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Image / Self / Relationships

Can you ever really be friends with an ex?


by Grace McGettigan
14th Jul 2021

"Can we still be friends?" It's a question I've been asked a couple of times and for various reasons, I've always answered no. But am I right or wrong?

It’s not that all of my relationships ended badly, they certainly didn’t. In fact, I’d hold my hands up and say that some of the guys I went out with would make great pal material. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable with friendship after previously having had so much more. Even Ross and Rachel struggled to make it work. The memory of what we once had would always be there – the quirks that made us fall in the first place, and those that made us fall apart. I’m all about moving forward, and to me, holding onto someone from the past (in a platonic way or otherwise) just doesn’t make sense.

After a break-up, I tend to cut the person from my life immediately and completely. How are you meant to get over someone if they’re constantly around? I have a friend who split from her boyfriend a few months ago. They still text constantly and she stalks his social media to see if he’s moved on. She gets upset when she sees him in photos with other women, and no matter how much it hurts, she can’t help but hold on.

She’s not the only one. According to a survey of 3,000 people in Men’s Health, 85% of people stalk their exes on Facebook following a breakup, while 59% admit trying to find “clues about their relationships with other people.” That can’t be healthy. In fact, Dr Ilana Gershon, a professor of communication and culture at Indiana University, notes that it causes “enormous anxiety”. When I split from my ex, not only did I block him on Facebook and Twitter, I also deleted his number from my phone to escape the risk of drunk dialling. It’s like peeling off wax. Get it over with in one swift swoop to avoid prolonging the pain. The sudden distance gave me a chance to focus on myself, rather than on ‘us’. Instead of creeping on how he’s living his life without me, I went out with my friends and adjusted to life as a single person again.

Don’t get me wrong. If I saw my ex out and about, of course I’d be civil. I wouldn’t be that crazy person who runs the other way. We spent two life-changing years together so we owe it to one another to be polite. But friends? I don’t think so. English poet, Lord Byron once famously said, “Friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship.” I agree with that. I don’t want to meet my ex for coffee and hear about his new girlfriend, nor do I want catch up with his family and be reminded of what could have been. I’d rather leave the past in the past. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Plus, friendship with an ex is hardly fair on new partners that come along. I wouldn’t like it if my current boyfriend was hanging out with his ex-girlfriend all of the time, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be comfortable with me spending alone time with mine. That’s why Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s relationship mind-boggles me. Despite having split from each other six years ago, they continue to go on joint holidays and regularly meet up. She even shared a pic of him and her husband Brad Falchuk having brunch on Instagram. The celebrity pair don’t describe their breakup as a breakup at all – remember the fuss over “conscious uncoupling”? Each to their own, I suppose, but it wouldn’t be for me.

Journalist, Rosemary MacCabe, on the other hand, thinks friendship with an ex is perfectly fine. “My ex-boyfriend is now my best friend,” she tells me. “I know that’s not the usual way of things and, to be honest, I think it only happened because our break-up was mutual. Not only that, but we realised that we needed to break up precisely because we were best friends, rather than romantic partners.”

“We have always loved spending time with each other. We have a lot in common. For a while, as we were discussing our break-up, we both wondered if we were being ridiculous. We got on so well. We laughed so much. We truly adored – and adore – one another. Maybe that was enough? In the end, we decided that it wasn’t enough – for either of us – and there were a few weeks, post-breakup when we definitely didn’t adore one another quite so much!”

This piece was originally published in March 2018.

“It took a while to get over the breakup,” Rosemary adds, “which was made a little bit more difficult because we were living together at the time. So, he was in the process of moving out and while he was looking for a place, I was staying with friends. We really needed some space, I think. A few weeks later, we met up for coffee… and it just went from there.”

All that being said, Rosemary notes that this won’t work for everyone and she addresses the potential reason why it has never worked for me. “I think if one person didn’t want to break up, and felt hurt and betrayed and blindsided by that breakup, a friendship is not on the cards.”

My breakups have almost always been one-sided, so perhaps it is that deep-down bitterness that’s stopping me from taking a platonic step forward. As well as that, my exes and I had only ever been romantic partners, so there was no friendship base to fall back on. 

All things considered, I think people who can remain friends after being lovers are to be admired – but only if they’re both happy with the setup and new partners aren’t affected. It’s not something easily achieved, and it’s most definitely not for me.

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