My mission is to take positive co-parenting from being an exception to being the expectation for divorced parents, their kids, and loved ones. A painful decision does not have to mean a pain-filled life.”
I want to invite you on a journey – a journey through our life of divorce with a child. Oh God, that sounds awful! Who would want to be dragged through that? Who? Oh, wait – I see the problem. I forgot a word in the preceding statement. It was meant to read “a journey through our happy life of divorce with a child.” A little better, right?
It was July 5, 1999. Just typing the date still brings tears to my eyes as I remember the overwhelming feeling of despair when I realized my so-called “nuclear family” would not survive. It’s funny – those words given the fact I really don’t know what they mean. I think it has something to do with the traditional family unit we picture from the 1950s and ‘60s: father, mother, brother, sister, dog, and cat . . . or something like that. When a major element of the family falls away, particularly a parent, there is no longer a predefined expectation of happily ever after. Again, what the hell is that?
Even after twenty years, I re-live the emotions of the moment and the possibility that when I chose to tell my son’s father that I wanted a divorce, we could have lost it all. But we didn’t. And I think it is because we both held and still hold such high hopes and love for our family that we were simply unwilling to let it die. No, it didn’t die. But it did, in fact, take on a new and most interesting form that the world rarely witnesses. We went from being the husband, wife, and son to being the father, the mother, and son quite seamlessly. Are you sitting there asking yourself why I think this is such a big deal and why you might spend your precious time reading such a seemingly uninteresting tale?
As it turns out, what we accomplished with far less effort than we were expending trying to hold our little family unit together is something that makes sense – a construct that allows us all to thrive and follow the life paths we are each meant to lead—lives that include not only respect for one another but also true friendship and real love. That’s right. In divorce, my ex-spouse and I found a way to maintain our love, albeit of a new flavor, and our family. And I don’t mean we got through it or we avoided confrontation or we just minimized interactions. We actually found a more conducive model within which our family could thrive and be truly happy. Crazy talk, right?
I know. It sounds impossible. And if I hadn’t been a co-producer of these results, I, too, would probably think, “This woman is nuts and must be exaggerating. Her ex and her son must see it differently.” Well, in case you doubt the experience which I am about to share with you, I have included the perspectives of my son and his father who participated in our unique approach to “happily ever after.”
Why am I sharing our story? To begin, I’m very proud of the life we’ve created. When I sit and think about it, I actually revel in our accomplishment. In fact, achieving this saved my soul, which otherwise might have disintegrated into a million pieces and blown away. Second, I see way too many unhappily divorced families. And for that matter, I know of way too many married couples who stay together “for the sake of the kids.” I’m convinced they’re doing the kids (and themselves) more harm than good. So I want to paint a picture of a model of family life many may not have considered an option. Maybe you’re newly divorced and not sure if it is even possible to save your family. Maybe you feel you would have a better shot at happiness if you divorced, but you can’t face the possible death of the family. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. But there are a few prerequisites to consider.
First, I highly doubt that the Happily Divorced family model will work where violent behavior of any sort exists between family members. I’m not talking about the uncharacteristic outbursts that take place at the onset of the divorce scenario, but rather, real violent behavior displayed by either spouse. Second, it is unlikely this will work if you really don’t share the same core moral values of the other person. Sure, you can be mad at the other person, whether because you are hurt, they cheated on you, or they always put you down. These may only be symptoms of an unworkable living arrangement. But at the end of the day, you should be able to consider this person someone with whom you share a common definition of what is right and wrong. If you are unsure whether you can fulfill this last prerequisite, I would say you probably can unless you know you can’t. If your spouse stole from you or killed your pet or beat you, this probably won’t work for you. Otherwise, it may be worth giving this a shot.
