Margaret Eby
September 30, 2016 9:54 am

So you dated someone you really liked, but it didn’t work out. That’s hard! Break-ups are unpleasant even when they are kind and mutual. You may have had to bake many trays of brownies or take up rock-climbing or shut yourself into a karaoke booth to sing all of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (no, just me?). You had something invested in that romantic relationship, otherwise it wouldn’t sting quite so much when it ended.

But just because the romance part of your relationship is over doesn’t mean that you can’t say “let’s just be friends” and mean it. That’s not always the case: Some relationships are just not going to work as friendships. It’s better for you both to move on and just think of each other occasionally. Maybe you’re someone who copes with things by cutting them out of your life, full-stop. That’s totally reasonable and OK, too! Do what you have to do to keep yourself together and move forward with your life. But I’m here to say that you can also have an actual, for-real friendship with your ex. One that isn’t full of secret longing that you’ll get back together or awkward tension, but an actual, honest friendship, even if there’s history there. Of course, it’s all about timing and the nature of your split. Here’s how to tell if you can be friends with your ex.

It has been at least two months since the break-up

It might seem arbitrary, but you both really, really need that space to let the embers of your old relationship cool before you try to be friends. Maybe there are some people who can just flip a switch and go from making out on the couch to a platonic hanging out but I’ve found that you need a little distance and space to rebuild and recover. When I’ve tried to be friends too soon, it often turns into backsliding into old relationship patterns that were part of the reason we broke up in the first place. It’s going to be hard, but cool it for a while. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to text cat photos back and forth eventually, but allow yourself a breather from all those intense feelings. Two months is a basic guideline for me, but sometimes it’s taken much longer, and that’s totally OK. You want to build a friendship that’s based on the stuff you like about each other, but doesn’t have the baggage of the break-up.

You mostly think of that person fondly, not with anger or sadness

If you hear your ex’s name and your first thought is “THAT JERK,” or you burst into tears, then it is not time to be friends yet. But if they get mentioned in passing and your feelings are more like “oh yeah! I miss talking to that person” you might be at the stage to reconnect.

You aren’t harboring secret hopes that you’ll get back together, and they aren’t either

If you’re going into a friendship with the secret strategy that this person will suddenly fix all the things wrong with your last go-around and fall back in love with you, you need to leave that situation ASAP. It’s too soon. You need to go into the friendship with clear eyes. It’s not fair to anyone if you’re just playing along in the hopes that something romantic will start up again. Ditto if you can tell that your ex still has hopes of a reconciliation and you are not about that. Sometimes exes get back together again! Who knows? But you can’t go in expecting that, or you’re just going to be sad and resentful, and not that good of a friend.

You have things in common that aren’t just your relationship

You probably didn’t date this person because you dislike them. But honestly assess if you have anything to talk about aside from your dating. If it was the kind of relationship that was all chemistry and wild hook-ups and no, well, anything else, it might not be a good candidate for friendship. But if it was with someone who liked the same kinds of activities as you do, maybe you can build on that to be buddies.

You are more or less OK with the idea of your ex dating someone else

I’m not saying that you’re going to volunteer to be the officiant at their wedding, or set your ex up on a date. Seeing your ex find happiness with someone new can be hard and weird even if you are really over them and you aren’t hoping to get back together. You’re allowed to feel those feelings, of course. But just as you are going to eventually find other romantic prospects, your ex is too. If you think you’d be OK with that, even if you’re a little weirded out at first, then that’s a sure sign you can be friends. You might not be the kind of friends who can talk in depth about each other’s love lives, and that’s OK, too.

You can set boundaries together and really stick to them

Before I got to be good friends with one of my exes, we had to sit down and talk some things out. Things like, OK, we are not going to dredge up old bad times from our romantic relationship. Things like “I’d be happy to meet your next significant other, but I really don’t want to hear about every date in detail.” Those boundaries might sound silly or inconsequential, but if you make them and both stick to them, you’re respecting each other’s feelings in a relationship that can be pretty tricky. And that’s important.

You both really, actually, seriously want to be friends

Sometimes the “let’s just be friends” line is something that people tell you to soften the heartache of a break-up. It’s not meant to be cruel, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that your ex wants to go get pizza next Tuesday. In order to both be for real, honest friends, you both have to be not just open to the idea, but enthusiastic about it. If you’re reaching out to your ex with enthusiasm and you’re getting back tepidness, don’t despair. These things can take time, and you want to let them work out their feelings. You want to make sure that you both are all in on this friendship endeavor, because it’s a double black diamond level of friendship. Remember that relationships, like all things, go through phases. Maybe one week you talk on the phone every night, but then for a month it’s just an email exchange. You have to allow the relationship to grow into itself, and understand that there are going to be times when being friends with an ex is going to be more difficult. That’s OK. If it’s more fun and good times than weirdness, stick it out. It can be worth it to lose a partner, but gain a real friend.

[Image via Fox]

Related:

What really happens when exes ask each other what went wrong

All the signs you’re totally over your ex—for real this time

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