The Art of Ex-Etiquette

Lauren's Interview with Psychologies Magazine PM: When is the right time or when are you in the right place to resume a relationship with your ex?

LM: If you are parents, it’s in your children’s best interest to co-parent in a civil and mutually-respectful manner. Divorce is always painful. When one parent demeans the other in front of the children it creates life-long, emotional and psychological wounds. If need be, seek out a therapist, mediator, or coach to help you devise a co-parenting plan and develop effective communication and conflict management skills. Ask yourself, “What’s more important—my anger and resentment or the health and well-being of my children?”

When one person still has romantic feelings or the desire to get back together as a couple and their ex doesn’t feel the same, friendship doesn’t work. The one longing to be a couple continuously feels rejected, which invokes feelings of guilt, frustration, and/or resentment in the other.

By the end of a relationship, many couples have become ‘intimate enemies’ and don’t even like the other person, let alone love them. There has to be a foundation of mutual respect, shared values, and appreciation of the other person. These are important in any friendship, but especially so when transitioning from a partnership to a friendship.

PM: Is it important to examine your motives for wanting to stay friends; for example, guilt, wanting to get back together, trying to make someone jealous, or the inability to let go? What sort of good motives are there for wanting to stay friends? Is it important that your motives and expectations are the same?

LM: Hidden agendas such as financial or material gain, fear of being alone, appearing desirable to others, or relieving guilt ultimately contaminate the friendship. When someone uses another person for their own gain, sooner or later the person being used becomes resentful and the relationship implodes. There has to be shared mutual benefit. These can include enjoying a close and supportive friendship with someone you care about and who cares about you, maintaining a shared social circle, or for ex’s who work together, being able to have a positive relationship at work.

PM: What should you do if when you’re together, your old feelings are reignited and you begin to want more than friendship? Should you back off and re-evaluate? Does this mean you may not be ready for friendship?

LM: Take the time to examine your feelings and what’s driving them. Are you missing the person or just your life as a couple? If it’s the latter, it’s time to learn how to live life on your own. If you find that you still have romantic feelings or you want to get back together, express how you feel to your ex to see how he or she is feeling. If they don’t feel the same and your feelings are creating more pain than joy in the relationship, let your ex know you need some distance and do the inner work to help you move on.

PM: What about sex? It’s not really an uncommon scenario! One of you is feeling raw, the other one comforts you, and you end up in bed. Is this something to be avoided at all costs in relationships which really are over, where at least from one side, there is no chance of reconciliation? Should there be other rules like no flirting, hand-holding, or spontaneous returns to intimate behavior? Or is it okay to do all this and throw out the rule book?

LM: It depends on the boundaries to which you’ve both agreed. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s what works for both people. The key is to keep the communication alive and keep checking in with your own feelings and to those of your ex. It’s important, however, to understand that once you’re back in bed together, the relationship is again a romantic, sexual relationship and not a platonic friendship. So how you both want to go forward needs to be discussed and negotiated once again.

PM: What about emotional boundaries? How close is too close? Is it important to keep the relationship free from emotional entanglement? Is it advisable not to lean on each other for emotional support, and spare each other the details of new relationships? Should you build another support network rather than with your ex—even if he or she was once the first person you’d turn to when you were down?

LM: In or out of a relationship, it’s important to develop your own self-sufficiency and independence, including having your own friends and support system. Your ex can be part of your support system, but being emotionally dependent on someone else is always a recipe for disaster.

Like with sex, emotional boundaries need to be communicated. Discuss how much contact and support you both want with and from each other. If there’s a disparity, work to find middle ground that will work for both of you. Talk about how you want to handle new people in your life. Some people are comfortable knowing all about their ex’s latest date, while others may not be ready to hear it.

PM: What about new partners? How much should they be expected to take? What if your new partner and ex don’t get along? What if your new partner tells you in plainest terms that he doesn’t like you seeing your ex? Do you think we are sometimes prone to a little game playing with our ex’s, using them to make new partners jealous, or using new partners to make our ex’s jealous?

LM: Introducing a new person into the equation can work if the two ex’s have established and maintained a healthy, platonic friendship over an extended period of time following their romantic break-up. In other words, they are truly just friends, and have had a friends-only relationship for a consistent length of time. If you broke up with your ex a month ago, it’s probably not going to work to bring him into your new relationship because you haven’t had time to solidify a new friendship-only relationship.

If you’ve actively shared a healthy, platonic friendship with your ex for a year or more since the break-up, give the new person in your life the opportunity to meet your ex, so she can be reassured that you’re truly just friends. If you’ve included your new lover in your friendship with your ex and they don’t click, respect their feelings and participate in the friendship with your ex on your own. In this situation, if your lover demands that you cut your ex out of your life, pay attention to this red flag. You may be dealing with someone who is insecure or emotionally immature.

PM: What do you think a healthy relationship with an ex would be?

LM: A mutually respectful and supportive relationship in which both parties genuinely enjoy each other’s company, but have a shared desire to be nothing more than friends.

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Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach, host of the LIFE KEYS radio show, and author of the international bestseller, Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life.