Divorce Advice for Everybody

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 choiceForgiveness 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 visionaryTo 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.

Top Picks for Single Dads

Updated 9/9/2012…see below!

Over the past few years I’ve come across a few different books, movies and songs that have really resonated with me and my role as a single father. Here’s a list to get us started…send in your suggestions!

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

 I read this book many, many times as a kid — and loved it. The father is nicely dimensioned; he is principled, stern, affectionate and creative, and even has a little vice that gets them all into trouble.

Appropriate for all ages.

Kick-Ass

This movie changed the way I viewed my relationship with Ruby. Although not necessarily central to the plot, the father and daughter have a tight bond that is almost exclusionary: it’s just of the two of them, working together as a team. Training Ruby to be a foul-mouthed ninja assassin isn’t really in the parenting plan, but creating an extraordinary partnership based on affection, respect for each others’ talents, and hard work sounds fantastic.

Not appropriate for kids (language and violence).

Dinosaurs by Tim Rogers

I first heard this song just last night. It’s an autobiographical sketch of a single rock ‘n roll Dad in his shitty apartment with his fridge full of beer, singing about his daughter’s love of dinosaurs. Perfect.

The first light that peeks out in the night sky
Is there for you to wish by
Or is that just our little thing?

I ain’t got a big house
It’s just us two and it’s a crowd
And your Mama’s cookin’ still top of the town
But I’ll try to get it right

I’ll just put it to ya
Is my voice still familiar
The fridge is stacked sky-high
But if not to be tonight
Then please say some time soon.

Your dinosaurs: I keep them in my top drawer
You and I know what they’re there for
They’re there for cold or rainy Sunday nights

When no-one understands all your ramblings
The triceratops she understands things us humans can’t abide.

Just a word in your ear
There’s more than just beer
The fridge is stacked sky-high
If not to be tonight
If not to be tonight
If not to be tonight
Then please say sometime soon

Appropriate for all ages.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

 I grabbed this novel from the kids’ section of a local bookstore. I was looking for some strong female characters for Ruby, and the short blurb next to this book seemed to offer what I was looking for. But, serendipitously, I hit the jackpot with this one. Not only are there four young girls (ages 4 to 12) who are each amazingly polite, strong-willed, capable, and talented — but they are being raised by a single Dad. And in this book, the Dad starts (reluctantly) dating… giving me a good introduction to this topic for Ruby. This book is written for an older audience in mind (more fifth-graders than kindergarteners) and some of the relationship nuances are over Ruby’s head, but this is a fun read.

As an added bonus, this is the second book in a continuing (currently three) series of books. This book stands perfectly well on its own, and I imagine we’ll be continuing on with this family when we’re done with it.

Appropriate for school-age kids.

Stingray Sam by Cory McAbee

Stingray Sam was commissioned for the Sundance Film Festival and designed for casual streaming to everything from phones to theaters.  It has definite b-movie production values but don’t let that fool you: the music is where it’s at.  When I first heard Lullaby Song I leaned over to my friend with tears in my eyes and whispered: “this song is perfect.”

This song made it onto Ruby’s night-time lullaby CD, but she always asks me to skip it — the guitar part is “too jazzy”.

And since our relationships with our children’s mothers isn’t always perfect, here’s a little catharsis in the form of the Peg-Legged Father (also from the Stingray Sam movie). Shum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum!

The movie is appropriate for older kids; these two songs are fine for everyone.

Update 9/9/2012

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

I didn’t think anything would ever unseat my devotion to Danny, but Ronia has stolen my heart. This is my new favorite children’s novel. The lead character, Ronia, is a little girl living in the middle ages. She is strong and capable and has a rich internal emotional life. Both parents are in the story, but it is her relationship with her father that is central to it. A perfect story for strong girls and the obstinate fathers who love them.

Appropriate for all ages.

That Other Guy


Jazz Hands!
Originally uploaded by Espressobuzz

Kate and I both performed at the Salon of Shame last Tuesday. I sang a song I wrote in 11th grade for a girl I had a crush on. I did sing this song to the girl in question, and she thought it was nice, but claims she didn’t realize it was about her.

Loneliness is a state of mind
Where you can’t see nothing ‘Cause your heart is blind
And all it is that I can see
Is the way that sometimes she smiles at me

In that smile is there a longin’
Does she wish to someone else she was belongin’
Does she wish she was here with me?
Does she know that I can set her free?

Sometimes I wonder if she really knows
And I wish that there was more that I could show
But I have to keep it all inside
Cause you are with… that other guy

Salon of Shame

Last night Kate and I became the first married couple to read at the Salon of Shame, a literary event where people expunge the demons and dorkiness of their childhoods by reading from their diaries.

I read selections from 1984, 6th grade, about a doomed software development project that was supposed to be a gift for my sister’s birthday; about “Lasers & Lords”, a Dungeons & Dragons-style game I was creating; and about trying to impress the mother of my current crush to show that I’d “make good boyfriend material”.

Kate read some pieces about a crush she had in her early teenage years. Her reading was hilarious. The mind of a 15-year-old girl is a scary place to be.

Not only are the Salon of Shame events fun events to attend (and participate in), but I feel like I’m learning invaluable insights for when Ruby hits her awkward goth/swoon phase.

Some pictures from the event can be found here:

http://flickr.com/photos/espressobuzz/2180347934/in/photostream/
http://flickr.com/photos/espressobuzz/2180350800/in/photostream/

Overlapping Worlds

As I was walking towards my building this morning, a woman asked me if I knew where the DSHS was (DSHS = Department of Social and Health Services).  I didn’t.

Rumor has it there are lots of social services in this area, but I don’t know where any of them are.

However, I know the locations of at least three cookware shops within a few blocks of here.

Thirty Five

I’m 35 years old today!

Also, I’m currently growing a beard — as a temporary step on the journey to a moustache.  Care to voice an opinion on which style would suit me best?

http://www.americanmustacheinstitute.org/MustacheStyles.aspx

Put your vote in the comments.