‘We can still be friends’ – is this viable following a relationship breakup?


I don’t write much about romantic relationships, even though I strongly believe (and I think the literature supports) their importance in our overall wellbeing. Romantic relationships help fulfill our strong need for belonging.

The reason I don’t write about romantic relationships is I don’t really have a good sense for what the published literature on the topic actually says.

Today I start the process of addressing that knowledge gap, by looking at an article called ‘Committed to us: Predicting relationship closeness following nonmarital romantic relationship breakup‘ by Tan, Agnew, VanderDrift and Harvey (2015) published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

I chose this article for a few reasons

  1. It is reasonably recent (2015)
  2. It concerns romantic relationships in the age bracket of 18-30 (relevant to a large chunk of uni students)
  3. It concerns romantic relationship breakups, which are one of the more common reasons we see students present to the counselling service.
  4. It was based on an underlying model of relationships that might be helpful to you when thinking about your own relationships

Does this mean this article provides rock solid insights into your own relationship situation? Not really, but it might provide a few concepts to think about if you’ve experienced a recent relationship breakup. I call this ‘relationship literacy’ – knowing and having a language for talking about relationships that helps you reflect on them in a more nuanced and sophisticated way.


What is the article about?

The article starts with the admission that we don’t actually know a lot about what happens after romantic relationships end. There is the assumption that the two people go separate ways, but personal experience tells us that whilst some couples separate entirely, some couples reunite whilst others couples remain friends afterwards or at least attempt to remain friends – i.e. the relationship changes forms. The science on the topic is sparse.

Research to date suggests many (50%+) romantic relationships do actually transition into something different such as a friendship. Why? Well one theory is that the transition to a different kind of relationship helps buffer the loss felt by both people because of the end of the romantic relationship. The transition to a friendship is helped if the partners: were friends before the romance, provided valuables resources to each other, have a social network that is supportive of the friendship, mutually decided to end the relationship, have not moved on to more desirable alternatives, had reasonable levels of relationship satisfaction pre-breakup.

The authors of the article wanted to see if their model of relationships – the Investment Model of Commitment Processes (IMCP) – could help illuminate the process of transition from a romantic relationship to something else such as a friendship.


So what is their model?

The IMCP states that our commitment to a relationship (intent to remain in a partnership, level of attachment to partner, and long term orientation towards our partner) is a product of three things:

Relationship satisfaction: whether what we are getting from the relationship is equal to or greater than what we expect to get from it

Relationship alternatives: whether there are other relationship options/alternative that are more desirable (another person, other friendships, being alone)

Relationship investment: the level of resources (tangible and intangible) we’ve put into a relationship which would be lost if it ends


The authors reckoned that after a break-up, couples differ in their degree of closeness, from complete separation to being best friends. They hypothesised that the four variables from their IMCP model; commitment, satisfaction, alternatives and investment, could predict the degree of closeness between two individuals post romantic relationship breakup.


What did they do?

The authors drew data from another study (POPD) that was following US citizens, aged 18-30, who were deemed at risk of HIV infection (because of multiple sexual partners in a year). The study was exploring relationship dynamics and sexual risk beliefs/intentions/behaviours.

The participants in that study completed 4 lots of interviews over 1 year.

If they were in a romantic relationship, they completed the Investment Model Scale – an instrument designed to measure the 4 variables of the IMCP (commitment, satisfaction, alternatives, investment). This measured their level of commitment to that relationship.

If they had had a recent breakup, they were asked to rate their closeness with their ex-partner: contact level (no relationship, acquaintances, friends, close friends, best friends), contact frequency (no contact, less than once month, once a month, once a week, once a day, more than once a day), positive emotions towards their ex-partner, negative emotions towards their ex-partner. They were also asked if they wanted to rekindle the relationship and the likelihood of that happening.

What it means is that for all participants in the study (which turned out to be 143) the authors had pre- and post-breakup information. Pre-breakup they had a measure of the person’s commitment to the relationship (they called this T1). Post-breakup, they had a measure of closeness with the ex partner (they called this T2).

They used a statistical method that explores the relationships between variables to test whether pre-breakup commitment, satisfaction, alternatives and investment predicted post-breakup closeness.


What did they find?

As per their predictions, the authors found that at T1 – greater relationship satisfaction, lower relationship alternatives and greater relationship investment predicted commitment to the relationship.

In plain English – those who were more satisfied in their relationship, didn’t have any preferred alternative relationships and had invested time and effort and resources into their relationship were more committed to that relationship. This makes sense.

How committed a person was to their relationship then predicted how close they felt to the other person after the relationship broke up. Interestingly, things like ‘who initiated the breakup’ and ‘likelihood or desire for reunification’ did not alter this in any significant way.


What does it all mean?

Closeness with someone after a breakup appears to be a function of the quality of the relationship prior to breakup.

If two people have invested resources in each other, don’t have other more desirable relationships elsewhere and were satisfied with at least some aspects of the relationship (e.g. the friendship component), then it appears likely that they will attempt to transform the romantic relationship into something that retains some of those components, such as a friendship.

This might be to help buffer them against the pain of the loss of the relationship or to salvage aspects of the relationship that were working OK. Romantic feelings might disappear but it seems that attempting to maintain some degree of connection after a romantic relationship reflects one of a number of normal pathways after a relationship breakup. Other possibilities include complete separation, reunification, and a period of on-again, off-again changes.

What I find interesting is that these kinds of relationship dynamics have not actually been scientifically investigated that much. We all have anecdotal direct and indirect experience of how relationships change over time and our own ideas about the factors driving them, but it appears science has a bit of catch-up to do.

I note that the study dealt only in heterosexual relationships in a relatively high risk population, so the generalisability of the findings might be limited. However the authors acknowledge this is the case and suggest that the consistency of these findings with those in other areas suggest nothing particularly strange is happening here that would limit the conclusions someone could draw from these findings.

What are your thoughts?

What factors are important when determining whether a romantic relationship can successfully transition to a friendship after breakup?

What are your own experiences of remaining friends with someone after a breakup?

Posted in
Life Skills Research and Reports

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