Divorce has legal consequences: your legal obligation for your spouse ends; your taxation status will change; your medical insurance provided by your spouse’s employer will end, and the list of legal results continues. But, divorce is more than just a legal action with legal ramifications; it’s the act of cutting emotional, mental, and physical ties between you and your ex. When you’re in the thick of divorce proceedings, the thought of maintaining a relationship with your ex is probably the last thing on your mind. However once the dust settles, you may find that you need or want to have some connection with your former spouse, especially if you have children together. There will be graduations, weddings, sporting events, school ceremonies, and many other possible occasions where you will be in attendance with your former spouse.
While this is natural and sometimes even healthy, it is not always so easy. Tensions can rise when a new partner is introduced. Without clear boundaries, you may find yourself subject to the same patterns of emotional abuse, arguments, undue reliance, or manipulation that led to divorce in the first place. With that in mind, let’s discuss four types of relationships you may have with your ex after divorce. These are not mutually exclusive, and each one is a valid option. It is ultimately up to you to determine the best approach for your situation.
In the event your divorce was amicable, you can keep things professional or polite. Remaining cordial is a mindset of serenity, which requires you to be content with everything that has happened between the two of you. By remaining cordial, you treat your ex like an acquaintance. The two of you are not enemies, yet you are not friends either. It is a state of professionalism, in which you keep the peace and maintain decorum. You may decide to remain cordial because your ex works in the same office as you or is a prominent member of the community of which you belong as well. Remaining cordial and gracious allows both of you to retain your position in your social circles and career while allowing boundaries to still exist firmly between you.
It is entirely possible to become friends with your former spouse. Let’s say a man had married a woman he cared for immensely, but during a period where homosexuality was not as culturally accepted. Later in life, he came to terms with his sexuality and sought a divorce. His now ex-wife justifiably felt betrayed, but decided to support him with compassion and understanding. It took maturity and a period of grieving, but eventually the ex-wife realized she still felt a bond with her ex-husband, and she wanted to maintain a connection. The ex-husband also still admired and cared for his ex-wife. So they became friends. While this is indeed the plot to the popular Netflix’s comedy, Grace and Frankie, it is also a real life scenario we have encountered.
Friendship could also be the outcome for a couple that divorces because they now realize there were fundamental differences or flaws that weren’t obvious at the onset. Couples who marry young or spend the formative years of their relationship apart due to military service or long distance tend to find that their situation has changed, and some mutually agree to divorce. Friendship is a healthy way to maintain the bond that brought you together, but in a way that feels more natural.
The key elements of a friendship include sharing a social circle, lending tools to one another, asking for small favors, and supporting one another, just at a level below the intimacy and intensity of a marriage. A good friendship requires boundaries and limits.
Co-parenting, as the name implies, is a collaborative approach to raising children together after divorce. Co-parenting is a concept in which separated parents agree to work together to continue parenting in unity. This requires a great deal of maturity, and a commitment to prioritizing the well-being and best interest of your child above any animosity or hard feelings you may harbor. It is not always easy, however it has several advantages that make it worthwhile. Co-parenting affords both parents an opportunity to be part of their children’s lives, and creates a stronger support system for their children. It also serves as a model for ideal adult behavior to see two people interacting with maturity in the spirit of compromise. In many cases it may even be mandatory, as most judges prefer 50/50 custody for children whenever possible.
Co-parenting looks different for every couple. If you had an exceptionally civil and peaceful divorce, you may choose to keep a tight knit style, where parents continue to vacation together or even split time in the same family home. These practices are part of a theory of divorce known as conscious uncoupling. In short, conscious uncoupling means prioritizing the well-being of your children and working together with your ex to maintain as much consistency in your children’s life post-divorce, with an emphasis on the strengths of your ex and their admirable qualities. In other words, conscious uncoupling means lifting each other up as parents and modeling forgiveness, compromise, and a spirit of collaboration at the utmost level.
Alternatively, co-parenting is less intimate and strictly task oriented. The objective is still the same; work together to provide a strong healthy support system for your children. You can achieve this goal from the comfort of two homes with less face-to-face between parents. With the help of custody agreements, shared calendars, and even mobile apps, it is possible to develop a full schedule in which both parents are equally involved in the day to day life of the children without too much involvement in the other parent’s life. If you plan to co-parent and maintain minimal contact with your ex, it is imperative to have a detailed custody agreement in place with clear guidance, appointed times, and firm directions. Holidays, vacations, sicknesses, quarantines, and travel limitations need to be addressed. This way there is no confusion over who has the kids when. The goal is to keep ambiguity to a minimum. If you are not concise, you may find yourself in the gray area where your ex can try to take advantage of you or overstep your boundaries. Similarly, keep communications brief and in writing if possible, limited to only what is necessary for the kids or legal matters.
