Friendship with ex, if it happens, will take time

Last fall, my husband of 35 years told me he was leaving me. Married since we were 19. Three children ages 25 to 33 and three grandchildren, 6 to 12 years old. (In a recent column, you acknowledged to a widow) that everyone wishes they had their relationship. Her love died.

How do I cope when my great love is still here? A constant reminder of what I want but can’t have. How do I deal with those occasions when I will need to see him?

I alternate between just such incredible sadness that I want to cry, or such anger I want to say mean and hateful and sarcastic things. I told him we could not be friends. I wanted all or none of him. Am I wrong to need to protect myself this way?

— J.J., Las Vegas


For the present, the question of friendship is a waste of your time. Chafing about it will just get in the way of your healing, and you have a ton of healing ahead of you. Trying to mobilize filial warmth and regard for the man who has rejected you is an exercise in masochistic contradiction.

Every part of you — down to the last cell in your body — is facing the unhappy task of unlearning partnership. You have a 35-year habit of "we." Now, you are trying to learn "I-not-as-we." It’s like living in a two-story house for 35 years and then removing the last two steps at the bottom of the staircase. You can acknowledge it until the cows come home, but you’ll take several nasty spills before you really come to believe those two steps are gone.

How could it be wrong to protect yourself when, in fact, you’re gravely injured? When you’re going through the agony of unlearning partnership, it follows logically that you’ll be wanting to radically minimize contact with the partner you’re unlearning.

Not surprising that you draw an analogy to widowhood. A lover’s rejection (divorce) is a death. Many people find themselves saying, "Had my lover died it would be easier than this," because, unlike an actual death, the "corpse" keeps climbing out of the coffin and walking around. This apparition who so resembles your husband keeps showing up at the graduations, birthdays, weddings, births and funerals you attend — in some cases with a date.

"Weird" doesn’t begin to describe it.

What about the future? Can exes be friends?

It’s an honorable hope. Worthy of our striving, especially if you made babies together. And, indeed, there are folks out there who bear witness to thriving friendship after the end of a love affair. "I’m friends with all my exes," says a close friend of mine, and what am I to do but believe her.

But, sometimes I wonder …

I wonder if those friendships should always have been friendships. Meaning, perhaps the love affair was, from the beginning, an error. Perhaps post-mates reconcile thriving friendship because friends were all they were ever meant to be.

Other times, I’m left wondering if the reconciled friendship isn’t made possible because, frankly, the depth of investment in the love affair was never that deep.

I’m saying I’m suspicious of people who seem to live as if opening and closing their hearts is an objective, almost mechanical decision. My prejudice remains that great love, if it is love, is not a decision but a happening. Something not altogether in our control.

Frankly, if you can fall in love with me, then, 35 years later, decide not to be in love with me but really, really desire my friendship … well, making all nice and normal feels ingenuine. I’m just not built that way.

With exes I have achieved a functional forgiveness, peace and a genuine wish for their well-being. I bear none of them ire. I’d be a supportive, listening ear — a friend, I guess — if they reached out.

But friendship? Chum around with them? Double-date with them? Wanna have Christmas dinner with them? Think of them first when I’m in need of support and encouragement? When I think of dying, do I imagine any of them being present at my bed?

No. And, while that reflects loss, I don’t count it as some deficiency in me, or in them. It’s more an objective reality. If I radically open my heart to you and participate in profound intimacies of body, mind and spirit … well, then, at best, it’s always going to be a little odd and taxing to spend time with you in any other context.

I drift away from things that I find odd and taxing. I think that’s normal and healthy.

Get well, J.J. The question of friendship will sort itself out with time.

Originally published in View News, April 14, 2009.

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