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Column Should you stay friends with your ex?

It is possible to stay friends with your ex – but there are some serious questions you both have to answer before that can happen, writes Lisa O’Hara.

THERE ARE MANY platitudes served up in the course of trying to end a relationship: “It’s not you, it’s me,” “I don’t want anything serious right now,” “we should see other people,” and “we will always be friends”.

The latter, although perhaps sincerely meant at the time, can be uttered to soften the blow and perhaps is a wish to protect both, ie the dumper doesn’t feel like such a bad person and the one who is being dumped is spared the absolute misery of never seeing their loved one again.

Although you will often hear that the decision was mutual, it’s really rare for two people to want to finish with each other at exactly the same time. With this in mind, ‘staying friends’ may be the perfect antidote to pain. However, if one is still in love with the other or there is some kind of dependency between them it may be hard to separate out from each other properly and being friends just complicates matters, prolonging the process of breaking up properly.

If it was a reluctant breakup for one of them, they may be hoping to get back together and this may prove to be quite annoying to the one who is keen to move on.

Post break-up sex

It’s not uncommon for couples to find themselves having sex after it’s over. It’s quite tempting to engage in that way and can be comforting to be with someone who knows you so well. Even if it was you that wanted to leave the relationship, it can still be painful and upsetting and sex can be a soothing panacea.

That’s fine if you both realise that that’s all it is, but it can give a false impression that there is still something there between you and again, if there are still strong feelings on one side, it is quite unfair – it’s like preying on their vulnerability.

A normal part of development in young adulthood is the exploration of our sexuality and the search to find The One. Indeed, it is hoped that the experiences we have in relationships will help us become more aware of what we really want and need in a permanent relationship.

When a relationship is over and a friendship is what you both want, it is good to take some time apart from being in contact with each other. Technology can hinder this – with Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites, we are constantly kept in the loop with each other’s goings-on unless you make a point of deleting them. And if you have agreed to be friends, that’s hardly likely to happen unless you stop using the sites yourself for a while.

Time apart is vital

So why is time apart so important? If it was a serious relationship, it will give you a chance to heal from any pain that may be there and deal with any residual feelings you might be harbouring from that relationship. Although it can be hard not staying in touch, it does simplify the separating process. It gets you used to the reality that you are no longer a couple and helps you to emotionally, physically and practically detach from each other.

In other words, it is akin to re-positioning your ex in terms of their importance in your life and letting them blend into the background where there is little emotional charge present.

Staying in constant touch when it’s over can reinforce feelings of attachment towards your ex, and an unfortunate consequence of doing so may give rise to jealousy if you still have feelings for them and they start seeing someone new – how is it possible to be friends when that happens?

An ex who is still a big part of someone’s life can be problematic when a new girl/boyfriend arrives on the scene and is aware that you have both had an intimate relationship history. It can lead to problems in that new relationship too, ie insecurity, lack of trust and competition between you (as the ex) and their current partner.

New boundaries

Learning to re-negotiate new boundaries (as friends and not romantic partners) is essential if you want to keep them in your lives on friendly terms. You may have been each others’ confidantes, or been stalwarts to each other when the chips were down and yes, they are also qualities that are present in many friendships. It’s really about treating them the same way as you would your other friends and not keeping in the position that they once had.

It might be hard to imagine that you will care less for them than you did when you were together but time does take care of these matters. It’s not that they become irrelevant to you either (although some exes will and you’ll be relieved they are) – it’s just that you’ve moved on and reinvested, not in what once was, but in what is there now.

Lisa O’Hara is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland. Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and currently has a special introductory offer for an initial consultation. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email

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