Something that has come up with a number of my clients recently is navigating interactions with an ex. Should you try to maintain a friendship? Have a friends-with-benefits arrangement? Take a break to see if it helps with getting back together? What about coparenting? What if you don’t want to have any contact with them whatsoever? There is a spectrum of communication with an ex-partner ranging from complete cutoff to talking every day. You can do whatever it is that you feel most comfortable with, and it can change over time. The answer to any of these questions posed by my clients is to establish and maintain boundaries with your former partner, which are further outlined below. However, if your former partner is not able to respect your boundaries about having a discussion, then that’s indicative that they might not respect your boundaries if you wanted to pursue a friendship with them.
1. Random check-ins – If your former partner is requesting a conversation with you and you aren’t sure how you’re feeling or you don’t want to talk, you can simply say “I’m not ready to talk right now” and leave it at that. You don’t have to meet them in person following the breakup if you don’t feel comfortable. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but if you want to leave the door open for a friendship, then it would be best to communicate that you’re just not ready to talk rather than ignoring their calls and texts.
2. Friendships – Yes, you can be friends with your exes, but you need to set boundaries. Some examples of boundaries that you may set include but are not limited to: (1) no late-night phone calls or texts, (2) no sending explicit photos, (3) no hugging or touching, (4) no talking about sex, or (5) no commenting about appearances. It’s important to keep in mind why you broke up in the first place because it’s easy to romanticize the bad times when you’re enjoying someone’s company. Someone can be a great friend for you, but not a great partner for you. If you are entering a new relationship, it is important to take that new person’s needs and comfort into account. If they feel uncomfortable with you being friends with an ex, then that’s a conversation you need to have with that person. If you’re not willing to compromise and give up a friendship with your ex, then the question becomes: are you actually ready for a relationship with someone else?
3. Friends-with-benefits – I really don’t recommend this one because clients in this position with their ex typically have a harder time moving on, stay stuck, or continue comparing every new person they meet to their former partner. I’d suggest investing in a good vibrator or stroker instead. If you really can’t help it and just must have sex with your ex, then it is imperative to use protection and be clear with your former partner (and yourself) about intentions. Sex with your ex will not make the pain of missing them go away, but it likely will reopen the wound. Then, schedule a session with me because we need to talk about impulse control.
4. Taking-a-break – If not done correctly, your break may lead you right back into the same old patterns that landed you in a breakup in the first place. There’s a myth that “time heals all wounds” and this is simply not true. While time may mitigate some of your irritation with your former partner leading to potentially less volatility, it will not make you nor your former partner any more apt to meet each other’s needs and effectively resolve conflict when it does arise. It’s important to have an open and honest discussion with your ex-partner about what you each need from each other and if that is realistic for each of you to do. I recommend having this discussion at least 6-8 weeks before deciding to get back together. This timeline not only gives time for self-improvement for each of you, but it also gives some of the emotions fueling the need for immediacy to get back together to fade. At the end of the 6-8 weeks, you both will be more sound of mind to be able to make the decision about whether you can realistically meet each other’s needs, and it’s okay if not!
5. Coparenting – If you and your former partner made a baby or babies together, you are in it for the long haul. There are many different types of coparenting, and you and your ex-partner should discuss this and decide what best suits you based on communication styles and conflict level. You can read this book to learn more about the three styles of coparenting. The important take-aways about communication with an ex when children are involved are to talk directly to one another rather than talking to each other through the children, don’t talk badly about your child’s parent to your child or within your child’s earshot, and don’t have disagreements in front of the child. I’ll break these down with some examples using the name “Jimmy” to represent the shared child between you and your former partner. If you need to communicate something to your former partner, then you need to say or text it directly to them. Do not use Jimmy as a relay because (1) Jimmy may forget to tell their other parent, (2) Jimmy may mix up what you say and say something wrong, (3) Jimmy bears a responsibility that is not his to carry, and (4) Jimmy does not learn effective communication skills. Never speak badly about your former partner to Jimmy nor when Jimmy is within hearing distance. Depending on Jimmy’s age, he identifies with both you and his other parent, so when Jimmy hears you say that his other parent is “stupid,” Jimmy interprets that to mean that you think Jimmy is stupid also. Lastly, disagreements will happen between you and your former partner. It is important that Jimmy doesn’t have to witness this, if he does, it is important for him to also see the resolution so that he learns effective conflict resolution strategies. If you’re interested in learning more, you can look into a workshop for parents navigating separation or read this book or this one.
Sometimes relationships just don’t work, and that doesn’t mean that either party is a bad person; rather, it just means that they can’t function in an intimate relationship together.
However, if the relationship with your partner involved physical or emotional violence or other intimidation tactics, then it is not wise to engage in any unnecessary communication with each other.