Life & Style | Relationships

Hot debate: Is it wise to stay friends with your ex?

You’ve spent five, ten, 15 years together and shared the most intimate secrets and experiences. So when you split, should you maintain a friendship, or is it healthier to make a clean break?

  • Aquarius magazine
  • Published: 13:34 November 27, 2012

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • American psychologist Seth Meyers, says, “Love never truly dies, no matter what came between the two individuals. Anger, sadness and denial covers strong feelings underneath. You can’t love someone day after day and ever truly stop loving that person.”


Suzi*, 35, says that three years after divorcing her ex-husband, he is still one of her best friends

A long time ago, I met a man, we fell in love, we had kids, we fell out of love, we stayed friends. When the tide of time rose up around our happy fortress and the walls came tumbling down, the factors that had drawn us together – the chemistry, the easy flow of words, the feeling that we’d known each other for eternity – remained. And we decided that the sometimes difficult path of staying friends was, in fact, the least painful option. It’s unusual, certainly. But is it really that bizarre? Two people sharing a life and then walking away, without even a backwards glance, seems much stranger to me.

Granted, right after the divorce, things were strained – we bickered more viciously and niggled with more intent – but we had 15 years of memories and an indestructible common ground, our children, binding us together. Having both grown up under the fallout of acrimonious divorces, it wasn’t a legacy we could live with. So we decided to push our issues aside. It hasn’t always been easy, as the trails of bar tabs and regrettable romances we’ve left in our wakes will prove. But then again, I’ve witnessed clean breaks, and they don’t look any easier.

Admittedly, a certain level of detachment is needed initially in order for the intertwined paths to untangle. But once the dust has settled, why not be friends? When you’ve invested so much time, sweat and tears into a friendship, why throw it away? I wouldn’t chuck out a favourite jumper if it was still wearable, and they’re much easier to replace than good friends.

Relegating an ex to your past sounds pretty adolescent to me. No happily every after, so you can’t speak anymore? After ten years, Prince Charming lost his charm, so now you can only hate him? Really? Are you sure it’s not just easier to hate than to deal with the rejection, heartbreak and grief? American psychologist Seth Meyers, says, “Love never truly dies, no matter what came between the two individuals. Anger, sadness and denial covers strong feelings underneath. You can’t love someone day after day and ever truly stop loving that person.”

Helen Williams, a counsellor at LifeWorks (, says,“I think the reason partners don’t stay friends is often because of emotional immaturity. It takes patience, resolve and a forgiving spirit to lay aside differences and pursue a warm friendship. It can be done and I’ve seen it play out in many wonderful ways.”

We change. We grow. We evolve. Where’s the adult understanding that life-stuff happens? Where’s the acceptance that sometimes relationships get ill? Isn’t chucking the friendship out with the marriage a serious case of cutting off your nose to spite your face? Just because it’s not romantic love anymore, does it mean it’s not a love worth having?

Self-improvement author Alan Cohen talks about Big Love, which he says “defines the success of a relationship, not by how long it lasts, but by the quality of aliveness we experience while the relationship thrives. Big Love recognises that love and harmony are more important than being right; and that mutual support is more vital than sex, romance, or even staying together”.

It’s true. When a couple can’t live with, or without each other, they have three options: stay together and face a lifetime of unhappiness; go their separate ways and swallow the grief; or try their damnedest (over many years) to keep hold of the good love while sifting out the rest. In my mind, only one of these is bearable – it may be hard, and it may be the road less travelled, but it’s definitely doable. So why not at least try?


Carmel*, 31, is getting married next year. She has three exes, none of whom she stays in touch with

Without wanting to sound like a drama queen, I’ve had more ‘ex factor’ showdowns than Simon Cowell. Like Mr Cowell, it’s rarely a pretty sight and, like his show, it invariably ends in tears.

I’d been dating a guy – my university sweetheart – for five years, but as we both grew up, we inevitably grew apart. So I ended it. I felt terrible, but also knew it was the right decision. He was heartbroken, and so I naively agreed to stay friends.

This is where I learned Lesson Number One – staying ‘just friends’ rarely means you actually remain ‘just’ friends. All it took was for him to come around with his puppy-dog eyes and a pizza and one thing would lead to another. In a way, he took advantage of my weakness and fondness for him, while I equally indulged in no-strings, guilt-free affection when it suited me.

The result was that I realised I was never going to move on unless I severed ties with the ex completely. In a way, it’s like trying to go on a diet and having a chocolate cake sitting in the fridge – you’ve got to throw that delicious bad boy out.

In order to gain closure – that mythical nirvana I hear so much about – you have to process your feelings. And to do that successfully, you need distance between yourself and that person, explains life coach Evelyn Heffermehl of Light House Coaching ( “Breaking up is tough, whether you leave or you are left, and we all need time to process our feelings and grieve what we are saying goodbye to, while making space for a new chapter. This is difficult to do if you’re still in between… seeing your ex but not seeing him.”

I cut connections with my ex (eventually), began socialising again, and soon fell for another guy. We began dating and things were great – or so I thought. One night we were out for dinner and he dropped a bombshell – he was dumping me. Hurt and desperate to cling to our relationship, I suggested staying ‘good friends’. Feeling guilty, he reluctantly agreed.

Over the next few months we saw each other regularly, but in ‘friendly’ situations – grabbing lunch, going to the cinema. The distance made my heart grow proverbially fonder. As painful as the break-up was, this was harder. Seeing the man I had loved get on (happily) with his life without me simply tore me apart. I even started socially stalking him, manufacturing situations where we would bump into each other.
I knew then that I’d learned Lesson Number 2 – keep the break clean and friendly and retain your dignity.

Lesson Number 3 is also worth remembering – no break-up is ever mutual. Someone wants it, and someone doesn’t. Pretending you can move forward together, as friends, with someone who has shared your secrets, your dreams and, less romantically, has seen you sit on the loo, is just blind stupidity. “Unless you’ve already let go of that person as a love partner in your heart, continuing to see him will make it very difficult to move on and open your heart to new possibilities and new relationships,” says Evelyn.

She’s right, you need to close one door to open another. My advice is simple. If you’re faced with a break-up, make it clean, make it quick and never, under any circumstances, fool yourself into thinking you’ll stay friends. Over time the relationship will deteriorate into an awkward situation, between yourselves and your new partners. Why waste time and energy? So, unless kids are involved, I say don’t even consider raising the F word.

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