Whatever the reality of your past relationship, we come now to a very difficult issue. Should you stay in touch, or not?

The chances are that you will decide that a complete break is far too final, and that you would prefer to have some contact.

Much will depend upon whether:

• you were the one who ended the relationship

• the split was a mutual decision

• you were dumped – and very definitely did not want it to end.

Let’s look at each scenario in turn.

1. You ended the relationship

You ended the relationship because it was damaging or not going anywhere, or because you’ve fallen out of love, or have fallen in love with another.

If you have managed to extricate yourself before you got to the point of absolutely hating your partner, you may be inclined to soften the blow by suggesting that the two of you remain friends.

I have to tell you that in my view this can be a bad idea.

I’m not saying that you can never be friends. Plenty of individuals who were once together do end up as good mates. But it doesn’t usually happen right away.

At the time of a break-up, we all need our friends. But they should be other friends.

Also, trying to be good mates with your former lover tends to muddy the waters. If he or she is devastated by the split, any attempt by you to be kind, or friendly, or concerned, will be misinterpreted as proof that you either do not know your own mind, or that you are still in love and likely to return.

Is that the message you’re trying to give? No? I thought not. But, believe me, this is how the signal will be perceived by your ex.

Of course if you have children, you’re going to have to work out how to continue being joint parents even though you no longer live together, but that is such a big issue.

So, if your relationship has ended for good, why do you want to stay in touch?

Well, you may claim that you were always better friends than lovers, and if that is so, you will probably get to a point one day when you can enjoy each other’s friendship all over again. But now is probably too soon.

You may also want to stay in contact so that you won’t be identified by all and sundry as a complete louse, and so that people won’t hate you!

This is understandable. You may have thought very long and hard about this break up. You will almost certainly have very valid reasons for wanting out of the relationship, but you may assume that these reasons will not be at all apparent to your friends and relations.

However, after the initial drama and surprise – and even though many people will criticise you for the break-up at the time – you will almost certainly find that a lot of individuals have seen the ‘hidden’ flaws in your relationship and will accept that you did what you had to do. Your mutual friends are not likely to be devoid of perception, so if your relationship hasn’t been great, many of them will have noticed.

It’s true that being the person who ends a relationship does not usually endear you to lots of people, but that fact should not keep you in a redundant romance. And it definitely should not encourage you to prolong the parting process.

But what if you change your mind? What if, after a break away, you wonder if you’ve made a mistake and you think that having your ex partner as a friend will clarify the situation for you?

Well, people do change their minds all the time.

Adults who have affairs, for example, sometimes leave the marital nest and then find the new relationship doesn’t work out and they want to scuttle back to the old one.

Or sometimes a person leaves the old relationship ready to have a new, brilliant single life, but finds that the new life fails to live up to expectations. Such an individual may be further confused by discovering that his or her ex-partner is blossoming and has lost a stone in weight, looks ten years younger and is out clubbing every night.

Is it fair and legitimate in these situations to try to forge a friendship with the ex while trying to sort out your emotions?

I don’t think so.

If you genuinely want to get back together again, you should explain your uncertainty and beg for a second chance to be a loving and equal partner. And if your ex then takes you back it should be because he or she still loves you and wants you as a partner and is prepared to work at a loving relationship with you.

broken heart girl

I’m not saying, by the way, that you should necessarily seek, or expect, to be reinstated immediately and fully back into a cohabiting and sexual relationship. Not at all. I believe you should both take things very slowly. But be honest in your wants and hopes and needs. And remember that being a partner is not the same thing at all as being friends.

2. A split by mutual decision

If a split is genuinely mutual, I do believe that friendship can be salvaged quite quickly – but not immediately.

In fact, staying friends without a break of any kind can be counterproductive, and can stop you finding new romance.

If, for example, you both believe that your relationship is over – perhaps you don’t fancy each other any more, or else you want different things from the relationship – but being together has become such a cosy habit that you continue to hang out together, then neither of you is likely to find a new love. You need to have a break from each other in order to establish new contacts and new habits.

Such couples often started a relationship when they were both at school or university. They got on well, they saw each other through their finals, they had loads of mutual friends and they may well have lived with each other in a flat-share situation before they became an exclusive item.

There’s nothing wrong with this sort of union. In fact, I count as friends several couples who fall into this category, and who are still together in their fifties or sixties.

But sometimes, such a two-some come to realise that their relationship is all about friendship, not love, and that if they’re to find real romance and have children, they need to do it with other people.

This can be very sad even if it’s the right decision. So I think that in such a situation it’s a good idea if both parties lean on other friends individually for a time and branch out and do new things: go travelling, or change jobs, or move to another part of the country. Anything, in fact that will reinforce their decision that it’s right to move on, and to find the kind of love that will lead to a grown-up, sexual and hopefully permanent relationship.

As anyone who’s tried to give up smoking knows, breaking a habit is hard. And this habit – your former relationship – still has much to commend it. So it will be difficult to walk away from it, if you don’t both give yourselves time and space to start building your new lives.

A good action plan would be to agree not to contact each other for three months.

There are two possible pitfalls to this kind of planned, mutually agreed split.

One is if you have children together. Then a clean split with no contact is not possible.

