Are You Still Friends With Your Ex? Researchers Explain 5 Reasons People Do It

Are You Still Friends With Your Ex? Researchers Explain 5 Reasons People Do It

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Are you deciding whether or not you should stay friends with your ex?  While some people swear off past loves for good, others manage to hang onto a friendship with relative ease.

Researchers Justin Mogiliski and Lisa Welling studied this–and they agree that it is possible for some.

“Our findings are consistent with previous research and suggest that (post-relationship friendship) may provide opportunity for ex partners to exchange desirable resources (e.g., love, status, information, money, sex) after romantic relationship dissolution. Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship”

As this article is based on a scientific study, let’s clarify some jargon that you’ll come across.

  • PRF = post-relationship friendship: Maintaining a (real or apparent) friendship with an ex.
  • CSF = Cross-sexual friendship: Plutonic sex, or “friends with benefits.”
  • NOTE: When you read “rated” or “rate,” this means a weighted average. This distinction is essential, as some info [e.g., the male findings in the “Results” section] may seem contradictory.

Justin Mogilski and Lisa Welling, both psychology professors at Oakland University in Michigan, wanted to study the specific reasons for maintaining friendships with ex-partners. Some research had already been done, but much more on CSFs than PRFs (remember the key.) Further, Mogilski and Welling wanted to focus also on the post-relationship behaviors of people with “dark traits” – a bit more on this later.

The researchers had the participants brainstorm five reasons why someone would remain friends with their partner to accomplish their ends. Afterward, the participants took two personality tests.

Using this data, researchers analyzed each person’s “5 reasons,” ultimately grouping the 2000-plus responses into seven categories. We will focus on six: reliability/sentimentality, pragmatism, continued romantic attraction, children and shared resources, social relationship maintenance, and sexual access. The researchers also took gender into account.

Results of the Study on Friendship With an Ex

The two-part study revealed some fascinating stuff. To avoid overwhelm, here is a bulleted list of the interesting (if not predictable) findings:

Men value pragmatism (money, gifts, etc.) and sexual access as reasons for remaining friends more than women. Both sexes cited reliability and sentimental reasons (good listening, supportive behaviors, similar personalities, trust, etc.) for a PRF at about the same rate. Ex-partners who were friends before romantic involvement are more likely to maintain a PRF.
PRF outcomes are similar to CSFs in nearly every measure.

  • People with “honesty-humility” personality traits are less likely to continue a friendship for practical or sexual reasons. They’re also the least likely to have a PRF at all.
  • Extraversion (“outgoing, aggressive”) and agreeableness (“kind, warm, considerate”) personality traits are more likely to maintain a PRF for reliability/sentimentality reasons.
  • Extraversion “predicted” pragmatic motivations and sexual access – a trend observed among those with dark personalities.
  • This last observation leads us to the root of the study (and this article): 5 “secret” reasons that some people remain friends with their exes.

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Before we get to the list, here’s the study’s definition:

“Dark personality features are a collection of antagonistic behaviors and interpersonal styles that are associated with disagreeableness, manipulativeness and callousness, and exploitativeness.”

In short, dark characters are aggressive, abrasive, untruthful, shallow, and calculating. With these positive descriptors in mind, here’s what they mean for a post-relational friendship.

5 Secret Reasons People Remain Friends With Their Exes

Study participants stayed friendly for these five reasons.

1. They want perks

“This (research) suggests that some individuals maintain a friendship after a break-up for reasons that depart from what some might typically expect from a friendly ex,” says Mogilski. Whether it’s money, sex, or something else, these characters may be looking at some angle to exploit.

2. They want to control

Here’s where the narcissistic factor comes into play. People who scored high on the narcissism part of the “pathological personality features” test are likely to coax their way into a PRF to seize control over someone. This is particularly true if they feel some sense of control was lost upon the relationship’s end.

