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This is why you stay friends with your ex, according to science

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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When it comes to the (potentially) thorny issue of staying friends with an ex, there are generally two schools of thought. 

One is that you’ve broken up for a reason, and should draw a line under your relationship indefinitely by cutting them out and moving swiftly on (see also: they’re a waste of space and not worthy of the air they breathe, etc.).

The other option, of course, is to handle the breakup in the manner of the consciously uncoupled Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin – that is, by staying friends and embarking on a long future of joint Instagram photos, heartfelt messages and maybe even a musical collaboration or two.



And if you do find yourself heading down a path of friendliness with an ex, science says there may be a good reason for that.

New research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences identified no less than seven main reasons for staying friends with an ex – from straightforward sentimentality to simply wanting to still have sex with them – and unsurprisingly the key motivators differed between men and women.

Can you ever be "just friends" with an ex?

Can you ever be "just friends" with an ex?

To determine the key factors, the researchers first asked 348 volunteers to list the reasons they would consider staying friends with their exes.

This led to an overall list of a whopping 153 reasons, which were then whittled down to seven by being ranked in importance by hundreds of other volunteers, who also had to complete personality questionnaires.

After all this, the researchers finally identified the following key motivators:

  • Reliability/sentimentality (e.g. “They were a great listener.”)
  • Pragmatism (e.g. “They had a lot of money.”)
  • Continued romantic attraction (e.g. “I still had feelings for them.”)
  • Children and shared resources (e.g. “We had children together.”)
  • Diminished romantic attraction (e.g. “I realised I was no longer in love with them.”)
  • Social relationship maintenance (e.g. “To maintain good relations with their friends.”)
  • Sexual access (e.g. “To keep having sex with them.”)

Of all the reasons, reliability/sentimentality were rated as the most important by the participants, while practical reasons, such as those involving money, were rated as least important.

Shoshana and Ray managed to remain friends after their breakup in Girls

Shoshana and Ray managed to remain friends after their breakup in Girls

Perhaps more tellingly, the researchers also found a difference in main motivators across gender, with men rating practical reasons and the ability to continue having sex more highly than women.

However, both men and women who rated themselves as having an extroverted personality said they would want to stay friends with an ex in order to have sex with them.

Plus, touchingly, the research also found that people who reported having more negative emotions were more likely to put a greater emphasis on staying friends with an ex for sentimental reasons.

And after running all this research into the reasons why we might choose to stay friends with our exes, the researchers had a final remark to make about breakups in general.

“Although a breakup nominally marks the end of a romantic relationship, the current research suggests that resource exchange between ex-partners can extend beyond relationship dissolution,” they wrote in the paper.

Turns out in some cases, “resource exchange” translates into ‘friends with benefits’...

Images: Film stills

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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