“I really want to be friends with him/her (my ex) because we were friends before you and I met.”
The onset of a new relationship is exciting for a variety of reasons, primarily novelty, and we do think about the consequences of remaining friends with a former lover. While common knowledge prescribes that remaining friends with a former lover is possible, a study by Stephanie Spielmann and colleagues (2012) confirmed that current relationship quality declines as a result of contact with a former lover. Spielmann and colleagues (2012) further note that long-term involvement with former lovers hinders current relationship functioning particularly when the former lover is considered an alternative because unfulfilled needs in one’s relationship may in general prompt turning to thoughts of him or her.
The scientific evidence is fairly clear when it comes to being friends with a former lover but it may not lead to re-evaluation of current priorities. While it is possible to remain friends with a former lover, there are certain guarantees that doing so will sabotage the current relationship. Men specifically find it difficult to understand why their significant other has an inclination of being friends with a former lover. Ultimately, it comes down to a mutually shared sense of trust and understanding what is appropriate in the context of the current relationship. If either partner feels uncomfortable being triangulated (therapeutic language), it is extremely important to re-evaluate priorities. While triangulation is primarily a concept of family therapy, its basic tenants can be applied to romantic relationships and theorizes that a third party becomes involved in a relationship when a two-person emotional system is unstable (figure 1). This ultimately leads to the dissatisfaction of one party.
As a clinician, I do not advise remaining friends with a former lover unless a significant amount of time has passed in which both parties were able to re-evaluate their priorities. In the principle of Occam’s razor, which states that among competing hypotheses the one with the fewest assumptions is correct, remaining friends with a former lover prevents the formation of a new and healthy romantic relationship.
Spielmann, S.S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G, & Kogan, A. (2012). Ex appeal: Current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychology and Personality Science, (4)2, 175-180.