As a therapist, I've spent a lot of time explaining to my divorced clients why trying to remain friends with their ex can be problematic. Let's face it, many people are not emotionally ready to move on after a breakup and believe that preserving a friendship with their ex (assuming there was one) is useful. While it's normal to want to undo the past, so often when we try to forge a friendship with our ex we are blindsided by complications and pitfalls.
When my marriage ended, I felt a lot of pressure to maintain a friendship with my ex and found out over time that it wasn't practical or in the best interests of myself or my children. In my case, I believe that I was looking for closure by trying to be friends with my ex -- but soon realized that letting go of the reasons why our marriage dissolved was a healthier decision. I also came to terms with the fact that I didn't need to have all of the answers to why my marriage failed in order to move on.
There are many reasons why people strive to be friends with their ex after a breakup or divorce. Certainly one of the main reasons people discuss during their sessions with me is that they have unfinished business they hope to resolve. Melinda, a 46 year old journalist confides: "I can't really completely heal from the breakup until I understand why our 10-year marriage didn't work out. I know that John doesn't share my view, but that's what would work best for me."
Another reason why people want to stay in close contact with a former partner after a breakup is guilt. Sometimes the person who is the dumper feels guilty about leaving the relationship, especially if they were unfaithful, and wants to remain friendly with the dumpee to help ease their guilt. In this case, counseling with a qualified therapist is a more effective way to deal with these leftover emotions.
Further, some individuals keep their relationship alive because they hope for reconciliation but they don't necessarily acknowledge it. According to Susan J. Elliott, author of Getting Past Your Breakup, "Examining your quest for contact and being honest about your real intentions will help you stop making excuses to make contact." Alan, age thirty-eight, reflects: I tried to keep in touch with Alyssa with the hope that we could mend things and one day get back together -- even though I knew she was dating someone else."
Then there are all the celebrity couples whose breakups seem smooth and harmonious - they may even inspire you to be friends with your ex. For example, Courtney Cox and David Arquette make it look easy to support each other and their daughter. My guess is that David and Courtney had a strong friendship from the onset of their relationship which endured the breakup. However, most people don't experience pleasant feelings toward their partner during and after their breakup. Consequently, it's probably not a realistic expectation that you will be able to pull off a close friendship with your ex and be able to set aside anger, bitterness, and resentment.
6 Reasons Not to Remain Friends with Your Ex:
1. You need time and space to heal and regular contact (text, face-face, etc.) can extend the healing process. You need to give your relationship time to die naturally.
2. You need to forge a new identity: After the breakup, it's key to lose your identity as a couple and to return to who you were as an individual, rather than half of a couple.
3. Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of the relationship. Like all losses, the breakup of a long-term relationship or marriage causes people to go through various stages of grief. In order to move through anger, denial, etc. it's essential that you have the emotional and physical space to do this.
4. It can create confusion for children. It's normal for children to experience reconciliation fantasies and seeing their parents spend time together often (social events, holidays, etc.) can cause them to long for their intact family. Children benefit from parents who are cordial and collaborative but not necessarily close friends post-divorce.
5. You were never true friends and it's problematic to try now. Sometimes, especially when there are children involved, you may feel pressured to preserve a friendship that never existed in the first place. Just say "no" and remain cordial.
6. You need energy to "take care of yourself" and to form new relationships. Maintaining a close friendship with your ex (especially if it's emotionally or sexually intimate) can delay this process.
At some point, it's key for you to accept the breakup of your relationship or marriage and come to a place of "it is what it is." These quotes from clients illustrate how acceptance and setting boundaries with your ex can facilitate creating a new story for your life.
Claire, a 30 something high school teacher reflects, "I broke up with my long-term boyfriend and he took it very hard. I thought that if we stayed in touch and hung out sometimes, it would help him adjust but it only made things worse. I let my guilt and his feelings of rejection be the driving force rather than common sense. It took him years to get over our breakup and I was left feeling resentful."
Tyler, 50, a physician's assistant shares: "It just didn't work for Laura and I to remain friends. It got complicated with our two kids and they felt more confused when we tried to go to the movies or out to eat. Then when I started dating Sarah, they couldn't accept her and finally let it be known that they thought their mom and I were getting back together."
In sum, it's important to be aware that the drawbacks of being friends with your ex usually outweigh the benefits. However, if you have children, maintaining a cooperative relationship with their other parent -- focused on their well-being -- can help them adjust and thrive. Most of all, keep in mind that it's important to take care of you and give yourself time to heal and to move on with your life after your breakup. Giving yourself time and space to regain independence will serve you well in the long run.