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How to Tell If You Are Really Ready to Be Friends with the Ex

Ever broken up, only to realize you really missed the friendship you and your ex shared? A common reaction is to try to maintain the friendship during or right after the breakup.

As ‘Vanessa’ wrote, “I ended it with the guy I was seeing. I did it because I started thinking about what you said about BTN’s (better-than-nothings) ruining self-esteem, and then something you posted online about necessary endings cinched it. The way you worded it sounded like breakups were just something that was part of the larger picture in being kind to ourselves, even if the short term felt crummy. It was hard to do but I’m proud of myself. Now I’m trying to figure out – is it best to break all contact or is it possible to stay ‘friends?’ And if friends, I didn’t plan on seeing him but we did write each other all day long, so that needs to go, right? Sigh.”

BTN’s, Susan Page’s term for better-than-nothings, are the dead-end relationships, the emotionally absent partners, the people who’ll never be into us, the friends who can’t be more; the almost-but-not-quites.

I understand the desire to keep the ex in your life. It’s really hard to let go of someone who meets some of your needs. Plus, this person means something to you, or you wouldn’t have them around at all.

And opposite-sex friendships have a lot to offer. Dr. April Blesky’s research on why heterosexual men and women value one another as friends more than justified the phenomenon. Her participants revealed that opposite-sex friendships were a win for everyone, giving us someone to respect and speak openly with, someone to go get dinner with, someone to lift our self-esteem, someone to feel good about when we help them, and someone to give us insider information about the opposite sex—advice they didn’t think a same-sex peer could provide as well.

But keeping a friendship during and immediately after a break-up smacks of a continued, modified BTN. This person is not just a friend; not only is there a romantic and possibly sexual history, but there’s been no recovery from the breakup, no time to mourn the loss. The emotional tie is still too present—still too prone to suck you back in, or keep you from seeing others. One man I interviewed, ‘Kevin,’ spoke for many when he admitted that if he and his ex, ‘Sheila,’ maintained a friendship, he’d feel like he was cheating on her if he began seeing someone else. That’s the opposite of what he needs in order to find Ms. Right.

And Vanessa was right to put the term “friends” in quotes, as if she already knows it’s not going to be a platonic relationship. Dr. Blesky found that even if a friendship had *never* been more, about half the guys were hoping it would turn sexual.

When I blogged on the topic of platonic opposite-sex friendships, the comments echoed Dr. Blesky’s findings: Men were far more open to including intimacy in these relationships, whereas the few women who mentioned it said they wanted to avoid it.

Maintaining a friendship with someone you have been emotionally and/or sexually involved with is keeping the door open, at least a crack. And that’s a distractor and demotivator. Let it go.

Break The Addiction: Quit Cold-Turkey

A related problem with these friendships in general has to do with dopamine—one of the biochemicals that helps us fall in love.

If you wonder why men have an especially tough time with the just-friends arrangement, look to male biology. As much science has shown, men’s genes want a partner who will make babies with only them. What better way to ensure fidelity than to fall madly for She Who Is Hard To Get—the elusive “friend?” Men’s brains are wired to develop addictions to women who make guys wait. The longer the chase, the more dopamine is released; the higher he gets, the harder he falls.

Regardless of whether you’re male or female, though, “friendship” BTN’s can keep us off the mating market because we’re hooked on our wrong partner. Love is not like a drug; drugs are like love, mimicking the natural biochemicals that get us high on someone else so we can form a sustainable bond. And the BTN is your drug and dealer—someone who, over time, you’ve come to have a dependence on.

As with drugs, you’re best off quitting cold-turkey. No friendship, no contact, no phone calls, no emails, no texts, no notes, no accidental-on-purpose meetings, no messages through other friends, no nothing. Anything more than that strings out the addiction, adding to your pain when what you need is a total break.

How long? Don’t communicate again until you would feel okay if you ran into your BTN in public and they were kissing someone else. 

That’s not a litmus test quickly or easily met; it might never happen. But think of it this way. If you were quitting heroin, and you stopped for a month and then shot up just once, what would occur? Yep, and the same would happen if you quit a BTN for only a month. The drug drip resumes, the attachment roars back to life, and the BTN lingers.

I wish I had an easier solution, but there is no easy way to lose someone you love—or even someone you don’t love, but you’ve grown attached to at some level

All the other ways are harder, less effective, and more emotionally wasteful than cold-turkey. Ex’s, even in the guise of friendships, draw out the connection, the pain, and at some level, the pseudo-commitment.

To be totally open to finding the right one, you need to be totally done with seeing the wrong one.

Quit the ex; find LoveFactually-Final-Coveryour future.


Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, available now.  This is a partial excerpt, copyrighted by the author.  You can get a free chapter and more here.