Your marriage is over, but what about your relationship with your in-laws, their relationship with your children or even your relationship with your ex-spouse's new significant other? What is healthy and appropriate? Since no one has written the new rules and codes of social conduct for relationships after a divorce, we asked some experts to share their insights with us.
Everyone knows at least one divorce horror story, but we seldom hear about people who have established friendly post-divorce relationships with each other. With every salacious story of celebrity divorce hell, the skeptics tell us it's impossible for a divorced couple to make peace and become friends.
"If every divorce were a 'War of the Roses', there would be blood on the streets!" pointed out Barbara Quick, author of Still Friends: Living Happily Ever After...Even if your Marriage Falls Apart.
It's never too late to make peace
With determination and good intentions, you can overcome the anger, grief and sadness of losing a marriage and eventually — believe it or not — achieve friendship. Whether or not you want to be "friends" with your ex is a decision in itself, but if you have children together, finding a way to be amicable with your co-parent makes life a lot easier. Your former in-laws don't have to disappear with the marriage either, especially if you've always enjoyed a good relationship with them.
Unfortunately there's no rule book for cultivating civility with your ex-spouse, your former in-laws, or even your ex's new spouse — so we asked several experts — including people who have managed to create friendly post-divorce relationships — for some guidance.
When the divorce process has pitted you and your spouse against each other, training you to view each other as enemies, any form of future alliance can seem impossible. But if you have children, your ex-spouse is still your co-parent.
"It's difficult for separated partners to remain productive co-parents when the legal process is making them enemies," said Lillian Messinger, a Toronto-based marriage counselor who specialized in post-divorce relationships. It takes a lot of maturity to make amends with the person who has torn apart your life, or who has been a monster in court. But just as it takes two to determine the marriage dynamic, it takes two to make a good — or bad — divorce. Quick emphasized that "every couple has their own relationship dance. All you have to do is change your part in the dance." If you change your behavior, your relationship will change, too.
Mark and Sara (not their real names) were married for 12 years. "The first couple years of our marriage was pretty good, but it went downhill rapidly," said Sara. "For the last six years, we communicated in snarls, or through our son, Peter. A friend encouraged us to try mediation, and during the process we started to really talk for the first time in years. The mediator encouraged us to remember what we used to like about each other as we established our co-parenting relationship, and how to listen and 'mine for the gold' in what we said to each other."
Both Sara and Mark report that their relationship is better post-divorce than it ever was when they were married. "We are much better as friends than as a couple," said Mark. "Some of the things that really bug you in a spouse just don't matter in a friend. For Peter's sake, we were committed to working on our co-parenting relationship, and the happy side-effect is that we really like each other these days — which wasn't the case during our marriage."
However well or poorly you knew your former spouse, this will be an exercise in re-acquaintance. Forming a relationship with your ex is entirely separate from the process of ending a marriage; if you work through the process to achieve your "emotional divorce," you can cultivate something entirely new. Your old relationship is over; take the steps to heal so that you can invest your energy elsewhere.
Grieving the death of a marriage is like mourning any other loss: it hurts a lot, and you get through it minute by minute. The trick is to stay on the path to recovery, not stopping at the first challenge. In her research, Quick found that a pattern emerged among those who had successfully recovered from divorce. The process that begins with anger and grieving eventually leads to healing, forgiveness and insight.
"Acknowledge the stage you're at, and allow yourself to feel what you're feeling. Most people get stuck in anger and grieving," said Quick. "Everyone has a unique healing process. Some people go through it on their hands and knees, spending months at every stage, others go through it at high speed."
Healing and moving on can take years, but communication with your ex may have to continue both during and after your divorce. If you have children, you will have to discuss the details of their lives. Whether weekly or monthly, these chats are going to develop a personality. They might be draining, dreadful, stressful, infuriating, and frustrating — or they could be just fine.
Rick Tivers, a therapist in Chicago, advises his clients to create a vision of how the new family will work. "The boundaries have changed, but the parents must still work together in the best interests of their children," said Tivers. "Effective parenting often involves putting yourself second." Developing a conscious relationship with your ex demands the triumph of logic over emotion—which is practically the opposite of falling in love. In the early stages of divorce, you must not act on your feelings. "You can honor your feelings without acting them out," Tivers pointed out.
You are no longer in a position to seek answers or resolution from your former spouse. Instead, cultivate the habit of self-examination. Before you act, ask yourself: "Will what I'm about to say or do further my goal of creating a healthy relationship?" If the answer is no, don't do it. Period. New York therapist Debra Burrell said that residual negative emotions are very often related to lack of closure. You may want nothing more than a final thank-you or some acknowledgment of the good in your marriage, but discovering the source of your wound is the first step in healing it on your own.
