing period. Staying friends after a relationship ends shouldn’t even be a consideration until you’ve given it space.

It’s impossible to be that precise with feelings but as a general rule – wait six months before trying to form a friendship. That means six months without phone calls, emails, and ‘how you doing?’ texts. It’s six months where you are completely out of each other’s lives so that new relationships and new feelings can grow. If after that period of time, you still want to create a friendship with your old flame, you can start doing the groundwork—but tread carefully.

Can you stay away from one another’s bedrooms?

Attraction is a funny thing. Sometimes it just never dies. You may attend a 30-year high school reunion, see an old boyfriend, and have the same giddy feeling you did as a 16-year old. This nature of attraction must always be kept in mind and respected. Let’s say you wait six months and now you’re ready to approach staying friends after a relationship ends. Here’s your risk factor, based on location:

1. Group of Friends Attending a Football Game, 12pm – Low Risk
2. Just the two of you at Starbucks. 1pm – Low Risk
3. Dinner with friends, 6pm – Medium Risk
4. After work cocktails, 6pm – High Risk
5. Late night drink, 10pm – Backslide Dead Ahead!

In fact, unless you’re meeting each other with new romantic partners in tow, alcohol is a tremendous risk factor. You both need the judgment and restraint that comes with sobriety.

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Can you change the dynamic?

Part of considering ‘should I stay friends with an ex’ is figuring out if you can see them in a new light. Opposite sex friends need clear boundaries—especially if they are involved in romantic relationships with other people. There are things about your interaction that need to change if you’re going to be friends. For example, lovers often talk about very intimate feelings. Opposite sex friends who don’t want to end up as lovers avoid these topics. There has to be a re-thinking of the ways that you interact.

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This extends to your body language as well. Women often have a remarkable ability to tell if two people have had a romantic past. They observe the body language of these two people as they greet each other and talk; and they can predict with high accuracy whether they had a relationship together. They are very keenly observing the familiarity that two people with a sexual past have for each other—a kind of diminished personal space that regular good friends don’t have. If you want to be friends with an ex, this is another area where you’ll need to consciously work to reconsider your habits.

Also, there are certain scenarios where it is possible to have a friendship post-love affair: Say you pretty much grew up together—and then sort-of outgrew each other. You both agreed it was time to part ways, so the breakup was mutual. You took time to develop some independence and are both dating other people. Making staying friends after a relationship ends a reality? In this instance, the main reason it is possible to forge a new friendship. Just make sure your new partner is okay with the relationship as well, as it is important to consider their feelings.

Staying friends after a relationship ends—is it a good idea? There is no definitive answer to this question. Just remember that building a friendship after a relationship is work. It isn’t some easy lower gear you just shift in to. Before you say, “let stay friends” consider if it’s what you really want, and whether it is worth the possible risks.