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Extended Family Relationships: Staying Friends with Former Lovers and Spouses

It's natural to want to maintain a relationship with our former
romantic partners (assuming that the relationship ended on
reasonably good terms, of course). We shared a special bond with
them, and they touched our lives and contributed to our sense of
self in ways that we cannot even begin to describe. Just because
the romantic and/or sexual aspects of the relationship have
ended, why shouldn't we include our former partners in our lives
in other roles? If we have mutual friends, or shared custody of
children, we will be spending time with our former partners
whether we want to or not. Since we had a positive connection
with them on so many levels, it should be easy to simply become
friends, right? Not necessarily.

In many ways, we demand more of our friends than we do of our
romantic partners. Once we've made a commitment to our romantic
partner, we have certain obligations and duties. We're expected
to support our partners in both pleasant and unpleasant
circumstances. Our friends have no such obligations to us. On
the other hand, our friends do have to earn the right to be in
our lives by supporting us voluntarily. Interested though our
former partners may be in staying friends, they may not live up
to our standards.

Letting go of our old habits and expectations about our former
partners takes time. We need distance and perspective so that we
can evaluate what kind of relationship we actually have with
them.

I have a client, who we'll call Alice. Alice has been married
three times. Her second husband, Jim, had two sons, whom she
raised, and remained close to even after she ended the
relationship with their father. Her third husband, Mike, also
had a relationship with her stepsons. In many ways Mike became a
surrogate father to them. Alice is still very friendly with Mike
and his new wife, and socializes with them whenever they're in
town.

Alice recently lost both her mother and a very close friend,
both of whom Mike knew well. Alice was somewhat disgruntled that
Mike did not make any offers of support to help her through her
grieving process. She was also disappointed that Mike did not
make any contact with her stepsons when their biological mother
passed away. Alice knew that even a phone call from him would
have meant so much to them, and yet he didn't even manage that.

I helped Alice to untangle this group of extended family
relationships bit by bit. The first thing we addressed was the
fact that even though Mike had been a positive role model for
her stepsons, he does not have an actual family connection to
them. Alice was their stepmother; Mike was only their
stepmother's husband. As their former stepmother, Alice's
continued relationship with her stepsons is reasonable. While
married to Mike, it was appropriate for her to foster a
connection between him and her stepsons. However the entire
basis of that connection is their shared relationship to her.
Both of her stepsons are adults now, and both are married. It's
a safe bet that they know how to pick up the phone and initiate
contact with Mike if they want to maintain a relationship with
him on their own.

Next, we looked at Alice's relationship with Mike. Had her
mother and friend passed away while she was still married to
Mike, she would have been entitled to expect him to provide
emotional support to help her through the grieving process.
However, now that she's no longer married to him (and he's
married to someone else), she's not entitled to expect emotional
support from him. Alice needed to adjust her checklists and her
expectations in the relationship. She realized that she could no
longer relate to Mike as a romantic partner, or even as someone
with whom she shares a committed relationship.

Ultimately, she recognized that while she can still maintain a
cordial relationship with Mike, he doesn't meet the criteria she
sets for her friends. If he were truly a friend, he would have
offered some support to her when she needed it. Since she can't
expect him to be there to support her, she needs to adjust her
expectations of the relationship. He's not someone on whom she
can count for emotional support, and that's perfectly
acceptable. Their relationship has evolved. They're still
peripherally involved in each other's lives; the nature of the
relationship is more of a pleasant friendship (Alice described
it as "neighborly"). Once she adjusted her checklists, she was
able to let go of the anger she was feeling towards him.

About the Author

Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to
Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit
http://www.everyrelationship.com for a FREE report on creating
AMAZING Relationships.

Kevin B. Burk, Author of The Relationship Handbook