Many of us have gone through a breakup, whether we've had our heart broken, or we were the ones to end the relationship. Shortly after the pain, the tears, and anger, we hear, "but let's be friends" to soften the wounds of a doomed romance. But, should we stay friends with our ex?

Science says it depends on our motives.

A recent study presented at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., found four reasons why a person remains friends with an ex-romantic partner which predict whether the friendship will be linked to positive feelings (made a person feel secure and happy), or negative feelings (made a person feel depressed, jealous, or broken-hearted).

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The first reason is security; this could mean a person stays friends with an ex because he or she doesn't want to lose their emotional support, advice, or trust. Unsurprisingly, ex couples may turn to each other to feel good and safe, even in a friendship. Security motivations are tied to positive feelings in a relationship.

Previous research has found some exes choose to stay friends because of these positive emotions. In a 2016 study, participants rated reliability/sentimentality (i.e., "They made me a better person"), as one of the most important reasons to want to stay friends with an ex. The idea an ex can offer continued support while dealing with the psychological distress of the break-up can be appealing.

Researchers from the University of Kansas found practicality was the second reason exes chose to stay friends. In other words, people stay friends with an ex for pragmatic purposes, whether they benefit from their ex's money or they have children together. Rebecca Griffith, lead study author and a master's student in psychology at the University of Kansas, notes friendships formed for practical reasons do usually last long and are associated with positive feelings.

There are exes who do not want to be friends, but they do so to be cordial and considerate of their ex's feelings. It might be easier for people to be friends that engage in potential confrontation, especially those who have high attachment anxiety, which means they worry their partner will not be available in their time of need. The attachment figure, an ex, can provide comfort and reassurance, which allows distressed people to gain a sense of calmness.

Lastly, and probably the most obvious reason why some people stay friends with an ex: romantic feelings. Unresolved attraction with an ex is associated with negative feelings, but ironically, longer friendships. This means although ex couples are not reaping any benefits from the friendship, they tend to stay in it longer.

In the 2016 study, some exes admitted they wanted to be friends with an ex because they were still in love and couldn’t imagine their ex being with someone else, or they didn't want to end things in the first place. This can motivate an ex-partner to keep a friendship with their lover. However, other reasons include the loss of a spark, meaning they weren't very attracted to their ex; love faded, the relationship didn't have any value; or there were no hard feelings after the breakup.

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Within the four reasons exes stay friends, two are related to emotional needs (security and unresolved romantic desires) and non-emotional needs (practical reasons and civility). Griffith believes the non-emotional reasons are more likely to lead to a long, successful friendship. In other words, a positive relationship that made an ex feel secure and happy is more likely to blossom than one that makes the person feel negative, like depressed, jealous, or broken-hearted.

Overall, the findings suggest friendships after break-ups provide exes with an opportunity to continue to share resources, like love or status.

Over 170 women and more than 100 men were recruited in the first part of the study to examine the reasons why exes may stay in friendship after ending a romantic relationship. Griffith and her colleagues tried their measurement technique, which consisted of several questionnaires in this group. In the second experiment, approximately 300 women and about 250 men confirmed the questionnaires worked to determine the four main reasons why some people stay friends with their ex.

Although we may know the reasons why, what kind of person is more likely to seek friendship with an ex?

In last year’s study, researchers found people who have "measures of dark personality," like narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellian instincts tend to maintain friendships with their exes for "practical and sexual reasons." Those who scored high in narcissism were more likely to choose "practicality and the chance of hooking up" as reasons for prolonging a former romantic relationship. In other words, people with the dark triad personality are more likely to stay friends for personal gain.

This doesn't mean all exes are narcissists, and not all relationships need to end in heartbreak. Rather, we should use our best judgement to maintain a friendship with an ex-partner. If we were friends with our now-ex before we dated them, this could help determine if we stay friends after the breakup.

Overall, once we figure out the motive for rekindling a friendship, we can answer whether we should be friends with our ex.

Source: Griffith RL, Gillath O, Zhao X et al.Staying friends with ex-romantic partners: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes. Personal Relationships. 2017.

See Also:

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Why We Use Sex To Lash Out In The Aftermath Of A Breakup