Can I Be Friends With My Ex's Pals?

Unless you and your ex have a warm relationship or children together, you're likely to find that friendships with people close to your ex will fade.

By Polly Schulman, published May 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

QUESTION: Can I be friends with my ex's pals?

Syndy Becker had always been close to her in-laws. "I talked to my mother-in-law more than my husband did," says Becker, a graphic designer on Long Island. That didn't change, even when Becker and her husband divorced. Now, she still speaks to her former in-laws several times a month and sees them regularly.

"I call these people souvenirs of failed relationships—kind of like that great piece of Guatemalan pottery you bring home from a trip on which you had food poisoning," says Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Solomon counts among his closest friends one ex-girlfriend's mentor and another ex's best friend. "Even though it's over, the relationship enriched me by bringing this wonderful person into my life."

But such friendships are not always easy to manage. The biggest danger is that they can draw you back into the relationship, resurrecting unresolved conflicts, says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Washington, D.C. "Most ex-spouses are still angry even 10 years after the breakup. You want to put your energy into the new chapter of your life, not dwell on the old one," he argues. Issues with ex-spouses are the number one problem with new second marriages, says McCarthy.

Unless you and your ex have a warm relationship or children together, you're likely to find that friendships with people close to your ex will fade. Intimacy involves knowing the details of your friend's present life—details that will include your ex, says Robert LaCrosse, a Denver psychologist. In Becker's case, what cemented her ties to her in-laws was a shared interest in the children. "My kids love their grandparents," she says.

If you do pursue a friendship with someone you met through a former partner, you have to inspect your own motives, says LaCrosse. Perhaps you're trying to keep tabs on your ex or hoping to get back together. Or maybe your real motive is vengeance—you want your ex to writhe at the thought of you bowling with his brother. "It's a question of self-observation," he says. "What do I talk about with these people? Do we spend a lot of time talking about the ex, sniffing around edges? Clearly, it's easy to trick yourself." The more your thoughts focus on the friend, and the less they focus on the ex, the more likely it is that the friendship is healthy—and will work.

ANSWER: With discretion, you may be able to keep up the friendship.

The key is maintaining good boundaries and making sure your friend doesn't have to take sides. Be patient. Realize you're changing the grounds of your relationship, and it may take some time to get comfortable. Don't keep your friendship a dead secret, but "don't rub your ex's face in it," says Toni Antonucci, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. If your friend wants to talk about your ex, politely but firmly say, "I'd be much more comfortable if we didn't get into this." If the person can't stop, consider letting the relationship go.