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, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My wife and I recently divorced after seven years. I want to give myself space from my ex in order to deal with my emotions and recover from the emotional pain. However, we have a lot of close friends in common, which means I often see her at the same social events and group hangouts. How do I gain distance from and get over her without completely abandoning my usual social circles? Do I need to find new friends until I’m completely over her?
A: My heart goes out to you as you process the painful feelings that usually accompany the break up of a committed relationship. If you’re like most people who divorce, you’ve felt anger, hurt, loss, and grief. And it’s not as though you’re just making a simple purchase return at Target. It’s likely that, to some extent, you’ve lived out these painful feelings in front of the group of friends you and your ex-partner share. They know.
And of course you don’t want to lose these connections. But you’re wondering if it’s even a good idea to stick close to the old gang, or might it muddle your progress in getting over your ex? Especially if you have to see her often? Then, a part of you is probably lamenting, “so much has changed — do I have to lose these friendships, too?”
My client Ben (names are changed to protect privacy) was ready for his divorce and wanted it, but he found himself grieving all of the other changes that came along for the ride. The main social circle that he and his ex shared continued to include them both, but the dynamics definitely shifted. Ben noticed that certain friends gravitated more toward his ex, so he felt left out in the cold.
Ben decided to initiate some open conversations, where he learned that the break-up of his marriage had truly saddened his friends. When he was able to listen with compassion to their feelings without being defensive about why he wanted the divorce, it really helped to re-cement the bond he had with them. Ben was able to clarify his desire to stay connected. He also shared that he needed a social break from his ex. He wanted to give them both time to heal. His friends got that — and appreciated learning how they could help. They agreed to make time for Ben separately from his ex for awhile.
I recommend following Ben’s example and re-establishing your relationships through personal conversations. I hope you and your ex have been discreet about not expecting your friends to hear grievances, which will definitely undermine loyalty and respect in every direction. A healthy conversation, on the other hand, will build your bond to the ones you feel closest to, which can trickle out to the whole group.
Because Ben and his ex were also co-parenting, it was important for them to maintain a friendship with one another for the best interest of their children. Their friend group was extremely helpful in supporting that! When each of them felt stronger, they started to socialize together again with the group, building on the foundation they’d already laid with this community, even as they went their separate ways.
On the other hand, it was important for Ben, and it will be for you, to view the ending of the relationship as an opportunity for personal development and exploration.
My client Ruby fought to try to keep her 20-year marriage together, but when the divorce happened, she decided to enter a season of deeper self-care and spiritual growth. She had loved her ex and also loved her life in that marriage, but it had created a version of herself that she no longer needed to conform to. She saw the divorce as an opportunity to creatively explore her image and interests. She cultivated a deep serenity in “owning” all the parts of herself. This new level of spirituality actually made her very attractive, and Ruby found that others were surprisingly open to her. She received invitations to connect with new friends, as well as with old friends in new ways.
From your question, I would guess that you need to do some of what both Ben and Ruby did. Just like Ben, it will probably help you to know that your old friends are in your corner. We all need the security that our tribe brings, and maybe your friends can help shield you from too much exposure to your ex for awhile, while still making time for both of you. And just like Ruby, you probably are growing. Going through a tough season of loss does change a person, and I hope you can embrace the transformation. Interacting with new people helps us reconnect with neglected or unexplored parts of ourselves, which can be extremely fulfilling.
That you are even asking this question suggests you are lucky to have some very good friends. I hope that you all weather this transition well, with a deeper appreciation of the bonds that you have in one another. And I also trust that these friends can cheer you on as you grow and expand your horizons. I hope they’ll welcome the new you, as well as the new friends you might bring into this circle.
More from Asking for a Friend here.