What It Really Means if You Can Stay Friends with Your Ex
There's a quote you might have seen floating around social media: "'We can still be friends' is like saying 'The dog died, but we can still keep it.'"
For a lot of us, that's a pretty popular sentiment. The data varies, but numerous surveys point to the fact that most of us don't stay friends with our exes post-breakup. Once something is over, it can be painful to have constant reminders of what used to be. For some of us, the remaining digital and emotional ties only encourage our most obsessive, Facebook-stalking behaviors.
And yet, for those navigating the murky waters of staying in touch with an ex, it's actually a great sign. Those who can stay friends with a former love are the most mature, satisfied partners among us — and the ones coming from romances that were built on real friendship.
Friends above all else: The basis of the romantic relationship makes a huge difference as to whether you can stay friends. A 2002 study in the journal Personal Relationships found that college students were most likely to remain friends with their exes not only if the relationship ended on a pleasant note, but also if they had a large support system around them.
Think about it: If you're surreptitiously texting your ex under the table to avoid your friends' admonishing looks, chances are the connection is an unhealthy one. Above the table, and you're probably being more honest about why you really want to keep your ex around — and your friends will totally approve.
The best-case scenario is when the relationship itself was built on a solid friendship. One study found that a common predictor of a post-breakup friendship was being friends before the beginning, regardless of who did the dumping (yes, the whole Rachel and Ross situation). In these cases, exes are already comfortable with strictly platonic terrain.
For Abby, a brief romantic relationship with a friend felt more like "a two-month physical interlude to our wonderful friendship," she told Mic.* The two had dated after six months of being friends, only to realize their chemistry didn't quite translate to romance. "Since we were already friends, I didn't feel that weird about sending that first 'What are you up to tonight?' text. It just felt like old times," Abby said.
Having been friends first isn't necessarily a requirement, but a foundation outside of sex or romance is. A 2010 study found that the more satisfied couples were during a relationship, the more likely they were to remain friends. While a satisfying relationship might prompt "Why aren't you guys still together?" questions, exes we truly enjoyed are more likely to stay our friends because our understanding of that person might be more important than the romance that once was.
Getting to keep the best parts: If the anger and hurt can be overcome, there's great comfort in keeping an ex in your life. Perhaps your ex is the only one who can truly nail a Dave Chappelle impression or the only one who understands just how accomplished you felt when you got your first raise.
For Meg, her four-year relationship with Thomas ended on a mutually happy note. The two had simply fallen out of love. Five years after their breakup, Meg says they talk on the phone at least once every two months and attempt in-person visits about once a year. "Friendship with Thomas is like scratching an old itch. We have inside jokes, memories and shared experiences that no one else can touch," Meg told Mic.
"When I called Thomas to ask what he thought about me moving to California, he already knew, understood and related to my aspirations, my history of interest in California and how I felt about my current boyfriend but how I valued my freedom more," said Meg. "Because he already knew these things, we could start the conversation much further in to the story."
Respecting the person, without the relationship: Ideally, staying friends with our exes means honoring the time we spent getting to know a person we still respect and feel close to. "Exes understand you in a way that others don't because they've been there and done that with you," said Laurie Davis, founder of eFlirt and author of Love @ First Click, to Mic.
That can be difficult to do. Take Elaine and Jerry from Seinfeld, who realized the choice they had to make between sex or friendship. Coming to clearly defined terms, especially physical ones, is the only way to keep an ex from turning into a cyclical relationship.
It can also involve defining social media boundaries. "Defriending can create that separation because when you're ready to reconnect and just be friends, they'll need to opt in too," Davis said.
But after defining those boundaries, you can move on in a wonderful way.
"I couldn't imagine being that connected and entwined with someone and just completely pushing them out of my life," Blake, now married, told Mic. "That doesn't mean things didn't get hard, but we were all decent human beings. Timing or other things brought our romances to a close, not the connection."
A truly healthy friendship with an ex — one in which new partners are fully involved and all friendships are disclosed — is not only a great sign that you've emotionally evolved past the breakup. It means the relationship itself was a supremely mature one, built on mutual respect and closeness. It means that despite the relationship's end, it was the kind worth repeating in the future.
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.