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Being friends with your ex is difficult, but should you make it work?

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEXI LAPHOR

WORDS BY EVANGELINE POLYMENEAS

It’s tricky.

So you’ve broken up with your partner and have convinced yourself you can stay friends with them. Where do I even begin? 

Forging a friendship with your ex might help soften the blow of an inevitably heartbreaking separation, but what you’re probably doing is making your life a thousand times harder in the long run. 


Relationships are tough. Need something to take your mind off your love life? Head here.


If an ex suggests an innocent catch up over coffee, my response would almost always be a polite “No thank you.” Love is just as addictive as coffee, after all.

Some may call me a pessimist but I like to think of myself as proactive. We broke up for a reason, now, let me move on. 

Can you ever really fall out of love with someone? 

It’s the age-old question: can you truly fall out of love with someone you’ve been so completely head over heels for? This question plagues the minds of those entering relationships with people who still maintain friendships with their exes. Surely feelings are still there? If they aren’t, where did they go? 

Enlisting an expert seemed like the best way to answer this question, so I reached out to couple’s therapist Natalie King to find out if it’s truly possible to fall entirely out of love with someone.

“Definitely,” she says. “I think we grow and change and our needs and wants grow and change too. While we might have fallen in love with that person, in the beginning, if we have both changed, in ways where perhaps we’re not so attracted to them anymore or they’re not satisfying us anymore, that love can fade.” 

So if you can fall out of love with somebody, does that make it easier to be their friend? 

From relationship to the friendzone

I’ll admit, I’m a sceptic. How does one go from an intimate relationship to a platonic one? Something about that transition has always seemed off to me. Thankfully, Natalie is on the same page as me on this one. Well, kind of. Despite my doubts, apparently, it is possible. All it takes is time

“When you’ve been with someone for a year or more, you do tend to become embedded in their life,” Natalie says. “You’re thinking about them daily, so to stop doing that, you need some time away from them to kind of recalibrate and get your head around the fact that they aren’t your everyday go-to anymore.” 

Natalie says that she has “spoken to people who have [remained friends after a breakup] and have been able to do it really well”. So while it’s entirely possible, she emphasises that a seamless transition from lovers to friends takes not just time, but honesty.

Once you decide to end things, you need to take that all-important time apart to truly think about what you want, as this will allow you to approach a new version of your relationship in an honest, authentic way. 

Are you wanting a genuine friendship with this person, or are you trying to keep them around to win them back? Or perhaps you’re offering them your friendship as a consolation prize (while trying to allay the guilt you feel for breaking their heart). Before you reach out, you need to be sure you want this friendship for the right reasons. 

Being the pessimist that I am, I ask Natalie if it’s even worth pursuing this type of friendship. After a long sigh, she tells me that “It is worth it if it is going to bring you good things or something extra to your life. But if it is going to bring you more heartache or be an annoyance, then it isn’t worth it and you’re better off being more honest.”

She urges anyone in this position to ask themselves: “Am I just hanging onto our past relationship or do I think we can actually have a good, healthy friendship?” If you do decide to take the plunge into the unknown waters of platonic friendship with this person, be wary. Although it can be done, Natalie warns that “it’s very tricky business”. 

“You can fall back into old patterns, because [being with them] feel[s] really comfortable,” Natalie says. And, of course, it can be easy to just “jump [back] into bed together.” This can prolong the process of getting over them, or worse, cause it to come to a screeching halt. Before you know it, it’s goodbye hot girl summer.

It’s also important to note that there are certain situations, particularly those involving domestic violence, that not only make leaving a relationship much more difficult, but make the prospect of maintaining a friendship post-breakup a much more dangerous one.

Reach out to a professional or a close friend or loved one if you find yourself in this situation, as they can help you devise a safe escape plan and help protect you once you’ve left the relationship.

What does staying friends with your ex mean for your dating life? 

If your ex is sticking around it might act as a bit of a block, both emotionally and physically. It’s highly unlikely anyone is going to come up to you in a bar if they think the person next to you is your date or if you’re giving everybody around you the ‘I’m in a relationship’ vibe. So how do you ensure you’re still leaving yourself open to others?

“It depends on the kind of connection that you’re keeping with your ex and also the way that you broke up,” Natalie explains. If you broke up with your partner because ‘the timing just wasn’t right’ and you’re staying friends until you’re both ready for the relationship to pick back up, then the chances of you being open to other potential suitors are pretty low.

If you do end up meeting someone new, she says that you might “have it in the back of your mind that this won’t be [your] person but they will be fine for right now, and that’s not fair for that person that you’re inviting into your life.” 

On the other hand, if you were the one who was broken up with and you’re staying friends with your ex on the off chance they’ll get back with you, you’re not likely to be radiating ‘date me’ energy to others. And even if you don’t necessarily have an expectation yourself of rekindling things, for all you know, your ex might.

What staying friends with your ex can mean for your current or future partner 

So, you’ve stayed friends with your ex and you’ve found yourself a new partner. Life seems great, until your new partner makes it clear they aren’t so chill about your friendship with your ex. 

“It is very reasonable for that new partner to feel uncomfortable about it,” Natalie says. “Because, after all, you’ve shared a certain level of intimacy and connection with them which can understandably feel threatening to that new partner.” 

Even if you don’t see your ex in a sexual way anymore, Natalie says that “you did once and that can understandably be the cause of a little bit of anxiety for that new partner. They might question what you did once and whether or not you might fall back into that.”  

So what’s the best plan of attack here? According to Natalie, “If they have questions, give them the opportunity to ask those questions and really have a good open conversation together to give them the platform to express [themselves].” 

“Try and see if you can set those boundaries together that are fair for both of you. For example, it might be okay if [you both] stayed friends but it wouldn’t be [okay] if that person stayed over, even if they stayed in a separate room.” 

By giving your new partner a platform to have that conversation, you are showing them that you care and that you consider their feelings. It’s reinforcing that they’re actually the most important person to you. “That is what a new relationship is really,” says Natalie. “You’re saying ‘Well this is my new person and they’re now my number one’.” 

So, how do you make it work?

It’s a lot easier said than done. The dynamic you had in your romantic relationship is likely to continue in your friendship. If a lack of quality communication was the reason for your breakup, staying friends is not likely to work out for either of you because clear communication is essential in making an oftentimes complex friendship work.

Both of you need to be on the same page and if new partners come into the picture, they need to jump on that same page too. Both of you need to understand that as things change and shift in your lives, maintaining a connection with a former partner might no longer be a priority anymore.

If you can both accept that potential reality, then, by all means, give it a crack. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Still not sure what to do? Read this.

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