Earlier this year, the N.Y. Times ran a funny, sweet essay entitled Our Kinder, Gentler, Nobody-Moves-Out Divorce: When the end of a marriage means living on separate floors of the same house. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/14/style/modern-love-kinder-gentler-divorce.html. It got me thinking about the range of post-divorce relationships I’ve seen (including my own).
There’s really no template for how to interact with former partners, unless you opt for the “I now hate you” models offered in older movies (Kramer vs. Kramer, War of the Roses, etc.). A more recent film, 2019’s Marriage Story, presented a traditionally bitter litigated divorce, but followed by a warm reconnection as co-parents of a beloved 8-year-old son. I liked that second part of the story, though I do wish they’d shown how to skip the “hate” phase of the uncoupling process entirely.
Paradoxically, I think this transition can be easier for divorced spouses with children. Once we’ve had kids together, we will forever be co-parents with many, many opportunities for future interaction: sporting events, back-to-school nights, teacher conferences, science fairs, graduations, family anniversaries, weddings, funerals, grand-babies, etc. A recent divorcing couple I worked with had just one future goal from their work: to be able to dance happily together at their son’s wedding. And…..their son is now just 10 years old! Those wise parents realized that how they managed their divorce process would literally determine the quality of their interaction for many decades to come.
Another couple of mine continue to live together while building a tiny house on their property where Dad will move so as to remain close to the children. I know divorced folks who have all sorts of ongoing, “normal” interactions: family trips with kids and other relatives, celebrating holidays and birthdays, trading cars, favors or advice, helping care for former in-laws, dog-sitting, gutter cleaning, medical appointments, sharing camping equipment, etc. One lucky former husband got to speak at both his former wife’s retirement party and her deceased parents’ joint memorial service, as well as attend the college graduation of a nephew by marriage. I was lucky enough to be that person.
When separating, many couples strive to find a second residence “a bike ride away” so their kids can access either parent as needed. Even if geographical proximity is not possible, parents provide their kids with an invaluable gift by making it clear that there’s no need for emotional distance from mom or dad, just because their marital status has changed. When children experience their divorced parents’ continued love and sense of connection for themselves and each other, they realize that they are not losing their family even though it changes form.
This is only the second generation or so of a consistently high divorce rate in our society. So, we are still learning how to make this incredibly hard transition with a minimum of pain for ourselves, our kids, extended family, and friends. But, we have come a long way towards protecting all affected folks even as we also chart our own separate path forward. With help, we can “separate together”, and still remain family.