A few friends are going through traumatic breakups of long-term relationships. More often than not, these divorces need to leave the parties in an amicable state — whether it’s due to shared children, shared dogs, shared businesses, or shared community. I’ve been through one of these myself, and, six years later, I think I’ve managed to get some perspective on things. So here, in an easy-to-digest listicle, is my advice for how to handle an amicable divorce — for the leavers, for the left, and those that love them.
1. Fair is a feeling
There is a great wide middle ground when it comes to the right and wrong of a relationship, and perspectives differ. While we all want to be treated “fairly” by our ex-partner and community, this is a place where the rules of logic don’t apply. That’s because “fair” is one of those things where we know it when we see it. Fair is not a fact. It’s a feeling. You’re not “right” about what you deserve (no matter how much your friends tell you that you are): you feel right. It’s an important distinction, because it turns a logical argument into one of empathy.
An important corollary is that feelings can change. This is obviously important when two people with differing opinions of “fair” need to come to a mutual agreement. Their feelings need to evolve towards each other. But an even more important issue is that our own notion of what’s fair changes as our own feelings change. You might have an idea of what a fair split of your joint assets is now, on the cusp of a breakup. But a year or ten down the road, your sense of what is fair — what you realize you got away with or how you got screwed — might be completely different. That’s okay, and it is kind of unpredictable. Just be ready for it.
2. It’s hard to be nice and be heard
After a breakup we all want to be strong, be good, do what’s best for the children and our shared communities. We don’t want to be angry, or force our mutual friends to take sides. We want to be cool. “Oh, sure, it’s hard,” we’ll admit. “But every day is better.” We still care for our former partners, and we need to maintain a friendly relationship for the sake of the children/dogs/book club. Nobody wants to be a downer.
Because of all this, it can be hard to talk about your pain in a shared community without looking like a blamey boat-rocker. But that pain is real, and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be examined in the daylight of culture — anonymously, amongst close friends, or plastered on brick walls. One friend of mine published a break-up zine. For me, it involved talking to random strangers at Burning Man about just how much my heart had been broken a year ago. (Yeah, I’m tons of fun at parties.)
Whatever it is, find a way to be heard that’s compatible with the relationships you need to still maintain. Your pain is real, no matter how inconvenient; seek out validation for it. It’s an important part of the healing process.
3. Shit-talking will backfire
Here’s one for the supporting community: don’t bad-mouth the ex to your friend’s face (or anybody’s face, probably). I had friends tell me that they’d never really liked my ex-wife anyway. That she was acting like an asshole. But remember: the reason the breakup hurts is because there’s still love there. Talking shit about my ex just made me want to defend her — which was actually the last thing I wanted to do, but I couldn’t help it. It’s not possible to only emphasize the negative parts of a big gushy bag of mixed feelings: they’re just too well mixed, especially at the very beginning.
4. Check In Twice
Here’s another one for the supporting community: keep checking in. I had friends tell me that we should go get a beer some time, or I should be sure to ask if there’s anything I need. But most of those offers came in the first week or so, and were noncommittally vague, then petered off. As communities fracture around a divorce, relationships are going to (d)evolve quickly and unexpectedly. Give your hurt friend the space they need, but keep checking in with concrete plans. Offer distractions and attention. Don’t just offer support the week you hear the news; do it again months later.
5. Sides are going to (seem to) get picked
Nobody really wants to pick a side, especially when the couple is modeling a cooperative posture (at least publicly). But now that people are dealing with the couple as individuals, their relationships are going to grow or shrink independently. New friendships will form, and old friendships will fade. Affinity will be drawn around lines of gender, leaver/left, hobbies … it’s just the way it goes. Mourn the loss of your old community, and enjoy the new one that grows around you. Things are changing.
Sometimes it can feel like people are picking sides even when they aren’t. Soon (well, it felt “soon” to me) after my split, my ex and her new partner went on ski trip with some mutual friends. When the pictures posted on Facebook (bonus obvious advice: stop following our ex on social media), I was hurt to see my ex and her partner romantically together — and nobody was telling them how wrong it was. I know, it was a silly expectation to have. They weren’t really picking sides, but I still felt betrayed by what I assumed was their silence.
Another time, several years later, I and my new partner went to a dinner party at a friend’s house. She had recently separated from ex, who is also a friend. After about an hour with just one other guest there, I realized that she and the other guest were dating — and we’d unintentionally been pulled into a double date. I felt like I’d betrayed her ex’s trust by being a party to her moving on with dating so quickly. Again: it wasn’t about me picking sides. But it felt like my presence there was a validation of her choice to move on, and I wasn’t comfortable with that when my other friend was struggling.
6. Forgiveness is a choice
This one might not resonate for everybody, but it’s what I believe: forgiveness is a choice. I spent a year carrying a burden of resentment and anger after my own relationship ended. Those feelings can and will fade over time, but forgiveness is about something else; it’s an active state. It’s an intentional framework for how you want to craft a relationship. You might never want (or need) to forgive someone with whom you don’t have a further relationship. But if a new (friendly/businesslike/non-adversarial) relationship with your ex is in your future, forgiveness needs to be a part of it.
Forgiveness is also a gift. It’s a gift you give to yourself and to the person who wronged you. And like any gift, it shouldn’t come with strings attached, and you can’t take it back once it’s given. Here’s how to do it: first, decide that it is time. The choice is yours to make when you’re ready. Then, say the following three times: “I forgive you”. The rest will follow.
7. Love is a light switch
We all know about love at first sight. Some believe in it, and some don’t, but it’s undeniable that it can happen.
Well, I think the opposite can happen as well: people can fall out of love with surprising suddenness. It’s not necessarily malicious or mean-spirited or borne of a bad heart; it is just that when the love dies, it can take everyone by surprise. And, to everyone’s dismay, it doesn’t just come back because we want it to.
I thought I deserved more from my ex when our relationship ended (see also Fair is a feeling, above). A year or two of couples’ counseling, perhaps; maybe a few years of living peacefully but separately in the same house. I thought our history and our commitment and our future all called for that. But the truth existed before she could even admit it to herself: it was over. Without blame, the love was gone.
8. Use your new words
Since we’re talking about an amicable divorce (whether by choice or necessity), you’re going to be creating a new kind of relationship with your ex. One of the best ways to frame this new relationship is to stop using that word: ex. Don’t call your former partner your “ex-wife” or “ex-husband” or “ex-whatever”. Talk about what they are now. It’s not an easy change to make, but you’ll get used to it quickly. My new relationship was about co-parenting, so I stopped using “ex-wife” and started talking about “Ruby’s Mom”. It’s a small thing, but it gets your brain headed in the right direction.
9. It takes courage to leave
Despite all the pain her leaving caused me, I understood one thing pretty much from the beginning: that was one hell of a courageous choice. Forgiveness came much later, but respect came quickly. To crack open our family’s heart; to disappoint her daughter and her husband and her parents and her friends; to shatter the fairy tale notion of forever that we all hold; to shoulder the burden of all the guilt: what an incredibly courageous act of imagination. It was visionary. To see something outside of all our expectations, to take that risk and pursue it, was pure bravery. And it sucked for her, for me, for everyone in our family — for a time. And it changed all of our lives forever.
We can never know whether a choice is for better or worse (although in my case, with both of us happily remarried and a happy daughter with twice as many spoiling grandparents, I’m wagering on “better”). It can be daunting to see the bravery in such a selfish act. But even in the worst of my pain and anger, I had to admit: that was one hell of a ballsy move.