7 Reasons Why Being Friends with Your Ex Usually Doesn’t Work

By: Terry Gaspard
Last Update: November 23, 2017

The Many Challenges of Being Friends with Your Ex

While it’s normal to want to undo the past, being friends with your ex usually doesn’t work out. It’s a noble endeavor to want to be a friend to a former spouse but it can fuel your child’s reconciliation fantasies and prevent both adults from healing and moving on with their lives.

It’s especially problematic for the person who was left – or the dumpee – because having regular contact with the person who rejected them can make a person feel confused or give them a sense of false hope. On the other hand, the dumper would probably admit to feeling guilty upon seeing their ex regularly or worry that they are sending the wrong message.

When my marriage ended, I had the misconception that two good people (myself and my ex) should be able to stay friends after our divorce. In my case, I was looking for closure – 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 is that they have unfinished business that they hope to resolve. Our they may want to keep the non-intimate part of the relationship going because they have caring feelings toward their former spouse.

Erin, a 40-something teacher confides, “I couldn’t understand why two civilized adults couldn’t visit with our kids and hang out like friends. But Jason told me it hurt him too badly because I broke it off and he was reminded of his pain every time we got together.” This experience is a common one for the dumpee who might feel especially hurt if their ex has a new partner and they don’t. It can add salt to an open wound that has not had sufficient time to heal.

Guilt Can Drive You towards Being Friends with Your Ex

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 they want to remain friendly with the dumpee to help to 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."

Conner, 48, reflects, "I did all I could to keep in touch with Karen with the hope that we could fix things and one day get back together – even though I knew she was in love with someone else.”  

Reasons Being Friends with Your Ex Doesn’t Work:  

  1. Most of the time, a post-breakup friendship is a setup for further heartbreak, especially for the person who was left and probably feels rejected.
  2. It does not give you or your ex time to grieve the loss of the relationship or marriage. Like all losses, the breakup of a long-term relationship or marriage causes people to go through various stages of grief. In order to heal and move through anger, denial, it’s essential that individuals have the emotional and physical space to do this. Trying to maintain a friendship may extend the healing process.
  3. You need to forge a new identity: After a breakup, it’s essential to lose your identity as a couple and to return to who you were as an individual, rather than half of a couple.
  4. It can cause confusion for your children. It’s normal for most children to experience reconciliation fantasies and seeing their parents spend time together (social events, holidays, etc.) can cause them to long for their intact family. Children benefit from parents who are collaborative but not necessarily friends post-breakup.
  5. You might not have been true friends and it’s problematic to start now. Sometimes, especially when there are children involved, a person may feel pressured to preserve a friendship that never existed or that disappeared during your marriage. So just say “no” and remain cordial to each other.
  6. You need energy to “take care of yourself” and to form new relationships. Maintaining a close friendship with an ex (especially if it’s emotionally or physically intimate) can delay this process.
  7. Acceptance is the final stage of grieving the loss of a loved one, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and a post-breakup friendship doesn’t facilitate this process.

At some point, it’s important to accept the breakup of your marriage and come to a place of “it is what it is.” These anecdotes from bloggers help to explain how acceptance and setting boundaries with your ex can facilitate creating a new chapter in your life.

Katie, a 30-something high school counselor reflects, “When I broke it off with husband Kyle, 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 even more guilty because of the pain I caused him.”

Justin, a 40-year old accountant shares, “It just didn’t work for Heather and I to remain friends. It got complicated without three kids and they felt more confused when we tried to get together. Then when I started dating Susie, they didn’t like her and kept talking about wanting their mom and me to get back together. It wasn’t fair to them and I didn’t want to give them false hope.”

Truth be told, it’s a great idea to be civil and cooperative with your former spouse – especially when you have children. Being allies with your ex can help children adjust and thrive post-divorce. That said, maintaining a friendship with your former spouse probably won’t allow you both to move on with your life after a divorce. Giving yourself time and space to regain independence and a sense of identity will serve you and your children well in the long run.


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