No Contact Whatsoever
If you did not have children together from the marriage, there may be no valid reason to maintain contact or have any kind of relationship with an ex after divorce. It is well within your rights to completely remove your ex from your life. Seeing your ex moving on in life could cause feelings of jealousy or sadness. Equally, moving on while feeling some remnant of the previous marriage might cause you distress or difficulty in the event you begin a new relationship. These are all normal emotions and understandable reactions. Should you prefer to have no relationship with your ex after the divorce, you can begin to detach from them physically and virtually. After the divorce is finalized, you may begin to cut ties by deleting your ex on social media, distance yourself from the social circles you two once shared, and keep physical distance. This is all completely within your right. However, there may be some need to coordinate the signing of a document, like a car title or real estate papers, and some continued minimum contact is required.
On the other hand, no contact whatsoever may be necessary for your protection. In cases where divorce occurred due to domestic violence, abuse, or toxic behaviors, it may be safer to cut your ex out entirely. Someone who was manipulative, violent, abusive, or conniving in your marriage won’t just stop because you are no longer legally married. It is best to protect yourself by addressing the issue of abuse in the divorce proceedings and seeking a restraining order if needed. If there is a restraining order in place, a violation of the order will result in criminal charges against the offending party.
Other Things to Consider Post-Divorce
Setting Boundaries with an Ex
Boundaries are necessary for your protection and emotional well-being. If you intend to remain cordial or become friends, be sure to set clear boundaries including the topics of discussion you are comfortable engaging in, the types of social events you do not want to see one another at, or the acceptable medium for communicating between the two of you. It is best to keep things impersonal, at least at first. This will aid in breaking the emotional tie you shared in your marriage, thus allowing you to form a different connection.
When it comes to co-parenting or no contact situations, you need boundaries on physical spaces and boundaries to protect your children. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with your ex coming into your home, or would you prefer they just honk when they are outside to drop the kids off? Also, we cannot stress enough just how important it is to keep your children out of parental communications and tasks. Do not ask your children to relay a message or seek their opinion on the other parent. Avoid speaking negatively about your ex or gossiping around your children. You may need to talk to other family members and friends, requesting that they not speak negatively about your former spouse as well. Avoid behaviors that undermine your validity in the eyes of your children, which add to the confusion they are feeling already, and can cause emotional distress. Successful co-parenting requires your children to respect you both, and that begins with the example you set with how you respect one another and interact.
Setting boundaries is especially important in relationships with a history of manipulation. If you were constantly cleaning up after your ex, both literally and metaphorically, during the marriage, then you should set strict limits on what you feel comfortable with as a friend, co-parent, or work colleague.
Learning to Let Go of What You Had Before
Sometimes it is difficult to accept change, even if it’s change you want or know you need. But you are now an independent person, even if you do still share the obligation of raising children together. Shedding the identity of husband or wife will take time and conscious effort. When your ex calls for advice or wants to vent, you have to say no if that is not within your boundaries. Again, keep your interactions brief and on topic. If you two share custody, then the only thing anyone should be venting about is the incident your son got into during recess at school. The only advice you two should share with one another is in regards to which colleges would be best for your daughter to attend. Cutting the ties that connected you and your ex so intimately is difficult and requires a great deal of maturity and self-control. You are allowed to start slow. You can also rely on your support system, family, and close friends to keep you accountable.
The Changing Nature of Relationships
Nothing is set in stone. You can decide that no contact is best for the time being as you heal and grieve the divorce, but one day you may wish to be friends. It is okay to change your mind at a later date. Equally, you are allowed to try a certain type of relationship, determine it doesn’t work well, and then pick a different style. If you continue to raise children together, you could spend several years effectively co-parenting with a healthy level of communication and then decide to never talk again once your child turns 18. There are many factors you cannot account for right this very moment, and that’s okay. You know yourself and have a solid idea of what you need right now. Start there, allow room for yourself to grow, and adapt as circumstances change.