Sometimes, romantic relationships end with explosions. Sometimes, ties need to be severed completely. But sometimes, your ex-partner was once your best friend, someone whose influence on you is undeniable. After years of growing together and taking joy in their joy, it can feel impossible to let that friendship go, even if your romantic relationship wasn’t working. Sometimes, friendship is a goal you shouldn’t give up on.
“If you need to not be friends, and you need that space, that’s okay,” says Jesse Kahn, a psychotherapist and the founder, director, and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. “But that isn’t what you have to do because of what seems to be expected [by society].”
How you feel about friendship with an ex can depend on the culture of the community you surround yourself with. Heterosexual people often “conflate all different types of love at once, platonic, romantic, sexual,” says Marisa G. Franco, professor, speaker, and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, “so that you can’t cuddle with a friend without it seeming like it’s sexual.”
But the queer community is smaller. You often work with your ex, run in the same circles, or share the same chosen family. According to a 2002 study published in Communication Quarterly, members of the queer community often retain higher levels of interpersonal contact with exes and are more satisfied with the friendship than members of the straight community. This shows that “you don’t have to grieve all of these [types of relationships] at once,” Franco says. “You can retain platonic intimacy, which is part of a relationship, without romantic intimacy, without sexual intimacy.”
There are copious reasons to strive for friendship. Maybe you realized you are incompatible as partners but love discussing politics with each other. Maybe you have different goals in life but still enjoy playing tennis together. You may share kids or attend the same temple. It is possible to be emotionally in tune with someone or platonically drawn to them, even if the romance dwindled.
“If you’re trying to be friends with your ex, you have to think of it as a different relationship,” said Franco. “This isn’t us breaking up, continued.” When preparing to foster the new relationship, it’s important to go in with a plan.
Before friendship, take a break
Before transitioning into a friendship, it’s important to take some time, says Zoe Shaw, a psychotherapist and the host of the Stronger in the Difficult Places podcast. Fully processing the dissolution of your romantic relationship could take months or even years. You might need to unfollow your ex on social media, stop listening to music that triggers certain feelings, or avoid favorite spots you frequented together. Instead, lean into resources of emotional support, like existing friendships, family, and therapy.
After a cleansing period, if you are ready for the reset, you and your ex have to be on the same page as to what the friendship will look like. To help visualize what you want in a friendship, it can be valuable to think about how you relate to your other friends, says Kahn, because the expectations we have for how we engage with our friends can differ from person to person. Ask yourself how emotionally intimate you are with your friends. Are you comfortable with them touching you or are you big on personal space? How often do you see your friends in person: Weekly? Daily? Every couple months?
It’s important to establish clear boundaries. Will you discuss each other’s love lives at all? Is it okay to call each other, or are you just text buddies? Franco recommends setting rules about not visiting old haunts. “If we’re in a similar setting that we were in before,” she says, “we’ll tend to act similarly to the ways that we used to act in that setting.” Instead, create new memories in neutral spaces, whether that be museums, hiking trails, or children’s playgroups.
If the versions of friendship you are both envisioning do not line up, it might mean having a negotiation talk, or it might just mean a friendship can’t work between the two of you at that moment. And if at any time during the process you find yourself falling into old emotions or conflicts, you can always change your mind, says Elizabeth Earnshaw, a marriage and family therapist and the author of I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age. “It’s okay to say this isn’t working.”
Take time to process old wounds
According to a 2010 study in The Journal of Social Psychology, you are more likely to have a friendship if you had a nice breakup. Were you fair? Did you apologize? It all matters.
“Doing all of that reparative work at the time of breakup is what is going to make it easier when you want to be friends after the breakup,” Franco says. And even if the breakup wasn’t clean, it may not be too late to take responsibility.
Some people need to process old wounds before jumping into a friendship, and others just want to “move on and create something new,” says Kahn. What you don’t want to do is make believe that everything is okay when it’s not. “We don’t want to be like, ‘I’m cool as a cucumber,’ and I can let it go, but really you are someone who needs to process.”
When processing past events, it’s important for both parties to speak up about what they experienced in the relationship, and be straightforward about past hurts and feelings. With that approach, it will be easier to say what you need from your ex as a friend going forward.
Earnshaw recommends clearly stating to your ex, “I know that I’ve hurt you or I know I’m still resentful, can we sit down and talk about this?” and directly acknowledging that “I need to hear from you that you understand how [your actions] impacted me.”
Make your new partner the priority
In time, you and your ex may find yourselves getting involved with new romantic partners, and it’s important that everyone is on the same page and comfortable with your friendship.
Be empathetic to your new partner’s concerns, says Franco. “A lot of people have their triggers and insecurities, and trying to befriend your ex can certainly trigger those.” Instead of asking a binary question about if you can still be friends, ask your new partner what situations and contexts would make them feel secure.
“You can’t make your friend have a great relationship with your partner, but you do want to try to facilitate that as much as possible,” says Shaw. She suggests introducing new partners to exes you are friendly with as soon as possible because “the longer you wait, the more meaning you put on the relationship.” There should be no secrets about your history together.
Make your new partner your priority, and earn their trust by showing them that there is no competition. If they ask you to stop talking with your ex, you should, says Shaw. “More than likely, if you’re willing to give up the relationship you won’t have to,” she says, because showing that willingness will show your partner that they come first. Once they feel heard then they might be able to make space for your ex.
If your ex enters a new relationship, Franco recommends you have a conversation with your ex where you explain that you value their friendship but want to make sure their new partner feels safe. An ideal relationship between you and their new partner should look friendly and trusting. There shouldn’t be any feelings of threat.
Don’t shut out close friends
Establishing a friendship with an ex can trigger friends and family to voice alarm. If the person is not close to you, Earnshaw suggests giving a quick, distanced response, such as, “Thank you for your concern. We actually have a great friendship, and it’s something I feel good about.”
But if the person is someone you trust and someone who cares for you, it might be worth hearing them out. Are there valid reasons that they believe you should not befriend your ex, coming from a place of genuine concern?
She recommends telling them that you might not agree that the friendship’s a bad idea, but “would still really love to hear what your concerns are.” Listen to them. Maybe you should take their worries into account.
If you stand firm with the belief that you are making the right move, Earnshaw suggests replying to their fears by saying, “I totally get why you’d be concerned. I understand it’s not common for somebody to stay friends with their ex. I’m confident that if there’s a problem, I’ll be able to take care of myself. And I want you to be able to trust me on that.”
It’s okay to let go, too
No matter how much you want the friendship to thrive, you may find yourself stepping over your own boundaries or flooded with sadness every time you hang out. In many cases, it’s important to remember that you left the relationship for a reason, and those reasons may be toxic.
If you do need to halt the friendship, Franco recommends saying something like, “I know we’ve tried to build a friendship, but I just think it’s not necessarily working out for me.” Then allow yourself time to grieve.
But hopefully, your friendship will bloom. A sign of a healthy friendship is that you are no longer mourning the romantic relationship, says Franco. “You’re not bitter, you’re not resentful.” Instead, she says, you truly want what’s best for one another.
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