I have to put my cards on the table here and say that if adults have a young family, I honestly believe that they should make every effort to stay together for as long as is feasible, so as to give their kids the best security possible. And in the kind of relationship I’ve been describing, well, things usually aren’t so bad that they can’t be endured for a few more years at least.

Unfortunately, the mood between the two of you may darken quite dramatically as a result. Where before you were both talking happily of making new and separate lives, marrying, having children and getting out into the world and having brave new adventures, suddenly the one who hasn’t so far hooked up with a new love can become deeply hurt, and sometimes really angry.

This can be a big shock to both parties. And where there was sadness but no heartbreak, this new circumstance can generate a massive amount of pain, and also endanger the friendship you were both so keen to preserve.

Obviously, no one should emerge from a relationship feeling prohibited from having a new sexual and romantic partner. But the decent thing is to keep quiet about it for a while; and this is much easier if you have agreed not to stay in close contact for quite a while.

feeling of being alone

The truth is that friendship is not really possible or desirable while you make the break, so you should forget the whole idea of being friends until the dust has settled.

3. The split has been forced upon you

If you’ve been dumped, and if you still believe that you truly love this person who’s dumping you, you will almost certainly grab any tiny crumb of comfort that your partner offers you.

So if she says: ‘I really hope that we can stay friends …’ you’ll feel such relief at the promise of some contact with your loved one, that you won’t stop for a moment to consider whether or not this is good for you.

Or if he says: ‘I’d like to pop round once a week and check that you’re OK …’ you’ll probably clutch at him and insist he makes a date for his first visit there and then. Don’t be ashamed: we’ve all done it!

But – and this is the important thing – you don’t need this person to be your friend. You have friends. Or if you haven’t, it’s high time you got out there and made some.

You need a loving partner. That’s what you really want, and you probably want this person to continue to fulfil that role.

It’s true that you may have been friends for a long time, but you have also been lovers, and that’s changed everything. He or she is withdrawing from that role, and to get over that, you both need to give up all contact, for now.

Hanging on to some small offer of friendship will not benefit you. Trust me. You will interpret every small kindness as meaning that he or she still loves you. You will focus and depend on your meetings. This will keep your mind so firmly locked in the past that you will not accept that your relationship is over, neither will you start grieving properly, or begin to rebuild your life.

I know this, because I see it in my clients all the time. I also know it from painful, personal experience.

I once let a hopeless romance of mine drag on for almost three years, hoping and praying that it was going to improve and lapping up the tiniest bit of attention he proffered but becoming seriously depressed in the process. I simply would not accept that a relationship which had promised so much was at an end.

I can see now that my ex-boyfriend had enormous problems about committing to a long-term relationship, but that he felt better about dumping me if he rang me up constantly, and took me out regularly for lunch. He didn’t want me to hate him after what we had meant to each other. And we had been deeply in love.

Unfortunately, his phone calls and invitations became my lifeline. I let myself believe that so long as we kept in contact there was a chance he would want to be with me. I suppose the fact that he was kind and still appeared to care was the only thing that mattered to me at that time. But it didn’t help me. It just caused prolonged grief.

So he was at fault, although I like to believe that he acted from the purest of motives. And I was at fault, because I refused to accept the very clear signals that the relationship could not continue.

So, take it from a veteran of a protracted split that was hugely damaging, a clean break is the toughest thing you’ll ever have to go through, but you’ll emerge from it quicker in the long run, and with much more of your self-respect and self-esteem intact.

Just remember then that trying to stay friends with someone through the trauma of broken romance is a mug’s game. It might make your previous partner feel better about rejecting you, but it sure as hell won’t help you one jot.

Of course many readers of this article will have been in a situation where their partners claimed to be confused about the relationship, so rather than ending it, they asked to stay friends, but also begged for some time and space to sort themselves out.

I think most of the individuals who act in this way are actually sure that they want to end it, but they want to hedge their bets, in case they feel lonely. They may also believe that by breaking up in stages, the process will be less traumatic and painful all round.

This is rarely so.

A friend of mine willingly gave her man the time and space to sort his head out, which he decided to do in the Bahamas. She felt very bitter when she later discovered that he had taken a much younger woman to share his time and space with him.

Then there are those who claim to be going through a mid-life crisis, and who say that they need to live on their own ‘for a bit’, but who – again – have already made up their minds to start new lives. Such individuals frequently keep up this pretence for years, often in a bid to avoid a costly divorce.

I think this is a particularly unkind way to end a relationship. It plays on the rejected partner’s vulnerability and gives her (and it nearly always is a ‘her’) hope that her man will return. He may very well set up home – either alone or with someone else – but he will return to the family nest for mother-in-law’s birthday, Christmas, their children’s graduation days, her birthday, or Sunday lunch. You name it, he’s there.

In fact he now has what he’s probably always wanted; a bit of family life, but the life of a single man too.

Is this what’s happening to you? If so, how do you feel about it now that you see it in black and white? Don’t you think you’re being taken for a ride? Don’t you feel that you’re travelling through a long tunnel of pain that never ends?

Contact with someone who no longer wants to play a leading role in your life is usually damaging. As I said earlier, eventually you may be able to be civilised to each other, and perhaps you’ll even become friends again. But while your heart is broken, the offer of friendship and contact is unhelpful.

Severing all connection with your ex may feel like the worst form of torture, but if a relationship has to end, this is the best way to do it.