Though some of us may have trouble finding even a single reason for staying friends with an ex, a new study published this summer in Personal Relationships explores the different rationales people have for maintaining ties with former partners.
Researchers from the University of Kansas conducted two separate surveys to get a better understanding of what they call post-dissolution friendships (PDFs). While there are plenty of studies that have touched on these types of relationships, this team took a theoretical approach and analyzed their findings through the lens of attachment style.
In the first survey, 288 individuals, the majority of whom were university students at a Midwestern University, took a number of online tests that gathered information on demographics, attachment style, and personality traits. They were also shown a list of possible reasons for staying friends with an ex—such as not wanting to lose a friendship or trying to be polite—and asked to rate how much they agreed with each statement or write in their own reasons. Participants who had history of staying friends with a former partner also shared how the relationship turned out, or how they imagined it would turn out.
The procedure was similar in the second survey, which included a pool of 536 participants, but researchers also asked who made the offer of staying friends after the relationship ended and why they broke up.
Though the small sample size of both studies should be taken into account, according to the researchers' findings, staying cool with someone you used to date was fairly common among their respondents: A majority of participants (59 percent in the first survey and 65 percent in the second) reported doing so.
Researchers also pinpointed four reasons participants gave for why they would stay friends with an ex: security, practicality, civility, and unresolved romantic desires. In many cases, these reasons were informed by a person's individual experiences. For example, LGBTQ people were more likely to cite security—because their community is small, it's possible that they would be more likely to want to maintain that relationship in some form. On the other hand, people who relied on their exes for financial support cited practical reasons for maintaining a friendship post romance. In both of these examples, these relationships were associated with more positive feelings, such as security.
Besides wanting to be polite and avoid a confrontation, the fourth reason to emerge for maintaining a connection with a former lover was, unsurprisingly, unresolved romantic desires. This "included items like not wanting to lose the sex, still having romantic desires, not wanting to be alone, and not wanting to lose the other person's protection," the authors write. Attachment anxiety, or when people are preoccupied with rejection or being abandoned, was a positive predictor for the use of this reason across both surveys. The authors also found this reason to be associated with negative outcomes, such as feeling depressed or jealous.
Omri Gillath, one of the authors on the study and an associate psychology professor at the University of Kansas, tells Broadly the bottom line is that people have different reasons for remaining friends with former romantic partners, and those reasons may spell out different consequences to the friendship.
By understanding how people's attachment styles play out in PDFs, he explains, "we can more easily predict who will stay friends with an ex-partner and why." As a result, "therapists can better help their clients, and people can better prepare for things to come."