Playing “Innocent” with the Ex

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Breakups suck, and when a relationship ends, it can be difficult to let someone go. Unfortunately, some people are harder to get over than others, and it can be confusing to figure out whether an ex should be a friend, a fling, or forever forgotten. Some decide to stay on amicable terms, but is it possible to keep the relationship platonic and simply be friends with an ex?

Staying Friends

“For me it depends on the reason for the break up, because obviously that will have some say in how much hostility there is,” said Adam Paicely, a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He and his first girlfriend dated for seven months before calling it quits, but since the breakup was mutual, Paicely and his ex have been able to stay on friendly terms.

Tina Tessina, Ph.D. (aka “Dr. Romance”), a psychotherapist and the author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again, explained that even if a romance lose its spark, exes can still enjoy each other’s company. Single people have needs and recycling someone from the past can feel safer than picking up a random person at a bar or club. As long as it is just for fun, Tessina said sex with an ex can be positive; “Not only are you comfortable with this person sexually, but there’s also little at stake since the relationship aspect is over.”

…With Benefits?

Don't be fooled, however, ex-sex can be tricky, even leading to confusion or heartbreak. Hearing about an ex’s new interests can lower self-esteem, and one of the former partners might be giving the other false hope that they will get back together. “There will always be sexual tension, but people should acknowledge it and try to overcome it,” advised Marni Kamins, psychotherapist and author of The Breakup Repair Kit. “If they cannot, they should not be hanging out with the other person. A lot of times the guy is getting more out of it, and it is not going to allow either partner to move on if he or she is having sex with his or her ex.”

This was a lesson all-too-real for Travis Moore, a junior at Pepperdine University, who also said that he believes trying to stay friends with an ex can be too complicated. He and his girlfriend of two years had a hard time cutting the cord and tried, unsuccessfully, having a “friends with benefits” relationship.

“That was a big mistake,” Moore said. “It made sense at the time because we still had feelings for each other and there was also a lot of sexual tension, but in the end, hooking up didn’t benefit either one of us.”

The Cut-Off

Relationships rarely end well, but sometimes they end amicably enough that one can afford to keep an ex in his or her life in a semi-detached way. Janice Levine Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples relationships believes that to fully recover from a relationship, there needs to be period of absolute non-communication; “It’s like scratching a wound. If you continue to pick at it, it will stay irritated, so you need to let it heal with no contact,” she said.

Some exes are simply toxic and not even worth keeping around. The trouble is, the most destructive and unhealthy habits are usually the hardest to break. Certain exes can become like a drug, which leaves some physically and mentally addicted to them, in a sense. “He or she may be just as addicted to you as you are to them,” said Levine. “An ex won’t give you what you need, but he or she doesn’t want to lose you either.”

Kamins offers some advice for people who are still unsure whether or not to disentangle themselves from an ex: “People should cut their ex cold turkey when they break your heart, when they cheated on you or when they were violent with you […] Whenever something feels painful, cut it. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

Senior > Communications and Chicano Studies > UC Santa Barbara

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