top of page
  • Writer's pictureRos McMaster

Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Blog Post picture of girl walking away Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

It’s become a popular trend to remain friends with your ex after separating. That’s a good thing, especially if you’ve got children together. But the reality is that in the beginning, it’s unrealistic to expect true (I said true) friendship with your ex. In fact, it may take years to reach that point. And some people never get there. What you can hope for is that you'll be civil, .... 'amicable'. But that's not really friendship is it?

I think Maragret Massari got it right when she said....

If two past lovers can remain friends, either they never were in love, or at least one or both of them still are.

Friendship is a combination of affection, loyalty, love, respect, and trust. Friendship provides emotional safety because you don’t have to weigh your thoughts and measure words. Just to keep it all in perspective, keep in mind that there’s a reason you parted. If you were such great friends, you’d probably still be making a go of the relationship! So given that you’ve split, there’s every likelihood that you are weighing your thoughts and measuring words while establishing a new kind of friendship with your ex. With all this game playing going on now, there’s no time for grieving and true inner healing to occur.

Blog Post picture of broken heart Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

There’s no telling how long grieving will take. Grieving’s unpredictable like that. Although, if you can’t get yourself out of bed after six months, it may be time to seek professional help if you haven’t already. Deep grieving is a process. Denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance. Not necessarily in that order. You’ll likely move between them repeatedly on a daily basis.

Additionally, trying to establish a friendship so soon after separating leaves no real time for doing deep honest healing. For re-discovering your self. When you spend so long with one partner, it's possible that you may have adopted many of their values and ways of being in the world, so you need time to establish your own values and beliefs.

You must let go of the life you thought you wanted in order to have the life you truely deserve.

Certainly, in maintaining a connection from the beginning of my split with Andrew, I was not allowing myself time to deal honestly with the anger I still harboured. I’m talking about decades of anger. Deep-seated unresolved hurt. In fact I was suppressing it further in order for us to maintain the appearance of friendship. Just like our marriage, even the friendship carried all the denial and co-dependence that went with it. I was working towards establishing self-worth, and simultaneously continued to create images around what this new friendship ‘should’ look like.

And despite the fact that you may both have agreed to the split, chances are that it was driven by one partner more than the other, so at least one of you will be carrying a greater share of hurt. Initially, I was the one who was still hurting after the breakdown of our 30 year union, so when I spent time in his company, I continually struggled to comprehend that he no longer had romantic feelings for me.

At some point you have to realise that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life. - (unknown source)

For the sake of the family?

Blog Post picture of childs drawing of broken family unit  Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

Although no longer working as a ‘couple’, we had been great as a family unit, and continued to celebrate birthdays and Christmas together. Would it continue when either of us had new partners? Who knows. If this is currently working for you all, then I suggest you don't try to anticipate the future... simply take each occasion as it comes. I caution you however to keep your intentions in check. In other words, keep asking yourself what is the real motivation behind wanting to keep the "family unit" together. Are the kids simply being used as pawns for an ulterior motive?

If I'm honest, when we spent time together as a family, it felt awkward and contrived. But why were we trying to pretend? While there was a desire to claim it was for the benefit of our children, I'm certain this only added to their angst as well. Perpetuating false hopes for them of a possible union, and leaving them to feel confused and questioning why we broke up in the first place.

I was 12 when my own parents parted ways. When I was 16, my father met his 2nd wife. I hated that we had family gatherings which included both parents, because I was afraid mum would be hurt if I got on well with my stepmother. Of course, 40years later, I'm grateful for the united spirit of it all. My parents have remained amicable while keeping a friendly respectful distance.

I have friends whose children favoured one parent over the other after a split, so jealousy and further loss was a big issue for the rejected parent. And then there are step-parents who don’t want anything to do with the ex or the ex’s children, and so prevent the partner from having contact as well. Now that’s truly sad. No friendship there to be sure.

And then I have friends who simply continue to grieve the loss of the old 'family unit' way after the marriage has ended. However, this inability to 'let go' isn't really about mourning the loss of the family unit. It's about not being able to let go of deeper issues, perhaps related to loss, abandonment etc from way back in your past. It's your values around what 'family' means to you that has been challenged. Or, perhaps the real issue is your fear about moving forward, particularly if your financial position has changed for the worse.

Essentially, we use a 'decoy' like kids and friendship to avoid facing real issues. How do you know you're using a decoy? Put it this way..... if you're hanging onto an issue where there clearly is no resolution available, then it is a sign that you are using it to avoid dealing with the real issue. You're hanging onto the riverbank. You're likely using stress over the loss of 'family' to avoid true feelings of rejection, loss, fear of the future, jealousy etc. I'll leave it up to you to fill in the blanks.

Sadly, in-laws and friends become part of the casualty in a separation/divorce. Despite being close to these groups during your relationship, when a separation occurs there's every chance they will move towards the person they have known the longest. It's not that they don't like you any more, rather, it's just too uncomfortable for others to navigate this new change. Friendships are often formed due to 'common links', so once the link no longer exists, neither does the friendship. Sad but true. You've just got to suck it up.

Whatever the situation you’re in with regards to family, if you’re grieving the loss of the ‘family unit’ , the reality is, like everything else in life, the family unit was always going to change and morph. Divorce, death, children leaving home, children marrying, children moving far away from home. Changing and morphing constantly. When we accept that nothing is ‘permanent’ we stop grasping. Grasping and holding onto expectations around what things ‘should’ look like is what leads to unhappiness. Recognise instead that you are still a family, simply in a different form now. Of course you want your children to maintain a close bond with their parents, but you don't need to be pushing for a friendship between the two of you in order for that to happen.

Repeat your mantra: “You must let go of the life you thought you wanted in order to have the life you truly deserve."

For the sake of the companionship?

Blog Post picture of couple looking friendly Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

After separating, there’s a gaping hole that was once filled with a ‘body’ - even if it was a body that treated you badly! It can be hard work just thinking about the dating scene and all the mating rituals that go on.

You'll most likely crave your ex partners company in those moments when you're feeling particularly lonely. Loneliness can strike when you are alone (obviously) or even when you are in the company of others. Until you become accustomed to 'solo' life, you may feel happier sticking to what’s familiar and comfortable. And as long as you're both still single and getting along, your ex is that person.

The Down Side? Well, those idiosyncrasies of theirs will still drive you crazy! Second, if you’re getting on really well, you may be left confused about why you split in the first place? This is significant because you line yourself up to ride a never-ending roller coaster of emotion, especially if you are the one who was left hurt by the split. Remember....... just like when you started dating, you’re both on your best behaviour during this phase of negotiating your new ‘friendship’ status, so you may fall victim to thinking there’s a chance it could be different the second time around.

And just in case that is what you're thinking, I'll remind you again - there's a reason you parted!

Most importantly, spending too much time in each other’s company actually prevents you both from moving on in a healthy way. Certainly, it stopped either of us from making a proper go of new relationships. There's a tendency to grab hold of the aspects you do like about your ex, so everyone new that comes along will be held up in comparison. Making comparisons happens when you're not hanging out together, so it's made more difficult if you are.

Andrew and I were also still sleeping together. While this is a normal part of the initial separation phase, it's also dangerous. Emotionally I wasn't equipped for this. I'm not good with 'casual'. And as I mentioned earlier, it was preventing both of us from moving forward with others in a healthy way. He was comfortable in the 'familiarity' of each others company so he didn't seek other companions unless I was unavailable.

In the self-discovery work I've done, I came to realise that I was a love-addict. As such, when we were still sleeping together, I was unconsciously using sex to manipulate him and keep him from moving closer to another woman. That was my attempt to ward off the feelings of abandonment.

