Friends with an ex? When to forgive and when to move on

For "International Forgive an Ex Day," here's how to get past a bad breakup and learn to be friends. And some guidance on when to proceed with caution.
Couple, tension, boyfriend, girlfriend, upset, angry, argument
People with darker traits are more likely to be friends with their exes for the hook up.Shutterstock

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

Your ex keeps texting; he wants to be friends. It wasn't a good breakup but you'd like to live on cordial terms, the thing that mature adults do.

Before you decide to forgive whatever transgressions broke up the relationship, think about whether you also want to remain friends. Or if it's better to forgive and get away from each other.

Research finds that people who are more likely to remain friends with an ex are more likely to admit to being dishonest, manipulative, and cheating to get their way, either for sex, or because it’s just practical. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that every ex who wants to remain friends only wants to use you.

“Most people are doing it because they want to be friends,” says W. Keith Campbell, professor and head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia.

But that's not the whole story.

There is research on cross-sex friendships, but few studies have explored why people remain friends after the romance ends.

“Why do people stay friends in the first place?” asks Justin Mogilski, a doctoral student in psychology at Oakland University in Michigan, and an author of the "friends with an ex" study published in Personality and Individual Differences. “One is sentimental and the other is very cold — that is one of the things that stuck out to me.”

In one of two separate questionnaires, 348 participants, men and women ages 18 to 51, were asked to identify the reasons they stayed friends after a break up. Based on their answers, it seems we're mushier at heart AND more practical than we realize, even after the flame is gone. It also turned up some red flags for anyone who "wants to stay friends."

Their responses, listed from most to least common:

1. Reliability/sentimentality

You’re friends because you genuinely like each other. There’s mutual respect and common interests.

2. Pragmatism

It's useful. Maybe he or she has loads of cash, is handy, has a good network, or is a good cook.

3. Continued romantic attraction

You’re friends because you (deep down) want to get back together.

4. Children and shared resources

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You’re friends because you’re co-parenting or sharing resources, such as a house or health insurance.

5. Diminished romantic attraction

You care for the person but you don’t want to be intimate.

6. Social relationship management

You share a social network.

7. Sexual access

Yeah, you’re friends for the hook up.

When it came to access to sex, differences between men and women emerged.

“Men were more interested in sexual access and being pragmatic,” says Campbell.

It turns out that stereotypes about men and women seem pretty accurate when it comes to relationships.

In the second study, Mogilski asked 513 people, age 18-48, to explain why they stay friends with exes and take personality tests. He wondered if certain traits were associated with reasons why people stay friends with exes.

People who admitted to being dishonest, less humble, willing to manipulate people, and antagonistic were more likely to say they’re friends with exes because it’s practical and they want to hook up with them.

So is it wise to be friends with exes? How do you make it work?

It can be important, especially if there are children, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and TODAY contributor.

“You are really aiming for co-parenting, to work toward the rearing of your children in a healthy way,” she says.

Dr. Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University, offers some advice for a "re-configured relationship."

“Trustworthy and reliable communication is very important so that you know where you stand. Also, think through what led to the break-up and stay clear of all that,” he said.

“Chart a new, fresh mutual friendship based on those qualities that continue from the original attraction, but with minimal expectations.”

Saltz shares a few tips on how to stay friends with exes:

1. Don’t get stuck in your mind.

If you’re curious about an ex’s motivation, ask. You might think she has ulterior motives because that’s what you think.

2. Don’t get drunk with an ex.

Avoid high risk behaviors, where your guard could be let down.

3. Avoid being alone together.

If you don’t trust yourself around an ex, keep friends or family around.

4. Don’t flirt.

Intimacy starts with flirting.

And if you need to be reminded:

Don’t have sex with an ex.

Sex is more complicated than just sex.

Whether you decide to stay friends or not is up to you, but it's important to weigh the pros and cons of both decisions before moving forward.