By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “Why is it so difficult to remain friends with your ex?” At some point in the divorcing process many partners ask, “Can’t we just be friends?” Many experts hold this friendship up as the ideal relationship for ex-spouses. They say it would be good for your children. At first blush it seems like such a noble goal. So why is it so rarely successful? Why is it so difficult to pull off? The answer lies in the traumatic losses experienced in the divorce and the near impossibility of pretending the relationship surgery is healed while, in actuality, it still is laying exposed and bleeding on the operating table.
This Wasn’t On Starbucks’ Menu
Soon after he got divorced, a client of mine related a story about his ex wanting to remain friends. She asked to meet him at a local Starbucks. He was hesitant to meet because she had been very upset that he wanted the divorce. But he agreed to the meeting primarily because he did not want his ex telling their two grown children he was being a jerk. After ten or fifteen minutes of civil chit chat, she turned to him, stared him straight in his eyes, and screamed at the top of her lungs for everyone in the establishment to hear, “Does your whore of a girlfriend like your penis?!”
Needless to say, a post-divorce friendship was not in the cards for the two of them. But it dramatizes the difficulty of trying to return to the low-emotion relationship of friendship after losing the high-emotion relationship of a 20-year marriage.
What We Are Told about “Remaining Friends” after Divorce Is at Odds with What We See
Everywhere you look you can find therapists and self-help authors extolling the virtues of remaining friends after divorce. Also, everywhere you look you are hard pressed to find any ex-spouses who actually have remained friends after their divorce.
Terry Gaspard provides some insight in her January 7, 2020, article in DivorceMagazine.com, “7 Reasons Why Being Friends With Your Ex Usually Doesn’t Work,” in which she identifies seven problems with remaining friends after your divorce:
- Most of the time, a post-breakup friendship is a setup for further heartbreak.
- It does not give you or your ex time to grieve the loss of the relationship or marriage.
- You need to forge a new identity.
- It can cause confusion for your children.
- You might not have been true friends and it’s problematic to start now.
- You need energy to “take care of yourself.”
- Acceptance is the final stage of grieving the loss of a loved one.
OK, so there are problems with it. We still don’t know why it is so rare. The answer may lie in how friendships are developed.
Friendship by Addition – Friendship Based on Hope
When we speak of friendship, we normally are referring to a relationship that grows step by step over time by two people who hope to establish a non-intimate connection which will enrich their lives.
How we normally “grow” a friendship, is by meeting people with whom we have something in common, and then by continuing to spend time with each other as we find more things in common, find more ways we can validate who we are, and find more ways to develop agreement about the social situations we share. The process takes place over time in which we add to and solidify our commonalities and our shared interpretations of the social environment we share. It is a process of adding piece by piece over time with the result that the friendship deepens as we add each piece to the growing whole.
Summarizing the benefits of friendship, friends get to:
- SHARE COMMON INTERESTS with their friend,
- VALIDATE COMMON BELIEFS AND OUTLOOKS ON LIFE with their friend,
- Help each other come to a consensus about the MEANING OF THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT which they share, and
- Assist each other in developing a more accurate “SENSE OF SELF” with their friend.
Friendship by Subtraction – Friendship Based on Loss
Most marriages start out as normal friendships with the initial foundation of their relationship being the same as regular friends.
Like normal friendships, they share common interests, validate each other’s beliefs, and outlooks on life. They come to a consensus between the two of them about the meaning of their shared social environment and give interpersonal feedback that helps each other integrate their identity within their common social context.
When a divorced couple wants to remain friends, their initial friendship remains intact. They share the same benefits of a typical friendship that include:
- They get to maintain their right to SHARE COMMON INTERESTS with their ex,
- They get to maintain their right to VALIDATE COMMON BELIEFS AND OUTLOOKS ON LIFE with their ex,
- They get to maintain their right to help each other come to a consensus about the MEANING OF THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT which they share with their ex, and
- They get to assist each other in developing a more accurate “SENSE OF SELF” with their ex.
However, here is where things get messy. Regular friendships start from scratch and add positive brick by positive brick to the friendship’s foundation. However, for ex’s to “remain friends” after their divorce, they must give up, or subtract away, many aspects of their marriage they held dear until they got divorced. These losses are a painful reminder of what they used to have when married. Becoming friends with your ex becomes an exercise in acknowledging one loss after another after another. These losses include:
- Spouses lose the right to have SEX with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to affirm the SEXUAL ATTRACTIVENESS of their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to have INTIMATE PHYSICAL BEHAVIOR with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to have INTIMATE EMOTIONAL BEHAVIOR with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to have highly INTIMATE CONVERSATIONS with their ex
- Spouses lose the right to have unlimited PHYSICAL ACCESS with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to have unlimited EMOTIONAL ACCESS with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to DISCLOSE PRIVATE BELIEFS AND THOUGHTS to their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to DISCLOSE THEIR DEEPEST HOPES & FEARS to their ex.
- Spouses lose the expectation to FULLY TRUST their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to enjoy very few PERSONAL BOUNDARIES with their ex.
- Spouses lose the right to EXPRESS THEIR LOVE in an intimate way.
- Spouses lose the right to have a full RANGE OF EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION with their ex, both positive and negative.
Normal Friendship versus Post-Divorce Friendship
While a normal friendship consists of adding one positive experience after another as the friendship grows, remaining friends after divorce requires acknowledging that major surgery was undertaken to cut out the heart of the marital relationship, leaving only the friendship to survive.
In terms of the list of relationship benefits listed above, wanting to remain friends with your ex means you keep the first four items in the list (items 1 through 4) while acknowledging the loss of the other thirteen benefits (items 5 through 17).
Forcing your ex, as well as yourself, to regularly live with the memory of the heart wrenching losses suffered in the divorce simply to maintain a “normal” friendship seems difficult at best and self-indulgent and selfish at worst. No wonder it happens so infrequently.
So, What’s the Point?
The harsh reality is the relationship is dead and gone. The divorce is final, or soon will be. Now is the time to invest your energy in recovering from the traumatic event you just went through and in getting prepared for the next chapter in your life.
Your ex can carry on without your friendship, and you can carry on without your ex’s friendship. In a nutshell, remaining friends with your ex is too much, too soon, and too hard. Let sending your goodwill to each other be enough and lay your friendship fantasies to rest.