Should people stay friends with their exes after a breakup?

Many are struggling to cope with the "new normal" of no social gatherings, no sports, movie theatres, concerts and more for months to come. Getty Images

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s that it may be both possible and impossible to stay friends with an ex-lover.

But like Hollywood has taught us over the years, relationships are definitely not like the movies. So forget trying to be friends with an ex-partner because it’s not going to work, a new Kansas State University study says.

That goes for both real life and over social media, especially if you’re currently in another relationship.

READ MORE: Hoping to stay friends with an ex? Here’s why you need to read this study first

“Social media can enhance romantic relationships when it’s used to stay in touch throughout the day or honour your partner’s achievements, but there are pitfalls to avoid that could damage the relationship,” lead author Joyce Baptist says in a statement.

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After looking at nearly 7,000 couples using social media, researchers found that the more accepting couples are of “boundary crossing,” the more harmful it can be to a relationship.

“Boundary crossing,” Baptist says, is when someone in a relationship is having a platonic but frequent friendship with another person they find attractive. This is different from “boundary violation,” which includes emotional or physical infidelity.

This is because each person might have a different take on what is and isn’t acceptable in a relationship, especially if no discussion has been had, says Baptist.

During the study, researchers also found that while some people accepted that their partners still kept in touch with previous lovers or flirted with them online, the opposite was often true.

“Although they may say, ‘I trust you and it’s OK,’ they are not happy about it,” Baptist says. “They eventually perceive that their significant other is spending too much time connecting with others on social media rather than paying attention to their own partner.”

Engaging in this type of behaviour was found to decrease relationship satisfaction and levels of care people get from their partner.

The best thing for couples to do, Baptist says, is for both sides to discuss what they will and will not tolerate in their relationship. This will help create a sense of security within the couple.

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According to a 2015 study by Western University, 88 per cent of surveyed Facebook users admitted to “creeping” their ex-partner’s profile after a breakup.

Those who are more likely to monitor their ex-partners online were people who are more distressed by a breakup, another study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found.

But is it a good idea to carry on a friendship with an ex, with or without a new love in your life?

No, says relationship expert and couples’ therapist Nicole McCance.

“I wholeheartedly agree [with the study],” McCance says. “It’s a huge no because it’s torturous [in both yours and your ex-partner’s lives]. The prevalence you’ll get back together is really high. So if you know that it’s not a healthy thing that you’re going to keep doing again and again – that same cycle of getting back together and breaking up – then just don’t have that temptation.”

And if someone is still talking to (or flirting with) an ex even when they’re in a new relationship, then McCance worries that something more may be at play.

READ MORE: 5 relationship myths romantic movies taught us, according to a relationship expert

She says if this happens, then the person who is engaging in this type of behaviour has to ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing.

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“I think if someone is wanting to flirt with an ex or befriend an ex girlfriend – whether in person or online – it’s a bit of a red flag,” McCance says. “What is missing in your current relationship that you’re needing to reach out for? If it’s attention or praise or acknowledgment or something, then possibly you’re not feeling currently valued and that’s a conversation you should be having [with your partner].”

The only time a post-relationship friendship with a former lover may be able to work is if it ended amicably, McCance says.

“The only time I’ve seen this work is if [the relationship] has fizzled out,” she says. “So if the relationship with the ex fizzled into a friendship naturally then it can work because it was kind of like you were friends anyway.”

However it is still a slippery slope, McCance says, because there’s always a reason why relationships end. Even if it was a clean breakup, there’s always somebody who was hurt and wanted to stay in that relationship still, McCance says.

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But overall McCance advises against remaining friends – or staying in touch – with an ex-partner because it makes it harder for either party to move on.

And should your current partner be in contact with a former love and it bothers you, then speak up and make your feelings clear, McCance says. That way your partner is aware of your feelings and a solution can be found.

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