The good divorce
Divorce doulas, seamless co-parenting, even time-sharing the family home – these are the hallmarks of the amicable divorce and, as Zosia Bielski reports, they’re gaining ground and radically changing the way we live apart
Max Quijano was over at his ex-wife’s house in Toronto the other day doing laundry for their two children. While he was at it, he did his ex-wife’s laundry, too. A friend of his called to ask what Quijano was up to. When he found out he was aghast.
“Yes, I do her laundry but she does amazing things for me, too,” Quijano, a 45-year-old computer security analyst, said of his ex-wife Kristin Taylor, a 39-year-old manager. “It’s both ways.”
The exes had an enviably amicable divorce. They separated in 2008 after five years of marriage: The fighting (plus having little in common) was making them profoundly unhappy. Taylor resisted the split initially, clinging to “some imaginary perfect life.” A stint in therapy helped her understand they’d survive a divorce: “He’s a good dad. I’m a good mom. We make a terrible couple.”
Quijano moved out but returned to the family home every morning to see his son and daughter off to daycare, picking them up in the afternoons. Four years later, Quijano was missing his kids badly and battling severe depression after losing a job. And so his ex-wife generously invited him to move back in for a while, into their son’s room. The divorcees lived like this for three years before Quijano moved out, but only 150 metres away. “It’s like it’s the same house, just separated by a few blocks,” he says.
For the Toronto exes, the guiding principles were to put their kids first and not forget what it was that brought them together in the first place. “From the very beginning since we met and got married, we just always agreed on being good people, regardless of anything,” said Quijano, who, incidentally, invited his ex-wife and ex-in-laws to his wedding when he remarried last summer.
The exes are two in a legion re-envisioning divorce in hopes of splitting with dignity. These husbands and wives want what’s best for their kids, which is family, and they want to salvage their own sanity. Many are doing things differently because they saw the carnage of their parents’ divorces, with mom and dad not speaking or badmouthing each other in front of the kids. There are good reasons why some divorces go very badly: chronic infidelity, abuse, mental illness and addiction can make separating traumatic. But for others parting under less extenuating circumstances, divorce can be an awakening: Some people find they are better ex-spouses than they were spouses.
Some 41 per cent of marriages will dissolve before the 30th anniversary, according to Statistics Canada data from 2008, the last year the agency collected divorce information. Even as Canadians live longer and struggle to maintain long-term monogamous unions, many have been rethinking how they want to end those unions.
The advent of no-fault divorce in this country in 1968 brought the first pivotal shift: Canadians could divorce simply for falling out of love following a separation period; no longer was cruelty or adultery – polarizing good-guy/bad-guy scenarios – the prerequisite for splitting up. Shared parenting also became the norm, with fathers increasingly involved in raising kids after a divorce.
Today, many of these exes are actively trying to drop the antagonistic timbre of separation. They’re choosing collaborative divorce and hiring mediators to avoid adversarial litigation and high court costs. They’re seeking out specialized therapists, divorce coaches and “divorce doulas” to calm the waters. Technology is also stepping in, with websites such as Positive Co-Parenting After Divorce and apps such as 2Houses and OurFamilyWizard helping exes parent more seamlessly with forums, resources, shared calendars and contacts lists.
These are some of the cultural shifts surveyed in U.S. journalist Wendy Paris’s new book Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well. Through a rigorous review of the existing research literature on divorce, plus interviews with more than 200 exes, as well as lawyers, therapists and coaches, Paris offers a new mindset around separation. She examines why divorce has remained so shrouded in ignorance, why we fear bad splits but fail to recognize bad marriages, and why “horror stories suck up the airtime,” even as many couples are taking a more civilized way forward – leaving the old-style, cold-turkey divorce behind. She believes the good divorce will eventually become the norm.
“People are going to partner up and hope it lasts forever. Those relationships are going to continually break up. The law and research is pushing us toward shared parenting. This is a shift in doctrine that forces people to remain involved with each other. It has to go this way,” the author said in an interview from Los Angeles.
Paris and her husband separated in 2012 after six years of marriage. Soon, she found that her ex’s flat emotional affect – a trait that had so irked her in their marriage – was no longer getting to her: He wasn’t her husband any more. As it turns out, his cool rationality came in handy as they co-parented their son. Slowly, Paris’s expectations lowered: “Whose ex-husband takes out the trash?!” she boasts in the book (her ex would also move her car on street-cleaning days to spare her a parking ticket).
Unlike their marriage, the ex-spouses’ vision for their separation was a unified one. They would share their old friends and attend the same parties but also made a pact to avoid conversations about dating. Living three blocks apart for the sake of their son, they continued with their family tradition of Sunday dinners and beach walks for the boy’s benefit. “I’d married the ideal ex-husband,” Paris writes.
