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The Aftermath of Break-Up: Can We Still Be Friends?

When your romance ends, it may not necessarily end your relationship. Although one or both partners may want a “clean break” where partners discontinue all contact, former partners often end up seeing each other in passing or at social events with group of friends they have in common. In other cases, a romantic relationship ends and one of the partners asks, “Can we still be friends?”

Recent research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships sought to address this age-old question by determining who was more (vs. less) likely to stay close after a break-up. 

How They Did It

Researchers used data from a larger longitudinal study to identify 143 relationships that recently ended; the study included information about participants’ relationships before and after break-up. Specifically, before break-up, researchers had information on relationship quality, including how satisfied, committed, and invested (i.e., how much people put into the relationship) participants were, as well as study participants’ perceived quality of alternative partners (i.e., were other potential partners appealing to them?).

Researchers used several measures to determine how close the partners remained after the break-up. They asked participants to indicate their relationship status (“no relationship at all, acquaintances, friends, close friends, and best friends”), frequency of contact (“no contact at all; yes, but less than once a month; yes, about once a month; yes, about once a week; yes, about once a day; yes, more than once a day”), as well as their experience of positive and negative emotions toward the ex-partner. 

Finally, researchers also asked about post-romantic breakup reunification. In other words, how much did each participant want to get back together and how likely they thought it was that they would actually get back together?

What They Found

As in previous studies, participants were more committed when they were more satisfied, more invested, and had poorer alternatives. The main finding was that those who reported more commitment prior to break-up had higher levels of closeness after break-up.  

In addition, commitment’ s association with post-breakup closeness was not affected by the amount of time that had passed since break-up or by who initiated the break-up. Similarly, perceived likelihood of reuniting and desire to reunite did not affect pre-breakup commitment’s influence on post-breakup closeness. In other words, the best predictor of whether partners will remain close after break-up was how strongly a person desired to maintain the relationship while it was intact.

A few other interesting correlations that emerged from their data: 

  • Pre-breakup satisfaction did not relate to post-breakup closeness. So simply being happy or sad in your relationship before it ended didn’t reveal much about how the relationship would evolve after break-up.
  • Perceiving higher quality of potential alternative partners was associated with fewer negative emotions about the ex-partner post-breakup. In this case it may be easier to have less negative feelings about your ex when you think other potential partners are high quality. 
  • Those who invested more in the relationship pre-breakup had more contact with their partner post-breakup, but had more negative emotions about their ex. 

What These Results Mean For You

It may seem obvious that those who had higher commitment before break-up want to be friends and remain close after break-up. After all, the highly committed partners were the ones who wanted the relationship to last for a very long time and thought more about the relationship’s long-term future.

But why? Really, what’s in it for the highly committed by staying friends? The researchers tested whether it had to do with wanting to get back together, but the likelihood and desire for reunion didn’t make a difference. One possibility is that commitment has more to do with dedication to the person rather than dedication to the relationship itself. Thus, once the romantic aspect of the relationship dissipates, a person can still remain committed to the person but in a non-romantic way. Continued closeness also suggests that the partner may be more rewarding (e.g., good to talk to, fun to hang out with) which may also explain why there was greater commitment during the relationship.

You never want to make too much of correlations, but the investment findings have a bit of an, “I can’t quit you” feeling to them. It appears that when people put a lot into the relationship (e.g., time, money, effort) while it was intact they have more contact post-breakup, but it increases negative feelings toward the ex. People may seek increased closeness to help ease feelings of loss, but at the expense of feeling worse about the ex-partner.  

Overall, if you’re wondering whether you and your partner can still be friends after a break-up, you should figure out how committed you each are to the relationship now. 

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1Tan, K., Agnew, C. R., VanderDrift, L. E., & Harvey, S. M. (2015). Committed to us: Predicting relationship closeness following nonmarital romantic relationship breakup. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 456–471. doi: 10.1177/0265407514536293

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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