How to make peace and become friends with your ex
Relationship therapists, mindfulness coaches and mediation experts weigh in on the quest to find closure and keep it civil
image Drake in 'Jumbotron Shit Poppin' music video. Drake/YouTube
words Ruchira Sharma
There’s a reason why breakup albums and films are often the most intense and heart-rending of all genres. When it doesn't work out, love hurts, and the immediate aftermath of a breakup is akin to an emotional storm. Not only is there no choice but to weather the feelings, but every few minutes a new emotion takes over and debilitates you, until another one comes along to replace it.
Then the idea of making peace with an ex, the person who catalysed this awful process, might sound absurd. But hear us out, there’s lots of reasons why you might want to or have to keep an ex in your life. Whether you work together, are in the same friendship group, or simply want them as a friend, some people require a platonic relationship with an ex-partner. Sadly, aside from old US sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother or Friends, there’s not much pop culture to teach us how you actually do this. Like, at all.
So, in search of the all-elusive answer to this conundrum, we approached a range of experts to find out how you go about this process without emotionally incinerating one another or making the situation much worse.
How do you make peace with an ex?
If you truly want peace with an ex, you’re going to have to do some tough emotional work, as this is an opportunity for closure. “Closure should not be mistaken for an opportunity to point fingers and attack one another,” says marriage and relationships counsellor Dr Talal Alsaleem.
Closure requires real introspection as to why you both broke up and taking accountability for your parts in this process. “This acknowledgement should also conclude with a sincere apology for the mistakes that were made in the relationship,” he says.
How to deal with the emotions
So you’ve both apologised. Sadly the hard work isn’t over. Your emotions haven’t caught up and you’re still feeling sadness and resentment bubbling up in the pit of your stomach. How do you move past these feelings?
Firstly, all emotions we have, including distressing ones like anger, sadness, or jealousy, serve a purpose, says Dr Alsaleem. “Our emotions are internal cues about what's going on in our lives and how we intellectually interpret those events.” It’s really important not to suppress those feelings or to try to escape them.
Dr Alsaleem deploys a technique with his own patients where he asks them to assess how valid an emotion is and what the aim of that emotion is. For example, if you’re angry at an ex, did they do something anger-worthy such as mistreat you? If not, then you can understand that your anger isn’t well-placed, and that acknowledgement opens the door to reframing the situation and moving past the emotion.
Alternatively, if your ex did give you a valid reason for anger, what do you want from them? Do you want them to hurt, too, or do you want them to acknowledge your pain? Realistically, yelling at them won’t achieve your goal, but a conversation about the issue will. “This would be reflected in choice of words, tone, and body language” you use, Dr Alsaleem says.
This next tip is an obvious one. “It is essential for the ex partners to take ample time to process their feelings about the breakup prior to resuming future interactions with their ex,” he says. You simply cannot create a new friendly relationship with an ex without “gaining clarity about the past and [creating] a vision for the future”.
Overcoming the anxiety
Sometimes we forget that our bodies hold onto trauma and sadness too. If the mere thought of seeing an ex socially sends your heart rate racing and palms sweating from anxiety, you’re not alone. That physical response is what most people would feel.
Kate Greenslade is a certified registered mindfulness teacher and International Coaching Federation accredited transformational coach. She says it takes practice to truly feel calm in a challenging scenario like seeing an ex regularly “because our fight/ flight/ freeze response will likely be triggered”.
But don’t fear, there’s hope. “Over time, we can learn to be with uncomfortable emotions, knowing they will pass and that we’re okay.” If we deal with the situation enough times, an ex will become less triggering for us.
“I would work through a series of applied mindfulness tools and mindsets that help to change their perspective of the situation and their ex,” she says. “Seeing things differently has a powerful effect on how we feel and therefore how we behave around that person.”
In her own experience, Greenslade rebuilt her relationship with her father by “fully accepting him for who he was”. “I didn’t condone his behaviour but I didn’t fight with it anymore. It is what it is,” she says. She came to the realisation that he was doing his best, and once she stopped hoping he would change, her relationship with him did.
“Everyone has built coping mechanisms over the years to protect them and help them through difficulties. We all have them. Your ex is no different,” she explains. In using compassion to try and understand where their behaviours come from, we can soften how we feel about them.
Lay down some ground rules
Finally, laying down the ground rules is key to establishing a platonic dynamic post-breakup, according to Dr Mike Talbot, CEO of UK Mediation, a company that offers conflict resolution. Most of his experience comes from clients who’ve split up from a former business partner or employee in the same business, but the same rules can apply if you’re in the same friendship group for example.
Post-breakup dynamics are “often best worked out with the help of an impartial third party, like having somebody in the role of mediator to get the couple to sit down and establish what the boundaries are going to be,” he tells woo.
If his advice sounds like you’re going through a divorce, don’t worry. Not everyone needs a mediator, but the main point is that the couple will need to figure out what they’re going to do in a range of situations that come up, so there’s no ambiguity i.e. will you greet each other, ask about your personal lives, and agree to avoid talking about the old relationship in front of others? “There needs to be a deal that’s equitable, and is very clear and specific. Right down to ‘okay, if we're going to be polite, what does that mean?'”
The advice might sound extreme, but if you work together, the last thing you want is a screaming match over a cup of tea. Also, in Dr Talbot's experience, being unclear about boundaries is what leads to trigger points.
“A bit of a golden rule in mediation is that you put the past behind you,” he says. “You can't change the past, you're not going to agree about the past, and there’s a time and place to talk about it, but [the office or a social event] isn’t it.”
So ground rules are the key to establishing a clear path forward with an ex you have to see regularly. What could go wrong, eh? “Alcohol is the enemy of adult agreements,” Dr Talbot says. It might sound obvious but consider avoiding social events where booze is involved for some time, at least until your new post-breakup dynamic is sturdier.
The important thing to note is you’re creating a new relationship with this person. Unsurprisingly change takes time, but you’d rather reach genuine peace with them, or establish a true friendship. The last thing you want is an extended breakup.
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