Is it possible to stay friends with an ex partner?

As a relationship counsellor I am often asked whether I think it is possible to remain friends with a partner after the end of a relationship. It comes as no surprise to you I'm sure, that there is no simple answer to that question.

A break up or ending is rarely mutual, and even when it is, the individuals involved may have very different ideas about contact after things have ended.

The reasons for wanting contact or not wanting contact at all, also vary.

On most occasions, it does appear easier for the person who has ended the relationship to have contact again without the longing or heartache; mostly due to feelings having diminished to some degree. For the one who has been left however, it can be painful for that person who has had their heart broken and their life altered and there are several ways they might choose to behave after the ending.

  • Cutting offSome people will manage their pain by cutting the person off, and even going as far as destroying evidence of them, photos, presents and such like. It can give a sense of taking some form of control over the situation (although limited) or to avoid  reminders of the person they have lost. It can be  utterly painful to experience anything that provokes memories, especially straight after a break up and during the following months.

I will often discuss with clients that have been hurt, the dangers of inflicting extra pain upon themselves by looking at the ex's Facebook  for instance, or looking at photos from the past. 

It is of course normal to grieve, and a good cry or a good rant can be a release. Nevertheless, it is equally as important that they look after their own emotional well being by avoiding upsetting themselves further.

Losing someone you love is very similar to bereavement for most individuals, and you will go through all the stages of loss, especially if it has been a long term relationship. But I have to say, I have known and appreciate, that we all love to various degrees ad depths, and for some, even a short term relationship can hurt like hell when it ends. You know the relationships I mean, the 'soul mate' connection. I have promised I will do a whole article on that very subject one day.

  • 'Hanging on to hope '  is a fairly natural way to feel, just after an ending.  You just can't quite believe it is over?  You want to have another chance or you simply can't bare having no contact. Any contact however limited can feel better than none for some people.

It is very painful for most of us to see the person we are still in love with when we can no longer be with them. As time goes by it may become easier, especially if there is mutual like and respect. However, this it might have a better chance of a successful outcome, if you allow time for the dust to settle.

For the person ending the relationship, it is normally different but not without its pain. 

Relationships end for many reasons, falling out of love, poor behaviours of the other person, infidelity (on either side), incompatibility, domestic violence, sexual differences, boredom and the list goes on… 

Sometimes we get into a relationship and realise that it is not making us happy, we want different things or we are not suited on various levels. At some point we then have to decide whether we can compromise or need to move on. Some issues might seem too difficult to overcome.

Whatever the reason for the ending, there may also be deep respect and care for the other person that has been left.  I see this more frequently in long term relationships, where people truly feel they will miss the person they have shared so much of their life with. This is a very sad situation for all parties, especially where there are children involved.

As you can see, there are so many different scenarios regarding endings  that this equates to very different feelings about remaining in contact. 

For the 'leaver' that respects and cares for a former partner but has no sexual attraction or romantic feeling towards them, then they  can truly feel very distraught about never seeing their 'friend' again. 

For those people, it is possible they might wish to maintain a friendship. Of course, there are no guarantees that the other person will want the same.

Then there is the situation where a third party is involved. Why would you want to remain friends with someone who has cheated on you? Surely  no one would want that?
Well, some people do. For various reasons': to get the person back, to show off their new relationship, for the sake of the children, because they feel partly responsible for the breakdown of the relationship or because they are forgiving.

Maintaining a friendship or at least civility, is important if at all possible for the sake of the children. It is a valid and important reason to try and be friends or at least civil. Children deserve not to see the ugly side of relationship breakdown if at all possible. It is well documented that children appear to be hurt more by parents fighting, than by being parented separately. 

So yes, if it is possible…be friendly for the sake of the children!

UNLESS the relationship has been  dysfunctional or abusive for any reason. Then it is most likely the person will want to leave and run for the hills!

I would never advocate remaining in any form of friendship with an abusive person. The sooner you remove them from your life and start to heal the better!
You might well ask, 'when can it work then', being friends after things have ended?'.

It can work if the break up has been respectful, fair, and executed sensitively. 

Preferably after the dust has settled and the acute pain has subsided. It works well when the individuals like each other very much and respect each other.  It can also work if you truly want happiness for the other person and harbour no ill feeling.

Sometimes the break up is due to other factors other than the individuals not being in love or compatible, like illness, geography, family circumstance and even timing. Sometimes we do do not know  what we truly have until it has gone!

Sometimes it is no ones fault…just happenstance.

If you want to be friends with and ex, then do so if they want the same. Don't go there as a route to get back with them. Don't offer it as a way of relieving yourself of guilt if you are the 'leaver'. It  is little compensation to the person who has been left, if it is merely lip service.

Only offer friendship if you mean it… and be prepared to accept that if you have caused deep pain, the other person might find it too difficult to see you again.

Beware of the 'friends with benefits' scenario. If you have been left, don't ever think that by sleeping with your ex, post ending, that you have a greater chance of getting them back. This is nonsense and you could get hurt yet again. So many clients have sat with me wishing they had not done exactly that.  To see the person walk off into the distance for a second, sometimes third or even  more times, is devastating.  Why do that to yourself? One more sexual encounter cannot make the difference between a relationship breaking up or not.

So should you give friendship a chance? 
Can it really work?

Don't attempt it if:

  • You are 'hanging onto hope'
  • You are keeping your options open
  • It is painful
  • Or out of guilt

You could attempt it if:
  • If you have healed sufficiently to cope with the contact
  • You value the friendship
  • You make your boundaries and expectation clear 
  • It does not hurt anyone else
  • It adds to, rather than detracts from your own happiness
  • You 'BOTH' messed up first time around, but truly you are 'soul mates' and you BOTH know it.
  • For the children (with boundaries and self-care in place)
If you or your ex has moved on, and have a 'new love object', You then have to hope that any 'new partners' are secure enough to cope with the idea of being friends with an Ex. Now that a whole different story!

Copyright counselling in gloucestershire 2014