Tea is good glue, Carolye Kuchta discovered.
She and her ex-husband, Roland, to whom she had been married for 13 years, were trying to recalibrate their relationship from one of committed love to "a different sort of like," as their eldest child, Max, now 10, described it.
"It was tricky," says the 36-year-old Vancouver single mother of two, who is part of three couples featured in a documentary, How to Divorce & Not Wreck the Kids, airing on CBC tonight at 9 p.m. EST. "But some of the typical politeness things really helped us. I would always offer him a cup of tea when he came to the house to pick up the children. It's such a small thing, but it helped us remember our friendship."
Call it the rules of healthy detachment. The cultural dialogue focuses on how we attach to others, but coming together is a piece of wedding cake compared with the challenge of pulling apart successfully.
Learning how to reset the connection with an ex-spouse is key to a successful divorce process. In some cases, it's about self-protection.
"I see many husbands and wives who have taken emotional and financial bullying for a long time for the sake of keeping things together," says Jeff Rechtshaffen, a family lawyer in Toronto. "When the relationship ends, there's no need to put up with it any more."
But in all former relationships - both equitable ones and those with power imbalances - positive detachment is an opportunity for growth - personal, emotional and spiritual, divorce experts say.
"We all have many different parts in us," says Deborah Brakeley, a relationship therapist and divorce coach who works with collaborative family lawyers in Vancouver. "We have vulnerable parts and angry parts and hurt parts, but we also have this higher part of the self that's never been damaged. I think of this as our true self."
It is that higher consciousness - the ability to step back and observe the dynamics of the relationship in an almost Buddhist practice of detachment - that allows people to see an ex-spouse and themselves with a loving kindness that can pave the way for a healthy postdivorce relationship. It takes time, and often therapy, to achieve, but it is beneficial for everyone, Ms. Brakeley says.
Ms. Kuchta and her ex benefited from Ms. Brakeley's help in their collaborative divorce. "Some of the things that were hard for us when we were married are no longer an issue," Ms. Kuchta says. "If Roland is not in the greatest mood, for example, I don't take it personally. I understand that it's just part of his personality."
If the standard exit line in the casual breakup script is, "It's not you, it's me," the best way to handle the new relationship with the person you once loved enough to marry is to realize the opposite: that the problems you encounter are not always yours to take responsibility for. If nothing else, marriage teaches you what you can and cannot fix in someone else and in yourself.
Children are often the reason many couples work on postdivorce harmony. In fact, putting children's wellbeing first is a positive distraction from the anger and resentment many separations create. Ms. Kuchta and her ex-husband discussed the need never to speak poorly of the other in front of the children.
"It was very important for our son to see that Roland and I still have a relationship," Ms. Kutcha explains. "He would say, 'It makes me sad that you don't like Poppa any more.' I would tell him that I do like him. But he said, 'I don't see you liking each other.' "
The two parents started "hugging hello and hugging goodbye," Ms. Kutcha says. "Our son would really look for that hug hello. It was a form of security for him."
Communication skills for divorced parents are even more important than they were in marriage. "I often tell couples about new communication rules," says Shelley Behr, a divorce coach in Richmond, B.C. "They should use 'I messages.' Rather than blaming the other, they should speak about what they feel and what they need."
She also advises her divorced clients to keep e-mail exchanges about arrangements for the children business-like and short. "It is not a good idea to discuss emotional issues in e-mails," Ms. Behr says.
A communication book that goes back and forth from one household to the other helps parents keep abreast of their young children's sleep, meal and play schedules. Children should be encouraged to write or draw pictures in the book to help them express what they did and what they are feeling.
But it is for more than the sake of the children that divorced couples should develop forbearance for each other, I think. It is for the former spouses, too.
I have some divorced friends who evaluate their failed marriages as missteps, and their exes as unworthy of their former love. "He should have been a friend or just a passing lover, not my husband," one woman I know says about her long marriage.
After the love has faded, it is easy to see the decisions that led to a trip down the aisle. In my case, my marriage at a young age was a welcome and clear direction at a time when I was confused about who I was and what my career should be. Marriage prescribed a life.
But to dismiss the love that propelled you into marriage is a form of self-punishment.
Recently, a male friend and I were talking about our former marriages. "But weren't you really in love?" he asked. "Yes," I acknowledged, somewhat reluctantly, and then I realized that despite my critical analysis of my foolish, younger self, the marriage - and its heady love - was a major highlight of my life.
It has taken a while to clear away the emotional debris that cluttered my memory of my marriage - it was not an easy union, and the divorce was difficult - but now I make a practice of recognizing its various joys. I have a positive (albeit detached) affection for my ex, despite his and my failings, which helps my children and me.
As Ms. Kutcha explains, "Roland was meant to have been my husband. It was the right thing to marry him. I would deeply regret it if I hadn't. He is now a valuable friend. It's just that I do not want to be married to him any more."