Alyssa Royse, whose husband and ex-husband are good friends, explains how to continue caring for a partner that you’re no longer in love with.
As I write this, my husband is sitting in the next room watching football. With my ex-husband. My ex-husband’s house burned a few months ago, so he’s living with us until it’s repaired. Which is awesome.
We are still close, my ex and I. And not just because we have a daughter to raise together. We are close because he’s awesome, and I love him. And I’ll be so bold as to suggest that he’d say the same about me.
When I met my husband, one of the things I asked him was how his relationships were with his exes. I have a “right” answer when I ask this. He gave me the right answer, “generally speaking I’m still close to my exes.” He is still quite close to his most recent ex, who is awesome.
In my mind, if someone was worth loving while I was dating them, then my not dating them anymore doesn’t make them any less worthy of love.
Which doesn’t mean that breaking up isn’t hard, but let’s really look at how to break up in a compassionate manner so that you can stay friends. Notice that I didn’t say “just” friends, in that dismissive way. Friends are just about the most important thing in the world, if you ask me. (I know, you didn’t.)
- Accept that ending the relationship is a good thing.
Relationships in which both parties are happy don’t tend to end. Therefore, ending the relationship very likely means that you are getting out of a situation in which either you weren’t happy, or in which someone else was unhappy with you. Ultimately, getting out of an unhappy situation is a positive thing. Really, leaving behind the “unhappy” so that you can go find the “happy” is a good thing. I really don’t understand why we always assume break-ups are bad. They’re pretty much the opposite of bad.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard and sad and scary. It is all of those things. Admit it. Talk about it. Acknowledge it, but promise yourself (and your soon to be) ex that you guys will support each other’s happiness.
More than anything else, that’s the thing the biggest common denominator I’ve seen in relationships in which exes are still close.
- Separate the relationship from the person.
Just because a relationship doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the person. I dated a guy for a while who was a “life of the party” sort of guy. Dude was so much fun, a constant ball of energy, a social butterfly who would fearless fly for fun any time any where. I am pretty sure that I was attracted to him because I am so NOT that way at all. We spent months – fairly painful months, actually – trying to make it work because we were genuinely crazy about each other.
But it didn’t work. We had incompatible needs as people, and from a relationship perspective. By the end of things, we were bickering more than we weren’t. But, it was easy to see that we were both awesome people, just totally incompatible. The relationship we were trying to have was the problem.
So we ended it.
- Remember that you have no right to their time, or to know what they do with it.
This is a tough one. For however long you were together, you had some right to expect your partner’s behavior to be mitigated by how it would impact you. As a result, you often knew where they were and what they were doing. Your mind would just wander there and picture it, because it was comforting, familiar, like an old pair of jeans. Now, however, your mind might wander there, and you’re met with either stark uncertainty, or the bleak realization that they might be having fun without you. NAKED fun!
Great news. It doesn’t concern you. Let it go. Seriously, don’t even think about it. When that stuff pops into your head, go for a run, sing a song, go do anything else. But do not dwell on what your ex is doing, good or bad. Not your business.
- Don’t call them names.
“That bitch.” “The cheater.” “The asshole.” Whatever, don’t go there. Besides just being stupid, those are loaded words that will trigger stress and anger in you. Words have energy, and the words we use will create the stories we tell. Our lives are the sum total of the stories we tell. Do you really want to be that character whose time is consumed with assholes, cheaters, liars and people who…. No. You don’t.
Don’t refer to them as your “ex” when you think of or speak of them. Don’t tie their identity to their relationship with you. It may seem small, but calling someone by their name, in the early stages of a break-up, will reinforce that you are each your own people, regardless of your relationship to each other. I call my “ex” my “ex” because it’s been 8 years. Though I usually just call him Myles, because that’s his name.
- Focus on what you learned from them.
You had great times together. Did you learn to cook? Dance? Did you discover that you love travel? Foreign films or obscure indie bands that you never would have discovered otherwise? Be thankful for all the gifts they brought into your world.
Really think about what you learned about what does and doesn’t work for you in relationships. Did you pick up a pattern that you want to remember for your next one? (A nightly sexting session, perhaps?) Or did you learn something that you know you doesn’t work for you and you do not want to bring into your next relationship. (Having to tell someone where you are all the time?)
These are the things on which you will build your future. Be grateful.
- Remember that YOU are in charge of your own happiness.
This is your time to focus on things that make you feel good and empowered. Rock climbing? Salsa dancing? Reading? Whatever it is, do those things. You are not beholden to anyone for your time and pleasure.
Fill your days with things that empower you. Even when you feel like moping and whining. Go do something. Form the habit of being active and having fun. That’s really the secret to loving life anyway – together or alone.
- Count on your exes to help you learn your own bad patterns.
Ultimately, your exes know you better than most other people. Once enough time has passed, I’ve found my exes to be the best sounding boards when I’m in a funk. Or even when I think I’m falling in love again, and scared. He knows me, my patterns, and what I need to hear.
- Remember, it’s just sex.
For the most part, when our romantic relationships end and turn, hopefully, into friendships, the only thing that’s really changed is that we aren’t having sex. And really, it’s just sex. I mean, sex is awesome – I spend a good deal of my timing teaching people how to have the sex they want, so I’m a big believer in awesome sex – but it’s just one thing. When you stop having sex with someone, they don’t magically become less awesome, just less naked. Their brain, heart, creativity and everything else you once loved is still there. So put it in perspective.
Yes, breaking up is hard. Because it is change. But that’s all it is.
Sure, sometimes break-ups are ugly. Sometimes they are the result of being treated terribly, in one way or another. Do you have to stay friends with the ex who was schtupping your friend? No, of course not. Do you need to stay cordial with someone who was abusive of you? Hell no. Should you remain in contact with someone that you shared destructive patterns with? Absolutely not.
But if you care about an ex, and want to remain friends, there is no good reason not to. This is when you get to learn to dig deep and be strong. When you get to deal with the emotional growing pains of personal growth and become the person you want to be, with the relationships that you want to have.
Your future is yours to design. People seem to think that the secret to being happy is to avoid ever being unhappy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The secret to being happy is to grow in the unhappy times. To sit in them and learn from them.
The beautiful thing about a broken heart is that it is wide open. An open heart can learn and grow.
Want the best of The Good Men Project posts sent to you by email? Join our mailing list here.