Beware the Guy Who Wants to Be Friends With An Ex

May 20, 2016

being-friends-with-an-exI have never felt comfortable with the idea of my partner being close friends with an ex. I don’t understand the need for it. The world is full of wonderful people we may befriend – why nurture a close friendship with someone you used to have sex with? It’s bound to be unsettling for a new partner, who probably doesn’t relish imagining you having made your way through the Kama Sutra with your ex.

Sometimes we have no choice but to be cordial or even on friendly terms with an ex. It’s often essential on a college campus or in the workplace. People who meet and then break up within their social circle are bound to run into one another sometimes. Divorced parents sometimes find ways to maintain a friendship for the sake of their children. But most people describe it as awkward, not an excuse for grabbing coffee.

It’s awkward because unless both parties lost interest at precisely the same time and for the same reasons, someone’s feelings probably got hurt. The relationship will never look the same as two people who started out as platonic and stayed that way. They will always inhabit the roles of Dumper and Dumpee to some extent, and that means the playing field can never be level.

When I hear people claiming (or even boasting) that they’re friends with their exes, I figure I’m hearing from a serial Dumper (or serial Dumpee  🙁 ). I generally assume that the Dumper is a pro – a Player with other people’s hearts. The serial Dumper finds it easy to move on but may find it beneficial in some way to keep an ex as a “friend.” Over the years my inbox has seen a flurry of emails from women who hoped that this kind of status was a sign that “he still cares.” Or “the timing is bad right now, but we’re staying friends and it could still work out.”

Where I have witnessed successful friendships of this sort, it has usually been in the context of a short-term casual arrangement. Two sociosexually unrestricted people hook up and then stop hooking up, with no damage to their ability to socialize and hang out. It’s the absence of emotional intimacy that makes this transition possible.

Recently here at HUS the subject came up in a comment thread. I noted that couples negotiate boundaries – what’s OK and what isn’t OK. I gave the example of getting together alone with an ex. Personally, I would not feel comfortable with it, and even consider it a red flag – for the reasons I’ve stated above. A male commenter responded:

“I don’t understand this fixation on exes. A partner who seriously asked me to have no contact with my exes would be a huge red flag. I would consider they either have serious trust issues or are signaling the start of an abusive relationship. I’m out either way.

…I’m friends with several of my exes. I’m also friends with several people I’ve dated where it didn’t work out. We were together because we liked each other’s company. Deciding we weren’t suited as partners doesn’t change that. At least not for me.”

I left it there but have been thinking about it since. It’s so antithetical to my understanding of human relationships, yet some people claim is works really well for them. What was I missing?

New research may have the answer: Science reveals what it may say about your personality if you’re still friends with your ex at Business Insider.

“A study published by researchers at Oakland University found that people with “dark” personality traits — i.e., those who are generally disagreeable, manipulative, and exploitative — were more likely to be friends with former flames for practical and sexual reasons.”

Here’s the study: Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship

For those unfamiliar with the term, “dark personality traits” are defined in this study of the Dark Triad constellation of personality traits:

“The Dark Triad consists of three overlapping but distinct personality variables: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

The present research addresses why and how dark personalities overlap. Drawing from classic work in psychopathy, manipulation and callousness were found to be the common antagonistic core.”

Another study examines the relationship between Dark Triad traits and the pursuit of sex, power and money:

“Results indicated that the common variance of the Dark Triad was very highly correlated with low Honesty–Humility.

…Furthermore, the Dark Triad and Honesty–Humility were strong predictors of three domains of outcome variables:

Sex (short-term mating tendencies and sexual quid pro quos)
Power (Social Dominance Orientation and desire for power)
Money (conspicuous consumption and materialism).”

In the most recent study on being friends with exes, researchers asked 350 people to come up with potential reasons for remaining friends with an ex. The subjects generated about 150 different reasons. They divided those reasons into three groups:

  1. Sentimentality, e.g. ex is a great listener
  2. Pragmatism, e.g. want to borrow money from them
  3. Sexual access, e.g. still have sex from time to time

Note that in each of these categories one party gains a tangible benefit.

Researchers then asked a different group of 500 people to rank the 150 reasons in terms of importance. Then they gave them personality tests. Here are their key findings:

  • People who rated high in antagonism – or manipulation and callousness – are most likely to stay in touch with exes.
  • People who scored low in honesty prized sexual access. So did people who scored low in humility.
  • People generally felt that the best reason for staying in touch with an ex was sentimentality.
  • Men were more likely than women to seek pragmatic and sexual benefits from exes.

According to BI:

“These results make sense, given that previous research has found that dark personality types value sex and short-term relationships over longer relationships, value money and power, and can be more manipulative.”

I’m not surprised by the results of these studies. I feel more strongly than ever that the desire to keep in touch with exes does not bode well for emotional intimacy in other relationships. There are exceptions, but this is a high risk maneuver with a low payout.

For the record, it’s perfectly natural to feel sentimental about an ex, and even seek ways to connect as you are recovering from a breakup and adapting to single life. But moving on should be the goal. That’s what most people want for themselves and their exes. It’s a good idea to avoid committing to a new relationship until you’re able to let go fully. It’s best for you and most fair to your next partner.

Don’t let anyone make you feel that you have “trust issues” or are behaving in an abusive manner if you have concerns related to a person’s inability to close the door on past lovers. A person who chooses not to let go of a past relationship, whether because of sentimentality or selfish gain, is not a good relationship prospect.

The best case scenario is that you’ll be sharing emotional space in someone’s head. Far worse is the possibility of getting entangled with someone who enjoys the pragmatic and sexual benefits of friendship with exes.

Have you dealt with this problem in a relationship? Have you witnessed “dark trait” patterns of behavior among exes who want to stay in touch?

Have you successfully cultivated a platonic relationship with someone you were in love with before?

Let’s discuss.