She found many exes who, too, were overhauling conventional arrangements after divorce. Paris traces the rise of bird nesting, where parents rotate in and out of a matrimonial home while children stay put. Others choose to live a few blocks away, directly next door or even temporarily on different floors of one family home, so kids get a softer landing and nobody is relegated to “weekend parent” status. These families will often vacation together, share major holidays and maintain old weekend rituals.
“Divorce isn’t any more rigid an institution than marriage,” observes Paris in Splitopia. “Divorce is an entirely new relationship. Your old interactions do not have to carry over like frequent-flier miles from your former flights. You can change the terms.”
So how do you change the terms? What is the roadmap from fiery rage to a reasonably calm divorce?
Lisa MacMartin, a couples and family therapist with Montreal’s Argyle Institute, says an unwillingness to grieve is at the centre of most nasty splits. Many exes are reluctant to really dig in and acknowledge the loss, meaning they can’t let it go. “We humans try very hard not to feel sad and we’ll do anything to avoid that,” MacMartin said. “That’s at the core of a lot of conflictual divorces: They’re avoiding really painful feelings. It’s much easier to be angry.”
Paris agrees, adding that “emotional regulation” lies at the heart of most good divorces: getting those hot feelings of anger, insecurity and unfairness under control. Instead of dumping every emotional ripple on your ex, take responsibility for how you feel. Drop the old marital expectations, build some healthy distance and “re-volumize” your own life, Paris advises. The endpoint of these divorces, she says, isn’t cozy chuminess with your ex but “benign disinterest.”
Rebecca Lander describes it as “being your best professional self.” Three years after divorcing, the Toronto gift-store owner is on good terms with her ex-husband, who lives 10 minutes away.
“I carry no anger or disappointment,” says Lander, 42. “You can spend time together and enjoy the children and each other’s company without being disappointed in how that person behaves or doesn’t behave because of your set expectations of them as a husband or as a wife.”
With their daughter, 7, and son, 11, the exes celebrate birthdays and Jewish holidays and keep family traditions such as apple picking alive. “We take part in the joy of our children. It’s not really about us at that point,” she says.
Good vibes were fairly easy to cultivate because the two hadn’t faced undue hardship in their marriage. “We had a fell-out-of-love-and-decided-to-move-on situation,” Lander said. “We both had the same mindset from the get-go, which is that we were going to do this with as much kindness to each other as possible, and that if we did it that way then we would impart some really critical gifts to our kids along the way.”
Still, for all its benefits, the good divorce is a tall order. For exes who are separating under more trying circumstances, hearing about civil divorces such as these can make people feel even crappier about their own less-than-rosy splits.
“The bar is set high,” says Marni Sky, co-founder of Divorce Angels, a new Canadian website that connects people with divorce coaches, lawyers, therapists and others going through marital strife.
Sky says she’s had exes reach out to her who feel pressure to “do amicable.” It seems a year is now the sought-after time frame to have the kids readjusted, and bounce back yourself. “They want to get to the other side with as little pain as possible, move on and get another date,” says Sky, warning, “It might take you longer than that and it’s okay.”
It hasn’t helped that celebrities promptly co-opted the good divorce. Gwyneth Paltrow popularized “conscious uncoupling” after separating from Coldplay singer Chris Martin in 2014. The actress, who peddles aspirational living with her much-maligned website, Goop, was seen by many to be putting more pressure on mere mortals to do their lives better (not only do you have to raise beautiful, oversubscribed children while subsisting on moon-dust smoothies, you have to be friends with your ex now, too).
Other celebs soon joined the friendly fray: After Ben Affleck’s split from Jennifer Garner, we heard about the actors bedding down in adjoining rooms in the family’s Pacific Palisades mansion, before Affleck moved into his own mansion next door this past spring. More recently, court documents revealed that Mad Men’s Anne Dudek was pushing for a bird-nesting arrangement in which she and her ex would rotate through the family home every three days, this to give their two young children stability (“NEW AGE CUSTODY PLAN,” screamed the TMZ headline). Even the Kardashians have gotten on board: “I believe in caring for my partner – past or present – in sickness and in health,” Khloe Kardashian wrote about her separation from former Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom in Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s e-mail newsletter for women.
Although Paris has gotten flak that the good divorce is a utopian idea reserved for celebrities and those with highly angelic exes, she doesn’t buy it: More couples are more open-minded than we might assume, she said, recalling a truck driver who called into a radio show she was hosting to discuss his amicable splits from two ex-wives. “I resist the idea of, ‘You can do this because your husband is reasonable,’ or ‘Gwyneth Paltrow can do this because she has money.’ I just do not see this as a class thing or an education thing or a financial thing,” she said.
That said, whether you are Hollywood royalty or the average Joe, good divorces don’t come without their own set of challenges. The logistics of sharing a home or bird nesting with an ex can be daunting. How do you divvy up the space? What happens with cleaning, groceries or during vacations and dates? With such unconventional living setups, rules “are not legally enforceable, so it all has to be an honour system,” says Micheline Maes, a senior negotiator at Calgary’s Fairway Divorce Solutions, which specializes in mediation. Maes will often draw up “lifestyle agreements” to avoid potential conflict or misunderstanding.
