Consciously uncoupling is possible: choose your battles, build a support network and learn to play the long game
It’s not always infidelity that leads a couple to split – sometimes a marriage simply runs out of steam and both sides are better off apart. But when that happens, is it really possible to part amicably?
It’s been five years since my marriage broke down but, since Kristian and I separated, we have been on family holidays together, shared dinners, spent every Christmas with one another and even been out to a gig while my new partner babysat.
It was hard to disentangle our lives when we had three kids, a house, friends, family, debts, savings, personal possessions, plus 10 years of shared memories, but we did it and remained friends. How was that possible?
The secret was that those five years of untangling our lives weren’t just about the nuts and bolts of separation and divorce – they were about building up a new friendship, too. It may seem extreme to talk about friendship in the same breath as divorce but, while it wasn’t easy, by remaining friends, life is now so much better for all of us.
Here are my five lessons for consciously uncoupling in the real world.
1 Understand that marriage breakdown impacts on everyone – yes, even your ex
The first night after telling the children that their father I were splitting up, I lay awake in bed with all three of them curled around me asking endless questions: “What is happening?” “Why don’t you love each other?” “Do you still love me?” “Where will Daddy live?” “Why does it hurt so much?”
I stared out into the darkness, praying for sleep. But I also thought of Kristian, alone in a different bed in another part of the house. He didn’t have the comfort of the children, yet he was fighting his own demons. It was an important step for me to take. It wasn’t just me and the children suffering – Kristian was, too. We were in this together, even if we were parting.
Our new living arrangements meant that I had the children most of the time. As the months went on, Kristian admitted that he understood the impact this had on me. He knew it wasn’t easy. Just hearing him say it eased the burden and any resentment that may have built up.
Never lose sight of the fact that the breakdown of a marriage affects everyone involved – not just you. It’s the key to having the compassion to get through it together.
2 Gather a positive support network
Support was vital in the early stages, and we were both lucky to have family who picked us up and carried us. Once the mantra of “I’m fine” was dispensed with, and we accepted the offers of help, our support network became a hugely positive influence on how the breakup manifested itself.
My sisters would check in on Kristian regularly, and his parents would message to see how I was getting on. There was neither blame nor accusations from either side, and everyone was prepared to help us and the children through the most difficult times.
I have spoken to others who have been through separation or divorce, many of whom said those closest to them wanted to show support by pointing fingers. That kind of behaviour makes the vital task of building a good relationship with your former partner much more difficult. Make it clear that you aren’t looking to play the blame game and that it’s far better for everyone if other voices are supportive but balanced. If they are unable to do that, gently ask them to take a step back until you are in a more stable place.
3 Always aim for the middle
Think about which aspects you want lawyers to be involved in. Although we took advantage of a free mediation service run by the Legal Aid Board (we live in Ireland, but there will be a service wherever you live), we did a lot of the early negotiating ourselves: living arrangements, care of the children, who got the coveted CD collection. This kept legal costs and interference down. We both knew that if lawyers got involved in the early negotiations it would not only become expensive, but probably more contentious, too. Legal representatives will usually fight for their client’s right to as much as possible – that is, after all, what you are paying them for. But we didn’t want to fight. We wanted what was fair.
Our starting point was that we wanted the children to be happy and we wanted each other to be happy; we tried to make decisions based on these factors. The only thing that always seemed to throw us off track was money.
I would wake frequently at night, numbers swirling around my head – the moving bills, the double rent, the extra light, heat, car and petrol costs that would need to be paid for out of a very limited and stagnant pool of money. No matter which way I spun them, the numbers never balanced out.
Kristian and I discussed what we could do to improve our financial situation. He offered to take the kids for another night during the week so I could take on extra work. We negotiated until we reached a mid-point agreement that neither of us was entirely happy with. In hindsight, this was probably a good indication that it was pretty fair.
Try to work out what you absolutely need legal advice on and what you can sort out between yourselves. If you get 80% of an agreement in place together, it will be a lot less stressful and expensive to get the remaining 20% finalised with legal assistance.
4 Play the long game
The early months of separation are often when things go awry. With so much fear and uncertainty, it’s like a game of Hungry Hippos, with each of you blindly grabbing as much as you can, as quickly as you can, afraid to lose out on anything, whether you want it or not.
When people ask me for advice, I tell them what I was told by others: “Play the long game.” Don’t look for the small wins that will make this day, or this week, or even this year easier. Look at the long-term goal. What’s important to you?
For us, it was our relationship and our children’s happiness. We placed a good relationship between ourselves above long-term financial security. For me, fighting for extra child maintenance each month at the expense of Kristian’s living arrangements didn’t seem like a solid long-term plan. I might have gained an extra bedroom, but for a lifetime of animosity it was never going to be worth it. In turn, Kristian placed being close to the children above his desire to run home to friends and family.
Choose your battles. Don’t fight for what you can get or what you have been told to expect – work out what you really want and how it will affect the relationship with your ex-partner for the next 20 years.
5 Write, don’t speak
Things didn’t always run smoothly, of course. There were arguments and fallouts, and some moments when I thought the wheels had entirely fallen off. In the most difficult times we often communicated best by email. It allowed us to consider what we wanted to say and then let the other person digest the words in their own time. During one particularly fraught discussion about money, Kristian sent me an email that was so beautifully written and so perfectly timed that I could say it saved our entire breakup.
Here’s a part of it: “I would like to believe we have the trust, integrity and maturity to deal with this in the right manner. I know you. I know you are not manipulative, nor selfish, nor deceitful. Our kids are a beautiful testament to both of us being honest, loving, loyal and all round beautiful people! I want us to remain great friends, not because of our kids, but because of all the great experiences we have encountered together and the growth through them.”
That email contained all the lessons any couple need for a good divorce: honesty, explanation, compassion and compromise.