I've been asked this question countless times over the years: Can two people who were in love and breakup then be friends? The answer is twofold: It depends, and maybe in time but usually not at first. To really get at this answer, we have to look at a definition of friendship.
There are many kinds of friends in life — some are situational, such as co-workers or schoolmates. When you change jobs or graduate, those friendships often don't last. It's not that you didn't like each other; it's that you didn't have a bond deep enough to survive without daily reinforcement. There are also business colleague friendships but those often include the wearing of a social "mask" — you want to look good so you don't reveal much if anything about your flaws and failures.
One of the characteristics of a deeply bonded friendship is emotional safety. This means you have the freedom to completely be yourself and openly share about the deep down stuff of your life. With emotional safety, you can be real, no social mask required. This also means that you lack hidden agendas, and that's where the problem comes in as former lovers attempt to be friends too soon.
The typical scenario is this: you dated, you fell in love, it went badly, and you broke up. (We're not talking about the kind of dating relationships that never got that deep.) Now, the person who once loved and made love to you is dating someone new, maybe even sleeping with someone new. It is almost impossible to resist the temptation to compare yourself to the new person in your ex's life. "Why not me?" you can't help but wonder. You haven't yet moved on to someone you're crazy about, so you are still feeling raw and wounded.
Your ex-lover, now "friend," shares about a new relationship and you find yourself "coaching" him/her against it. You find fault with the new person, fault with the way they connected, fault with just about everything. You have a hidden agenda whether you are aware of it or not: to keep your ex-lover single until you are happily in love with someone else or until he/she comes back to you. Exposing yourself to the reality that your lover has moved on is like pouring gasoline on a fire — it keeps you inflamed and prevents healing.
Here's what works: Post break-up, don't see one another and don't talk on the phone until a significant time period has passed. Give yourself time to heal from the wounds, the loss, and the disappointment. Protect yourself from further injury by removing yourself from the knowledge of your ex's love life. Agree that you will re-evaluate and check in with one another down the road. Six months, nine months, or a year later, take inventory. If you're feeling truly comfortable — couldn’t care less if he/she is with someone new — then see if you still want a friendship with that person.
Most of the time, people discover that they don't. Bottom line: it's rare for ex-lovers to become good friends, and if they do, it is only after the passage of time and with a great deal of healing. Even if you do re-connect down the road as friends, it probably won't last beyond your involvement with someone new who will not appreciate that connection. Most likely you should just move on.
About the author: Nina Atwood, M.Ed., LPC, is a nationally known psychotherapist, author of five self-help books, and frequent expert media guest. Read Nina’s transformational books; for women: Temptations of the Single Girl: The Ten Dating Traps You Must Avoid, and for men: Date Like a CEO: Leadership in Life and Love for Men. To successfully date online, get Nina’s $0.99 cent eBook Internet Dating for the Savvy Single. Get loads of free advice at www.singlescoach.com.
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