Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash
Life goes on and you have a choice.
Those witnessing a divorce wonder how the estranged couple will handle their future relationship – after the dust settles. Will they be openly disrespectful or ignore each other? Will they be cordial, not friendly, or sustain a genuine concern for each other’s welfare? Will they be friends?
I’ve heard of long-divorced couples staying in each other’s homes or even going on vacation within the same group. Now that’s impressive. The offspring of these folks are no doubt delighted that they can peacefully coexist in the same vicinity. How is it possible that people placidly get along, after such a fundamental rupture?
Marriages end in divorce all the time. It's impossible for former spouses, along with their children, parents, friends, and relatives, to accurately predict how they will treat each other in one, five-, or ten-years’ time. On the day my ex and I signed our Separation Agreement, my lawyer sat me down afterwards to impart a few words of advice and closure. One thing she said was, “Imagine your life one year from today.”
This was a powerful reminder that life goes on and the pain of an unwanted divorce will be replaced by happiness. Amazingly enough, it was exactly three years from that date that my new love proposed to me. What are the chances?
On the day the separation/divorce becomes legally binding, pain is still very present. The party who is suffering that pain will vary. If it was spouse A’s idea to split, spouse B will be emotionally vulnerable. And vice versa if it was spouse B who pulled the plug.
On the rare occasion that two people make a mutually agreed-upon decision to split, they will tell curious bystanders, “We just grew apart.” Only the central players know whether that statement is true.
Having been divorced myself, I have lived through the turmoil and mood swings involved. Short- and long-term plans evaporate; household possessions are distributed; the matrimonial home changes hands – either sold to a stranger or one spouse sells their half to the other. The same happens to cars and vacation properties. Child custody and pets’ care are negotiated, too.
One or both move house and gradually unpack their belongings and set up a new configuration. While the Separation Agreement is being negotiated and material possessions are being divided, plenty of open communication between the spouses is crucial. This can happen via email, text, written letter, or a document composed by a lawyer.
Phone calls and in-person conversations are possible, although decisions made in writing are the most reliable. It turns out that use of swear words or yelling at the other accomplishes nothing. An angry spouse is better off punching a pillow or going for a run.
The flavour of inter-spouse communication depends on the level of animosity between the two. Mental health is also a factor. Confidants will likely add their two cents’ worth, wanting to support their loved one in distress. Having your sister write something like, “Don’t let him get away with that!” can complicate things. Be true to yourself.
Those who are coparenting face intricate dilemmas. Eddy, Burns, and Chafin have written an
excellent resource, BIFF™ for Coparent Communication: Your Guide to Difficult Coparent Texts, Emails, and Social Media Posts.
Life Goes On
Little by little the cracks and upheaval that have shaken each divorced person’s life to the core begin to heal. There is an audible sigh of relief when the business part of a divorce is complete.
This “business part” encompasses concrete items like houses, furnishings, cars, pensions, spousal benefits, and child custody agreements. That said, the fact that these two people once stood up and promised to love and cohabit until death casts a long shadow. The shadow’s length is proportional to the length of the marriage.
When a couple with dependent children divorce, they need to live near each other to make shared custody possible. The two will need to interact frequently in order provide consistent, loving, solid
spaces in which the kids can thrive. If parenting styles differ, the kids will soon learn what each parent expects and what they can get away with.
When parents treat each other civilly in person (even though some playacting may be required), the children will notice and appreciate their unruffled behaviour. Youngsters are busy managing their own trauma, and they deserve a calm, cordial atmosphere when moving. It wasn’t their idea that the family should disintegrate.
If the children are grown and living independently, there is little reason for their divorced parents to ever be in the same space. Events like grandchildren’s baseball games, ballet recitals, and graduations will trigger momentary togetherness which can be planned ahead of time. It takes practice to let go of animosity but try to prevent past anger from colouring the way you interact today. Nobody, especially offspring, wants to witness spouse A being nasty to spouse B. Focus on the now.
Divorced parents of independent children may be thrown together if their adult child suffers something like a serious illness, job loss, or divorce themselves. Commiserating on the misfortune of someone the two of you brought into the world decades ago feels natural and positive. Some long-divorced couples gracefully attend family gatherings like barbecues, holiday dinners, and weddings. Believe me, all the other participants will thank you for preventing old dissonance from ruining their fun.
What about the feelings of new partners? If they witness the original couple briefly hugging hello, laughing together, or exchanging kisses-on-the-cheek, feelings of jealousy might occur. Manage these with frank conversation and transparency. The original couple have shared an abundance of major life experiences, so they probably still care about one another at some level. A little bit of warmth takes the edge off being in the same room at the same time.
No one should feel threatened. I know of two couples who married again following their divorce – one being Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Both couples then divorced a second time.
If you are a divorced person (or the new partner of a divorced person), self-talk your way through the awkwardness of being in the same room with your ex.
Saying phrases like this to yourself:
§ grow up
§ get over it
§ it’s not all about me
§ don’t spoil the party
§ be mature
§ let it go
§ I owe it to the kids
§ life is short
… can make a real difference.
This essay’s title asks if post-divorce friendship is a realistic goal. I think it is, although the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink” applies. You cannot force friendship on anyone else.
It takes courage, openness, and forgiveness to become friends after your divorce. One of you may be ready to bury the hatchet, while the other may need more time.