Many of us have gone through a breakup, whether we’ve had our heart broken, or we were the ones to end the relationship. Shortly after the pain, the tears, and anger, we hear, “but let’s be friends” to soften the wounds of a doomed romance. But, should we stay friends with our ex?
Science says it depends on our motives.
A recent study presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., found four reasons why a person remains friends with an ex-romantic partner which predict whether the friendship will be linked to positive feelings (made a person feel secure and happy), or negative feelings (made a person feel depressed, jealous, or broken-hearted).
The first reason is security; this could mean a person stays friends with an ex because he or she doesn’t want to lose their emotional support, advice, or trust. Unsurprisingly, ex couples may turn to each other to feel good and safe, even in a friendship. Security motivations are tied to positive feelings in a relationship.
Previous research has found some exes choose to stay friends because of these positive emotions. In a 2016 study, participants rated reliability/sentimentality (i.e., “They made me a better person”), as one of the most important reasons to want to stay friends with an ex. The idea an ex can offer continued support while dealing with the psychological distress of the break-up can be appealing.
Researchers from the University of Kansas found practicality was the second reason exes chose to stay friends. In other words, people stay friends with an ex for pragmatic purposes, whether they benefit from their ex’s money or they have children together. Rebecca Griffith, lead study author and a master’s student in psychology at the University of Kansas, notes friendships formed for practical reasons do usually last long and are associated with positive feelings.
There are exes who do not want to be friends, but they do so to be cordial and considerate of their ex’s feelings. It might be easier for people to be friends that engage in potential confrontation, especially those who have high attachment anxiety, which means they worry their partner will not be available in their time of need. The attachment figure, an ex, can provide comfort and reassurance, which allows distressed people to gain a sense of calmness.
Lastly, and probably the most obvious reason why some people stay friends with an ex: romantic feelings. Unresolved attraction with an ex is associated with negative feelings, but ironically, longer friendships. This means although ex couples are not reaping any benefits from the friendship, they tend to stay in it longer.