The other week’s post about whether or not guys and girls can be “just friends” seemed to draw quite a bit of interest, so I’m here to follow up with an extension of that question: Can you be friends with your ex?

I’ve heard all the claims. I’ve seen all the results. And surprise, surprise– each case is different. That’s just the way mankind works. No two people are the same, thus no two relationships are the same. So while I have seen a case or two where people were able to be friends after they’ve been in a relationship together, I will say that the overarching trend is that post-relationship friendships are rare. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen a former couple under the age of 40 successfully maintain a friendship.

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Sometimes older couples are better able to salvage a friendship because they have children, which provides strong motivation in remaining close. Many divorcees don’t have such a relationship, but I’ve definitely seen some parents continue to grab lunch, spend holidays together, and even turn to each other for completely platonic support. It makes sense to me that they’re able to remain friends if the split was mutual and they have kids that tie them together. Still, it usually takes at least a year or so for them to adjust to their new roles in each other’s lives (again, just from what I’ve seen).

As for the under 40 age bracket, however, “just friends” comes with a lot of complications. Most common issues:

  • One person still wants to be more than friends
  • They fall back into the physical part of their relationship
  • One or both experience guilt about finding someone new

These lead to:

  • Jealousy
  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Stagnancy

I’ve never seen two people in my age group truly remain friends after a split. Not once. The closest I’ve seen was when two people truly seemed to avoid jealousy as the other moved on and would spend time together, but even still, they’d fall back into the physical part of their relationship every few months. Even if the emotions are no longer deeply attached, someone you hook up with is not just a friend. Sorry. Sexual interaction is pretty much THE distinction between a friend vs. lover, so while being physical doesn’t equate a relationship, it certainly takes you out of the friend-only zone.

And remember, the above example was the closest I’ve ever seen of two under 40s exes remaining friends. So, yeah, just imagine how much worse it gets from there. Almost always, one person still wants to be in the relationship, which is why they work to keep the friendship alive. Add into the mix that the other person often still gives into the physical aspect once in a while, which makes the person who still wants the relationship go absolutely haywire amidst the mixed signals.

The main reason an ex-turned-friendship exists is because one or both parties would rather pretend to be “just friends” than deal with the heartbreak of losing that person from their life all together. The problem is that this friendship generally turns into a yo-yo of emotions, causing way more hurt over a more extended period of time than if they’d just ripped the bandaid off to begin with. Two to six months of excruciating separation and mourning pain is way, way better than a year or more of having your emotions thrown around like a rag doll. The hope of the ex “coming around” and getting back together is often too strong a pull for many people to accept the fate of the relationship. So they slap the term “friends” on the box and wait for things to explode.

Explode, it will. The person on one side will not be able to hide the hurt and jealousy, which inevitably frustrates the side that no longer has feelings, and one or both will finally throw their hands in the air and say that all the drama isn’t worth it. So, if I may give some advice here, don’t try the whole friends thing if the breakup wasn’t mutual. It’ll never work.

What if the breakup was mutual, you ask? Still going to be a tough road to friendship. Maybe– maybe— if you take a few months to completely cut ties and emotionally recover, then a friendship could work. But more than likely not. You were completely accustomed to leaning on one another emotionally and physically, so those habits will be hard to break. It’s too easy to continue using each other for comfort, thus stunting your ability to build a new life outside of that relationship– be it from guilt or being trapped by routine. It’s generally easier for the friendship to be healthy when one or both parties have a new special someone, but then those new significant others aren’t generally pleased when the exes remain close. So, even if you manage to move on, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the drama.

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The only ex-friendship that seems to work is really not a friendship at all– it’s a pleasant acquaintanceship. I am very friendly with one of my exes, with whom I had a mutual breakup. It took about six months and me moving into a new relationship, but we were able to begin communicating ever so often with a “How are you?” text, and even caught up over dinner once. But would I consider him a real friend? No. We wish the best for each other and are on great terms, but I don’t spend time with him or turn to him for support like I would a true friend. Same with a few of my other exes– our communication revolves around asking advice about good restaurants in each other’s neighborhoods, saying “Happy Birthday” on Facebook, and texting condolences or congratulations during major events in the other person’s life. Pleasant acquaintance is definitely the perfect title. Friend? Not so much.

I know it sounds really nice to keep someone in your life that you once loved, but that’s part of the risk of love in the first place. Either it works out, or that person will end up a complicated part of your past. “I don’t want to ruin the friendship” is a legitimate concern for two people on the brink of entering a relationship (that is, if they were ever truly just friends to begin with). My charge is to be careful, and to rip off the Band Aid instead of drawing out the pain under the guise of a friendship. If you somehow make a friendship work, more power to you, but guard your heart– and the heart of the other person. There’s probably more a-brewin’ than you realize.