3. They want to sabotage your relationships

Maintaining a friendship with a shady ex places any future relationship at risk. It doesn’t matter if the person is just a friend or something more. If they catch wind of any “potential” romantic interest of yours, they may attempt to disrupt severely – if not outright destroy – that relationship. Their actions may adversely impact other connections, from plutonic to professional.

4. They want to take advantage of your kindness

If their selfish nature didn’t rear its ugly head during your relationship (or if you didn’t notice it), you could almost be sure that it will during “friendship.” Notice the quotation marks around friendship. Aside from not sharing anything tangible, you can forget about them sharing genuine, mutual companionship. Anything perceived as otherwise is probably faked.

5. They want revenge

“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is a long-standing maxim – and it may explain why your ex is bothering to hang around. If you fell for the wrong person, only to realize it later and soon break it off, remain cautious about saying the “F” word (the other one.) Though rare, this study (and many others) have found a strong link between borderline and real sociopathic/narcissistic traits and exacting retribution.

Setting Ground Rules When Staying Friends with Your Ex

If you stay friends with an ex, you must set ground rules. These rules will make it so that both of you feel comfortable with the friendship and how things play out. Being friends with your previous lover can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be.

Give It Time

Before jumping into a friendship, you must take some time for yourself. If the breakup is fresh, you likely still have feelings for them, whether negative or positive. Not having contact for a while can give both of you time to heal, making friendship possible.

There’s no set timeline to follow in this situation. Give it as much time as you think is necessary, working to overcome your feelings before an encounter. Wait until you’ve moved on and can focus on being just friends instead of trying to get them back.

Making sure you’re both over each other is essential to a healthy friendship. Once you think enough time has passed and decide to spend time together, pay attention to how you feel. It might be too soon if the energy is tense or there’s still an attraction.

Forgive Your Ex

You can’t be friends with your former lover if you hold a grudge over something from the past. There was likely anger or heartache at the end of your romance, and you must forgive to move past it. If you can’t get over what they did, you’re better off not trying to be friends.

No Flirting

Avoid flirting with your ex if you want to be friends because it could make it harder for one of you to move on. Plus, it can rekindle feelings that you thought you were already past. Be careful to avoid inside jokes and romantic gestures that you were once comfortable with.

What you might think of as harmless flirting can interfere with your friendship. Instead, try to avoid it and treat your previous partner how you’d treat every other friend. It’s easy to fall back into your old habits, so be careful.

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Respect the New Situation

You aren’t a couple anymore, and you must respect that situation if you want to be friends. Please don’t treat them how you did before because the new friendship requires a change.

Respecting the situation means that you can’t expect them to text or call you daily. The other person doesn’t have to tell you everything about their life anymore. As friends, you must respect the new boundaries.

To respect the situation, it’s a good idea to avoid being friends with benefits. If you keep having a physical relationship, it’ll make it hard to have a healthy friendship.

Set Boundaries

When you become friends with your former lover, you can’t turn to the same habits as before. They might have been your go-to person for many things, but the situation is different now. Setting boundaries is essential to ensure neither of you reverts to old habits and expects things to be certain.

Avoid turning to your ex for emotional support, love, or affection. If you want the situation to work, you must have emotional boundaries and treat it like you would any other friendship.

Additionally, please don’t send them messages saying you still have feelings. It pushes the boundaries and shows that a friendship won’t work.

As you set boundaries, make it clear that neither should mention your past together. Bringing up old memories or romantic experiences makes it hard to focus on the new friendship. You must look at romantic relationships and friendships as individual situations.

Make Sure Things Are Different

Relabel your relationship to make sure that things are different. Instead of referring to them as your ex, consider calling them a friend. Since you’re friends now, there’s no reason to refer to them any other way.

Plus, switching to calling them a friend helps you make the shift in your mind. It makes the situation less complicated and prevents you from overthinking the relationship.

Many exes who become friends allow their friendship to resemble a romantic relationship. When this happens, it makes it nearly impossible to have a healthy relationship with both people happy.

