Should I be better friends with my ex-husband?

After six years there's still a lot of tension.

Published April 1, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My ex-husband and I have a generally cordial relationship, conducted mostly over the phone about the kid. Occasionally we will discuss a mutual friend or movie briefly, but then we both seem to tense up and realize, "That's right, we're divorced, we can't actually speak to each other in a social way."

Normally I remain friends with my exes, but since he was having an affair for a year before he told me he was leaving, even after six years there's a hard core of bitterness deep down that we seem to hit rather quickly. We've managed to create a highly functional parenting relationship because we abhor the kinds of scenes we've seen other divorced parents throw, but that's as far as it goes. But now I'm starting to feel there's a piece missing somewhere.

Maybe it's because the more problems our kid has as she gets older, the more I start to mourn not having another parent in the house. Maybe it's because the woman he had the affair with, who now lives with him, seems like she hides from me, and in a way I feel like she owes me an apology, or something. Maybe it's because we could all be sort-of friends if everyone would just be nice to each other. It's not like I want to hang out with them, but I don't need this amorphous feeling of animosity in the air either. A large part of the problem with our marriage was his temper and refusal to take responsibility for what he said, and I think he secretly likes that now that we're divorced, he can treat me however he wants if he doesn't feel like being polite, and there's nothing I can do about it.

What do you think, Cary? Should I just unload all this on a therapist and leave it at that, and be content that he's a decent dad? Should I invite them both for lunch and lay it on the line? Is it ridiculous to expect an apology or explanation, especially when I'm far happier now than I ever was when I was married?

A Missing Piece in Missouri

Dear Missing Piece,

Don't invite them over for lunch. You'd feel bad for days afterward.

You're not over that divorce yet. That's the missing piece. I'm not saying you should be over it. I'm just reminding you. You'll be over it when you're over it. You sound like you're still mad at your ex-husband, too. That's understandable. And you still want your ex-husband to change. That's also understandable.

Nevertheless: Remind yourself of certain truths. Your ex-husband is still the man he was when you divorced him. He is not your friend. Divorcing him was a good idea. You don't need to let him back into your life so he can hurt you again. Keep him where he is -- at the other end of the phone line.

The woman he's with is not your friend either. She is hiding from you because she did a bad thing to you. She took your husband. She should feel awful. Hold your head up. Let her hide from you. You're better off. Imagine sitting there with them at lunch, trying to smile and laugh and enjoy her company. Not likely! Keep them at arm's length. You're still too vulnerable.

Whatever it was you wanted from him when you were married and never got, you're never going to get it. So stop allowing yourself to long for it. How do you do that? The hopelessness needs to be hammered in a little better. Cement it over and put your initials in it. Sometimes it's good to be a little hard, when it's so easy for people to hurt you. So tell yourself every day: He's got nothing for you. Nothing but the child support.

One day you might want to forgive him. There's no rush. One day you might wake up and feel like Jesus. So go forgive him. But don't expect your forgiveness to transform him. Our forgiveness is not for the forgiven. It's for us, so we can forget, so we can stop hoping that the bastard will wake up tomorrow and decide we're best friends.

You need some friends. But not these two. There's too much bitter past between you. You need some new friends with nothing but good, fresh memories between you, like a vase of flowers on a sunny table.

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