(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)
When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced that they were “consciously uncoupling,” they were met with a lot of sneering and snickering. Oh, please, went the thinking — they think they are so special, they can even divorce without accusations, bitterness and raging? Society assumes there is no such thing as a good divorce. Be friends with your ex? Not happening.
When there is some distance, you can appreciate what’s good about that person without having to take on all the ways they don’t function well.
— Tina B. Tessina, therapist and author
Seriously though, all that Gwyn was referring to was divorcing in a respectful, compassionate and cooperative way. Let’s not kid ourselves: Divorce can involve a lot of trauma and heartache for all concerned, but it doesn’t have to be a scorched-earth proposition. Unless your relationship with your soon-to-be-ex is so toxic — emotionally and physically abusive — you can work — slowly — toward a friendship, or at least, peaceful co-existence.
You might ask, If I can’t wait to get rid of this person, why would I want to be friends? Well, think about this: “This person is a repository of your memories of your life. If you refuse to talk, you are cutting yourself off to access to your own life. I think it’s damaging to people when the only way out of the marriage is to go cold turkey on the person who has been with you for most of your adult years,” says Wendy Paris, author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce. She adds that holding onto the anger will make your physically sick and prevent you from moving forward.
If you want to strive for a respectful and friendly relationship with your ex, here’s the 411:
1. Mediate Before You Litigate
If you are in the middle of a divorce, try mediation first before you lawyer up. “Some of the nasty business comes from hiring adversarial lawyers who rush in when you are vulnerable and scared, and start advocating for you against your spouse. They capitalize on that moment of real fear and insecurity because that’s their job,” says Paris. You are paying your lawyer to go for the jugular, but that might not be what’s best overall.
2. Give Your Post-Divorce Relationship Time
You probably won’t be able to be friends right away. Let the dust settle first and don’t push it. “Use the time to do the grieving that you need, face your feelings, understand what happened,” says Tina B. Tessina, a therapist in Long Beach, Calif., and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences.
3. Stop Endlessly Rehashing the Past
Doing a lot of blaming and venting about your victimhood is just going to prolong the pain and keep you stuck. “Instead, think about how you contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. The other person may be more at fault, but you have some responsibility. Take ownership of that, and you won’t feel so victimized,” says Paris. If you feel yourself going into a rant or obsessively going over hurts, force yourself to go out and do something you enjoy.
4. Appreciate What Was Good and Smart About Your Marriage
If you embrace blind anger and refuse to remember the good times, you are devaluing everything you’ve done. “Don’t make it black and white — you are cutting yourself off from a large chunk of your life,” says Paris.
5. Offer praise
It’s a no-strings way of breaking down walls. You could reassure your ex that you have a lot of confidence in their ability to create the life they want to create, to meet new people, to make a living or tell them what a good parent they are, says Paris.
6. Don’t Lash Out
Strive for empathy over anger. When horrible things are said, they can’t be unsaid. They will still be there further down the line when you may want to have a friendlier relationship. And especially don’t snark about your ex to the kids.
“When you trash 50 percent of their DNA, you are trashing them,” warns Paris. If you have dropped a bomb or two, apologize. “I am so sorry that I said this or that. It’s not true. I was just hurt and angry” can go a long way to easing the pain. Or “I feel horrible that I said that about your dad/mom. That wasn’t the right thing to do.”
7. Accept That It Is What It Is
If part of the reason you can’t be together anymore is because he is financially irresponsible or she flirts too much, that’s not going to stop being annoying to you. However, realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with you anymore. Let it go.
“Friendship is lovely but it shouldn’t carry the same weight as sharing your life together. We forgive our friends for a lot of stuff that we are not willing to forgive a mate for. When there is some distance, you can appreciate what’s good about that person without having to take on all the ways they don’t function well. Their quirks have nothing to do with you,” says Tessina.
At the same time, be open to the possible evolution of your ex. “People do change, and they might change into someone better. You have to look with news eyes in order to see it,” says Paris.
8. Set Boundaries
Even though you may be friendly, don’t depend on your ex to get your emotional or physical needs met.
“A breakup is supposed to set a boundary saying you two are no longer connected in that way. It’s important to switch your loyalties and connections so you are relying on different people,” cautions Tessina. She adds that having sex with your ex is going to start your grieving process all over again and will complicate any new relationships you are trying to form. “It’s like having a cigarette after you quit smoking. It brings you right back emotionally to the raw beginning of the break up,” Tessina notes.
If you feel like you just can’t move on or shed your anger or grief, consider seeing a therapist who can help you sort it all out in a safe environment.
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