I know. We are hard-wired to think we must dislike our exes. We couldn’t possibly respect them, or God forbid even like them and still call ourselves “good” exes. Could we? Wouldn’t that be a clear violation of the ex-spouse code? To like and care about a former partner after all attempts at reconciliation have been abandoned? Aren’t you just supposed to write them off at that point, declare your losses, admit you chose badly, and work to minimize the damage to the rest of your life – especially the damage thrust on your kids? Oh, the kids. That is for sure the worst part of it.
STOP IT! It doesn’t have to be all negative. You don’t have to hate your spouse. In fact, I’m going to grant you a license right now to continue to admire, respect, and maybe even like him or her – if you so choose.
Now, I’m not saying every ex-spouse is worthy of our admiration, respect, or anything else. Some are really horrible. Physical abusers and deadbeats should all be put in jail as far as I’m concerned. But for those of us who simply find our life paths, dreams, desires, and personalities have parted ways, your relationship can actually be much, much better as a divorced “couple” than it ever could have been if you would have chosen to forcibly stay together against your inner will.
Before you think about writing me a tersely written email, please realize that I’m not suggesting you cut and run at the first, second or even hundredth argument you have with your spouse. Quite the contrary! After all, you did take a vow for better or worse. So you owe it to each other and to your child or children to work as hard as you can to overcome those worse moments and remain an intact family. Pull out all the stops. Talk it through, move or change jobs, seek therapy, whatever! I’m not going to lie. Some of the situations we encountered as divorced parents were simply less than ideal. And to avoid it destroying our family required tremendous effort and choosing very carefully.
Shortly before Bob and I separated, a friend of mine shared with me that he and his spouse were divorcing. I offered my condolences. He told me not to be sorry. They had just decided that they could not be happy together anymore. He said, “I don’t hate her. And why should I have to? I chose to be with her in the first place because there were things about her that I love. That doesn’t become untrue because we are divorcing.” I thought, “Wow, what a mature perspective.” Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that way of thinking was even an option.
After my marriage ended, I spent four years in a relationship with another man for whom I deeply cared. But just as if I had finished reading a book, the story ended along with our relationship. At first, this man started down a path of vengeful ugly behavior meant to degrade me. At that time, I reminded him that while things may not be good any longer, we have many wonderful snapshots to carry around in our hearts of those happy times. And I asked him not to destroy those photos, those memories. The good times. They still happened. Even when we parted.
Just like that, the ugly behavior and accusations ceased. In fact, after a year or so, this man and I were able to coexist among our tightly intertwined friend group with relative ease and complete civility toward one another. And yes, I still do carry those snapshots of our good times around in my heart.
What I share with you here and in the book are not a guide or a how-to. And it is absolutely not intended to pass judgment on those who don’t handle their situations the way we did. It is just an account of the many ways in which our lives and relationships have evolved since that fateful day in 1999. I have changed the names of friends and others beyond the immediate family out of courtesy and respect for their privacy. Still, I feel compelled to share our story since so many have told us how great it is that we have created this unique approach to post-divorce family happiness.
The other possible outcome of reading all of this is that you might discover there is more to think about when contemplating divorce than simply seeking to “fall in love” again. For instance, have you thought about your parenting and living arrangements? How about your shared friendships and your in-laws? Do you have any recollection at all of what it is like to be single (which may sound great right now, but actually sucks if you ask me)? For many of you, there will be rebound relationships and maybe even attempted reconciliations with the ex. Have you contemplated all the stuff your kid does that you both want to be there for? And I haven’t even gotten to legal matters, schooling, planning vacations, discipline, finances, new relationships, birthdays, and other celebrations. There is a lot to consider!
You may simply look at this list and be struck by the number of situations you will inevitably have to navigate differently as a divorced couple than as a married couple. It may prompt you to think long and hard on the idea and consider going to greater lengths to preserve your family unit in the more conventional sense. Trust me. All of this wasn’t easy, and I look with envy on many of my friends who seem to have figured it out, stayed together, and still live under the same roof.
Whatever you decide, I hope you’ll choose happiness because I’m here to tell you it is absolutely an option! Now . . . here’s to family, friendship, and love always.