Asking for a Friend//

Can You Stay Close With a Family Member’s Ex?

Yes, says a therapist, but avoid doing this one thing.

Liia Galimzianova / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

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Q: My cousin recently got divorced, but his wife was one of my best friends. Our relationship formed because he introduced us when they were dating. Now that they’re divorced, are we expected to stop being close? -J.G.

A: You should not stop being close. Some family members may expect you to do so, but I believe that such an expectation is wrong. Let me explain why.

First, true friendship is a gift. For most of us, we have many acquaintances and “friends,” but can count the number of close friends in our life on one hand. And that’s the way it should be. We can only be emotionally available and vulnerable with a limited number of people. Friendship is precious and seeks to be preserved.

“Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” —Euripides

Second, your cousin may have introduced you, but you built the friendship. Not unlike forming an intimate relationship with a partner, friendship involves building Love Maps, sharing fondness and admiration, and turning towards each other instead of away, the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House.

Love Maps are the cognitive space that you guard for your friend’s inner life: their likes and dislikes, interests, concerns, hopes, and dreams. It’s what we do when we are first getting to know each other and when we get together to catch up.

Good friends share fondness and admiration for one another and turn towards each other in good times and in bad. Trust is built by turning towards and standing by each other in the difficult moments.

Third, your friend is probably in need of a lot of love and support right now. Rather than turning away, this is a time to turn towards her. Not only is her marriage ending, but her whole world is being rocked and many of her relationships will probably change or cease to exist. She may need your friendship more than ever now.

All that said, I have one word of caution. Be careful not to become triangulated in the relationship between your cousin and your friend. When there is a problem in a relationship, it is not uncommon for one or both to reach out to a third person to shift the balance in the relationship.

Although your cousin and your friend are now divorced, they probably still need to communicate with each other, particularly if they have children. Be empathic and in solidarity with both, but try not to take sides or to be used as an emissary between them. They need to work out the boundaries and pathways of their new relationship as co-parents and/or ex-spouses.

They may need a therapist or a mediator to help them with that, but that’s not your job. They just need you as a friend.

Read more “Asking for a Friend” columns here, and follow us on Facebook for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More Like This:

How Often Do Healthy Couples Argue?

What To Do When Your Ex Wants More Closure

I’m a Divorced Parent. How Can I Raise Happy Kids?

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