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Recently, as I listened to yet another friend discuss a text exchange with an old boyfriend, I wondered about the pros and cons of being friends with an ex. Can it possibly be healthy? Does it keep people from moving on? Will a friendship with an ex poison a new relationship? For insights and advice on the subject, I turned to experts.
As I expected, they agreed that being friends with an ex while in a relationship can be tricky — but it doesn’t have to be. “It can be healthy to stay friends with your ex while pursuing other relationships,” says Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a Lovehoney expert, “but it depends on your reasons for doing so.”
“Research finds that there are a lot of different reasons for maintaining friendships with exes,” Dr. Lehmiller explains. “For example, some do so because they have shared children, work in the same office or mingle in the same social networks and therefore stay friends for pragmatic reasons — they don’t want the breakup to cause awkwardness or problems in other relationships. Others do so because, despite a loss of romantic attraction, they still enjoy each other’s company and want to stay in one another’s lives.
“Where things tend to get complicated is when you still have attraction or unresolved feelings for your ex,” he continues. “In that case, staying friends can potentially open the door to jealousy, conflict, infidelity or even breakups.” According to Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist, speaker and author of Date Smart, “It’s easy to compare an ex with a new partner, which can diminish the connection with a new partner. Since memories of former partners are often skewed far to the positive, this can be very destructive to the new relationship.”
“Even if there are no feelings left, it’s important to consider the feelings of your current partner,” says Rachel DeAlto, Match’s Chief Dating Expert. “If it makes them uncomfortable in any way, even if it’s likely rooted in insecurity, I’d recommend not engaging. Even with the best intentions, it can lead to fissures in your relationship if they’ve expressed their issues with it.”
As the following stories show, determining whether these friendships can be healthy or harmful depends on your relationships with your ex and your current partner and on your current partner’s feelings.
It’s All About the Kids
Twenty years ago, Ken Sugarman, a civil litigation attorney, and matchmaker, Bonnie Winston, both of New York City, were on their second date. Instead of an intimate French restaurant, they spent time at the home of Louise, Ken’s ex-wife. The occasion was Ken and Louise’s daughter’s high school graduation. Such a get-together was a common occurrence, with Ken and Louise chatting once a month. The catch: their friendship revolves around their two daughters, and “no one crosses boundaries,” Bonnie says.
Today, Ken, Bonnie, Louise and Sandy (Louise’s husband) are all friends, attending each other’s milestone events, from the arrival party when Bonnie and Ken’s now-15-year-old son was born to weekend gatherings at Louise’s brother’s summer home. Bonnie and Louise even co-hosted the bridal shower and baby showers for Louise and Ken’s oldest daughter. “Basically, it’s about the children, and helping each other out if the need arises,” says Bonnie.
Shared children also explains the friendship between Tom and his former wife, Cindy, clients of Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, JD, MBA, founder and managing partner of The Cronin Law Firm. Even though Cindy was devastated when Tom asked for a divorce, she “developed a friendship with him because they share children and must talk often about their kids’ activities,” Cronin says.
While Tom’s second (now ex) wife was extremely jealous of the communication between Tom and Cindy, Tom’s new girlfriend, Amanda, is more understanding. In fact, Amanda and Cindy have become friends. Co-parenting has allowed Amanda and Cindy to get to know each other more than they would have otherwise, too, which helped build trust.
Long-distance Platonic Friendships
After a love affair that ended amicably 20 years ago, Melissa Braverman, author of Notes from A Single Gal in The City, has remained friends with her ex, Westley. The two moved on to other relationships, Melissa in New York City and Westley in Kansas. But they still correspond via email and social media and, according to Braverman, have always been honest with each other about their significant others. “My fiancé is okay with this,” she explains, “because he knows this is strictly a friendship, with neither party harboring expectations of anything more. Westley was one of the first people I told when I met my future husband, and he was genuinely happy for me, as was I for him when he married.”
Similarly, Robert Johnson, 34, of Connecticut, has maintained a friendship with his ex, Tina*, since childhood. Although he’s now married to another woman, he continues to cultivate this platonic relationship. Since Tina lives in another state, the two correspond primarily through text and social media, and invite each other’s families for special occasions. (She’s also married.)
“My wife is totally fine with our relationship because she knows we’re childhood friends,” he says, adding that she and Tina have become friends as well. “I always put boundaries when it comes to closeness and I’m very transparent with my wife, so she won’t have any issues or insecurities.”
Richard Wong, 34, of California maintains a cordial friendship with his ex, Angel, 34. His current girlfriend, Sara Mosalli, 30, whom he met through eHarmony, approves of this relationship, largely because of its extreme limitations. “There are no spoken rules, but we’re on the same page that Richard can have a surface-level friendship with Angel,” says Mosalli. In fact, Wong and Angel interact via social media only, liking each other’s posts or commenting on special occasions, such as birthdays. They spend no time together in person.
According to DeAlto, boundaries like these are often wise — especially if you’ve recently broken up with your ex and are in a new relationship. “In the beginning stages of a breakup, it’s absolutely necessary to not spend time together in person with your ex,” she says. “Spending time together especially while someone may still have feelings is only going to complicate things. Once a significant amount of time has passed and emotions have faded, this rule can be re-addressed.”