In the beginning of our separation, Andrew kept asking me to return, and because he was being on his best behaviour, I was tempted to think it could be different "this time". Again, that's the love-addict in me clinging to fairytale endings. Finally I enquired ..... “Do you want me to return because you want me in your life? Or is it that you simply don’t want to be alone?”

With uncharacteristic honesty, he replied, “In truth, it’s because I don’t want to be on my own. But hey, we get on well don’t we?

His response felt brutal, but it was a reality I needed to hear, and it put our friendship back in perspective. We had never actually been friends. So what was I trying to achieve now? Every time I thought I might fall prey to his charms, I reminded myself of what he had said.

You don't need to waste time on someone who only wants you around when it fits their needs - Good Vibes

Remember to repeat your new mantra often!

“You must let go of the life you thought you wanted in order to have the life you truly deserve.”

For the sake of old habits?

When Andrew and I spent time together after our separation, he was more attentive towards me than he had been during our marriage, which was very intoxicating. It made it hard for me to believe he had been capable of such emotional emptiness and cruelty during our marriage. But I knew he could be more himself around me now because he had no romantic feelings towards me.

Without romantic feelings getting in his way, he wasn’t working hard to shield his heart from the vulnerability of an intimate connection. If you've read my conversation on Fear of Intimacy you'll understand this. Had I not been doing so much work on my own self-worth since our separation, I could easily have gone back to him. I had been working hard to develop values and boundaries since, so I knew better now. I wanted better now. But it challenged me just the same. Know this..... there are no quick fixes to healing.

Blog Post picture of stutues facing opposite direction and looking troubled  Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

Even though the split was driven by his lack of interest in me, he was miserable and lonely. And because I had co-dependent love-addict tendencies, I continued to feel responsible for his happiness, just as I’d always done. I had to keep reminding myself that monitoring his happiness level wasn’t my job. It was his.

Our old patters of responding to each other were still being played out. To a lesser degree certainly, but keeping me stuck in anger and sadness just the same. I needed to do a great deal of inner work to break all patterns and find myself again. Such a process necessitated spending time truly on my own. No dating, and no hanging out with the ex.

Spending time with your ex or getting straight back into the dating scene before you've done your own inner growth work is a way to avoid doing so. There's a tendency to think that in time, you'll just move on emotionally and everything will be ok again. However, by looking at what went wrong, what role you play in the dysfunction of your relationships, that's whats going to take your life in a new and better direction. That's what's going to lead you to happier relationships in the future. Best do the inner work before you enter a relationship with a new partner, or to save you from falling prey to the old one. So it's important to be ok with being alone with yourself. Distance is required to get a subjective view on your past.

When Andrew realised I was truly not returning, that's when he started dating. Not seriously dating .... he didn't want to go down the commitment path again. Ever. Dinner and sex only. Had I been dating or in a new relationship myself, I perhaps wouldn't have worried about him moving on with other woman. However, it again triggered my old fears around feeling abandoned, and my limiting belief about always coming second place. My jealousy reminded me that there was simply too much healing still to do around the anger I held towards him. There was absolutely a great deal of healing to do around issues of abandonment. Still healing to do around my own self-worth.

Over time, the work I was doing to build my self worth was improving every aspect of my life. I'll repeat for re-enforcement of the point..... please know that this process isn't an an easy or quick fix. It took me several years of deep inner work to begin feeling strong in my core and have a sense of self-worth. The time spent in his company made the process longer.

In essence, if you don't do something to learn about your shadow and your dysfunctional patterns, and if you don't develop a sense of self-worth, you will continue to replicate the dynamics of your past relationships. Do yourself a favour, and give yourself a clean break from your ex.

Getting Closure - Love, Forgiveness & Letting Go

There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love. Bryant H. McGill

I still had not received closure over the past, so a large part of me continued to hang around him trying to elicit answers. That was my ulterior motive behind wanting to maintain a friendship. At the very least, I figured an apology might be forthcoming. After all, our 'friendship' would now provide the loyalty, love, respect, and trust that didn't exist during our union. Hmmmmm?

