It was on a Sunday morning, four years post-divorce that my daughter called me from college to tell me about a party she and her housemates had the night before. Since the college was an easy one-hour drive from home, the girls invited their parents up for dinner. In her case, she invited her dad, not me. Of course, she could have invited both of us but she didn’t because historically I did not get along with him, even though he got along with me. After hearing this, I got off the phone and screamed until I had no voice left. I wasn’t angry with my daughter, I was angry with myself! My brain immediately conjured up what was at stake. If my behavior meant I was off the guest list, then when my future-grandkids started to arrive, I would likewise not receive invitations to birthday parties, dance recitals, and the like!
I write this blog some twenty years and nine grandchildren later, and here is a fact that many will find astounding: My ex-husband keeps a pair of rubber gloves under my kitchen sink so he can wash dishes after the many family events to which I invite him (and his girlfriend). Clearly, we get along, which is good because we see each other ALL. THE. TIME. Between our three adult children and their offspring, there are large events like graduations, weddings, and births that we share; and there are scads of smaller ones like soccer games and band concerts. With all these common loved ones, we can easily be together weekly!
So here’s the deal – that divorce of yours? It is not something that happened once and is now over. Instead, it will go on forever. The Eagles might have been writing about divorce-with-children when they wrote the lyrics for “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.” This being the case, it behooves you to get along with your ex.
For everyone else, here is what I propose: If there are one thousand steps between your current relationship with your ex and a good relationship, take one step – no matter how tiny – in the direction of getting along. And then, of course, repeat monthly, weekly, or daily. If he doesn’t join the effort, just keep trying. The rest of your life is a long time and he just might soften. (If nothing else your good behavior could earn you an invitation to dinner at your daughter’s house when she is in college…)
Back in 1998 when my daughter’s dinner party took place, I discovered a book that helped me arrive at this mindset. Originally published in 1994, it is still available today. It is called The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D. The subtitle is “Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart”. Dr. Ahrons is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Southern California and she was also the Director of the Family Therapy Doctoral Training Program there. All of this gives her three decades of experience helping couples and families cope with divorce and its aftermath.
What I particularly liked about Ahrons’ book was that she described four kinds of post-divorce couples: Fiery Foes, Angry Associates, Cooperative Colleagues, and Perfect Pals. Lining things up on a continuum like that gave me a goal and a direction in which to travel. Way back in 1998, I couldn’t imagine becoming Perfect Pals – and maybe not even Angry Associates. But Less-Flammable-Fiery Foes? That seemed doable. I could walk in that direction. If amicability was not possible, civility was.
Looking over her book from the vantage point of today, I see that Dr. Ahrons coined a term, the “binuclear family.” She explains that the divorced couple and their children continue to be a unit, but they shift from being a nuclear family to a binuclear family, which spans two households. When I read this twenty years ago, I was probably appalled, not wanting to be a family with my ex in any way, shape, or form. But the reality is that we are forever linked because of our children. The reality is we had years of co-existence to figure out. We could be thorns in each other’s sides forever or we could do better.
Over the many years – indeed, decades – since our divorce, my ex and I have arrived at today. And thus, his rubber gloves sit under my sink. I am very proud of what we have accomplished. Our marriage died, but our binuclear family survived and is flourishing. As it is said…
And they lived happily ever after.
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