7 Reasons People Stay Friends with Their Exes
June 2, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
After a breakup, some ex-partners avoid each other entirely. However, others continue to be in each other’s lives by remaining friends. So what motivates people to stay friends after a relationship ends? And what are the most important reasons for maintaining a friendship with an ex?
In a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers surveyed more than 300 college-age adults and asked them to come up with potential reasons why people might stay friends with an ex based on their own personal experiences.
More than 2000 reasons were reported in total; however, these reasons were condensed into seven primary themes.
1. Reliability and sentimentality
Examples included: “They were a great listener” and “I enjoyed their company”
Examples included: “They would buy me nice gifts or food” and “I hoped to hook up with one or more of their friends”
3. Continued romantic attraction
Examples included: “I was still in love with them” and “I couldn’t imagine my life without them”
4. Children and shared resources
Examples included: “We had children together,” and “We worked together professionally”
5. Diminished romantic attraction
Examples included: “I lost sexual interest in them” and “There were few negative feelings after the breakup”
6. Social relationship maintenance
Examples included: “To prevent awkwardness in our friend group” and “I wanted to stay friends with their friends”
7. Sexual access
Examples included: “The sex was good” and “To keep having sex”
In a second study, researchers gave another group of college students the list of seven reasons generated in the first study and asked them to rate the importance of each one. It turned out that reliability and sentimentality was rated as the most important reason for staying friends overall, while pragmatism was seen as the least important reason.
However, there was a gender difference such that men tended to see pragmatic and sexual access reasons as being more important compared to women.
People with “dark” personality traits (i.e., those with tendencies to be manipulative) also endorsed pragmatic and sexual reasons at higher rates. By contrast, people who were more insecure and anxious tended to endorse more of the reasons related to reliability and sentimentality.
As you can see, there are a lot of different reasons why some people choose to remain friends with an ex following a breakup—and, further, different types of people may choose to do so for very different reasons.
Several people have asked me before whether it’s a good idea to remain friends with an ex, and the results of this research would suggest that it probably depends on your reasons. There are a lot of potentially good reasons to stay friends, such as having a strong bond and/or shared children. However, there are also a lot of reasons that could potentially lead to trouble, such as when you’re doing it with the goal of using your ex for personal gain or getting back together when your partner has made it clear that they have no interest in doing so.
It’s certainly true that some exes do ultimately get back together (anecdotally speaking, it has happened to me in the past!), but it’s also often the case the desire to do so is one-sided, which can result in a situation where both partners ultimately have a harder time moving on and feelings of heartbreak are prolonged. So if your reasons revolve around rekindling the relationship, proceed with caution.
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To learn more about this research, see: Mogilski, J. K., & Welling, L. L. (2017). Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship. Personality and Individual Differences, 115, 114-119.
Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >