Are You Legally Divorced But Mentally Married?

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red hair woman looking at ring
Are you holding onto a relationship that's already over?

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 of off 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. Continue reading ...

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Article contributed by
Advanced Member

Elisabeth LaMotte

Counselor/Therapist

Social worker, psychotherapist, blogger and author of "Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce"

Location: Washington, DC
Credentials: LICSW, MFT, MSW
Specialties: Communication Problems, Dating/Being Single Support, Divorce/Divorce Prevention
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