What Befriending Is
Stereotypical tales of bitter divorces and their ensuing endless warfare have affected most of us. We have taken our cues about how ex-spouses behave and feel toward their exes from popular movies and stories. Yet, what I’ve experienced in my personal life and learned in my office is that many divorced people can and do form a friendly, supportive and communicative relationship with their ex-spouses.
Befriending is a process and a relationship that takes time and effort. It may involve going through unique periods of darkness and pain, but can be accomplished if you are truly committed. The circumstances under which your marriage ended are very relevant to your relationship going forward and to the steps you will need to take to develop a befriended relationship.
Befriending Is about Developing a New Relationship
Befriending your ex-spouse is about forming a new and positive relationship that is different from the one you had as a married couple. It’s starting over, making a conscious, mindful and deliberate effort to let go of past hurts, wounds, and beliefs. This new relationship is likely to begin when you focus on the best interests of your children, and it will continue to include emphasizing goodwill, collaboration and cooperation as you and your ex navigate the specific details of your life, and if you have children, their lives.
What’s important is the quality of the relationship, what I call a commitment to the five “C” of befriending:
What Befriending Is Not
Befriending your ex is not about retaining the intimacy you once had as a married couple. You can no longer expect to know the details of how your ex spends their time and money, or whom they see. You can no longer expect them to be available to you 24/7. You can no longer rely on them for emotional support for the events in your life that don’t involve the children. Although you may find that your ex can be emotionally supportive, this shouldn’t be a given. Your physical, or sexual, connection is over, even if at times you feel sexually attracted to one another. And — this may be the hardest one — although you may often have angry feelings toward your ex, you no longer have the right to act on them. We can’t always control our emotions, but we can control our actions. And now it’s up to you to control your behavior.
Why Befriend Your Ex?
For Your Children
If you and your ex-spouse share children, you have created a bond that is far stronger than anything that could be broken by a signature on a divorce decree. Regardless of your custody agreement, you won’t be able to excise your ex from your life forever because your ex is your child’s parent forever. One of the most important and consistent research findings regarding the adjustment of children to divorce is that children who have two involved parents adjust to divorce far easier than those who do not. Since you can’t get your ex spouse out of your life completely, you might as well develop the most positive relationship you can.
Avoiding the Trickle-Down Effect
Ranked as one of the top stressors in adult life, divorce is said to bring out the worst in people. When compared to children from intact families, children in adversarial divorces are at greater risk of experiencing a whole host of future psychological problems. Being locked into a hostile or alienated relationship with your ex is arguably the worst stress for your children. Children absorb parental stress. Being mindful of this trickle-down effect will help you minimize the stress of your divorce on your children.
Children Benefit When Parents Cooperate
Arguably the number one predictor of how children of divorced parents fare emotionally and psychologically is the degree to which their parents can cooperate and communicate. Even if you were in a high conflict marriage, the odds are that if you work at it, you will be able to get along as parents.
For Your Own Well-Being
Life is precarious, having enduring connections with others helps all of us feel more grounded and secure. Even if, right now, you are still soothing the wounds of your divorce, your ex might be able to be a compassionate co-parent and a generous collaborator. Hopefully, your ex is someone whom you once loved and who loved you. You don’t want to worry about a continuing negative relationship with the person with whom you are likely to share many extraordinary moments in your children’s lives. Remaining enemies with your ex is bad for your mental and physical health.
When You Should Not Try to Befriend Your Ex
Befriending an ex isn’t appropriate for everyone. If your ex-spouse is physically or emotionally abusive, or neglectful to you or your children, you may need to create space rather than connection.
Substance abuse is another situation that mitigates befriending or at least requires careful evaluation. In this case, consider:
- Has your ex expressed genuine remorse?
- Has your ex begun treatment, and if so, do you see these behaviors changing?
- Does your ex agree that it’s crucial that these behaviors be stopped?
If you answered yes to these questions, consider letting go of the past. If, however, you answered no, befriending may not be an appropriate option right now, and further changes and communication may be necessary before you can
What Gets in the Way of Befriending
Even with the best of intentions, roadblocks may emerge that make you stumble in your befriending process. These roadblocks fit into one of two categories:
Unrealistic beliefs about the kind of relationship we are “supposed” to have when we divorce surround us in the images found in popular culture and society. To overcome unrealistic beliefs, first examine your belief system, and second, let go of or revise any ways of thinking that are not useful, that are dysfunctional, and that may be getting in the way of befriending your ex.
It’s easy to harbour animosity, pain, or both toward your ex, who has undoubtedly hurt or angered you. You should embrace your emotions,
regardless of how difficult it is to deal with them. However, that’s not the same as having a license to act them out. In fact, the opposite is true: learning to feel, accept, and manage your emotions allows you to feel safer about embracing them if only because you won’t fear being overcome by them.
Creating a New Vision
Whether you realize it or not, you are always choosing a perspective that either enriches or diminishes your reality.
In the book, What Happy People Know, psychologists Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth remind us that no matter how difficult your life is, you always have the power to rise above suffering. This idea is particularly important during divorce, since divorce always brings us face to face with new and challenging situations, events and emotions. We bring our chosen perspectives to every new challenge. Becoming mindful that we always bring our own biases or chosen perspectives to each new situation and event we face is an important step in assessing reality.
This article was condensed and adapted by Divorce Magazine with permission from New Harbinger Publications from the bookBefriending Your Ex © 2013 by Judith Ruskay Rabinor.
Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD, is also author of A Starving Madness and founder and director of the American Eating Disorders Center of Long Island. She has a private practice in New York City. Divorced more than twenty-five years ago, Rabinor has since remarried and co-parented her two grown children. Befriending Your Ex can be found here: www.newharbinger.com.