By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “What should your goal be for your post-divorce relationship with your ex if you want to protect a successful recovery from your divorce?” Should your goal be to remain friends? Is it to get an apology or an explanation? Is it to make him/her sorry for how you were hurt? Is it to happily watch as your ex’s new life crashes and burns? Is it to never see or hear from the jerk ever again? Whatever your goal is, it will color your life after divorce. Some goals are healthy, others are ultimately harmful to you. The most helpful goal of all might be one you have never considered. Would you believe a bank teller might hold the key to your future contentment with your life after divorce?
Spoiler alert! If you want to have a healthy post-divorce relationship with your ex, let go of your emotional reactions toward your ex and replace them with the wisdom of a non-emotional alternative – the bank teller.
I know. Sounds stupid. Here’s why it could be the smartest thing you do in your recovey.
What Do You Want Your Relationship with Your Ex Look Like after You Are Divorced?
Are you still holding on to your relationship with your ex?
The marriage is over. The judge has signed the papers. You are no longer legally tied to each other. But are you still attached emotionally to your former spouse? If you are, you have some work to do. Simply stated, in order to thrive in the next chapter of your life you must dissolve your attachments to your past, especially to your ex.
I know. It sounds impossible to dissolve all personal attachments, harbor no ill will towards your ex, forget about your ex, and get on with your life. This is the person with whom you shared some of the most wonderful days of your life, and also who caused you some of the most miserable days of your life.
You say, “I can’t just turn on a switch and forget him/her and our past. Especially if I have to talk to, and often see, him/her every time our children visit their other parent?”
What Does “Being Attached” Mean?
If you want something from your ex or if your ex triggers emotion-based reactions in you, either positive or negative, you are still attached in some way to your ex.
Wanting something from your ex. Wanting something from your ex can include, for example, hoping your ex will: (1) apologize, or explain why he/she wanted out, or (2) want to remain friends with you, or (3) not get a new lover so soon, or (4) be jealous of your new boyfriend/girlfriend, or (5) regret leaving you, or (6) feel bad about how he or she treated you, etc. These are ways your ex still has something you want. By wanting your ex to do something for you, you are still giving your ex power over you. Therefore, you are still attached to your ex.
Having feelings toward your ex. If you dwell on good memories of your ex or if you dwell on bad memories of your ex, either way you have invited your ex into your head and into your life. And therefore, you are still attached. If the mention of your ex triggers positive feelings in you or if it triggers negative feelings in you, you are still attached.
Whether you want to reconcile with your ex or you want to kill your ex, it makes no difference. If the sight of your ex, or the mention of your ex’s name, or a private thought you might have of your ex conjures strong emotional reactions, good or bad, you are still attached and in a relationship with your ex that hasn’t ended yet.
So, What Is the Ideal Relationship You Should Have with Your Ex
The goal for a successful post-divorce relationship with an ex is one of “friendly indifference” that is devoid of any emotion, positive or negative.
You ex is past history. Your relationship with your ex ended with the judge’s signature, if not before. It no longer exists unless you hold on to it and embellish it in your head.
The ideal relationship with an ex is one in which there is absolutely no emotional reactions attached. Zero. Nada. You couldn’t care less if your ex is extremely happy, rich, loved and adored or if your ex is extremely unhappy, poor, hated and reviled. Moreover, other than some general sense of “goodwill to your fellow man,” you couldn’t care less if your ex is alive or dead. Either means nothing to you. Your ex is a perfect stranger with whom you have no demands or expectations. Your ex has become the total stranger you pass in the mall.
To hold on to the relationship prevents you from investing in new relationships. As long as you have one foot in the past, you cannot step into the future.
Hence, the ideal relationship with your ex is for it to be “a great big nothing.” You should be totally indifferent to your ex and have no emotional investment or reaction, either positive or negative.
Q: So if a successful recovery from divorce requires that I become emotionally unattached from my ex, just how exactly am I supposed to do that?
A: Go cash a check.
Bank Tellers as Models
A metaphor for a healthy relationship with your ex is the bank teller.
First off, we never see a bank teller unless we have some specific business to conduct like, for example, to cash a check. Otherwise, the bank teller occupies no part of our life.
When we do need to cash a check, we go up to a bank teller and are polite and friendly. We conduct our business, and when we have completed our business we politely say “goodbye” and leave. At no time do we feel strong positive or strong negative feelings for the teller. We wish neither good nor bad for the teller since we are not attached to the person. We don’t inquire about their personal life, nor do we criticize them or offer advice on how they could improve their life. We are only there to conduct the “business task” of cashing a check. That is, we treat the teller with “friendly indifference.”
The same as with your ex. You have no need to see or contact your ex, unless there exists some specific business to transact, like coordinating visitation schedules or meeting to exchange kids for parental visits. And when you do, you treat your ex with the same civility and friendly indifference as you gave to the bank teller. Nothing more, nothing less.
Like you did with the teller, your contact with your ex is friendly without being intimate, civil without being pompous, indifferent except for conducting the business at hand. Using the bank teller as a model is a great way to practice your new relationship with your ex, without confusing the old boundaries of intimacy and friendship with the new severely shrunken boundary of instrumental task problem solving.
You used to have full access to each other in which very few boundaries prohibited you from discussing any topic or engaging in personal or intimate behavior. Now you have extremely limited access with strict boundaries prohibiting most topics of discussion and personal or intimate behavior. The only exceptions are discussions about your children and their welfare.
If bank teller is difficult to identify with, returning a defective product to a customer service representative at Best Buy has the identical nature of “friendly indifference” while conducting well-defined business as the bank teller.
So, What’s the Point?
A successful recovery from divorce is delicate. It is especially vulnerable to how you manage your relationship with your ex. What worked during your marriage will not work now.
Other than handling issues around your children, you have little reason to make or maintain contact with your ex. So don’t do it unless it is absolutely necessary.
If you have children with your ex, you will have to have some contact. And when you do, the nature of your post-divorce relationship is vastly different from the relationship you had while married.
Treating the post-divorce relationship as a continuation of the relationship built up over many years of marriage seems like the normal thing to do. It also spells disaster to your recovery. You are no longer lovers and marriage partners. The rules are different, and the boundaries of acceptable behavior are severely limiting.
Therefore, a new relationship, completely devoid of any emotional reactions, will preserve the peace and enable you to manage the joint responsibilities you have with your spouse to solve the educational, health, and visitation issues with your children. It will also enable you to attend and enjoy school and athletic activities, birthdays, holidays, marriages, and other events in which you ex will be present.
Your world has changed. Your relationship with your ex has changed. All for the better. Do not louse it up by trying to keep the old relationship alive with your ex. It will backfire and severely threaten the contentment of your new life after divorce.