"I want us to be friends."
This little sentence shows up on your phone alongside your ex's name. It's a simple sentence, yet the implications and possible repercussions are anything but straightforward.
You start to reply. Then you reconsider and delete your initial response. What should you say?
Before you make a decision about your ex’s desire to be friends after divorce, ask yourself these questions:
How long has it been since the divorce?
There are no hard and fast rules here. Some people can be friends with their exes throughout the divorce process and others still can't be in the same room even decades later. Yet there is something to be said for instituting a "you keep to your life and I'll keep to mine" rule during the divorce, and for a year or so after. That distance helps both of you create the separation needed to be able to move forward and encourages the release of interdependence. Time allows any romantic feelings or residual resentment to fade, creating a blanker canvas where friendship may be able to grow.
Was the decision to divorce mutual or one-sided?
"I want to move in with my affair partner, but I still want to be friends" is a very different situation than an agreed-upon divorce after years of growing apart. A mutual decision to divorce may, in fact, have been reached because, over time, the marriage transitioned into more of a friendship. If you have been dumped, you may recoil at the very thought of remaining friendly with your ex. Or conversely, you may find that you jump at the chance of a friendship with the unspoken hope that it may evolve into something more. If the decision to divorce was one-sided, there is an imbalance that may preclude friendship, at least for a time.
Are you working to establish a co-parenting relationship with your ex?
A productive co-parenting relationship is analogous to a connection with a co-worker. It's two people who have negotiated boundaries and expectations in order to effectively manage external tasks and demands. This takes time to figure out and, during this period of trial and error, it's often best to try to minimize the emotional involvement. And just like friendships at work can be tricky, adding an element of friendship to a new co-parenting relationship can complicate matters. It's one thing to be frustrated at your child's other parent for failing to follow through on a promised plan, but it's something else entirely when that person is also a confidante. If, however, your co-parenting relationship is established and functional, you may find that the addition of a friendship is beneficial to the larger family and that you're able to successfully negotiate any issues that arise.
Do you have any physical sensations of stress or attraction when you're around your ex?
Do butterflies of excitement begin to flutter when you see your ex's car pull up? Or instead, do you find that you begin to develop a headache whenever they're around? These physical signs are an indication that you are still emotionally tied to your ex, either positively or negatively. Either of these makes beginning a friendship a dangerous game to play because you're only intensifying the emotional connection.
Do you find that talking to your ex brings down your mood or leads to a sense of anxiety?
Maybe you feel fine when you're with your ex, only to become snappy with the kids later. Perhaps you realize that a night spent tossing and turning always seems to follow contact. Or, possibly a general sense of malaise comes on the tail of every visit. Friends should make you feel better. If you end up feeling worse, maybe "friend" isn't the best label to assign.
Is a friendship with your ex preventing you from moving on with your post-divorce life?
Some friendships with the ex develop out of a sense of loneliness and expediency. It's much easier to fall back into a relationship with someone you know than to put forth the effort and risk the vulnerability with someone new. However, these types of convenience and comfort-based friendships can also be limiting, acting as anchors that are keeping you tied to your past.
Does your ex have a history of manipulation and/or deception?
If so, you're on tricky ground here. Perhaps your ex wants to be friends in order to maintain a sense of control over you. Maybe they want to be close so they can continue to manipulate your thoughts and actions. These people have a tendency to be charmers, so this bid for friendship may feel especially attractive, particularly if you have been rejected in the past. Proceed with caution here. Once you're close, it becomes difficult to perceive any deceptions and attempts to control.
Is this bid for friendship coming on the heels of a major post-divorce milestone?
Has your ex just celebrated a major birthday? Or did their mother just get diagnosed with cancer? Did the youngest child just graduate high school? Did you just announce your engagement? If the proposal of friendship came soon after a major life event, take some time to consider the motivation. It may be completely innocuous, such as the death of a loved one prompting a greater sense of mortality. Or it could be calculated, such as looking for someone to act as a nurse during their convalescence.
How have you (or will you) responded to the news that your ex is seeing someone new?
Part of being a friend is celebrating the good news of the other person. Any good news, even if it results in a new romantic partner. Can you honestly celebrate their budding romance? If not, friendship may be premature. On the flip side, can your ex handle your new partner gracefully? A friend who will give you honest feedback is great. But one that will veto every catch out of lingering jealousy is not.
Do you want to have a friendship with your ex?
If you had no history with your ex and you met them in a coffee shop, would you be interested in starting a friendship? Do you still enjoy time with your ex? Are you willing and able to let go of the past in order to establish a larger family unit that consists (or may eventually consist) of new partners and new children? Because that's what it ultimately comes down to. There are no rules that dictate the type of relationship you have with your ex. If you want to be friends, accept the offer. If you don't, there's nothing wrong with saying no and deleting the request.
Written by Lisa Arends
Lisa Arends is a divorcee working to inspire others to move forward, recenter, and repurpose their lives. She has written the "How-To-Thrive Guide." Learn more about "thriving" and be inspired by visiting LessonsFromTheEndOfAMarriage.com.