What are the options for you and your ex? Really, the whole spectrum — from bitter enemies to good friends. The relationship you choose will affect your children, friends and family, so make a conscious decision about where you want to end up. Where there is a history of emotional or physical abuse, no contact is probably the best decision for your family's recovery. Regardless of how much contact there is between you, your goal is to leave bitterness and anger behind. As enemies, you continue to damage yourselves and your children as well as each other. The general rules of polite conduct apply to all post-divorce parents, regardless of the degree of friendship or animosity.
Moving on after a divorce
Opinions vary on the viability of post-marriage friendship. Tivers believes that as long as the relationship is based on honor and respect, you can't go wrong. Many divorcing couples don't have friendship in mind after dividing the assets, but there are exceptions. Sometimes friendships between former spouses spring naturally from the freedom of being out of the marital bond. Some couples even maintain a physical relationship, continuing to sleep with each other after they split up.
Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce, noted that some couples don't even begin their marriage as friends, and therefore have no friendship to return to.
"Sometimes friendships develop over time," Ahrons said, "but it's not the goal of the post-divorce relationship. How would you act toward a colleague you don't see very often?" You can be friendly and courteous without actually being friends.
If there's one unwavering constant about divorce arrangements, it's that children of divorce always suffer from animosity. Even if friendship isn't in the cards, avoid turning your child into the go-between, the peacekeeper, or from having to take sides with you or your ex.
Never express negative sentiments about your ex in front of your children: venting and name-calling is damaging to their identity. Even if there's no contact between the two of you, speak positively or not at all. Your children will eventually form their own opinions. Give up blame.
In order to communicate effectively with your co-parent, you must take full responsibility for how you feel and how you act. "Don't blame each other, and don't talk about what you should have done," said Marcella Sabo, author of Whose Kid is it Anyway? and a licensed psychotherapist practicing in New York and New Jersey. Blaming your ex — whether you voice your opinion or keep it to yourself — will only hold you back; verbal blaming does damage to you, your ex, and everyone else who is privy to your outburst.
Walk away from screaming matches. Go at the pace of the person most hurt. Generally, the person who was "left" is in a more vulnerable state. A person who is still very hurt and angry will probably not take kindly to friendly overtures. If you or your ex is still grieving, wait: rushing anything can be detrimental to the healing process. Be polite. Minding your P's and Q's is never out of line. The rules of polite conduct were invented to make awkward situations manageable. There are other outlets for personal conversations; this is business—particularly in the first year. Be tolerant. The things that bothered you about your ex shouldn't be as grating now that you no longer live together. Their bad habits and little annoyances will be largely irrelevant to your life.
"Hot buttons just won't bother you anymore," said Quick. "When the other person stops having power over your life, tolerance just flows naturally."
Don't ask your children to keep secrets from their other parent. Teaching your kids to keep secrets is teaching them to lie. Instead, learn to edit what you do and say so that your kids won't have to cover for you.
Take the high road. Choose what you know in your heart to be the most positive and productive behavior, no matter how challenging. This is taking the high road — and you must consciously choose to take it again and again. Respect your ex. Quick emphatically suggests creating "divorce vows" in which you promise to treat each other with respect, goodwill, compassion, and tolerance.
When your ex meets someone new...
Forming a positive relationship with your ex-spouse's new love may be the last thing on your mind. But regardless of your desires, if there are children or a business involved, this person is now officially a part of your life. So what sort of relationship will it be? As with your ex, the main options are no contact, simple civility, or being friends. The optimal situation is one that forwards the best interests of your family, which may be uncomfortable for you at first. To promote tension-free interactions, be unfailingly polite. For both you and your children, a lot of good manners and a little good-will can make a world of difference.
Pangs of jealousy and primal urges for competition are natural, and powerful at times, but they cannot be a part of your relationship. One of you will be moving on before the other — inevitably. "If the relationship stimulates old feelings," said Dr. Ahrons, "get support from friends for any unresolved grief. It will lessen over time."
Good-will has a ripple effect, and so does ill-will — both inspire responsive consequences. Burrell emphasizes that there is a beneficial element to forging a positive association with your ex: taking steps toward harmony today can spare you a lot of grief in the future. So work strategically for good results! The likelihood of emotional flare-ups resulting in greater cooperation is slim to none.