A more complicated issue is co-dependence: If you remain too close to an ex, do you really move on emotionally? Paris hears this criticism a lot. Her retort? “It’s funny, because couples who hate each other after divorce aren’t moving on emotionally either.” Still, the author acknowledges the downsides of remaining too enmeshed with a good ex: “You don’t have someone to sleep with and you don’t have a residential partner but you’re also not mentally clear enough to meet someone new.”
Then there is the very real risk of reconciliation. Paris’s experts estimate that one-third of people who divorce continue having sex. When this happens, the good divorce suddenly morphs into a “marriage sabbatical,” even though ex-sex often only fans the flames of acrimony again.
Experts agree that the toughest challenge in “splitopias” is when a new girlfriend or boyfriend parachutes in. “Everyone’s getting along great, the kids seem to be okay because you seem to be focused on them and then all of a sudden one partner gets a new partner. Everything breaks loose at that point,” Divorce Angels’s Sky says. This is why she’s heard another term floating around for these good divorces: the honeymoon phase, before reality sets in.
Paris admits she struggles with this one herself; her ex found someone new fairly quickly after the split while she did not. Nevertheless, she stresses, “I would rather a little discomfort or the occasional zing and have my son feel that he has two parents who really care about each other – that he has a family.”
Even here though, critics worry that chummy exes may be setting up false hopes for their children, who may assume their parents are getting back together. It seems good exes have heard it all from the adults in their lives, adults who remain skeptical that divorce can ever be an opportunity and not just a crisis.
“It’s always been complicated,” Max Quijano says about family and friends who have been wary of the super-friendly dynamics between him and his ex-wife. A few months ago an acquaintance of Quijano’s blurted out that it was “a time bomb.” And when Quijano wed his high-school sweetheart in Colombia last year and invited his ex-wife and her parents along, “the Colombians thought we were nuts,” Taylor recalls. “People are like, ‘What are you crazy people doing?’ But most who are mature just give us credit for putting the kids first. It’s all one big, weird, wacky family.”
To avoid upsetting their children – a son who is now 9 and a daughter, 11 – the pair was direct. “We’ve been extremely clear that we are not a couple,” Quijano says. “We are their parents and we love them [but] we date other people and have other lives. We have different futures, together.”
Lander has fended off similar concerns from her own friends. “Sometimes there’s still shock, as if they’re waiting for the ball to drop, that we might falter in this direction. My friends were also worried that the kids might be confused. But they don’t live in our homes and know the conversations that we have with our kids. Everyone’s got a stereotypical view of how families should separate. We don’t subscribe to it at all.”
When Lander posts family photos on social media, she now uses the hashtag #DivorceParadigmShift.
“There can be other ways to do this that are more meaningful for the children and less harmful for the adults,” she says. “I don’t have any fear that I’m doing it wrong. I feel that we’re doing it the best that we know.”
How To: Best practices for a good divorce
Rule No. 1: Don’t have sex with the ex. Splitopia author Wendy Paris also warns against talking about dating. If you have children, limit your conversations to parenting. And if you feel yourself getting nostalgic, remember the bad times. “Re-volumize” yourself: Make lots of plans with your own social circle. For those temporarily living with an ex, setting timelines is helpful, says Micheline Maes, a senior negotiator at Calgary’s Fairway Divorce Solutions: “What are you doing to really uncouple? How long is this going to last?”
For exes who are bird nesting or temporarily sharing a family home, Maes proposes drawing up “lifestyle agreements” to avoid fights. Some exes include “review periods” to discuss “trigger events” – say, an ex who lives in the basement waltzing up to the main floor without permission just to “chat.” With bird nesting, basic respect is also key: “If you can afford to have a cleaner come in on the day that you’re transitioning out of the house, that’s a great way to resolve some conflict,” says Amanda Walker, a partner at Halifax’s MDW Law, which specializes in collaborative family law.
New arrivals, part 1
Even the friendliest of exes should foresee that they will need privacy once one or both parties start dating again. If you’re still living together, this gets especially tricky. Here, Maes inquires about logistics: Is there a separate entrance? Do you let each other know that someone is coming over? Are there off-limits days when kids are home?
New arrivals, part 2
If you’re on great terms with your ex, how does your new partner fit into the equation? “It’s already tricky when your partner has his own children who he’s very attached to,” says Lisa MacMartin, a Montreal couples and family therapist. “When there’s another adult – his ex-wife – in there as well, it’s not easy.” MacMartin suggests that exes and new partners establish their own relationship to help weather feelings of threat or insecurity.
Kids see everything
“Children hang onto their reconciliation fantasies, usually until one of the parents finds another partner. That’s usually the big smack in the face for the child,” MacMartin warns. “I encourage parents to keep the dialogue going and be ready for some kind of regressive behaviour or outbursts from your child when someone finds a new partner.”
- Zosia Bielski