The phrase “a good divorce” sounds like an oxymoron. It doesn’t seem possible. The word “divorce” comes laden with negativity, fear and judgement.
When we see divorce in the media and the movies it’s overwhelmingly about conflict. Amicable or civil divorces aren’t considered news unless there’s a weirdness factor associated with them such as Gywneth Paltrow’s “Conscious Uncoupling.”
Our own beliefs and expectations around what divorce entails, means people often simply stay in unhealthy relationships or procrastinate and delay ending their marriage.
What if there was a different way? What if there was a way to break up without the hostility? What if you could get divorced without spending a ton on legal fees and have it consume all your emotional energy?
Well there is a different way and it is possible. It’s called a good divorce and joining me for this episode of Conversations About Divorce is journalist, and author Wendy Paris. Wendy wrote the book, Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How To Part Well and she’s also the founder of the comprehensive divorce wellness website, Splitopia.
What Makes A Good Divorce Possible?
The way we divorce has changed significantly in the last 20 years and these changes do make a good divorce possible. Paris cites four areas that contribute to this. First, all 50 states now have no-fault divorce laws which means that a court is no longer sitting in judgment on whether the marriage should end but rather is focused on the division of the finances and the parenting. This means spouses no longer have dig up dirt on each other to present before a judge.
Another factor is the increasing role of women in the workforce. This means that the economic burden of ending a marriage doesn’t fall solely to the man and women have an increased capacity for supporting themselves.
The role of fathers has changed too and there is much more recognition and acceptance of the importance of fathers being actively involved in the lives of their children beyond the end of the marriage. This translates to less fighting about where the children are going to live.
And the other reason Paris gives is that too much reliance was placed in the past on divorce studies showing harmful effects of divorce when those studies were biased and inaccurate. We now have more reliable data and findings supporting how to protect children from long term harm resulting from divorce.
None of these changes make divorce easy but “Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it has to be terrible, doesn’t mean it has to be disastrous,” said Paris.
The likelihood of you having a good divorce is probably moderate. It’s estimated that 20 percent of couples are going to have a decent divorce. Another 20 percent are going to have a rough time with diagnosable mental illnesses playing a role. Paris says the remaining 60 percent could go either way and these people are highly influenced by their own beliefs and expectations about divorce.
What Is A Good Divorce?
For Paris having a good divorce meant
- remaining friends with her spouse
- being able parent together
- still feeling like a family
- not losing friends
- not going broke
- not becoming an angry person
- not fighting
- her son feeling stable, secure, normal, even with two homes.
But not all of us want the same things and these things realistically may not be possible for some couples. When there’s chronic, severe mental illness, addictions or high conflict, remaining friends may be the last thing on your mind.
For some people a good divorce may mean being able to remove yourself from the chaos sooner rather than later, doing so gracefully without spending more than necessary and wanting to look to the future with a positive mindset.
So a good divorce is up to you to define. Ask yourself, what is the best I can do in this situation?
Stay Out of Court
A part of every divorce is working through the legal process but that isn’t the same as litigating your divorce.
“One of the best ways to have a good divorce is make this case that even though we are upset, we’re angry, we are in control of our lives. We are the parents here not the judge. We are going to keep our divorce out of court,” says Paris.
If you want to stay out of court, it’s also important not to confuse the legal process with closure. Closure is part of your emotional healing and you likely won’t get that from the legal process alone. Rushing into the legal process can also mean mistakes such as choosing the wrong lawyer or choosing a lawyer who is skilled at litigation rather than one who prefers to work cooperatively or collaboratively.
Paris recommends that couples work together to understand how the law applies to them and then figure out the division of their assets and how they’d like to share parenting moving forward. Then with that as a foundation, use a mediator or a collaborative lawyer.
If emotions are running high, if you’re angry or upset, it’s always best to take a break and then come back to the negotiations when you can think more rationally.
It Only Takes One
People often assume that a good divorce is only possible if both parties want it.
Paris says this is wrong and that it only takes one person. “It’s an interactive loop so when you can change your behavior, it will change how the other person acts.”
I’ve seen this. When a person is feeling threatened, if you can show some appreciation, acknowledge their importance to your children, express empathy for what they are feeling, you can create a shift in the relationship dynamic. Doing this once probably isn’t sufficient but keep repeating it and you can start to rebuild trust and confidence in each other.
“You can’t change them into a person who you could have a happy marriage with,” says Paris but you can shift your relationship to one where you can co-parent together. It’s not an instinctive reaction for most of us and some professional support from a therapist, divorce coach or an online resource like Splitopia can help.
It Doesn’t End With The Decree
I’ve said this so many times, it shouldn’t need repeating but here goes … if you have children, your divorce does not end your relationship with your spouse. Your relationship as parenting partners will continue until one of you dies. In this one respect, your marriage vows may be true.
Developing and maintaining a relationship with your former spouse that is at least civil means continual reassessment. What worked last year, won’t necessarily work this year. You and your ex are both changing as is your family.
Paris says that the communication techniques she learned in couples therapy didn’t help her marriage because they didn’t get to the real issues but in keeping her relationship with her ex healthy and civil, those techniques really do work. Simplistically, it means
- don’t be critical
- use “I” statements
- avoid contempt
It’s hard to be kind and compassionate with others when you’re angry with yourself. Paris says that self-compassion is highly correlated with bouncing back from divorce. It’s a term that’s in vogue and it’s something with which we generally struggle. Surrounded by social media, we constantly compare ourselves to the external vision that others are choosing to share and many of us feel we come up short.
Self-compassion means practicing kindness to yourself, understanding that you made the best decisions you could at the time with the skills you had and knowing that you can choose to make different choices going forward. Once you start this practice, it’s a natural progression to extend this to your former spouse and this will truly help your on-going relationship.
Wendy Paris is a journalist and author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How To Part Well. She’s also the founder of the comprehensive divorce wellness website, Splitopia.