Although certainly not for everyone, individuals often remain in contact with former partners after a break-up. But what ramifications does continued contact with an ex have when one or both individuals find themselves in a new romantic relationship?
In one recent study the authors wanted to know why former partners communicate with each other, and whether motives for keeping in touch with ex-partners are what really matters for how communication affects the new relationships. The researchers found that about 40% of undergraduates in long-term relationships maintained communication with at least one former partner. Some interesting differences emerged between those who continued to communicate with an ex versus those who didn’t. Specifically, those who communicated with an ex reported “hotter flames” (more romantic feelings) for their former partners, exhibited poorer current adjustment to the breakup (i.e., felt less “over” the former partner) and perceived the breakup with the former partner to be more understanding and less negative. Not surprisingly, those who remained in contact with an ex were less committed to their new/current partners.
In a second study, the researchers looked at why people communicate with former partners and whether individuals’ motivation for staying in touch with an ex affects the types (positive vs. negative) of communication they continued to have.
Four reasons for communication were identified:
(1) they valued the continued friendship with the ex;
(2) they viewed the communication as a way of maintaining a backup relationship should their new relationship fail;
(3) they had overlapping social networks, making it difficult to fully disengage; and
(4) they were significantly invested in the former relationship(i.e., went through a lot together).
More frequent communication with the former was associated with lower current relationship satisfaction. People who stayed in touch with an ex to keep a ‘backup’ or a partner on the “backburner” were less satisfied and committed to their new partners, whereas staying in contact with an ex because of common friendships predicted higher relationship satisfaction.
So is chatting with an ex-partner bad for the current relationship? Not necessarily. What appears to matter most is why someone wants to communicate. Clear communication with everyone in the network—past, present, and future—is critical to ensuring that friendships with former partners remain platonic and relationships with current partners are given the space and energy to grow and develop.
1Rodriguez, L. M., Øverup, C. S., Wickham, R. E., Knee, C. R., & Amspoker, A. B. (in press). Communication with former romantic partners and current relationship outcomes among college students. Personal Relationships. DOI: 10.1111/pere.12133
Lindsey Rodriguez, Ph.D. – Science of Relationships articles
Lindsey’s interests include the development of a comprehensive, dyadic perspective for examining how problematic alcohol use and interpersonal relationship processes interact to influence various physical, emotional, and relational outcomes for individuals and their relationship partners.