Can You Be Friends With Your Ex? Expert Tips & Everything To Consider
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
If your relationship ends on good terms, it's perfectly reasonable to wonder if it's possible to be friends with your ex. After all, this person is likely someone you genuinely like and enjoy spending time with, as well as someone with whom you probably have shared experiences, ideas, values, and interests. To give up all of that just because you realized a romantic relationship won't work between you two may very well feel like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So let's talk about how to be friends with your ex—and when it does and doesn't work.
Is it a good idea to be friends with your ex?
Yes, it's absolutely possible to be friends with your ex. Whether it's a good idea will depend on the situation and the people involved. Some people are able to have healthy, positive relationships with their exes without any difficulty or complications, whereas others find that trying to stay friends ends up being unnecessarily messy or even painful.
According to licensed marriage therapist Weena Cullins, LCMFT, sometimes two people find they don't work as romantic partners, but there are aspects of their relationship that are still valuable and can be healthily maintained through a friendship.
"Being friends with your ex can be a good idea when other aspects of the relationship were valuable to your growth, development, or life goals," she explains. "If you and your ex identify that you make better business partners, workout buddies, or friends, and you are able to maintain healthy boundaries with each other, then creating an authentic friendship could work."
She adds that it can be especially beneficial if you and your ex have children together. Though she says friendships aren't necessary for successful co-parenting, it may create an easier environment for both the parents and the kids. "It can also provide increased flexibility with managing schedules, discipline issues, and the general flow of information."
That said, being friends with an ex can sometimes make it harder to successfully move on from the relationship if there are still lingering romantic feelings for each other or if tension arises when you both start dating other people.
When you can stay friends with an ex:
- You've taken time to process and accept the end of the romantic relationship.
- You both have accepted that the relationship is really over (and understand why it happened).
- You feel like you have emotionally moved on from the relationship, and your ex has, too.
- You no longer have romantic feelings for each other or want to be in a romantic relationship.
- Your relationship to each other no longer feels emotionally charged; it feels similar energetically to your other friendships.
- Both you and your ex can spend time together without it feeling painful, tense, distracting, or inappropriately intimate.
- You no longer feel attached to, dependent on, or "partnered" with one another. You both have fully separate, independent, private lives.
- You're both able to maintain appropriate boundaries and manage nostalgic feelings that may come up without falling fully into them.
- You both feel totally comfortable and happy dating other people, and you authentically want that for each other, too.
- You have kids together or are in each other's social or professional orbits in some way, and you need to maintain some level of interaction with each other.
- The friendship adds something positive to both of your lives, whether that's fun, companionship, collaboration, or practicality.
When to cut ties:
- You're secretly hoping you'll get back together.
- You still have romantic feelings for your ex, and you're having trouble moving on.
- You sense (or know) that your ex is not fully over you.
- You're holding on because you can't imagine dating anyone else or having as strong a connection with anyone else ever again.
- You're holding on because you are scared or unwilling to untangle your lives from one another and start to live independently.
- You're holding on because you feel guilty for ending the relationship or feel like you "owe" them your attention in some way.
- Your ex is occupying your time, energy, or headspace, and it's affecting your ability to date other people or be present in other parts of your life.
- The idea of them dating someone else makes you feel jealous, uneasy, or upset.
- Talking to them or spending time together feels painful, tense, distracting, or inappropriately intimate.
- The friendship feels one-sided, draining, or otherwise unhealthy.
- You're having trouble maintaining boundaries and keep slipping into old habits from when you were dating.
- It just doesn't feel good being friends with them.
Remember, just because you decide to go no-contact for the time being doesn't mean you can't still care about each other and eventually come together again in the future to nurture a new friendship. Sometimes you just need a little space first.
Can you be friends with an ex you still love?
It's hard to be friends with an ex you still love, but it's possible. For some people, love isn't something that they ever really "take back," even after a romantic relationship has ended. They may continue to love and care deeply about their former partners, though those feelings are no longer tied up with wanting to continue dating. As long as you wholeheartedly accept that the relationship is over and are actively moving on with your life, you can still maintain a friendship with an ex you love.
That said, if the love you have for your ex still feels intense, hot, emotional, or wistful, staying friends may make it hard for you to let go of the relationship and fully move on.
How long should you wait after the breakup?
