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It was unusual research, certainly; only a few studies had ever attempted to suss out what factors made a post-breakup friendship a success or a bust, and after her presentations, Griffith often took questions from other scientists and peers in her field. But the query she encountered most often was not about her conclusions, or her methodology, or her data analysis.
The questions of whether and how to stay friends with an ex—romantic partner are, as Griffith can attest, both complex and universal. To utter it during a breakup conversation is either a kind and helpful way to lessen the pain of parting or the cruelest part of the whole endeavor, depending on who you ask. An attempt to stay friends may be a kindness if it suggests an attachment or a respect that transcends the circumstances of the romantic relationship, for instance.
It can be a cruelty, however, when it serves to pressure the jilted party into burying feelings of anger and hurt. As a result, how to interpret or act on the suggestion of a post-breakup friendship is one of the great everyday mysteries of our time. There are four main reasons, Rebecca Griffith and her colleagues found, why exes feel compelled to maintain a friendship or to suggest doing so: for civility i.
For instance, Griffith and her team found that friendships resulting from unresolved romantic desires tended to lead to the most negative outcomes, like feelings of sadness, challenges moving on romantically, and disapproval from other friends. One surprising finding was that extroverted people were less likely to remain friends with an ex—romantic partner. But the researchers and historians I spoke with for this story generally agreed that in the history of relationships, staying friends or attempting to is a distinctly modern phenomenon, especially among mixed-gender pairs.
The experts also agreed that two of the concerns that most often lead to an offer of post-breakup friendship—the worry that a social group or workplace will become hostile, and the worry that the loss of a romantic partner will also mean the loss of a potential friend—are relatively modern developments themselves, made possible by the integration of women into public society and the subsequent rise of mixed-gender friendships.
For much of the 20th century, she says, the assumption was that the things men and women did together were date, get married, and have families. Adams says that began to change as more women ed the workforce and pursued higher education; while some 30 percent of American workers were female in , by women ed for nearly half the workforce.
And when a platonic friendship between a man and woman became a more realistic proposition in its own right, Adams says, so did a platonic friendship between a man and woman who used to date. Read: Why men are the new college minority. Other factors, like the advent of the birth-control pill and the federal protection of abortion rights in the late 20th century, made it less likely that any given sexual partner would accidentally end up a parenting partner, Adams noted—which relaxed the rules of romantic relationships considerably.
That freedom helped normalize the idea that a person could have multiple lovers or companions over the course of a lifetime, and made necessary some system of protocols for what might happen if two former romantic partners remained within the same social group after breaking things off.
It was not as much like a capital-F, capital-G thing like it is now. Read: Why are young people having so little sex? When Korducki, 33, went through the breakup that inspired her book, she told me, one of the hardest parts of the whole ordeal was telling their shared friends. In the end, she and her ex both kept hanging out with their friends, but separately. Korducki also wonders, however, whether the popularity of staying friends or attempting to stay friends after a breakup may be tied to the rise in loneliness and the reported trend toward smaller social circles in the United States.
Plus, she suggested, staying friends can help preserve the other social connections that are tied to the defunct romantic pairing. Staying friends, or at least staying on good terms, could help preserve the extended network that the relationship created.
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