Remaining Friends with an Ex: The Research is in!

eHarmony researcher Christine Pilcher explores the whole idea of staying friends with an ex. According to research, it might not be the most rewarding decision!

Those four little words that you have been dreading just spilled out of your partner’s mouth: Let’s. Just. Be. Friends. Although you are heartbroken, you ask yourself, “A friendship would be better than nothing, right?” Maybe. Maybe not. The answer to this is not so black and white.

Remaining friends after a breakup is quite prevalent. Common reasons for staying friends include:

– Convenience and necessity (e.g., working together or having the same circle of friends)
– Not wanting to give up the friendship they once had
– The hope of becoming romantically involved again

In fact, ex-partners are more likely to be friends after a breakup if they were friends before the relationship became romantic, and if the romantic relationship was perceived as satisfying and lacking conflict. This makes sense considering they know what it is like to be friends without being romantic, and such knowledge likely makes the transition from lovers to friends less rocky.

The chance of staying friends also increases if the friendship is supported by other people in the ex-couple’s social circle (particularly family members, friends, and/or a new romantic partner). Additionally, if the breakup was mutual or if the male initiated the breakup it is more likely that a friendship will emerge post-romance. However, others argue that remaining friends after a breakup has more to do with the communication strategy used to breakup (e.g., was it hostile or was it civil?) as opposed to who initiated it.

But what about the quality of the friendship? In one study that compared ex-romantic male-female friendships versus strictly platonic male-female friendships, ex-lovers reported an overall lower quality of friendship. Ex-lovers were less likely to give emotional support, less likely to trust and confide in one another, less likely to share good news, less likely to stand up for one another in absence of the other, less likely to volunteer help in time of need, and less likely to strive to make the other happy.

Closeness of a friendship is often dependent on whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs. The more benefits perceived by the friendship (e.g., having fun, feeling intellectually stimulated, and being emotionally supported), the closer the friendship will become. Conversely, the more costs perceived by the friendship (e.g., feeling bored, irritated, neglected, or disengaged), the more distant the friendship will become and the more likely it is to eventually dissolve. Research shows that most people perceive greater benefit and less cost in their platonic friendships than their ex-love friendships, and thus consider their platonic friendships to be closer, more satisfying, and less casual.

So, if ex-love friendships are shown to be less satisfying and more costly, is it worth keeping them around for sheer convenience, the desire to maintain the friendship, or the hope of rekindling the romance? What do you think?

Further Reading:

Bullock, M., Hackathorn, J., Clark, E., & Mattingly, B. (2011). Can We Be (and Stay) Friends? Remaining Friends After Dissolution of a Romantic Relationship The Journal of Social Psychology, 151 (5), 662-666 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2010.522624

Busboom, A., Collins, D., Givertz, M., & Levin, L. (2002). Can we still be friends? Resources and barriers to friendship quality after romantic relationship dissolution Personal Relationships, 9 (2), 215-223 DOI: 10.1111/1475-6811.00014

Schneider, C., & Kenny, D. (2000). Cross-Sex Friends Who were Once Romantic Partners: Are they Platonic Friends Now? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17 (3), 451-466 DOI: 10.1177/0265407500173007

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