A Walk on the Weird Side
Keeping it friendly through Divorce – even when it Hurts
It was whilst he cried on my shoulder for the end of the short affair that had split open our ten year relationship, that I knew my life was taking a new course.
He wasn’t crying for the revelation of a few weeks before that he no longer wanted to be with me, and that the house we lived in would have to be sold for debts he had not told me about until now. He wasn’t crying for my new enforced status as a single mother to three youngsters, aged 6, 4 and 18 months. Nope. He was crying for the end of the fling between himself and a local woman, that had been the catalyst for him coming clean about wanting to leave me.
As he sobbed on my shoulder over losing his recent girlfriend whilst our relationship – the one I had thought was ‘until death do us part’ – had been tossed aside without a single visible tear, I contemplated a terrifying future with no home, a career long past, becoming a single parent and worst of all, I was about to turn 40 that year. So not much of ‘a catch’ for any new relationship. It occurred to me that maybe I should have been the one crying on his shoulder. The world was upside down, and nothing made sense anymore.
At that point, I was too angry and broken to cry. It was 2003. I was furious. I was hurt and ashamed. My self esteem was on the floor. So why didn’t I just punch him?
The man I was still providing emotional support for had been my whole life. Within a few months of us meeting we had moved in together and had already agreed that we would start a family. We waited a while and then after four years together I was in my thirties so we proceeded to have our three beautiful children, living all together on houseboats until climbing the gangplank with kids and shopping took the fun out of it, so we moved to the country to live like normal people in a home of bricks and mortar.
We rarely argued. He worked hard to provide for us and my career in the film industry dwindled as the third child came along, so I became increasingly dependent upon him financially and emotionally. I remember thinking: “If he ever left me it would be like someone cutting off my right arm”. Little did I know that was not just a passing thought, but more of a premonition.
First there was that catastrophic night in 2003 when he revealed he was seeing another women, then the numbing agony of the next few weeks where his new relationship broke down but tragically ours was by then clearly irretrievable due to the emotional coldness between us. I waded through the days in a state of complete shock.
Then the anger and emotional pain started to take hold: I moved into a rented house and I would cry and shout at him down the phone, and avoid conversations when we swopped the kids over at weekends so he could spend time with them.
I would never have believed that in just a few short years I would be a guest at his wedding to a new wife, whom I welcomed heartily into our extended family. I would never have dreamed that I would one day feel happy and joyful again, let alone that from the ruins of my ideal ‘happy family’ I would be able to build a new type of family, with a strong co-parenting relationship at it’s heart.
How could I have know that this man who had betrayed my trust, who I didn’t think I could ever trust again, would in time be given his own key to my new family home where he could pop in whenever he wanted? It would have been unimaginable. Like a miracle. A miracle that if it was offered then to me I would have turned it down at first, because let’s face it, being the victim can be an easy place to stay if you don’t have a wake up call to change your mind.
Yes, in the beginning all I wanted to do was punch him, but very quickly I realised I had to make a choice about how to deal with what had happened, or it was going to eat up my life and harm the children. Who wants to live with a mummy who is angry and wounded all the time?
I could choose let my bitterness and rage rule my thinking – and become one of those angry women who are always slagging off their ex and never seem to find any real joy in life anymore. I’d met those women, and I didn’t want to become one of them.
Or I could put on a brave face and do what’s right for the kids while my soul slowly died inside? I was wise enough to know that by keeping anger and hurt hidden, it would eventually find its way out in the form of physical illness or depression.
Or might there be a third way….?
But what was this third way? How could I possibly build a healthy co-parenting relationship with someone who had metaphorically ripped out my heart and then carved it up with a chainsaw just for good measure?
When your world crashes around you, and the person you most loved becomes overnight a stranger, then you only have yourself to fall back on. Crying myself to sleep every night, coping with three young children on my own and wondering if I had imagined the last 10 years and when would I wake up from this nightmare, I started to get to know those parts of myself that I had never met before. Sometimes we all need to be at our lowest before we begin to recognise our true strength. And my strength was the ability to see the world differently and to take the third way forwards, which was to embrace the drastic change that had befallen my family. To create an exciting new life for myself and the children that included their dad, and didn’t reject him or push him away. Although I was livid with what he’d done, I knew that punishing him was not going to help anyone. Especially not our kids.
‘Our children don’t care who’s done what; they don’t judge us,’ I told Chris, as he put the house up for sale to pay off his debts. ‘All they care about is how we deal with this from now on. They are learning from us how to manage relationships – we need to show them a better way.’ He went quiet and I knew that through his grief and confusion and guilt, he understood what I was saying. But it all hinged on me finding a way to forgive and move on.
