Can You Be Friends with Your Ex?

In a divorce, both people feel not only disappointed but betrayed.  One of them sometimes suggests that, although they won’t be married any more, they can be friends.  This effort almost always is doomed to failure.

Someone at some workshop long ago (I’m sorry I can’t attribute this concept to the individual who shared it) demonstrated why the attempt to be friends so often fails.

Imagine a circle.  Better yet, draw a circle.  The movement in the circle can go ONLY clockwise, so draw an arrow going clockwise inside the circle.  Then, on the upper right, at one o’clock, write BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP.  A business relationship is the beginning of every relationship, in that you don’t know each other and can make no assumptions about each other.  It would be inappropriate, for example, to expect the bank executive you just met to give you a ride home, or to lend you five dollars for your next stop at Starbucks.  Your dealings are contractual, explicit.  If you want a loan, you sign a promissory note.  If you need a ride home, you call a cab.  You have no right to expectations, other than the ones you and your banker agree upon.

 However, if you see this banker frequently, you might indeed eventually suggest meeting for coffee, and one or the other might treat.  Eventually, it might be appropriate to request a lift home.  When these things happen, a business relationship has evolved into FRIENDSHIP.

Write FRIENDSHIP at about four o’clock on your diagram.  With a friend, you can have greater expectations—both of you—about what you do for each other.  You can assume that your friend will want to meet you for lunch, or will invite you for dinner.  He might even help you move furniture, or paint your house, or keep your dog when you travel.  With some friends, you can assume they’ll come and get you if your car breaks down twenty miles away on the Interstate.  On the other hand, that assumption, and others of that kind, usually relate to the next stage of relationship, INTIMACY.

INTIMACY, or INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP, would be at, say, eight o’clock on your chart.  In an intimate relationship, you can expect that your partner will be there for you in all kinds of ways that a business acquaintance, or even a friend, would not.  Your partner will nurse you when you’re sick, buy you ice cream when you have a craving, share his or her money with you.  You make these assumptions implicitly and you expect that your partner will follow through.

Now, here’s the point.  When an intimate relationship breaks down, there is no going back to friendship.  You can’t back up in the circle.  The only way to regain the trust and confidence you need for a viable friendship is to go around the circle toward establishing a solid business relationship.  And you establish a solid business relationship by making everything explicit.  You make agreements and keep them.  “I’ll pick up the kids from school today.”  “I’ll pay you xxx dollars.”  Whatever the agreements are, the rebuilding of trust depends upon your making clear commitments and following through.

Then, maybe, you can become friends again.