Unlike Jerry and Elaine in the classic TV sitcom Seinfeld, or Ted and Robin in How I Met Your Mother, it isn’t easy for ex-romantic partners to remain friends. Think about it…how many of your exes are still friends of yours? Half of them? 25%? If you’re like me, the answer is more likely zero, nil, nada, zilch.
Even if your ex assured you that “it’s not you, it’s me,” breakups are still upsetting.1 Because of this, it may not surprise you that about 60% of ex-partners do not have contact with one another post-breakup.2 However, some exes do keep in touch and even become friends after the breakup. In fact, there are several situations in which post-dissolution friendships are more likely:
1) Being friends before the romantic relationship is a big help.3 These exes already know what it’s like to be friends, which makes it easier to transition back into friendship. Of course, this assumes the ex-couple didn’t move into a “friends-with-benefits” relationship, which can be quite complicated.
2) Ex-couples are more likely to stay friends if the breakup was mutual. Also, post-dissolution friendships are more likely if the breakup was initiated by the man.4 In mutual breakups, the breakup is less negative since both partners were unhappy. However, men find it more difficult to breakup in the first place.4 Thus, when women initiate the breakup, men have a more difficult time dealing with the rejection and, by extension, are more resistant to transitioning into friendship.
3) Post-dissolution friendships are more likely if the ex-partners are still attracted to one another,5 perhaps because they still want to “hook up” again. Along these lines, some exes may stay friends because they hope to rekindle the relationship, essentially creating a cycle of breakups and initiations known as “on-again/off-again” relationships.6
4) Exes are more likely to stay friends if the romantic relationship was satisfying.7 This shouldn’t be too surprising – happier relationships set the foundation for a potentially happy post-dissolution friendship. Then again, this begs the question as to why the couple broke up in the first place.
5) We are more likely to stay friends with our exes if our friends and family support us.8 Having approval from important others helps ease the transition to post-dissolution friendship because we’re not having to answer the “Why are you still hanging around with him/her?” questions as much.
6) There is emerging evidence that gays and lesbians are more likely to remain friends post-dissolution than their heterosexual counterparts.9 Researchers theorize that this is because the members of the couple share membership in an oppressed group (i.e., gays/lesbians) and there is a strong desire to maintain strong group bonds.
Clearly, staying friends after a breakup isn’t easy, but it certainly is possible. You may not be as successful as Jerry and Elaine (especially if you mix "this" with "that"), but all is not doom and gloom. You could always try being friends before dating, but, of course, if you’re already thinking about how to form a post-dissolution friendship before you’ve even started dating, this may be a bad sign. And ladies, if your relationship is on the rocks but you want to stay friends with your boyfriend, perhaps find a way to get him to break up with you.
1Sbarra, D. A. (2006). Predicting the onset of emotional recovery following nonmarital relationship dissolution: Survival analyses of sadness and anger. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 298-312.
2Kellas, J. K., Bean, D., Cunningham, C., & Cheng, K. Y. (2008). The ex-files: Trajectories, turning points, and adjustment in the development of post-dissolutional relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 23-50.
3Metts, S., Cupach, W. R., & Bejlovec, R. A. (1989). “I love you too much to ever start liking you”: Redefining romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 259-274.
4Hill, C. T., Rubin, Z., Peplau, L. A. (1976). Breakups before marriage: The end of 103 affairs. Journal of Social Issues, 32(1), 147-168.
5Banks, S. P., Altendorf, D. M., Greene, J. O., & Cody, M. J. (1987). An examination of relationship disengagement: Perceptions, breakup strategies and outcomes. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 51, 19-41.
6Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., Pfiester, A., & Surra, C. A. (2009). A qualitative analysis of on-again/off-again romantic relationships: “It’s up and down, all around”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26, 443-466.
7Bullock, M., Hackathorn, J., Clark, E. M., & Mattingly, B. A. (2011). Can we be (and stay) friends? Remaining friends after dissolution of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 662-666.
8Busboom, A. L., Collins, D. M., Givertz, M. D., & Levin, L. A. (2002). Can we still be friends? Resources and barriers to friendship quality after romantic relationship dissolution. Personal Relationships, 9, 215-223.
9Harkless, L. E., & Fowers, B. J. (2005). Similarities and differences in relational boundaries among heterosexuals, gay men, and lesbians. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 167-176.
Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.