Set and keep firm limits
First of all, let’s dispense with the notion of immediate “friendship.” If you’ve been struggling with a destructive relationship, then you’re going to need more distance than that. Friendship is possible when both parties have fairly good emotional boundaries around what’s private and not common ground. Coming from a destructive relationship, those boundaries are going to need time to be regenerated. If you’re going to “separate”, the harder task is to separate emotionally, not just physically. Casual leisure contact sends your unconscious the misguided message that the relationship will continue as usual. It will prevent you from getting on with the painful but necessary business of grieving over the losses. If you try to keep casual company with each other, you probably will begin to suffer “strategic amnesia” or another form of creeping denial regarding the reasons for the separation in the first place.
Another important reason for avoiding casual contact is that you probably will be very vulnerable to misplaced empathy. One of the biggest hooks back into a destructive relationship is the exquisite sense of guilt you can feel for causing the other person pain. If you try to turn your relationship into a friendship, you will be placing yourself in the immediate vicinity of the other person’s anguish. Your old pattern may have been to try to placate such feelings. Just because you’ve decided to terminate your romance doesn’t mean those buttons aren’t easy to push again. You just may not be that good at ignoring another person’s pain, especially when it seems that you could resolve it so easily.
So how long do you wait before planning friendly company with the other person? Maybe years. Maybe forever. Certainly a long, long time.
Share your grief with others
If you have stayed in a destructive relationship for any length of time, chances are there was something positive that kept you there. It may have only been hopes and dreams arising from early days in the relationship. It may have been something as simple as a sense of belonging. It will help you to be honest about what you’re losing. Many people think they have to focus only on the negative aspects of the relationship in order to keep their resolve. Actually, this strategy can backfire. By trying to convince yourself that the relationship only had negative aspects, you may actually be more likely to change your mind later on. By accepting that there are some positives that you will miss, your decision to separate will be more integrated and therefore more stable. Your decision will not be undone just because some of the positives have slipped back into your awareness.
A very powerful (but relatively known) truth is that IT CAN BE OK TO FEEL LOVE FOR SOMEONE WHILE YOU LEAVE HIM OR HER. Love does not conquer all but neither does hate. Your better strategy is to accept that you are a cornucopia of love, hate, and numerous other feelings about your relationship. Hopefully, your decision to separate was not just based on your feelings but also what you judged was the best way to take care of your self. If so, you probably will have some feelings of sadness and grief for the lost positives including love.
With who do you share? Certainly not with the person from whom you are separating. It would be a paradox to try to separate and yet allow yourselves to get emotionally closer by helping each other to grieve. Similarly, some friends may be too closely involved with the other person for you to keep separate in your unconscious. You are best off with safe, intimate friends who can help give you permission to grieve for the positive aspects of what that relationship gave you, even while it was hurting you terribly. In other words, your confidants will need to be mature and wise. If you don’t have any friends who meet these qualifications, then consider a therapist with a good reputation.
Whatever you do, don’t try to do all the emotional work alone.
You deserve to make it easier on yourself.