Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Stay Friends After Divorce: Why, Coping, & Moving On

Avoiding friendship with your ex is often about denial.

Let's face it: romantic love often comes to an end. The theory goes that relationships end because the love ends, meaning that one or both members of the couple fall out of love. The reasons why they fall out of love inevitably vary. While some people's careers or professional obligations may draw them away from their relationship, others experience betrayal they can't forget or move past. Some lovers simply change and grow apart, and realize they were not meant to be together. One of the most perplexing realities is what often comes with divorce.

Most of you have probably had the experience of witnessing the forced encounter of two people who were once married in the past but who seem to have almost no connection with each other. I always wonder, Are you sure you were ever married? Many good songwriters have captured the melancholia and mystery that comes with the demise of a romantic union. I'm thinking of Carly Simon, for example, who sang the song "Coming Around Again" in which she sings "so good on paper, so romantic, but so bewildering."

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When a relationship goes south and a couple decides to separate, what happens to the love? Does it truly die?

Based on my clinical work over the years, I've found that the love never truly dies, no matter what came between the two individuals. It seems more likely that the love remains but is repressed to defend against strong, unpleasant feelings underneath. When you see two people who treat each other as strangers but who were once married, you don't see the love on the surface, but it's there - only in repressed form. You see the manifestation of the anger, sadness, or denial, but it covers strong feelings underneath. You can't simply love someone day after day and ever truly stop loving that person. You surrender to denial if you can't accept that there is a part of you that still loves and misses that person, even if it's only the most miniscule part of you. Music comes to mind again as I think of Whitney Houston singing "...and if somebody loves you, won't they always love you?" The answer, in a word, is yes, though some will go to the grave denying it.

It is rare, it seems, that couples are able to hold onto a friendship and remain close while still moving on after the divorce. I am always impressed when I see couples who manage to stay friends, as it takes strength in character and an understanding of the bigger picture to rise above the hurt. While we can't do much to change the state of affairs in other couples, you can reflect on your own relationship. If you are single, reflect on what you hope for in your next relationship. If you're looking for a partner who is also your best friend, think in advance about what you can do now to make sure that you never have to see an ex and treat him or her like a stranger.

At the end of the day, the real goal in life must be to integrate all of the various parts that make up who you are: your feelings, motivations, beliefs, and dreams. Though some of them may not be pretty, or may not make perfect sense, all of them together reflect who you are. Too often, men and women end relationships and feel that they made a mistake in choosing the partner they committed to in the past because the relationship didn't work. But such a perspective betrays the bigger picture, that relationships are one of life's greatest classrooms, and it's within this conext that we figure out what we need and learn how to move closer to true fulfillment. Barring cases of abuse, learning to forge a friendship with your ex after divorce can be a truly healing experience and allows for an important integration of your past with the present.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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