The new Rashida Jones film “Celeste and Jesse Forever” highlights a common phenomenon in the world of divorce: couples deciding to end their marriages in the legal sense but remaining each other’s most significant others for months or even years to come.
This dynamic is highlighted during a classic scene in which a drunk and hysterical Celeste calls up her still-smitten, soon-to-be ex-husband, Jesse (Andy Samberg) and laments that she is experiencing an “Ikea emergency.” Celeste desperately needs Jesse to come over immediately and fulfill his ex-husbandly duties of late-night furniture assembly. Since Jesse never wanted the relationship to end and both have been unable to take significant personal space since their break up, he bails on his evening plans, rushes to Celeste’s side and delves into furniture assembly. The evening devolves into more than just furniture assembly and Celeste makes it clear that they (to quote Taylor Swift) are never getting back together, ever. A furious and humiliated Jesse tells Celeste that next time she has a problem, she should call Ikea.
As a therapist, I hear a lot about how hard it can be to truly, psychologically divorce. Many divorced parents take weekly family outings with their children and their ex. For some divorced couples, their ex remains the very first person they call, with good news or bad. For many couples, this arrangement makes co-parenting easier and they frequently say it works for them. However, if you dig a little deeper, the challenge is that this arrangement holds them back in other areas of their lives. For example, a client explained recently:
Rob never cooked when we were married, so when he is trying to put together a meal for the kids and calls with questions, I am happy to talk him through it. After all, it’s wonderful that he’s there for the kids in this way and branching out into things he never bothered with when we were married. Still, when we get off the phone I usually break down. I feel like I should be there with them and we should be a family. Rob is clear that he is not attracted to me anymore but as I lose weight and get in shape, I keep hoping that his feelings will change.
Similarly, a client speaks of the challenges associated with dating someone who can’t seem to emotionally divorce:
I’m in love with Cheryl and I want to be with her. But at the Thanksgiving program at her kids’ school, she stared at her ex-husband the entire time. He’s remarried with a new baby and she can’t keep her eyes off of them. Then, she asks if I would mind if just the two of them took their kids to lunch. I said okay but I don’t know if I can keep doing this. I can accept that her kids are a priority but I can’t accept that her ex-husband is still so high on her totem pole.
When consulting with a client about the content in this post, he approved the text and replied:
Side note, I need to find a new ‘emergency contact’ to write down on medical forms. I still put my wife … oops, ex.
If the scenarios above sound familiar, it is quite possible that you are divorced on paper but still emotionally married. If so, consider the following:
1. This may reflect that you never wanted your marriage to end. Most divorces are not a mutual decision. If you did not want it to end and your partner broke it off, consider that it is never optimal to direct emotional or romantic energy toward an unavailable partner. Instead of torturing yourself by over-focusing on your ex, feel good about your ability to commit to a relationship and start seeking one with an available and therefore suitable partner.
2. This may instead reflect that you did want the relationship to end, but you are conflicted about this decision. If so, seek professional help to see if your marriage can be reconciled. If you do not want to explore this possibility, keep in mind the likelihood that your ex did not want the marriage to end. You are sending mixed messages by continuing to make him or her your number one emotional priority. It is as if you are pouring salt on his or her wounds each and every time you indulge yourself by reaching out.
3. If you have children, keep in mind that your ability to get along and make shared parenting decisions is a strength that will reduce anxiety for your kids and will serve your children well. However, if you remain each other’s number one for years to come and continue to be legally divorced but psychologically married, this is incredibly confusing for children. It is quite likely that they will have a much harder time understanding and accepting your divorce. They will also be vulnerable to following in your footsteps by choosing romantic partners who are not truly available to them.
If you are seriously struggling to move on, it can be helpful to speak with a professional. It could also be helpful to check out the film Celeste and Jesse Forever, as art reflects life; it might help you move on once and for all.