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7 Signs You Shouldn’t Stay Friends With an Ex

After a breakup, you might say you want to keep in touch. Here's when the best intention is the worst idea.

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In 2023, some of us are getting more courageous to maintain non-toxic ties with an old love. But is friendship after a breakup really possible?

Well, to start: Research published in a 2021 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that a surprising two-thirds of couples first start out as friends, which can make it tempting to try reverting back to old times if the romance goes south. A 2022 market research poll found:

  • about one-third of people would prefer to remain friends with an old flame,
  • one-third absolutely would not, and
  • a third weren’t sure.

Across the board, a slightly higher percentage of men than women said they’d be willing to stay friends.

Some scientists who study relationships say that there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a friendship after romance if it works for both parties—but that there are definitely some red flags that it’s a bad idea (at least until the dust settles a little…).

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Why do people want to stay friends with their ex?

In 2017, a team of researchers looked into the main reasons people feel compelled to express interest in staying friends after they split. The reasons, published in Personal Relationships, included:

  • Civility: wanting to cushion the blow of a breakup, believing they can reduce the pain
  • Unresolved romantic desires: keeping someone close in case they change their mind
  • Practicality: like if you have the same friendship circles, work in the same office, or share pets
  • Security: there’s a genuine trust that still exists, and they want to keep that supportive presence in their lives

Gender, sexual orientation, attachment style, personality traits, time since the breakup, and the reason for the breakup all play a role in the success of a friendship post-romance. But in general, unresolved romantic desires resulted in the worst outcomes, and security resulted in the best. Practical reasons for maintaining a friendship generally led to positive outcomes, but those, along with civility reasons, resulted in friendships that didn’t really last in the long term.

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Reasons you shouldn’t stay friends with your ex

While this research offers a guide to whether a friendship with your ex will work—or even last—relationship experts say there are some red flags that it’s best to move on.

You’re still hung up on your ex

Like the Personal Relationships research suggested, unresolved romantic desires are a slippery slope. “I’d check in with your intentions of wanting to stay friends, and be really honest with yourself,” says marriage and family therapist Stacey Sherrell, LMFT. “If potentially getting back together is any part of your motivation, we’d probably discourage trying to stay friends because it is going to make it more complicated.”

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You have unresolved problems

While seemingly obvious, this sign is often overlooked and easy to miss, says Dontea’ Mitchell-Hunter, LMFT, a therapist with Sorees In Therapy, LLC—especially if you’re looking at your relationship through rose-colored glasses post-split. But whether you dealt with manipulation, a lack of communication, honesty, consistency, or other bedrock issues in your relationship, “those same characteristics will show up in a friendship, too,” she says.

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You haven’t spent much time apart

Jumping right into a friendship immediately after the breakup is often not a great idea, says Tiffany Lewis, MSW, RSW, a therapist with wellbe family wellness. “Giving ourselves time after a breakup to heal, both emotionally and spiritually, is important to our mental wellness,” she says. “We aren’t able to make informed decisions if we are feeling out of sorts.”

You broke up for a reason…and yet if you’re still texting all day, hanging out after work, and sharing all your personal details, you haven’t created the emotional distance required to make a new friendship work. So if it feels too soon, it probably is—or you risk sustaining a dependence on each other.

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They’re already crossing your boundaries

“Being friends with our ex, while taboo, is possible for some former couples,” Lewis says. “But because of the emotional and intimate history, we really have to ensure that we are adhering to friendship versus relationship expectations.”

It’s important to establish ground rules for what that friendship will look like, Mitchell-Hunter adds—such as how and when you can contact each other, or if you can ask about each others’ dating life. But “if they use coercion or guilt to get you to spend time with them” or ignore your boundaries, Lewis says it may be healthiest for you to walk away.

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The friendship is holding you back

Mitchell-Hunter says to ask yourself: If this person is still circling in my life, will I really move forward? Forming a friendship with your ex only works by creating a new type of relationship with them—and that’s why setting boundaries early is essential. But “if the friendship feels like it’s slipping back into a relationship and you don’t want it to” or “[it’s] holding you back from making new, meaningful connections,” you can get stuck in the process of moving on, Lewis says.

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If your ex keeps joking about getting back together

…or is constantly flirting, expressing jealousy, or reminiscing about the relationship—these are red flags that even if you want to stay friends, the two of you aren’t on the same page. Lewis says that if they’re using the friendship to try and get a second chance and efforts feel one-sided, it’s best to step away.

It hurts, but staying in your ex’s life because they aren’t ready to move on—even if you still care for them—does more harm than good.

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You’re still hurting

Even if your ex is gung-ho about staying friends, you reserve the right to cut ties at any point, the experts say. If you can’t talk about your ex without getting worked up, you’re always checking their social media, or you get upset thinking about them dating someone else, it’s important to give yourself some distance to emotionally process the breakup and heal.

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Sources

Stacey Sherrell, LMFT and co-owner of Decoding Couples

Dontea' Mitchell-Hunter, LMFT, a therapist with Sorees In Therapy, LLC

Tiffany Lewis, MSW, RSW, a therapist with wellbe family wellness

Websites:

YouGovAmerica: "Do Americans stay friends with their exes?"

Journals:

Social Psychological and Personality Science: "The Friends-to-Lovers Pathway to Romance: Prevalent, Preferred, and Overlooked by Science"

Personal Relationships: "Staying friends with ex-romantic partners: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes"

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.