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A few years ago, I broke up with someone I had been seeing for about a year. Because of age differences and life circumstance, we agreed from the beginning that it was not a relationship that was going to “go somewhere,” but we genuinely liked each other. So when it ended I said, “Let’s still be friends.”

That did not happen. When I ran into him about a year ago, we were friendly and had a good time catching up, but that’s that. No, “Hey, let’s get together soon” or promises to go grab a bite or a drink or take a hike. I already have lots of friends I can do that with — do I really need to do that with a former lover?

I believe that former lovers, spouses and partners can be friends after the romantic relationship ends — I’m a big believer in Katherine Woodward Thomas’ conscious uncoupling, which promotes ending relationships as they began, with love, kindness and compassion — but I’m not sure that needs to happen.

So, outside of the friendly relationship I have with the father of my children — because that really matters — it hasn’t totally happened for me, nor have I actively sought to make it happen, although I have maintained contact and have been friendly with some former partners.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong about it, but I am curious — why do people want to remain friends with their former partners?

Seven ways to keep your (former) lover

According to a recent study, it falls into seven categories:

  • sentimentality  — “we shared a lot of good memories” or “they were supportive of my goals”
  • pragmatism  — “they were able to provide me transportation to places” or “they had attractive friends” (and hmm on that one!)
  • continued romantic attraction — “I still had feelings for them”
  • shared resources such as a child, pet or an apartment
  • diminished romantic feelings, which made it easier to keep things platonic
  • “social relationship maintenance,” such as keeping a friend group intact and minimizing drama

As the study’s authors note in previous research, while it isn’t necessarily rare to stay friends, it’s a lot harder to maintain a relationship with a former romantic partner than it is with a friend of the opposite sex (and even that is almost always suspect), and that men were more interested in maintaining friendships for practical reasons and — no surprise! — sexual access. A kind of friends with benefits thing until someone else comes along. Not every woman can do that without feeling diminished, although that often has more to do with societal messages than the way we really feel.

One social experience researcher suggests that it may not be a good idea to become friends with former partners because those friends tend to be “less emotionally supportive, less helpful, less trusting, and less concerned about the other person’s happiness. This is especially true, not surprisingly, for former partners who were dissatisfied with the romantic relationship, and in cases when the break-up was not mutual.” That doesn’t sound like a healthy friendship at all.

Check your motives

That said, it can work if — and this is a big if that you may want to explore — “neither of you has ulterior motives … and if your friendship doesn’t interfere with your current relationships.” But the study acknowledges that there often are ulterior motives; we’re human after all!

A more recent study broke the romantic-partner-to-friend relationship into just four reasons: security (wanting his/her emotional support, advice, trust); practical (shared kids, pets, friends); civility (not wanting to hurt feelings) and you’re still crushing on him or her. Interestingly, unresolved romantic desires led to more negative feelings about a former romantic partner, but longer friendships. Go figure!

I don’t think there’s any wrong or right answer but if you have a child with a former romantic partner, maintaining a good relationship is really important for the children especially, but that doesn’t mean you have to be friends — or even be friendly — although the later would certainly help. As for being friends with your former romantic partner’s other former romantic partners? Hmm, all I can say is, do I have to???

Are there compelling reasons to remain friends with all your former romantic partners? I’m not convinced. Are you?

Rather than consciously uncoupling, do you you want to learn how to consciously couple? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

3 Responses to “Must you be friends with your former romantic partner?”

  1. Jono says:

    I’m still friends with my high school girlfriend and another one from college. We write, text , or call occasionally. I haven’t seem the high school girlfriend in over 40 years and see the college girlfriend about once every 5 or 10 years. I’m sure there are some feelings still there other than friendship, but would not be acted upon on their part or mine. I think they are both wonderful people and am glad they are still in my life. I guess I’m just lucky.

  2. Sally says:

    Hi there
    Enjoyed your post and some wisdom in it but it reflected very much the dynamics in a heterosexual relationship. As a gay woman three of my dearest friendships are ex partners! This seems true of many lesbian women I know. Not without complications initially but once I love someone deeply, I will always love them. It’s that simple to me. In my view why would you lose someone just because I’m not sleeping with them? This takes a lot of trust and tolerance from current partner, but it works!

    I have lost good male friendships when they have split from my female friends as they don’t stay in touch with each other. It’s a shame that heterosexual men and women can’t work it out?!

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for writing, Sally, about same-sex lovers-to-friends situations. While there are many stories alluding to that, I couldn’t find any studies that addressed that directly and instead found articles that talked about “rumors” of that or that it’s “somewhat contested.” But, since you brought it up I was able to find one small study, quoted in the book Lesbian Ex-Lovers: The Really Long-Term Relationships, that addressed that, but, again, a small sample. That said, I’ll take your word for it!

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