Staying Friends with an Ex

Most people think they have a choice about continuing or ending a relationship. Think again.

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Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2024. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

“Here’s something that grates on me: people who just got out of a relationship and lament that ‘he/she and I were perfect together.’ Obviously you weren’t. Otherwise, you’d still be together.”
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, at

There is little chance that you know what is or is not perfect for you, and there is little chance that your decisions are absolutely right. Perhaps people buy Mark’s book because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t give fuck. It’s a prescription for happy indifference.

Lucy Sarret, a UK journalist who is the relationships editor at Sextrasworld, billed as a magazine about sex and relationships, asks:

“Is it a good idea to stay friends with your ex? What is the potential for growth, future jealousies from next partners, toxicity, boundaries to set, how soon after breakup to be friends, et cetera? Any and all of the above!”

Here is my answer:

Life Accumulates

Hi Lucy,

Life is cumulative and whatever is left behind gets repeated. If you don’t thoroughly exhaust the potential in a relationship, then you recreate that potential in the next relationship.

There is a fallacy of commodity that pervades our culture and extends to relationships. The idea that your relationship is a success when you’re satisfied distracts us from the truth that our relationships are finished when we’re satisfied.

Relationships begin where satisfaction ends. That’s where the growing starts. If you do not continue to work on your broken relationships, then you’ll never achieve wholeness. The question is figuring out the next step.

Continuing a relationship does not mean continuing it in the same way. Inevitably, the next steps are different, but they’re necessary. Like the Phoenix, the magic life springs from the ashes.

For example, one should end a toxic relationship, but one should not forget or fail to build on it. Failures are foundational, and if you do not understand them, you repeat them until you do.

People who are less bound to their relationships will be less bound to their marriages and the children they birth. They will feel less obliged to serve a parental role just as they will feel less obliged to serve and role in a partnership.


Survival is an essential skill. It’s a skill we take for granted. We presume we know what’s safe and necessary, but under stress and trauma, clarity degrades. We will often do things that test our emotional or psychic safety, either by things we do or things we ignore.

Growth has a rhythm, and survival is a behavior that fits this rhythm. You need to make survival intuitive, so you don’t have to think about it. Survival is not exercised as a judgment, but an intuition. You don’t know how to survive; you feel it. It needs to become second nature in the context of your changing life.


Learning patience and survival, and distinguishing growth from satisfaction, are the points of a relationship. We relate to the world to become better actors in the world. The world is not here to provide satisfaction.

People who don’t continue in attempting to fix their mistakes go on to become people of little value, providing those essential role models of how not to raise a family, engage in community, run a business, or provide leadership. These people are all around us. Role models of what not to be.

If you’re not exploring the boundaries that lie beyond your satisfaction, then you’re not living. This is what I tell my psychotherapy clients. At least they are willing to listen.

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