Can You Shift From Lovers to Friends?
After a breakup, the way we relate to our former romantic partner shifts dramatically. Sexual, romantic, and daily shared life patterns stop or morph, making way for a new normal for each partner. This leaves many in an uncomfortable state of transition, wondering whether they can still have their now-ex in their life—and how.
Transitioning from being lovers to friends, platonic colleagues, or even just civilized co-parents is much easier if there are good boundaries.
Boundaries are relationship expectations; they reflect how you want to be treated and what you’re going to do if someone violates those expectations (APA; Cloud & Townsend, 2017). This can include everything from how you want someone to talk to you to whether you want them to touch you to how much time you want to spend with them (Warren, 2023). In this way, boundaries keep you safe in your interpersonal relationships.
If you find yourself wanting a non-romantic relationship with your ex after a breakup—or if you must have one of necessity, because you work together or share parenting responsibilities—here are 4 steps to help you set new boundaries.
Step 1: Assess Your Motivation, Honestly.
Before trying to be friends or non-romantic partners, it’s essential that you really explore what’s driving your desire to be connected in the first place. Why do you want to be friends with your ex? Is it because you really care about them and think you can add to one another’s life in a meaningful way as friends more than you could as lovers? Or, for example…:
- Do you want to stay connected because you’re afraid of being alone?
- Do you feel guilty about the breakup or your role in the relationship ending, so you’re trying to ease the pain?
- Do you selfishly want a tie to your ex because they’re still in love with you, to ease your ego in case your next relationship fails?
- Are you secretly aware that you want to continue a sexual connection with your ex without commitment but won’t directly tell your ex that?
Knowing why you want to stay connected is key to setting healthy relationship expectations. If you’re honest with yourself and realize that staying friends with your ex is coming from a less-healthy place that has nothing to do with them as a person, you may decide that cutting off contact is a better choice.
Step 2: Describe Your Ideal Relationship.
Once you’ve honestly admitted your motivation for keeping your ex in your life, it’s time to figure out what an ideal non-romantic friendship with your ex would look like. Given that you’re no longer together, how do you want them to be in your life? Ask yourself questions like:
- What does “being friends” mean?
- How often do you want to talk or see one another?
- Do you still want to see them? When and under what conditions?
- Do you want a relationship or are you mostly hoping it’s not awkward to run into them because you have mutual friends?
In addition, are there any dealbreakers to being friends? For example, are there things you don’t want your ex to do, like stopping by unannounced; calling late at night; sending sexy photos; or continuing to have sexual interactions?
Get as clear as you can about how you would like—and not like—to have your ex in your life moving forward.
Step 3: Share Your Perspective With Your Ex.
Now that you’ve figured out some of your motivation for being friends and what you’d like that relationship to look like, it’s time to share it with your ex and get their feedback to see whether a friendship works for them. For example, you may say something like:
I know things are changing between us because we broke up. Even though we’re not romantically together anymore, I want to be friends with you because I really care about you as a person. You’re funny and I really like you as a person—we just weren’t good together as romantic partners. What I hope is that we can be friends moving forward. To me, that means we can see each other once in a while—maybe grab coffee or catch up sometimes. I know we’ll run into each other at parties too. What I really don’t want is for us to be awkward saying hi or feeling like we can’t interact anymore. Or for being friends to hurt either of us as we date new people. So, I think it’s better not to hook up with each other moving forward. What do you think about what I’ve said? Do you want to try to be friends with me? Do you think we can? Do you think it would be healthy for you?
Step 4: Evaluate Over Time.
As you establish what you want and need in your new friendship with your ex, it will be important to continually see how it feels to you over time. If your ex acts in a way that is inconsistent with the new relationship you’ve outlined, it will be important to respond. For example, if they continue to pursue sexual interactions even when you’ve said you aren’t available for them, you may need to say something like: “Please don’t come onto me in a romantic way; we aren’t together anymore”; “I don’t want to be in a sexual relationship with you anymore, so I’m not going to respond to your advances”; or, “I’d appreciate it if you don’t stop by my place unannounced anymore. If you do, I’m not going to let you in.”
Like all relationships, you’ll get more information as you go. If you find that your new interactions or way of relating isn’t healthy for you or them, change it until you find something that works. Ultimately, that may mean that you aren’t capable of being friends— at least not yet.
The Naked Truth
Clear boundaries exist in all healthy relationships. They establish the kind of relationship you’re willing to be in and how you will respond if someone treats you in a way that’s inconsistent with your values and personal needs. When you’re going through a breakup, setting new, clear boundaries for yourself and your ex is key to moving on in a healthy way—whether they ultimately stay in your life or not.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., ABPP
Note: This content is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Best on your continued journey.
Image Source: Mixmike from Getty Images
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