You'll need a set of ground rules and some common goals to make the relationship work. For instance, your common goal could be: "We want the children to grow up happy, self-confident, and well-adjusted." The ground rules could include: "We will not fight in front of the children. We will strive for consensus on all major issues — health, education, religion, etc. — and will support each other's right to have different household rules on minor issues — such as bedtime, chores, etc." Of course, it would be easier if the rules were the same in both houses, but this is not necessary for a positive working relationship. Children can easily accommodate two sets of rules as long as they are clear and consistently enforced.
There are cases in which an ex-spouse and a new spouse become very good friends. This shouldn't be surprising: after all, you both chose to marry the same person, and you may find that you have a lot in common. When friendship develops between an old spouse and a new spouse, they might be tempted to discuss the person they have in common. Don't do it: trading stories about your ex with his/her new spouse is a very bad idea.
The idea of being friends with this individual may sound ludicrous to you, but if you and your ex share custody of your kids, it's in everyone's best interest for you to be at least congenial with his/her new love. This person will inevitably have some responsibility for raising your kids, and will tend to do a better job and be more cooperative if he/she likes you as well as your children.
The village approach to child-rearing focuses less on the relationship between caregivers and more on their common goal: everyone, including parents, step-parents, and extended family wants the children to be happy and healthy. These "friendly" situations work because they are based on honor and respect — for each other and for common goals.
Even if you don't like your ex's new spouse, you can still do your best to be polite and likable. A friendly, working relationship requires conscious cultivation, meaning that every conversation, every hello, every meeting to discuss an issue is executed with care. Marcella Sabo recommends being gracious to each other above all else. Even if you're having a disagreement, you can be courteous while remaining firm about your absolute bottom line.
Observing the golden rule — "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" — is a good place to start. Also, remember that people like to be thanked for their efforts and to be asked politely for favors. "I make it a practice to personally thank my ex's new wife whenever she does something nice," said Eva, a divorced mother of two preteens. "Sometimes I call, and sometimes I send a card. Because Mary feels acknowledged, she's more willing to listen to my point of view and accommodate my requests." For instance, Eva recently had an emergency at work that required her to stay at the office until after midnight. "My ex was out of town on business, so I asked Mary if she could pick up the kids after school and keep them overnight," said Eva. "I think she agreed because I have cultivated a good relationship with her — partly by letting her know how much I appreciate her efforts."
Family relationships after a divorce
If the relationship was positive before, it can be positive after divorce. Despite the abundance of in-law horror stories, there are many examples of people "keeping" their former in-laws by choice. "When we go to Montreal to visit our son Alan, his new wife Sara, and our grandchildren, we always make a point of getting together with Alan's ex-wife, Francine," said Beth. "She's like a daughter to us, and although I love Sara dearly, I don't want to give up my relationship with Francine just because of the divorce." Francine and Alan are the cooperative co-parents of two daughters, and they both understand that their children can only benefit from Francine's friendly association with Alan's parents.
The end of a marriage need not mean the end of all communication and friendship with them. If communication is too hard for you right now, it's fine to take some time before resuming the contact. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water: every connection you maintain provides a wider web of security and love for your children — and you can use all friends you can gather at this time. Grandparents or aunts and uncles can also be a safe haven for children during the storm of divorce, so allow them that valuable resource when they need it most.
Since these people are your ex's family, be respectful about his or her feelings about the relationship. If your best friend or confidante is also your former in-law, avoid sensitive subjects pertaining to your ex or the divorce. Setting boundaries for yourself, by knowing what you will and won't discuss, can help to alleviate any tension.
After the initial fallout, a lot needs to be put back together; sometimes you need to put yourself back together before reconnecting with your ex or your in-laws. You may feel broken right now, but the path to wholeness exists if you want to take it. Follow it, and you'll eventually learn how to keep the good in your life, be it a great sister-in-law or just some positive memories about your ex.
Be aware that this process can be very uncomfortable and confronting at times, and it will require a strong commitment to your goals — whether that be making friends or just making peace with your ex. Personal growth is always uncomfortable, and sometimes downright painful, so don't assume that your discomfort is a sign that something's wrong.
The road to recovery starts with forgiveness. Forgive your ex, and yourself, for the parts you played in contributing to the end of the relationship (especially if your ex left you, you need to identify and "own" your part in the breakup) and give up blame and hatred. Hate can be just as binding as love — even more so sometimes — and if you want to be free to move on with your life, you cannot remain bound to the past. So forgive, and begin creating a new life with relationships that will nourish and excite you.
This story was originally published on iVillage in 2002.