Hang Out in Group Settings

Spending time together in a group can make it easier to merge into a friendship. Meeting one-on-one can be hard at first, so a group setting can ease the discomfort. Plus, it lets you see if the new arrangement is possible before putting yourself into a tense situation alone.

You might even decide to only hang out in group settings for the duration of your friendship. One-on-one experiences with a former lover can be uncomfortable no matter what the situation looks like now. Having other people around also makes enforcing boundaries easier.

Find Things to Bond Over and Create New Memories

Finding things to bond over is essential for any friendship, including one with your ex. Create new memories so that you aren’t always thinking back on the romantic experiences.

If you enjoyed certain activities together as a couple but didn’t have any romantic memories attached to them, you could continue enjoying those things together. All that matters is ensuring your bond over things without romantic attachments so that you can create new memories together.

Creating new memories gives you something to look back at and discuss when you’re together. You don’t want to continually bring up romantic memories because it will make things tense and uncomfortable. New memories make it easier to avoid bringing up bad experiences.

Be Honest About Your Friendship

You will start dating again eventually, and you’ll want to be honest about your friendship. Please don’t lie to any new partners about your past with your previous lover, or it can complicate things. Explain early on that the friend is your ex and that you’ve developed a healthy friendship without romantic feelings.

Your new partner might be a little uncomfortable with the situation, but they’ll be more accepting if you’re honest. Don’t hesitate to detail how you keep things strictly friendly. When a new partner isn’t okay with the friendship, you’ll have to decide which is more important.

Being open about it will make you and your partner feel better about the experience. Plus, you won’t have to put your friend group in an awkward position of always keeping secrets for you. You also won’t have to worry about your new partner finding out from someone else.

Encourage Them to Start Dating Again

If you want to be friends with your previous partner, encourage them to get out there and start dating again. You might feel weird about it at first, but you’ll have to get through it eventually. It helps both of you take a step back from the idea of you two as a couple and focus on a friendship instead.

When you meet your ex’s new partner, please do whatever you can to make them feel comfortable. Make sure you don’t do anything to make it look like either of you still has romantic feelings.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No.

Switching to a friendship requires that you speak up when you are uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to tell your former lover when they’re crossing boundaries. If anything feels weird to you, say no and step back.

You don’t want to give in to these situations because it’ll make the friendship weird. Friendships should feel good, and you should be able to speak up. You don’t have to continue going along with things if it isn’t bringing happiness to your life.

Sometimes you’ll notice that you need more space, and that’s okay, too. Take a step back and spend less time around your ex to make sure a friendship is possible.

Don’t Hesitate to End the Friendship If Necessary.

If the friendship isn’t working, don’t hesitate to end it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be friends, and you must recognize it and walk away.

If either of you has feelings, a friendship won’t be beneficial. Additionally, if boundaries aren’t enforced or respected, it’s best to walk away. Please don’t put your ex’s feelings or thoughts before yours because it’s up to you to do what’s best for your life.

Be honest about why you don’t think a friendship will work. Then, eliminate contact so avoid falling back into old habits. You can still get along and be cordial even if you aren’t friends.

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Final Thoughts on Staying Friendly with an Ex

Many people decide to stay friends with an ex, and the situation can be a beneficial experience. However, it’s not always possible or easy. Consider why you want to stay friends and then determine if it would be good for you.

If you decide to be friends with your former lover, follow a few rules. Things are different now that you’re friends instead of lovers. Talk with your ex about what they want the friendship to be like, and see if you can create some boundaries.

You can be friends with an ex, but make sure you don’t fall back into old habits. Put your well-being first, but be considerate of the other person too. A friendship should be good for both of you, so make the best decision for your situation.

Sarah Barkley is a lifestyle blogger and freelance writer with a Bachelor's Degree in Literature from Baker College. She is experienced in all things related to parenting, marriage, and life as a millennial parent, but loves to learn new things. She enjoys the research that goes into a strong article, and no topic is off-limits to Sarah. When she isn't writing, she is immersed in a book or watching Gilmore Girls. Sarah loves reading classic novels but also enjoys a good thriller.

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