Emotional resilience is a quality that lies in the balance of all difficult break-ups; and the very same issue should determine whether or not to stay friends with your ex, according to a lead psychologist.
Amid all the inevitable debris that comes from a messy break-up, staying friends can often feel like the most dignified option.
Certainly, we tend to admire those who stay on good terms with their former partners – even amid the heartbreak and the slanging matches. And some people seem to pull off such a feat with apparent ease.
Demi Moore and Bruce Willis are still close nearly two decades after their divorce, for example, and Kate Beckinsale shares everything from holidays to fun photo shoots with her ex Michael Sheen. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have made good on their promise to “consciously uncouple” with a notably warm relationship.
As these cases illustrate, children often provide the incentive for staying amicable after a split. But in their absence, a post-split friendship is something that should be approached with caution.
In a new series for Psychology Today, Hawaii-based psychologist Dr. Suzanne Gelb explores the issue of staying “just friends” and recommends trying to pin down your motivation for keeping a connection going.
She suggests that you ask yourself whether your desire to stay friends is driven by a craving for emotional support, a best friend presence, or even by the hope that you’ll get back together.
“It can be helpful to pay attention to whether your answers seem to be based on need or preference,” says Gelb. “Friendships based on need — ‘There’s a hole in my life without you! Don’t leave me!’ — are not healthy, for either person.”
If your answers do identify a level of need, you should then ask yourself another critical question: “What am I needing? What’s stopping me from letting go?”
By drilling down exactly what’s behind your feelings towards your ex, Gerb says you may be able to step back and gain distance from the impulse to stay friends.
Gerb points out that the intimacy that you shared with your ex will always be part of your story; and this can be a source of comfort no matter whether you stay friends or not. “Remember that the love you felt for your ex remains within you forever,” she says. “If and/or when you want to, it is possible to draw on those loving memories and be nurtured by them.”
And while it is possible to remain friends in some circumstances, Gerb advises dealing with any emotional pain as a matter of priority: the key, she says, is “tending to your emotions, first — before even considering entering the friend-zone”.
Understandably for such a nebulous topic, research on the benefits (or otherwise) of staying friends with your ex hasn’t always been clear.
One 2016 study found that you should only attempt to do so if you’re certain that you don’t harbour any feelings for them. Another, rather, more alarming paper found a link between people who stay in close contact with their exes, and a tendency to exhibit narcissistic or psychopathic tendencies.
Whatever you choose to do, one thing’s for sure: it’s a dynamic you should always handle with care.