Being friends with your ex is possible, it just takes time

Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, consciously uncoupled.
Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, consciously uncoupled. Photo: Larry Busacca

I don’t understand married people who consciously uncouple.

“With tremendous love and respect for each other, we have decided to separate,” they say (Ben Stiller & Christine Taylor). “We have had a magical journey together” (Channing & Jenna Tatum) and “we look forward to continuing our cherished friendship” (Jennifer Aniston & Justin Theroux).

My ex and I didn’t separate so lovingly. We never made a formal statement of separation to the media, but if we had, I doubt that "cherished friendship" would have been a key phrase. Our divorce was more Angelina and Brad than Gwyneth and Chris.

"Our divorce was more like Brad and Angelina than Gwyneth and Chris."
"Our divorce was more like Brad and Angelina than Gwyneth and Chris." Photo: AAP

And frankly, I don’t blame us. An amicable divorce isn’t easy to achieve. For one thing, most separations are initiated by one spouse, with the other unwilling, or at least less willing, to split.

Secondly, divorce requires all sorts of negotiation, particularly when there are children and property involved. Playing nice through custody discussions and property settlements when one partner is feeling betrayed, the other is feeling resentful, and both parties are scared and unsettled, is almost an impossible ask.

And finally, even when the practical aspects of divorce are sorted, the emotional aspects are infinitely more complex.

I had imagined that physical separation would lead smoothly to an emotional separation from my ex. Within a few months, I figured, the connection between us would be severed.

But being married for years isn’t like dating someone for a few weeks. You can’t just decide it’s not working, cut off, and continue merrily on your way.

A spouse is more a family member than a boyfriend or girlfriend, however unsatisfying or dysfunctional the dynamic has become. And changing the dynamics between two family members doesn’t happen overnight, even when those two family members are living apart.

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For years after my separation, my ex and I were stuck in the same old patterns of interaction. We didn’t see each other often, but when we did, the same dynamics re-emerged.

Just as I would slip into the role of child when I visited my parents, I would slip into the role of angry wife when I talked to my ex. My responses were conditioned; he would say something that triggered me, and my very worst self would emerge.

I suspect I had the same effect on him.

I’ve met so many recently separated people who experience the same sort of dynamic. They have split, but they are still constantly drawn into the same arguments, the same resentments, the same disappointments, the same frustrations.

Divorce isn’t a magical cure-all for relationship woes. It just means you’re not living in the same place.

Having said that, there does seem to be a solution, and that is time. It took upwards of four years for my ex and I to renegotiate our relationship. It wasn't discussed. It just happened.

It was a process of unconscious uncoupling. It helped when he repartnered, and it helped when I became aware of our dynamic. It helped when our kids settled down, and we didn't need to discuss emotive issues terribly often.

And it helped when we both moved forward in our separate lives, without the constant reference to each other that had characterised the past 25 years.

These days, I can actually enjoy the good things about my ex that had attracted me to him in the first place. He's still one of the funniest people I know. We can have a chat, and have a laugh, and when we irritate each other (which happens, because he's maddening and I'm perfect), it's over quickly and we reset to normal.

We've become the amicable celebrity divorced couple, except without the celebrity, and without the inspiring joint statements. It is, indeed, possible.

But – despite what Hollywood tells us – it doesn't happen overnight, or with a soft-focus filter over the lens. These things are brutal, and they take time.

Lots and lots of time.

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