“I hope we can be friends.”  This is not an uncommon wish of one or both people when going through a divorce.  Sometimes, however, there is a lot of pain and anguish going on for at least one of them and significant negative energy between the couple.  “How did we get like this?” is another frequent question I hear in my practice.  So how do we answer the question and can you become friends?  It is helpful to think about how relationships develop in order to answer the question.  I heard Isolina Ricci, speak to a group of mental health professionals and attorneys about her research around divorce and families a couple years ago.  She introduced a very helpful concept that I often share with clients to help them understand whether and how they can be friends.

When we meet people, we start with a business relationship.  We use more formal language, make few assumptions, make clear agreements, have minimal expectations and are not very attached to or invested in the relationship.  Ricci notes that we are private, explicit, cool and reserved.  As we get to know someone and move to friendship, we are less formal, begin to make assumptions and have expectations and are therefore more invested in the relationship.  When the relationship becomes intimate, we become very informal with each other, act based on assumptions formed from past experiences with the individual, give the benefit of the doubt, and are very invested in the relationship.  Ricci notes that we are vulnerable, implicit, hot and intense. However, when we reach the point of divorce, the relationship has moved from one of positive intimacy to negative intimacy.  We move from the positive qualities of intimacy to the opposite of those qualities, (i.e., shared to abused confidences, loyalty and trust to disloyalty and distrust, positive assumptions to negative assumptions, benefit-of-doubt to suspicion and blame, for example).  What we need to realize is that when we are in a place of negative intimacy, we cannot simply go back to friendship.  In order to become friends, we need to move from negative intimacy back to the business relationship and then rebuild to friendship from there.  Ricci calls this the detox-negative-intimacy, where we reset to a business-like relationship. In the Collaborative process, we actually help people learn how to step back to the business relationship by modeling respectful communication, not make assumptions but ask questions to clarify, strive to be trustworthy, make clear agreements, create healthy boundaries relating to times and means of communication, and sticking to facts rather than being emotionally reactive.  And this is very hard work!  But, by making the intentional effort to go back to a business relationship, we can start rebuilding trust by honoring agreements, getting rid of unproductive assumptions by asking clarifying questions, and redeveloping a give-and-take relationship.  Over time, it is possible to create a business like friendly relationship.