There's no set timeline for how long it takes to get over a breakup. For some people, it takes just a few weeks or months, while for others, it can take years. It's important for both people to feel like they've moved on—or are in the process of doing so successfully—before trying to be friends. The friendship shouldn't hinder either person's ability to move on; if it is, it's likely too soon to be in contact.
Setting boundaries with your ex.
It's important to set boundaries with your ex, whether or not you intend to stay friends. Those boundaries may include physical, emotional, time, or energetic boundaries. It's up to each of you to decide what boundaries you need in place to be able to stay friends without it becoming messy, painful, or sliding back into romantic territory.
You may want to consider:
- How often you communicate with each other
- How much you emotionally rely on each other
- How much information you share about your personal lives
- Whether you're going to share information about your dating lives or new partners
- Whether you feel comfortable spending time alone together or prefer group hangouts only
- What level of friendliness is comfortable when you see each other in person
- How much time or energy you each expect from one another
As for physical boundaries, some people feel fine with sharing physical intimacy with their exes—including having casual sex—but that varies widely depending on the people and the context. Cullins warns that having a sexual relationship with an ex often blurs the lines dramatically, but it is possible if you both come to an agreement to be friends with benefits with truly no expectations or strings attached.
The key, says Cullins, is making sure that any relationship you have with your ex isn't getting in the way of your ability to move on and (if it's what you want) potentially connect with other people.
"If you discover that you or your ex are unable to maintain boundaries with each other, then you should cut ties," Cullins says. "If you truly want to move on and find that your ex is still occupying the romantic space that your future partner should have access to, then it's a good idea to cut things off completely with your ex."
Tips for making it work:
1. Give it time.
Don't try to rush into a friendship you're not ready for. You'll probably need at least a little time and space immediately after the breakup before you can start trying to be friends with your ex. "There has to be enough distance between the old romantic partnership and the new friendship you are trying to build," Cullins explains.
2. Make sure you're actually over each other.
The key to making a friendship with an ex work is making sure you're both actually over each other. Pay attention to how you feel when you're around your ex—is the energy charged or tense? Is there a certain pull or attraction between you? Are you feeling a rush of butterflies or a wash of sadness when you see their name appear in your texts? Does the idea of them dating someone new fill you with dread? Those are all signs that there may still be feelings there.
Likewise, make sure you're taking seriously any mixed signals or signs that your ex is pretending to be over you. As licensed therapist Ken Page, LCSW, recently told mbg, sometimes people lie to their exes—or to themselves—about how "OK" they are with the breakup, in part because they're just trying to rush the process of moving on. "We want to be resilient," he explains, but it's important to be emotionally honest with ourselves about where we truly are in the stages of getting over a breakup.
3. Make sure your relationship is truly different now that you're not dating.
"Many exes make the mistake of letting the friendship resemble the romantic relationship too closely. This usually doesn't work in the long run," Cullins says.
Your friendship should not be identical to your former relationship. There should be differences in your dynamic in terms of how integrated your lives are, how much you rely on each other, and how much intimacy you share. If your relationship is pretty much the same as before you broke up, then did you actually break up? Remember: Relationships without labels are still relationships.
4. Only engage as much as it feels good for both of you.
Friendships should feel good. There's no reason to maintain a friendship with your ex if it isn't actually serving you or adding something positive to your life. If the main feeling you feel whenever you interact with your ex is dread, exhaustion, heartache, or just confusion, you don't need to continue going along with it just because they're your ex. (And an ex who keeps reappearing in your life and drawing you back into their orbit against your will is hoovering you—and that's grounds for just totally cutting things off.)
5. Accept when you need more space.
While it's definitely possible for exes to be friends, for some people and some situations it just doesn't work.
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"Be objective about any cues you notice that indicate that a friendship isn't possible," Cullins says. "For example, if one or both of you become jealous when the other begins dating someone new, then there may not be enough separation between the old relationship and the friendship."
It's OK to decide you need to take a step back if you realize that it's too emotionally complicated to maintain a friendship with your ex. You can gently explain that you'd like to take some more time and space, whether for now or for the foreseeable future. You can wish each other well and express that you care about your ex, even as you name your need for space and end the friendship.
And remember, even if you're not actively staying "friends" per se, you can still—and should—be cordial and kind to one another anytime your paths do cross. You don't need to actively maintain a friendship with one another to still be caring toward each other.