Even if a lot of time has passed since the breakup with your ex, spending time together in person could create issues, if there’s any lingering sexual or flirty energy, says Dr. Manly. Besides, if your partner feels threatened by the friendship, you’ll probably need to provide some reassurance, communicate honestly and have some parameters around the relationship. “You may also need to explicitly communicate with your ex about boundaries in the interest of respecting your new relationship,” Dr. Lehmiller adds. “And if they aren’t respecting your boundaries, it might be time to let the friendship go.”
Erosions of Trust
David* had been in a relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Angela*, for several months. Soon after they began seeing each other, Angela asked him to stop all contact with one of his exes, Suzanne* — which he did. Angela was justified in making this request, since David admitted he harbored intense sexual and romantic attraction for Suzanne.
Although David was very much in love with Angela, when he was frustrated with her one day, he unblocked Suzanne’s number. Within a few hours, she happened to call him. After that initial conversation, David and Suzanne texted and spoke for several weeks, then spent a weekend together when Angela was out visiting with her parents.
A couple of days post-rendezvous, Suzanne told David that she’d purchased plane tickets for him to visit her — yet he was noncommittal about accepting them. Realizing he wasn’t about to make the trip (and break up with Angela), Suzanne texted Angela to let her know that she’d spent the weekend with David. When Angela told Suzanne that she didn’t believe her, Suzanne sent a picture of herself in David’s bedroom as proof.
After Angela confronted David — who convinced her that they hadn’t been intimate — David again cut off all contact with Suzanne. His relationship with Angela seemed more harmonious than ever, until about a year later. After Angela told her mother what had happened with Suzanne, Angela began pulling away from David, and eventually broke up with him. “I one hundred percent credit the breakup to what happened with Suzanne,” he says. Never again will he remain friends with an ex to whom he’s attracted while in a monogamous relationship, he vows.
The lure of a former flame also led to the demise of the romantic relationship between Alex* and his (former) live-in girlfriend, Kenzie*. Alex had always been very forthcoming when it came to telling Kenzie about his friendships with women (including his ex and co-worker, Vera*). In fact, he was so honest and solicitous that Kenzie felt very secure in his fidelity. Yet, when she and Alex ran into Vera at a restaurant, Kenzie sensed a more-than-friends vibe and confronted Alex about it.
Although he denied any romantic or sexual relationship, Kenzie continued to be suspicious and ultimately searched his computer. Shocked, she found evidence that Alex and Vera had been secretly seeing each other for more than a year.
Kenzie immediately broke up with Alex, and says that, going forward, she’ll avoid dating men who remain friends with their exes. “A man who needs that many female friends is not my style, no matter how open he might be,” she told her therapist, Dr. Manly. “When I’m ready to date again, I’m going to stick with someone who prefers friends of the same sex — and who wants their best friend to be me.”
According to Dr. Manly, Kenzie’s stance is healthy and understandable. Since she would prefer, rather than require, her future partner to have same-sex friends only, she would not be exhibiting fearful or controlling behavior. Plus, given her history with her former partner, her attitude is completely natural. The goal should be to have a bonded, loving connection while also fostering personal autonomy, she adds.
An Impediment to Intimacy
While in an exclusive relationship with Jon*, Morgan* corresponded regularly with her exes via text (and occasionally in-person meet-ups). When Jon expressed his concerns about this to Morgan, she assured him the relationships were merely platonic. Still frustrated, Jon broached the issue with his girlfriend again, and she accused him of jealous, controlling behavior.
When Morgan’s contact with exes increased (and her emotional connection to Jon seemed to decrease, in his view), the couple began therapy with Dr. Manly. During treatment, they realized that Jon has a secure attachment style, enabling safe, emotionally connected relationships; while Morgan has a fearful-avoidant attachment style, meaning she both wants and fears a strong emotional connection.
“Morgan’s connections with exes were an unconscious defense mechanism, which made her feel less vulnerable with Jon,” explains Dr. Manly. “She had been using her connections with former partners to avoid deepening her emotional connection with Jon.” Once Morgan realized that her attachments to former partners were hindering her from being fully available to Jon, she stopped the behavior — to the benefit of the relationship.
“We all have only so much time and energy to devote to our relationships — and new relationships by nature take a great deal of time, energy and emotional investment,” explains Dr. Manly. “If energy is being put into a connection with an ex, there will be less energy to invest in a new relationship.”
Across the board, “many people put the subject of being friends with exes into a good/bad or black/white category,” adds Dr. Manly. “In truth, though, there’s so much gray area here. It’s important to slow down, engage in self-reflection, and contextualize each situation. Only when we take this thoughtful, intentional approach can we discern whether a friendship with an ex is the right move.”
Ultimately, “the question to ask yourself is whether you think your ex is a potential threat to your new relationship,” Dr. Lehmiller advises. “If you’re hoping or angling for a sexual or romantic reunion with your ex, staying friends with them isn’t really fair to your new partner, especially if you’re not being honest with your new partner about your intentions.”
*Names have been changed.
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