After 5 years of marriage, 32-year-old Scott* was not in love with his wife and wanted a divorce. To complicate matters he and his wife had a young son. In hopes of doing what was best for their son and themselves, they decided the divorce process and their lives thereafter would be free of the usual hostility and instead approached it with dignity and civility.
Here is a bit of his story.
Was having a peaceful divorce and relationship with your ex-wife something that came naturally or something you both needed to work on?
It has had its ups and downs. She was, of course, very hurt, but to her credit, she rarely expressed her hurt as anger. When we started the proceedings for the divorce the whole process was highly collaborative. We met with a lawyer, together, to find out what the process was, and from there, we did all the paperwork and court dates and everything as a team. Whether it was going to court dates or attending co-parenting classes, we did it as a unit, knowing that we’d continue to be bound as parents, even when we were no longer bound by marriage.
We sat down together for hours with the stack of paperwork that you have to fill out to file for divorce. Together, we slogged through it, laughing at the bureaucracy and at the fact that there’s almost no red tape required to get married, but a ton to get divorced.
Was it a mutual decision you would behave in this civil manner throughout the divorce or is it just a matter of who the two of you are?
It was a decision and it’s part of who we are. When we learned about the divorce process, we both observed pretty quickly that the process is set up to encourage conflict. It’s adversarial, by design and we didn’t think that would be the best use of our energy or the best outcome for our son.
I am assuming there were moments in the divorce process where one or both of you broke from the grounds of civility. Would that be a correct assumption?
It certainly would.
How did you get back on track from those moments?
Well, we are very different people. When I get upset, I turn inward, retreat, and process until I’m ready to respond. The upside of that is that I don’t tend to escalate conflicts. The downside of that is that I tend to avoid conflicts, even when they’re necessary. My ex, on the other hand, is the opposite. When she gets upset, she lets it all out. To be honest, it can be kind of scary or, it used to scare me. The upside of lashing out is that she gets everything out on the table, and she also recovers remarkably quickly. The downside is that it can shut people down or it used to shut me down. I’ve learned to make sure I say what’s on my mind in the moment, and I’ve also learned that I just need to let her be upset and then let her calm down in her time. For a while after divorce, I think we tried to be best friends. Looking back on that, I think that was probably a coping mechanism, but it wasn’t genuine.
At what point did you realize that being best friends with your ex-wife would not work?
Honestly, I think that was a pretty recent realization, probably corresponding with [my] falling in love. Falling in love made me realize I was letting my ex cast too big a shadow over my relationship. At that point I began a process of creating a little more distance, while still maintaining a level of respect and collaboration.
What does that mean?
For example, we keep our conversations pretty much to things that relate directly to our son and to co-parenting. We don’t talk that much about our lives, our days at work or the kinds of things you might chat with your friends about.
When you decided you were going to have a civil divorce, did you set up any guidelines as to what that looked like?
Well, I’d say the only explicit guiding principle was to attempt to maintain civility. People always describe it as ‘amicable’ which I think is funny, because that’s one of those adjectives that is only used in the context of breakups.
As our relationship has evolved, I’ve developed my own rules. These are things that help me keep our relationship healthy and focused on the best interests of our child. One of the biggest ones, which is actually something I really learned from the love of my life, to whom I’m now married, is to always assume goodwill. That also connects to the ladder of inference, from Chris Argyris, which says that we see, hear or experience something, then we tell ourselves a story about that experience, then we generate emotions based on that story, then we act and react. So the key is to be mindful of the stories you tell yourself. This idea is also aligned with something that Stephen Covey said. I am paraphrasing, but essentially, it’s that your greatest moment of power is between stimulus and response. That’s what I try to keep in mind with every interaction [with her].
It’s so easy when you’ve split up with someone to assume that everything they do that bothers you has been done with the intent of annoying you. So instead, I apply conscious effort to assume that she is trying to do what she believes is the right thing, and that our disagreement is one of principles, not personalities. Of course, I think that makes me sound way more evolved than I am.
But it is an excellent place to start.
I absolutely have moments of being pissed off, disappointed, upset, frustrated, sad in reaction to her. I just really try not to act out of any of those reactions, but I need to give credit to her too.
In what ways do you need to give her credit for the civility of this situation?
She does a great job of approaching everything from the perspective of what’s best for our son. She never ever ever says anything bad about me in front of our child. If she’s upset, she holds on until we can talk in private. In fact, she makes an effort to set me up as a role model for my son, emphasizing what she admires about me. I don’t think many exes do that.
Can you explain what the transition is like from all the divorce papers being finalized to you guys hanging out together?
We celebrate almost every holiday together as a whole family. It was something we talked about at the time we got divorced, that we wanted it [holidays] to be that way.
Did you hang out socially as well, outside of the holidays?
We used to have dinners together and stuff. Not anymore though. Where our social worlds overlap – with friends we had before we split or with other parents – we do hang out socially, and it’s pretty good. We stick to chatting about our son, for the most part.
Did your new relationship and marriage hurt you and your ex-wife’s relationship?
I wouldn’t say it hurt it, but it certainly catalyzed some changes, which I think are positive for everyone. I wouldn’t consider us friends anymore, but we’re really effective and collaborative co-parents, which was the whole point.
What advice do you have for others about going through a peaceful divorce?
I hate to give advice. It feels really self-righteous. Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that ending a marriage is not an excuse to be unkind, unless there’s a situation that involves abuse, etc., of course. When a relationship ends, it’s the relationship that’s bad, not the people in it. Again, this is in most cases. There are certainly bad people, but in most cases, we don’t marry bad people. I didn’t marry a bad person. I married the wrong person. I believe in treating everyone with respect. To be congruent with that belief, I have to treat my ex with respect. I guess my advice would be to leverage that all-important moment between stimulus and response.
I would imagine you would suggest for people before and after divorce in the case where kids were involved
100%. The thing is that you can end a marriage, but you don’t end parenthood. You have to have an effective partnership for the time that your child lives at home.
How do you think your child is different than other children who have parents who went through very tumultuous break ups?
I think it’s safe to say he is completely different. I don’t think my son knows that his parents are divorced. We’ll answer any questions he asks, but it hasn’t really come up yet. I’m sure it will eventually. When we made the decision to split up, he was too young to have any memories, so the way it is now – with my ex and her husband and me and my wife – is the way he’s always known it to be, and he considers all four adults part of his family.
*Real name not used. Some non-material facts changed to preserve anonymity.