Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw once famously asked “can you be friends with an Ex?”. For those of us that have found love with someone who has children from a previous relationship the question is not only “can you” but also “should you be friends with your partner’s ex”. And more to the point, do you really want to?
“I got to thinking about the ex factor – in mathematics we got to learn that X stands for the unknown A + B = X but what’s really unknown is, what + what = friendship with an Ex. Is this an unsolvable equation or is it possible to transform a once passionate love into something that fits nice and neatly onto the friendship shelf. I couldn’t help but wonder, can you be friends with an Ex?” Carrie Bradshaw – Sex & the City S2, Ep18
When kids are involved the reality is that ‘the ex’ (otherwise known as the children’s mother) is going to continue to be part of your partner’s life and therefore in your life, whether you want them there or not. You cannot get around the fact that at some stage you will have to engage with the ex, because of the simple fact that their child spends time in your home. In this context it’s generally accepted that it is better for everyone to be pleasant than to be unpleasant.
If you and your partner’s ex can grow to become friends, great. If both stepmom and mum want it, are motivated for the right reasons and both have the drive and temperaments to ensure the relationship is healthy and respectful, then by all means becoming friends isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that friendship isn’t always the right thing or even possible for everyone. Especially when feelings are involved. And especially if those feelings were hurt pretty badly and people are still trying to heal wounded hearts and egos left over from a messy divorce.
Whether we like it or not, it tends to be the ex that sets the tone of a relationship with a stepparent. I mean let’s face it, if the ex perceives (rightly or wrongly) that you were somehow involved or responsible for their marriage ending and/or that your partner/spouse was dishonest, insensitive and/or careless (during their marriage and/or the period around separation), then the last thing they might want is it to be your friend! In these scenarios, friendship dilemma solved. On the flip side, we also all know how hard it can be, to be polite or considerate to people we believe to have hurt (or continue to hurt) people we love and care about. Out of love and loyalty towards your spouse, friendship might be the last thing you wish to cultivate with their ex. This is nothing that you need feel guilty about. Rest assured, the fact that you may not want to be friends with the ex does not make you wicked or evil, merely human.
But if the question of friendship is not so clear cut, how do you figure out how to handle that complicated twosome that involves, the ex/the mother of your stepkids and you?
I think first up, you have to remain mindful that there is are BIG differences between being friendly, having a relationship that might on the surface resemble friendship (i.e. being a Facebook friend) and having a genuine friendship.
It can be very easy to think that anyone behaving in a friendly way is a friend – think that person who greets us warmly and with whom we always share a joke with down the dog park, the person we tend to always stand next to on the sideline of little Johnny’s weekly football games, or those we are “friends” with on Facebook and who follow us on Instagram. This is not the case. There is an important distinction to made between being friends and being friendly and this can work to a stepparent’s advantage.
Friendliness and being friendly is usually associated with pleasantness, perhaps sharing a nice a smile or a joke, and is more about being polite, cordial and considerate. In a work place, being friendly towards your coworkers and clients is professional. At a social occasion being friendly is polite, considered good etiquette and tends to makes the event/occasion more enjoyable for everyone. We might see these persons regularly and know a little bit about them, we might even be “friends” with them on Facebook. But when it comes down to it, we probably wouldn’t visit them in hospital if they were having an operation or expect to be invited to their wedding. Our contact with them resolves around a shared interest or a common role e.g. dog ownership, your children/stepchildren attend the same school or playing in the same sports team, you are both on the same committee or volunteer at the same Hospice etc.
Friendship on the other hand implies more. Friendship is a bond. Last I checked, friends are people who tend to do the following:
- Text or call to see how you’re doing or to share a secret or confide in you
- Regularly invite you out to lunch, dinner or drinks or other social events
- Hang out with one another, even if just to watch TV, go to the movies or have a quick coffee
- Become a part of your significant life experiences
- Get involved in important occasions, like planning birthday parties, weddings, baby showers
- Be honest and constructive when needed
- Celebrate the wins with you and be there to support the losses
- Go the extra mile when you ask for help or if they see that you need it
- Have your back when things are challenging and you’re going through tough times
- Understand and respect boundaries
- Be a person who sticks to their word
- Is willing to put your happiness before your friendship
- Like and value one another