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Ask Dr. Loving: Should We Stay Friends after a Breakup?

(reposted from drloving.net)

Dear Dr. Loving;

I am in the middle of healing and attempting on moving on right now. My boyfriend and I broke up last October, but we only decided to really move on this December. Now, we still see each other and are just now "friends" or "best friends." We text each other everyday (I text him and he replies) and we see each other and hang out or study at least 3-4 times a week. We celebrated his birthday together last week, just me and him. He still gives me a hug after we hang out when I ask him to hug me. Basically, we're still part of each other's lives except we're just simply "close friends."

Now my question is, do those signs show that he still likes me or is he just doing that because he's a guy? and is this kind of relationship healthy for me? I don't know whether I should really avoid him or just go with the flow with whatever we have. I honestly still want to get back with him, but bringing that up to him always irritates him. He said he doesn't have "time" to be in a relationship anymore. I am not sure whether there's no chance of us getting back together and I'm just fooling myself. -- Conflicted

Dear C;

Let’s start with your second question: No, this kind of relationship is not healthy for you. If we take him at his word, then it’s best for you to let this one go and actually start, in your words, “healing and attempting on moving on.” By remaining in contact with him you’re not allowing yourself time to disengage mentally from him. As we become more and more involved and committed to a partner, we develop what researchers refer to as “cognitive interdependence”, which essentially refers to the idea that our sense of self (i.e., our identity as a person) becomes inextricably linked to our partner’s identity.1 In other words, the cheesy phrase “two become one” is actually true in many respects. People who are cognitively interdependent engage in what’s known as pluralist thinking, or viewing the self in terms of a couple (i.e., we) rather than as an individual (i.e., me). This we-ness generally promotes the longevity of relationships: it encourages us to think less selfishly (i.e., we focus on our relationships first).2 But, when we separate from a partner, the we-ness can take a toll; when we lose a partner, we lose a piece of ourselves, and we’re also inclined to keep putting the (past) relationship above our own needs. With time, that will change, but the more you stay in touch with your ex, and the more you do things with him, the harder it is going to be for you to emotionally and cognitively disengage from him. Put another way, the ‘me’ can’t beat out the ‘we’ when you’re constantly doing things as a ‘we’; you’re not just surrounded by reminders of your ex, you’re surrounded BY your ex. Thus, it’s very likely that you’re going to stay conflicted until you take some time away from him so that you really can heal and move on.3 Think of it this way: your ex was your drug.4 Time to go cold turkey.

Now back to your first question. Based on your description, he seems to have already moved on himself. Why he’s still doing so much with you is beyond me, but it’s possible he thinks he’s being helpful (or he’s a masochist). He may ‘like’ you. But, from what you describe, he doesn’t ‘like’ like you. You didn’t mention in your question whether you were still intimate with him (even on rare occasion), but if you are, that’s a very likely reason he’s keeping this going. If you really want to get back together with him, take some time away to focus on you. I suspect that once you’ve stopped surrounding yourself with him you’ll find that you don’t need him as badly as you think. But, if not, he may very well find your independence attractive.

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1Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 939-954.

2Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241-253.

3Fisher, H. E., Brown, L. L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104(1), 51-60.

4Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Motivation, Emotion, Feeding, Drinking, 11(17), 3829-3834.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (3)

Hi, me and my best friend of 12 years Sara, decided to date not long ago. However, in just 2 months the dating relationship just ended without reason. She still wants to be my best friend. The question I have is how can we make it work? I feel as if the past 2 months were a waste of time, but I can't forget about it either. I don't want to throw away a 12 year friendship either. But it is hard not to walk away from this.

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStevie

S --
The two of you crossed a line, and, as you note, it's tough to go back to the other side of that line. The only real way of doing so is giving the relationship time to transform itself back to a friendship (given how long it's taken me to reply to your note, this may have already happened). As I note above, the best way of doing so is likely to take a break from each other for a while so that the romantic associations you have with Sara can weaken and the old friendship associations can reassert their place in your head. You say the past 2 months had been a waste of time, but there's another way to look at it (without me knowing why you two ended the relationship): you learned that the two of you aren't right for each other in a romantic sense; now that possibility won't be hanging over you or her. That's some pretty useful information. Once you get over the emotional pain caused by the breakup, I think you'll see that the two months was actually quite useful.

In a nutshell, if you found yourself walking away, it's possible that's the best thing you could have done to salvage the previously strong friendship.
Dr. L

I had a 9 months relationship with a girl (we are in a girl/girl relationship), we met in an internship abroad. But but most of the time we spent away from each other, because we are still finishing school in different countries. I almost graduated and I already applied for a job in her country. Anyway I got a little bit on the clingier side when we were in still in Ldr, because towards the end of the Ldr I felt that she has changed and become less available and uninterested. I admit I did a mistake for making my life revolve around her and little by little kills her attraction, also another mistake I made at the end of our Ldr, and towards to us meeting up again, I jeopardize everything by being manipulative---I said to her I want a break only to threaten her because I just want more attention. She didnt want to break up and assure me that she loves me and she was sorry and all that. It only lasts a few days and she was being busy again. Maybe I wasnt understanding or maybe we just spent too long apart that she lost her feelings, I don't know.

Anyway, on the day that I meet her again, just half a day later. She announced that she want to separate. I was shocked and devastated, and I cry and cry because when I see her I feel like everything doesnt matter anymore, the distance and all that. I did another mistake here because me being a wreck only push her away from me. Love doesn't come from pity.
We stayed "friends" for 2 - 3 weeks after that, I was miserable but still in a denial because I wish that by hanging out with her day and night will make her want me again. Turns out, I was wrong of course. She said she just want to be friends and that I'll find someone better, and I'll get over it and so on. So I head back to my country and after another week of acting cool only to explode and tell her I love her to death.-.- I finally realized that this is no use, everything that I done only scares and turn her off even more. I realized maybe to get her back I should cut contacts with her and dont be friends immediately. I emailed her to forget all the silly behavior i displayed post breakup, and I agreed to the separation and I will move on and keep my head straight , focus to the future. I also told her that I wont contact her for a while. She replied, a couple days later. Saying that, sorry it took her long to reply because she was deliberating on how to reply and no matter how rationally she tries to be she still don't have a perfect answer. She rspects my decision and as much as she would love to continue talking to me as friends, she would do anything in herpower to protect me frm further hurt and that includes staying away if necessary. And just good luck to my interview.

I didn't reply her, for a week now. To be very honest, I still love her very much and I still have some hopes. I wish that by staying away from her for a while, and then reconnect with her when Im ready to show her that I have changed, independent, and matured up, and not chasing her, she will be more insterested and let her walls down and we can be together again. But Im also afraid because some things are out of our control, and Im confused If im doing the right thing now. What steps should I take, How should I approach her again? Should I wait til i clear my interview and be in the same country as her? Or should I talk to her maybe 3 weeks from now, casually and act cool to remove her resistance so she wont forget me? I don't want to lose her.

I'm sorry this is such an essay.

August 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterViona
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