Divorce is excruciating -- but its pain and protraction hit especially hard when it comes early in your life, while you're still expecting love to conquer all.
My former wife was 23 when we met. I'm six years her senior, which put us in our early and late-30s when we divorced. We created two children during our marriage (now 9 and 11); and since our separation, my ex has acquired a new husband... who happens to be in his 20s.
We went through a lot in our marriage and eventual split. But in the end, we managed to muscle our way into an amicable divorce without the residual, tired clichés of ripped bandages and gaping emotional wounds.
In fact, we've miraculously remained very close. Here's how.
We acknowledged it wasn't working
It sounds like the logline to a sitcom pilot, but it works. We defied the American divorce norm by acknowledging we absolutely couldn't be married, and subsequently found camaraderie in that shared knowledge.
Forty-eight percent of marriages in America end in divorce. The purpose of my particular separation from my wife was moving on from a stuck place of old, persistent hurt related to me breaking her trust and our relationship never moving past it.
When things first got bad, we tried very hard to stay together -- the result of attachment issues left over from our respective childhoods. But when we discovered neither of us could be ourselves in the marriage, we were finished. Our breakup came with acceptance, not resignation.
We pursued counseling
Before the split, we did seek professional help in order to salvage what we had left. We went through two or more counselors, then a church-sponsored couples retreat, healers, coaches, and holistic nurses with varying results. The therapist we settled on loved us to death, but was impartial enough to tell us when to shut up, listen, and put his tools to work.
Therapy was crucial. Even though it didn’t solve our marital inertia, it taught us civility in divorce. We needed an objective third party to air out our grievances. The therapist got to know us and could call out our bullshit. He knew our dodges and defenses, our excuses and rationalizations. He was a referee and an arbiter.
We gave it our all in counseling, but we were still miserable. It was time to let it go.
I chose to like her new man
My ex's new husband was toddling when I entered college. Today, he speaks the millennial languages of craft beer and gaming. He explained to me what “derp” means. Obviously, there was a necessary transition period after my ex-wife informed me she was getting serious with her younger brother’s best friend.
I’m super-outgoing with most folks, barring those who think Ann Coulter is a hoot. The new guy is funny and quick-witted, but he’s a slower social burn and his initial shyness rubbed me wrong. There were times when I would pick up my kids but didn’t head inside my former house because I tired of our awkwardness. I also needed to get used to the idea of their relationship.
Our distinct personalities and generational gap aside, the new husband and I learned to like each other. Most importantly, he loves my ex and treats our kids well. So we all make it work.
We figured out the rules
When I showed up -- invited -- to the reception dinner for my ex-wife and her brand-new husband, her friends marveled at our personal mores. (Full disclosure: I chose not to attend their later, grander celebration in Taos.) An attorney friend was particularly astonished because hers was the definition of an ugly divorce totally lacking in civility.
How then, she wondered, did we come to our happy divorce?
In couples therapy, we learned some great rules of engagement: 1. Don’t use “never” and “always” in an argument. 2. Use “I” statements, not “you” accusations. 3. Unpack what baggage you can. 4. If enraged, retreat to cool off, and live to argue another day. 5. Don’t talk trash about your partner to your children (it’s psychological abuse, and it’s not their fault you divorced). 6. Don’t let old, zombie-like resentments infect the current argument.
When we were particularly embattled, our suntanned marriage Yoda would challenge us with, “Would you rather be right or peaceful?” The question was often met with vociferous cussing.
It isn’t that we don’t still get into arguments. We've just learned how to engage, when to back off, and how to make amends.
My ex and I check in every day when she takes the kids to school. We coach each other on family- and work-related stuff. It’s not all smooth, but therapy and spiritual self-help allow us to relate with deference.
It also helps that we genuinely appreciate each other's company. She’s a badass, hardworking entrepreneur. We have always been simpatico intellectually, culturally, and artistically, which is foundational for how we interact today. We’re also very proud of our children, whose broadminded outlook reflects their multicultural heritage.
It’s easy to recall what we like about each other. Years ago, when we sat on our bed holding each other crying, realizing it was over once and for all, we were deeply saddened. But we were also relieved. We knew we had done our best.
For his part, my ex-wife’s new husband helps the kids with homework and has become a proud stepdad, a gig he'd never anticipated holding at his age on top of his other titles as well-regarded systems engineer and homeowner under the age of 30. That’s awesome.
All five of us traveled to Disneyland last Christmas and it was bananas how well the whole vacation worked. We’ve eaten Mother’s Day brunches and attended NorCal weddings. We’ve stayed in quaint Durango for our favorite Cajun boil and zip-lining. We have a weekly schedule, but if I want more time with the kids, all I do is ask. I'm willing to house-sit their new home -- and if they need a date night, I hang with the kiddies.
We abandoned outdated notions of divorce
Less than 50 years ago, there was a lot of talk about staying in a marriage for the children because divorce can be traumatizing. Turns out, children are actually very resilient.
Psychologists today recognize that kids can get more messed up when parents stay in marriages that aren't working instead of splitting. My ex-wife and I dropkicked those old American notions to create a family unit with our kids and her husband, which some family and friends still think is weird.
We can’t be swayed by a Greek chorus of conflicting opinions, however well-intentioned. We're not the couple mad-dogging each other across the court while our kids shoot hoops. We get along because we're divorced. Plenty of relationship work did not come naturally to either of us. But learning to hold fast to the strengths of our otherwise unsuccessful marriage has meant using those positives as the touchstones for a successful, contented divorce.
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