Burning bridges in a bad relationship – when should you NOT stay friends

“You can love them, forgive them, want good things for them… but still move on without them.” – Mandy Hale, The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass

Is it ever good to go burning bridges in a bad relationship?

For many years I used to pride myself on the fact that I had always stayed friends with my exes.

I thought this showed good character on my part, and I thought it’s something I’d always be able to do.

One year, I had a lesson in humility, when I dated 2 people in a row who I didn’t want to stay friends with. Who it would have been detrimental to stay friends with.

I had to swallow my pride and realize that staying friends with exes says as much about those exes character as it does about mine. I was lucky in the past to break up with good people. Good people worth staying friends with.  People who always treated me well but just weren’t quite right to continue dating. People who I could stay friends with without jeopardizing my chances of moving on with someone else.

Not all breakups are with good people. Not all exes make good friends. You need to know the difference and set your boundaries moving on in a way that’s healthy for you.


Five occasions you should burn bridges with your ex

They’ve unacceptably hurt you or crossed your boundaries

“All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.” – Mae West

If there’s been violence in your relationship it’s time to leave. At the very least, you need to get professional help as soon as possible to help you deal with this. Violence can start small and grow worse over time, so don’t ignore red flags early on in a relationship.

It is not your responsibility to “fix” people with serious problems. Especially if they are dangerous, and you are risking your own well being on the small chance you’ll help them. Staying in a relationship on the hope that your love will help the other person is co-dependence. The longer you stay, the harder it can be to leave. As soon as you see someone is dangerous, you need to protect yourself. Do what it takes to keep yourself out of danger. If this involves never seeing that person again, then that’s what you need to do.


Your ex “isn’t that into you”

“The person who doesn’t value you is blocking you from the one who will. Let them go.” – Robert Tew

heartbroken girl on the rocksUnfortunately love is not always requited in equal measure. Sometimes you may be head over heels for someone else but, as time goes on, it becomes clear they are just stringing you along. They are keeping you there until a better option comes up. They are using you for sex, money, attention, status, to avoid loneliness, etc. Sometimes you suspect this, but you don’t really want to believe it. You hope that sooner or later, they’ll see how amazing you are and how much you love them and what a happy future you two could have together. This is a seductive fantasy and it’s really, really hard to give up on it.

It takes brutal self honesty, and a willingness to deal with the pain of rejection, to admit this is happening to you. It really hurts to admit you are being used or the person you care about just doesn’t care about you that much.

In the long run, you are better off to deal with that pain and move on. As long as you stay with a person who doesn’t really value you, your own self-esteem gets less and less, and you’re stopping yourself from finding someone else who will value you as you are. Staying friends with this person might be bad for your self esteem. It can feel like a constant reminder that you “weren’t good enough” for them. Do your self a favor and stay away from them until your emotional attachment to them has gone.


You’ve been addicted from a pattern of intermittent reinforcement

Does your relationship feel more like an addiction that real love?

Intermittent reinforcement is what makes gambling addictive, and it can make bad relationships addictive too. It occurs when you randomly, unpredictably and inconsistently get rewarded with the things you need/want in a relationship, like love, attention, intimacy and affection.

The randomized nature of it creates obsession. Every now and then you get a high from having a wonderful time with your partner… but then it disappears and you’re not sure why, nor how to make it come back. You suffer withdrawal symptoms and anxiety from having this high taken away from you. You’re desperate to get your partner to give you what you need and you can’t work out how to get them to do it consistently. You get used to not having your needs met in a consistent way, and get stuck in the puzzle of trying to work out how to get what you want.

Sometimes intermittent reinforcement is used as a deliberate method of manipulating someone, and sometimes it’s done by someone inadvertently.  In either case, it’s detrimental to be on the other side of it. Some say abusive. It leaves you confused, stressed, anxious and hurt.

Staying friends with a person you have this pattern with is a bad idea, because the pattern keeps on going. You keep getting random moments of hope that things will be better… but it is a false hope. You end up on an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows. The best way to get off this roller coaster is to stay away from the other person. Completely.

Just like an alcoholic can’t trust themselves to have one drink without getting carried away, if you are addicted to an inconsistent person, you can’t trust yourself to stay friends with them… because you’re going to keep wanting more. You’re going to keep wanting to try again to get that high you’re after. You have to realize you have an addiction and not a healthy relationship, and you have to go through withdrawal to get over it. Only then can you move on to someone else who is good for you and who can meet your needs consistently.


fighting in a dysfuntional relationship

You keep getting sucked back into a dysfunctional relationship

“You raze the old to raise the new.” – Justina Chen, North of Beautiful

Research has shown that the standard breakup pattern of a relationship involves a couple breaking up and getting back together a number of times before it’s made final. They’ve identified a standard 16 step process that happens involving a roller coaster of distancing from one another and then “trying to make it work” a few times, before realizing it’s best to move on. (Reference: Battaglia, D. M., Richard, F. D., Datteri, D. L., & Lord, C. G. (1998). Breaking up is (relatively) easy to do: A script for the dissolution of close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 829-845.)

You can’t keep trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole. Not every love affair is destined to be an ongoing relationship. If staying in contact with one another keeps dragging you back into a dysfunctional relationship, then forget friendship. Stay away from one another and move on.


Staying friends with your ex is stopping you from moving on

“You can’t move forward if you’re still hanging on.” – Sue Fitzmaurice

Life is short. It sounds tempting to stay friends with an ex. Perhaps you think it’s the “right” or “nice” or “mature” thing to do. Perhaps you really value the relationship you had and don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps you want to see if you can salvage some of the good parts of the relationship while getting rid of the parts that don’s work. It’s a nice idea. It’s great when it works. ***IF*** it doesn’t stop you moving on.

However, if you know that staying friends with your ex is going to stop you from moving on, then it’s time to let go. You have to make room for a new relationship to come into your life. You have to make room for your heart to heal. You have to make room for your mind to see other romantic prospects. You have to let other people see you as available and ready for a new relationship. Don’t weigh yourself down with something that’s not working for you. Move on with a clean slate.


In summary

Before automatically staying friends with an ex, think long and hard about whether that’s really in your best interests. If you want a clean conscience, consider whether it’s in their best interests too. You don’t want to unfairly lead them on or hurt them either.

Set your new boundaries as you need them. You can do it politely if you want. You may need to be more assertive than you’re used to or you’ve been in the past. I recommend reading Boundaries by Dr Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend if you need to strengthen your ability to set healthy boundaries.

Sometimes it’s healthy to go burning bridges in a bad relationship. You need to know when should you not stay friends. It can be a weight off your shoulders to walk away from something that’s been bringing you down. Give yourself the best chance of reinvigorating your self esteem and finding happiness in a new relationship. Have a clean start.


Leave a Reply