How to Stay Close with a Family Member’s Ex

Your cousin said "I do" to a spouse you love love love. Now—after you’ve bonded about everything from family occasions to kids—they’re getting divorced. The question: Is it possible to keep your cousin’s ex (the non-family member) in your life without ruffling feathers? It’s a situation that’s common, but also very nuanced, according to New York-based family therapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling. We asked her exactly how to navigate it and keep relationships (with both sides) intact.

First, tell us: Is it actually possible to stay close with a family member’s ex after a divorce? Yes. If you want to use Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin as role models, they seem to have been able to keep good relationships with members of the family after their divorce. It’s healthy to do that. It’s important to do that. I urge all people that are going through a divorce to make it an amicable one. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself all of a sudden divorcing not just the person you’ve been living with all those years, but the support system that came with it: your extended family.

So, how do you do stay in touch without it being weird? You have to accept that your relationship with your family member’s ex is no longer a family one. It’s a one-on-one relationship. That’s unique because it won’t have the same contextual nuances that it did when they were married. You now have a relationship with an individual, not the family.

Does that mean there are off-limits topics? You should no longer talk about their ex-husband or wife (i.e., the family member you have in common). Instead, you have to focus on the things that drew you together in the first place as friends—the kids, or a mutual love of art, for example.

How should you go about clueing in your family member about your plans to stay in touch? At the very beginning, you have to say: "Listen, I love Louise. You know I’m going to continue to be friendly with her." The other person may say that it’s fine, as long as you don’t mention them in conversations with her. Bottom line: There are going to be new boundaries to your relationship with their ex—and ones you’ll have to respect.

…And if they don’t condone the friendship? That’s when you may have to talk things through and give the person time to think about it, reevaluate and come back. Say, “I get it. This is all fresh and new to you right now. Why don’t we talk in a couple of weeks when you’ve had time to think about it more?’ The mistake that most people make is that they make a decision when they’re in crisis mode or in the heat of a conflict and then they feel as though they have to stick with it. Sometimes, there can be a lot of hurt and you just need to give it some time.

Flipping the script, how do you go about staying friends with an ex’s family member? Children are an important variable here. If you have children, that’s the child’s grandmother, so you may want to include that person in the school play and other things like that. It really depends on how you and your partner approach the idea of divorce. Open communication is key. If you have a good relationship with each other, that good relationship can extend to each other’s extended family, too.

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