So I took a self-learning crash course on how to see myself as not a victim – but the opposite. As blessed, with the chance to begin again. I may not have chosen my family to be broken up in such a painful way, but I realised that it was my choice, and my choice alone, as to how I was to deal with this situation.
It was tough at times. I had a go at taking some responsibility for what had happened. I told myself: ‘I chose to be in this relationship – no-one forced me,’ Instead of being resentful of my beloved man for throwing away a partnership that seemed on the outside to be so strong, I realised that the stress of supporting us all and his own need to explore life was not something he had felt brave enough to tell me when we were together. I accepted that just because we had made three beautiful babies together, that didn’t mean he had to spend the rest of his life being with me. Hard though that was to bare. I began to see that outside of the children, we really had very little in common.
Over the next two intense years, I turned from a struggling suffering single mother living on benefits, into a happy co-parent buying a house, starting an online business and knowing that far from holding me back from the life I deserve, my small children were in fact the inspiration I needed to see what I had to offer the world.
I became open to the wisdom of others devouring every self-help book my friends could lend me, including ‘Happiness is the Best Revenge’, which I read hoping to discover a way to enact a ‘socially acceptable’ revenge, only to find a much healthier message: Get happy, and you won’t care about revenge any more. You’re too busy having a good life. You become indestructible, taking back your own power so that the actions of others become like rubber bullets. An annoyance, nothing more. I walked barefoot over burning hot coals at an Anthony Robbins life coaching seminar – insane or brave, I’m still not sure which – and after that I couldn’t make any more excuses about my life. I was embracing change, instead of fearing it.
So instead of focusing on what I’d lost – a home, relationship, self-esteem, my ‘future’ – I focused on creating a new future for myself.
This journey would have been a great deal tougher, if it wasn’t for the fact that my new way of thinking meant I also started to have fun. I’d forgotten what that felt like! Within a few years I had more boyfriends and a better sex life in my 40s than I’d ever had in my 20s. Because I wasn’t bitter about the past or blaming all men for being untrustworthy, that made me easier to date, even though I still had some baggage I was carrying around, which took a little longer to offload as I continued my voyage of self discovery.
The worst thing that had ever happened to me – my breakup from Chris – became the best thing: a catalyst for amazing change.
I become the creator of the 1st ever UK ‘Divorce Fairs’, Starting Over Shows. I learn’t so much about how to support an intelligent divorce that I collaborated with the Ministry of Justice in promoting divorce mediation and staying away from court; I became the UK”s Alternative Divorce Guide, helping couples find a better way through divorce. I created the Alternative Divorce Directory, where divorcing couples can find mediators and collaborative lawyers, alongside life coaches, counsellors and healers. No private detectives can be found on the directory – only people that support amicable divorce.
I danced joyfully at parties and made new friends – but as I my post-breakup relationship got stronger, those friends weren’t shy about telling me that they thought I was ‘weird’.
‘It’s great you have such a good relationship with your Ex,’ they would say. ‘But he has a key to your house? You spend Christmas morning with him and his new wife? That’s weird!’
It bothered me at first. As I watched Chris get married to a beautiful young woman 20 years my junior about four years after we had split, some of his family clearly uncomfortable that I was invited to the wedding, even I protested at the photographer’s insistence that I join in on a ‘family photo’ of myself, the kids and Chris at his wedding, where he was marrying someone else! But the photographer insisted, because he could see past what was considered ‘normal’ and knew that the kids and I were still very important to Chris, and that it was only right to have a family photo of us at the wedding. And I’m so grateful that he did, as I now look back on that photo and that day as a real breakthrough. Because it was one thing to reinvent myself and my life and make it so good that I became glad of the chance to start my life over, but there was another thing I still needed to learn.
It was time to face up to the social norms and say “No! It’s not ‘normal’ to be angry and bitter for years at the father of your children.” Something inside told me that it was only other people’s opinions that made my efforts to keep a healthy relationship with my Ex seem strange. I wanted to reinvent what it is to be ‘normal’ when experiencing family ‘breakdown’. I knew that my family wasn’t a broken family – it was an extended family.
Sometimes, I admit that even I found some aspects of my willingness to accept Chris’s new life without complaint challenging. Becoming friends with his new wife was something I initially found as strange as she did. But I was heartened by her confiding in me her relief that her own experience of an angry divorce by her parents was not something my – now our children – were going to have to suffer.
Sometimes I’d ask myself: What could have happened if I had not been weird, and just played the blame game like a normal person, the: ‘I’ll never forgive you for what you did’ game with the father of my children?
But there’s plenty of evidence to show this is a course of action that ultimately benefits no one.
Reports about Robin William’s tragic apparent suicide allude to the millions he had to pay out due to his two divorces, and the massive financial stress that put him under. According to a study done by the American Journal of Psychiatry, divorced men end up with twice as high a risk of suicide as their married counterparts. I had three small children to raise and no job – the last thing I needed was for their dad to sink into depression because I was determined to punish him.
