Even though Elaine Ventura had dated her ex for around half a year, their breakup was relatively painless. “We were just not on the same page,” she says. “Not to mention I was much older than he was.” They stopped speaking shortly after the split, and she hasn’t heard a word from him since. But, Ventura does still keep in touch with his mother.
“It was harder for me to let go of his mom,” she says. “We were the perfect trio: my ex, his mom, and me. I loved that his mom would treat me as if I were her own daughter. I would literally go out everywhere with her whenever I was not with her son.” Ventura says that once, when she and her ex fought, his mother even took her side. Even years after Ventura and her ex split, she and his mother still like each other’s Instagram posts. But while Ventura has no desire to speak to her ex again, she says his mother is still in her heart.
Everyone’s relationship is unique, so it’s hard to give a blanket statement about how to handle an ex’s family post-split. But Rachel Sussman, a marriage and family therapist who wrote The Breakup Bible, says that generally speaking, there’s one approach that will help you heal the fastest. “I recommend a temporary or permanent break from certain people, places, and things: mutual friends and their family; the restaurants you used to go to; and the things you used to do together,” she says. (She also recommends zero contact with your ex.)
It’s very common not to want to let go of those bonds, though, Sussman notes. When you’re dating someone, your social circle very often ends up merging with your partner’s; and, when you’re dating them for a long time, their family becomes your family. After a breakup, you’re likely already feeling lonely and vulnerable. It can feel unfair, even devastating, to lose your partner and the family you’ve made through them all at once.
Kristin Marquet Chester, for instance, grew very close to her boyfriends’ parents over the course of their year-long relationship. “They were nice people, almost like pseudo-parents,” she says. Then she walked in on her boyfriend in bed with another person. “It was absolutely terrible,” she remembers. “I walked out. That was that. I have zero patience and tolerance for people who are disrespectful.”
She had no qualms about cutting off her ex, but it wasn’t so easy when it came to his parents. So she kept in touch, “via email, text, and telephone. [My ex] was probably angry [that I stayed in touch] right after it happened — but I can't say for sure because I didn't speak to him,” Chester says. Over the next two years, her contact with her ex’s parents slowly became less frequent, then stopped altogether. “I was sad after our relationship had faded,” she says now, but she hasn’t reached out in years, and it doesn’t bother her anymore — perhaps because it was an organic end over which she had control, rather than an abrupt one over which she had none.
Sussman stresses that it doesn’t work like this for everyone. “Imagine if every time you see your ex’s sister, she fills you in on how they’re doing,” Sussman says. “You’re not giving yourself time to heal if you’re continually being thrown into a memory of the relationship or the person.”
Before reaching out to a mutual connection after ending things with a partner, be 100% honest with yourself: Are you over the relationship and at peace with the split, or is there lingering hurt? Do you really just want to say hi, or are you using your relationships with your ex’s family members or mutual friends to feel connected to the ex?
Even if you feel completely fine after ending things, Sussman says she’d encourage you to take a temporary break from people you know through your ex — for your sake, and to be respectful to your former partner. Be open with them: Explain that while you get over the split you may be distant, but that you value their friendship and you’ll be back in touch when you’re feeling a little sturdier. Even once you do reconnect, however, you may have to ask them to refrain from giving you updates about your ex.
Your ex could also ask their family to cut you off, Sussman points out. It can be hurtful when you realize your ex’s sibling has un-friended or blocked you on social media, but Sussman recommends taking the high road: Let go of the relationship, and focus on your other ones.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. It’s common to feel like you don’t have anyone to lean on during a breakup, especially if you’re ending a long-term relationship or marriage, and your lives and social circles have become very enmeshed. That’s when therapy can be helpful. But Sussman also suggests pushing past your comfort zone to find connections. “Go through everyone in your life. Who wasn’t that engaged in your life as a couple? There should be people — a friend from college or high school, a former colleague you liked, a friend who lives in another town, who you don’t see that often,” she says. Yes, it will be awkward to reach out to people you aren’t that close to anymore, but any kind of social support is critical after a breakup, and most people will be flattered that you’d consider reaching out to them during a tough time. You don’t have to launch into the most intimate details of your life right off the bat; just reopen that connection, so you can build up your life outside of the relationship again.
Of course, some people can’t separate themselves so easily. You may share kids with your former partner, for instance, and you may have to speak frequently with your ex and, sometimes, your ex’s family, in order to sort out issues like custody. In these cases, Sussman says it’s still a good idea to keep your communications focused and to a minimum, especially during the period just after the breakup.
Remember, you’re not necessarily saying goodbye to your relationships with your ex’s family forever. “You can be back in touch with those people at another point in your life, when you’re healed,” Sussman says, “if you still want to.”