In June 2016, two years after separating, I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. The diagnosis devastated him. He felt responsible for causing my cancer. Ok.... I'll admit it gave me some semblance of pleasure knowing that he felt guilty. For the first time ever, he allowed me to fully express (vent) and let go of some of the anger and sadness of the past. Note that I said some. There sometimes is no answer to “why”, yet we continue to create more drama by looking for answers where there are none. Being a man who never engaged in self-reflection ensured that he had no answers for me with regard to explaining his past behaviour. However, I’d never before been allowed to have a voice, and now I had found one.

As with any situation in life, if you have been hurt by someone, receiving an apology from a perceived offender only goes a teeny weeny part of the way towards your healing. Very often, apologies never come. You still need to dig deep within and take responsibility for yourself, for your healing, in order to let go of the pain. While I do believe that my long-held toxic emotions may have created my cancer, those emotions were my doing. Not his.

In 2017, Andrew too was diagnosed with cancer. Five weeks after his diagnosis he passed away. To say he had many regrets is an understatement. On his deathbed he apologised for not doing more to win me back. Still no apology for the hurt he had cause me during our marriage.

I didn't want him to win me back. I wanted closure. Now I was getting it, but it came at a great cost. First my cancer. Then his.

That I was able to care for him in the weeks leading up to his death was the most amazing act of unconditional love. What a gift he gave me in wanting me by his bedside throughout.

After his death I sat down to write a book about our life together. This is where I dug deep and learnt about myself. This is where I came to understand him and the past we shared.

One night, as if magically, all my anger dissolved. I no longer felt the need to forgive him for the past. Of course there was no magic to it. In writing the book, I had dug so deep, and was honest and raw. Exposed. It proved to me that space is needed to find your self first before you can really move into true healing.

Finding yourself, knowing yourself, taking responsibility for the role you played.... it allows you to understand and see your ex as a person, separate to the one you were in a relationship with. Without all the labels.
Blog Post picture of Ros and Andrew in happier times Can You Really Be Friends With an Ex?

Would we be friends now if he was still around? We always had a love that was born of the number of years we spent together. However, in all honesty, we were never 'friends'. Now that I am becoming a more authentic version of myself, I likely wouldn't choose to be in his company because we are so different now.

I believe with all my heart that he has given me the greatest gift in leaving. Perhaps it's part of 'the plan', and our journey together was always meant to culminate in this most tragic of endings. Now that I have come to understand 'us', I feel compassion and empathy towards him. I do miss him. I wish him well on the 'other side'.

The Final Verdict on Friendship With Your Ex?

I'll summarise with the definition of friendship again, just so that we're clear ....

Friendship is a combination of affection, loyalty, love, respect, and trust. Friendship provides emotional safety because you don’t have to weigh your thoughts and measure words.

You may still be hanging out in the same friendship group with you ex... but you're likely being friendly and amicable... NOT besties.

If you're truly doing the 'work' on you, you probably won't have any desire to continue a friendship with your ex - or rather, you won't want to keep pretending you are friends (in the true definition of the word)! We draw to ourselves those people who are a mirror to our shadows. As you grow as a person, as you do the work on discovering who you really are, you will no longer be drawn to the things in that person that attracted you to each other in the first place. The lesson learned, it's time to move on. And if you're not moving on with love in your heart, then you've still got some growing, healing and forgiveness to do.

So........ Let go of the riverbank. Let go of the life you thought you wanted so you can have the life you truely deserve.

For now, let's just say that it's important to keep it civil. Especially if there are kids involved. But true friendship? ..........

My verdict is NO.

From Shadows to Light memoir by ros mcmaster Full book Jacket

Brisbane residents may purchase discounted hard copy directly from Ros $20 pick-up only

Online paperback and ebook order from:

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page