What Does a Healthy Relationship With an Ex Look Like?

man looking down the sidewalk of a woman walking down the street

A guy I used to date had multiple tattoos for his ex girlfriends. His arms, wrists, and neck were covered with little mementos — souvenirs of girlfriends past.

Completely and utterly puzzled, and not too pleased to be seeing these reminders, I asked, “Doesn’t it hurt you to look at those reminders of your exes everyday?” He responded, “Not at all. They were good parts of my life, and I still have good relationships with them now. My exes and I are all on good terms.”

The practice of getting tattoos for all your significant others is definitely questionable and not too common, but being on good terms with your ex partners, on the other hand, isn’t too rare.

The real question is, what does a healthy relationship with an ex look like? Anyone can have a “relationship” with their ex (or, um, tattooed momentos of them), but having a healthy and non-messy relationship is another story, and certainly no easy feat.

Since all relationships are different, what truly defines a healthy relationship will vary, but there are some telltale signs to determine whether your relationship with your ex is healthy or unhealthy.

It’s Not Healthy If…

You’re still in love with them

If you’re still in love with your ex and trying to be friends with them, you’re playing with fire. While it’s completely normal to still love your ex, it doesn’t make for a good foundation of a platonic friendship. Breakups are painful and being friends with someone who you love and can’t be with is hard.

Talkspace therapist Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., advises, “Expectations are important here. Do you expect that you will be content maintaining a friendship with them or do you find yourself hoping that you will be able to get back together with them?” If you’re still in love, it’s likely that at least some part of you has hopes of rekindling the flame. In that case, a platonic friendship just isn’t a great idea.

You’re keeping them around as a backup

Are you in a new relationship but staying friendly with your ex just in case your new relationship doesn’t work out? Well, this isn’t fair to your current partner or your ex. Think about how it would feel to be in their shoes. If you’re thinking about your ex still being a viable option, you might not be putting as much effort, or love, into your new relationship as you should be.

You want to stay friends for the sex

Sex with an ex is almost always a bad idea. Trying to stay friends with an ex solely for the purpose of reliving all the great sex you used to have is tempting, but definitely not a good idea. While some people can separate emotions and sex, it’s much harder to do with someone you have history with. Again, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about how you would feel if your ex was staying friends with you just to possibly boink again someday.

You’re obsessed with checking up on them

In the age of social media, it’s way too easy to check up on your ex. Instagram and Snapchat let us see where someone is, what they’re doing, and most importantly, who they’re with. O’Neill says, “If your ex is occupying a lot of space in your head, it might be a good idea to hit the breaks. For example, are you spending a lot of time searching for them on social media or do you find yourself preoccupied with what they’re up to or who they are with? If that’s the case then maybe it’s time to make a clean break in an effort to get some perspective.” And please, stop trying to play detective by stalking your ex and checking who likes their photos.

You feel like they’re holding you back

If you’re broken up, you’re single. And if you’re single, you shouldn’t feel held back from meeting new people, forming connections, or going on dates. However, this definitely isn’t always the case and being friends with an ex you still have feelings for can result in feeling stuck. O’Neill describes this as “straddling that world of not dating but also not being separate,” — and it can completely hold you back from finding the new love of your life, or just having some fun.

It’s (Probably) Healthy If…

You have clear boundaries

Setting boundaries is one of O’Neill’s tips for a healthy relationship with an ex. Remember, this isn’t a one way street. You’ll have boundaries and so will your ex. In order to make the friendship work, you will both have to respect each other’s rules. Have an open and honest conversation where you set some ground rules for your new post-dating relationship. Decide what’s off limits to talk about.

For example, maybe you say you both don’t want to hear about each other’s new single sex life. With situations like this, ignorance can be bliss. You might also decide to have physical boundaries — deciding it’s best to not hang out in person and keep communication to text message.

You were friends before the relationship

In some cases, being friends prior to the romantic relationship can make it easier to have a healthy platonic relationship after the breakup — because you’ve been there, done that. You know what it looks like to have a pleasant, non-romantic friendship with this person. Sometimes, you might even realize that you two make way better friends than romantic partners. If you can take your relationship back to what it was before and feel content in doing so, you won’t have to mourn the loss of the person.

You keep the past in the past

Hopefully, when you broke up, you both aired your grievances and got the closure you needed. If you can be friends with your ex and refrain from bringing up past issues, that’s great! It will make your friendship a lot smoother if you can focus on the present friendship you’re sharing now instead of any old baggage. You don’t want to open those wounds again! Bringing up past problems will only set you back and hinder the process of building your platonic friendship.

You decide to have no relationship at all

For some people, the healthiest relationship is no relationship. Occasionally, cutting ties completely is the best thing to do for the sake of your mental health, and can help you in moving on. This can mean anything from simply not talking to them or hanging out with them or taking it a step further and unfollowing or blocking social media profiles. Out of sight, out of mind! That being said, you don’t have to be out of each other’s lives forever. If a time comes when you feel ready to have a friendly relationship with your ex, you can unblock and reach out.

Take a minute to evaluate your current relationships with your ex or exes. Does it seem like you have more unhealthy tendencies than healthy ones? What are your true motives with your exes, and what are their motives with regard to you? Be honest with yourself, have an open conversation with your ex if necessary, and make moves towards having the healthiest relationships you can.

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