In the UK, between 15,000 and 20,000 couples go to court to resolve child access disputes each year. In a divorce survey by Mischcon de Reya, one in five parents said that their primary objective during separation is to make the experience ‘as unpleasant as possible’ for their former spouse. Half of the parents involved said that they had sought a day in court to haggle over residency arrangements despite knowing it made matters worse for their children. A quarter of parents said the process traumatised their children so much that they self-harmed or were suicidal.
Children self-harming due to the stress of their parents arguing and hating each other is on the increase. We didn’t want that for our children.
During the last 10 years Chris and I have both learned that being in a post-split relationship is not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we have made the effort when either of us gets stressed about money or our personal lives. There have been times when we have had our gripes, but we’ve learned to sit down and talk about things and find resolutions, which we didn’t know how to do when we lived together. We just hadn’t learned how. What we both know is that our children haven’t had to deal with parents who openly express anger and even hatred to each other. In fact, if I start complaining about their dad, they tell me off and say: “Stop saying mean things about our dad!” So then I thank them for reminding me! Our kids are half of both of us, so if I am mean to their dad and say bad things about him to them, I am attacking half of each child. That makes me stop and think twice.
Equally, they haven’t had to put up with a charade of their parents pretending to be nice but really despising each other, because kids see through that in an instant. If there is no love and intimacy in a relationship, but the couple stay together ‘for the children’, then what kind of lesson is that to teach those children about ‘relationships?’ Love and intimacy are vital. And if a relationship ends in it’s current form, then Love is what helps it reform into a new relationship, in my case a co-parenting relationship.
We are not perfect parents by any means, but our children are learning that whatever form a relationship takes, whatever the shape of their extended family, that collaboration and treating each other with respect, are what makes relationships of any kind work. They have learned that divorce and family separation is just their family taking on a new form. Isn’t that a good life lesson for them to learn?
And what did I learn? When my world fell apart in 2003 I wondered what I’d done to deserve it.
But through that pain, I learnt that love is not about other people doing what you want them to do or what you can get from them – and that includes your own sense of self worth.
It’s only going through hard times that we really learn about ourselves, and grow our confidence and self belief. And that clarity and confidence is what makes it so much easier to be nicer to the Ex.
But it’s a tough road to travel alone, and that is what inspired me to create the free resources in Best Way To Divorce. It introduces people to mediators who will help them avoid nasty legal battles fuelling an already difficult situation. It includes a session with a counsellor where you can let rip with all those angry feelings and get them out of the way, with someone who doesn’t judge you and helps you to see how to deal with that rage and pain. It includes talking to a financial expert and making a plan for the future, for you and your kids, instead of squandering what little money you may have on lawyers fees fighting over nothing.
So, if you are battling through a break up and want to build a new healthy co-parenting relationship, don’t listen to the people who feel threatened by your ability to make that work well for your children and yourself, by raising their eyebrows when you tell them you are doing breakfast for the WHOLE family on Christmas morning, including your Ex and their new wife; or if they think it’s strange that your Ex should be building you a new kitchen in his rare moments of spare time because he knows that will make life easier for you as a mum. Don’t listen to the people who may be blatant enough to suggest that your co-parenting relationship is ‘weird’.
What’s so wrong about sharing decisions about the kids schooling over a social drink with your Ex? Helping each other out when you need a favour? Supporting each others’ new relationships? Why should that just be for married couples?
At the wedding I finally saw the truth. My suffering and my resentment all came from the mistaken belief that my self worth – who I am as a person – is dependent on what relationship I am in and with whom. But as I watched Chris’s happiness grow I realised I was also fulfilled and happy, and no past heartbreak could change that. I felt suddenly free and although I have made the mistake since of thinking the love of a man is the only way to happiness, I kept relearning that being happy, is my job. Everything else is icing on the cake.
Relationships and marriage are not about what you get but what you give. It doesn’t make the giver any less of a person if what you give is no longer wanted by your husband or partner. And since true love is unconditional, there are other appropriate ways to extend love, even after divorce.
Many people rolled their eyes at Gwyneth Paltrow’s “consciously uncoupling”, but shouldn’t we be applauding those celebrities that keep their divorce amicable?
Breaking up right and getting on well with your Ex isn’t weird. It’s Wonderful.
Suzy Miller is the UK’s unique ‘Alternative Divorce Guide’, A Divorce Strategist, Public Speaker and Trainer, featured on Radio 4 Women’s Hour, the Daily Mail and C5’s The Vanessa Show.
Suzy has collaborated with the Ministry Of Justice in helping to promote Dispute Resolution and educate couples on how to have a more peaceful divorce. She is the creator of the UK’s first Divorce Fair and campaigns for better ways to divorce.