I was having lunch with a group of women recently and the conversation turned (surprise!) to relationships. Carole told us she had just finalized her fairly amiable divorce. Her problem was that her ex still called her almost every day and kept her up to date on everything going on in both his life and the lives of his extended family members. Carole wanted much less contact with him but felt conflicted. They had so much shared history -- like old friends. But, she said, it kept her in an uncomfortable intimacy with him. There had been a minor earthquake early one morning. The phone by Carole's bed immediately rang. It was her ex checking that she was okay. "What if I'd had someone there?" she asked. It never even crossed his mind that he might be intruding.
Carole's dilemma sparked a lengthy conversation about whether and when it's a good idea to sever ties with the ex or modify the relationship to some degree. The issue comes up sooner or later for most divorced people, particularly if there are children involved, or if a new partner enters the scene. While it may have been okay in the past for an ex to drop by and play with his kid every evening, a new partner may want some privacy. It can be a tricky balancing act.
Pat then shared with us her concern about the divorced man she's dating. Jeff's been apart for five years from an ex who loathes and detests him and is very vocal about it. One day Pat and Jeff were sitting in his car eating ice cream when the ex called on the car phone. The ex was furious about some unpaid child-related bill she felt Jeff should pay immediately. Jeff asked to discuss it later since Pat was in the car. The ex became even more incensed. "I don't care who's in the car, we need to talk about this now!" she yelled. The problem here was twofold for Pat. Not only did the ex feel she had to be heard and that Pat was irrelevant, but Jeff let her continue with her rant. Pat is now questioning her relationship with a man who she feels is still not emotionally divorced from his wife. "It was scary to see how easily she pushed his buttons," she said. "I've never seen him that angry before."
Jenny, another woman at the table, then described the big shift in the divorced family dynamic which occurred this last Christmas. Jenny is now living with a man and this was to be their first Christmas together. However it's also the first Christmas where her ex-husband was not invited to come on Christmas morning to open gifts with his and Jenny's children. Even when they were separated, he was included for the children's sake. Jenny felt it was too awkward this first Christmas with her new partner and suggested her children open gifts at her house, then go to their father's house to open gifts a second time. The surprise came when the kids returned and said they had invited their father over later for Christmas dinner. Jenny asked her new man how he felt about it. He hesitated, laughed and then generously said it was okay if it would make the kids happy. So in the end a compromise was made which took into account everyone's feelings, though Jenny said she felt awkward at the meal and was glad when it was all over.
It was a long lunch. We went on to talk about the colleague who is still having "no-ties" sex with his ex, the neighbor who's dating a man who still shares the house he owns with his ex because neither one will give it up, and my hair cutter Viv who hates it when her live-in boyfriend has his monthly dinner with his ex-wife and their 12-year-old daughter. Viv understands it's probably good for the child to see her parents together, but she feels left out, like he's living in the past.
By the time we got to coffee and dessert, we all agreed that severing ties with the ex is a complex issue and there are no simple answers. Afterwards I jotted down a few general guidelines that might be of help:
1. If you have to have a conversation with the ex and it veers into old familiar angry territory, end the chat fast. Let the ex know you won't venture back into this swampy area.
2. Keep communication down the to the minimum; use texts and emails to make arrangements about children's activities etc.
3. Don't be too familiar with the ex. Always call before showing up. Treat his or her home like you would anyone you are not related to. Don't dive into the refrigerator and help yourself to leftovers.
4. You're not your ex's husband or wife anymore. So if old patterns come up, like he calls and wants you to come and help him with graphics for his new website, politely suggest he find a professional to help him out. Those days are over.
5. Even if you and your ex have arrived at a working situation, be flexible when a new partner enters the picture who may not be comfortable with the relationship dynamic.
None of this is written in stone, of course. There are ex-husbands and ex-wives who socialize and even work together with no problems. But in most cases, the more emotional distance the better.
Please comment below on any of the situations discussed at our lunch. What would you do?