A few months ago I was part of a beautiful moment at the San Diego Superior Courthouse. Paula and I had gone to fill out paperwork, and in the waiting room we leaned on each other, shared stories and laughed together. I massaged her shoulders and she scratched my back.
That all happened while we filled out paperwork for our divorce.
To me, that moment was precious. We were officially ending our marriage while actively loving each other.
We remarked at how odd it would be if people around us knew why we were there. What would they think? Would they even believe us?
We certainly aren’t the first couple to have an amicable divorce. However, it felt nice to know that while we may have chosen to not be life-partners, we could still love and support each other.
Recently, a few people have asked me how we did it.
What was the key to your divorce being so peaceful?
How do you and Paula still get along so well?
Of course Paula and I aren’t perfect, nor did we claim to be. We have plenty of not-so-beautiful moments, and the break up process was full of emotions, separation and tears for both of us.
That being said, maybe there’s something we did that’s worth repeating — after all, wouldn’t it be nice if every couple could cuddle together while filing for divorce? What would be the impact on the children of divorced parents if they didn’t hate each other? Surely there is some wisdom to pass on.
The answer is complicated.
On one hand I’d love to offer something useful on how to break up peacefully. But on the other hand — I think it’s hopeless.
The reason is that our divorce was just a reflection of our relationship. Nothing changed when we broke up.
You Die The Way You Live
Fran Moreland Johns, the author of the book Dying Unafraid said, “You’re going to die the way you live.” I believe that’s true for relationships as well.
If your relationship was characterized by avoidance and unspoken feelings, your break up will be as well. If your relationship was characterized by passion and fighting, your break up will be just that.
By the time you consider breaking up, it’s too late to make any significant changes. You have to play the cards in your hand.
I’m seeing this now with a lot of couples around my parent’s age. Some of them are going through tough break ups, and it’s because all the things they’ve been sweeping under the rug for twenty or thirty years are coming back to haunt them.
All relationship problems we run from will eventually catch up to us.
Maybe if there is any lesson in peaceful divorces, it’s that investing in your relationship is worth it. While it may seem tedious and unnecessary at times, it’s important to constantly clean out your relationship closet for anything unspoken.
What I’m Not Telling You
Paula and I used to play what we call “communication games”. One game we played was simply called “what I’m not telling you” or “what I’m avoiding/hiding”. It was really simple — we sat across from each other — took a few deep breaths and took turns sharing sentences that began with “what I’m not telling you” while the other person just listened.
Even though we saw ourselves as an honest and transparent couple, it was amazing some of the things that would come out when we played this game. Time after time, we would uncover something that was scary to share, but ended up being a huge relief after.
It’s incredible to imagine the return on investment that those games provided.
Some couples hold on to resentments for months, or years, and the longer they wait the more explosive and dangerous honesty becomes.
That’s the thing about messy divorces — they uncover all the resentment and hurt that was there already. If we want to avoid that kind of breakdown (and have a healthier relationship in the process) we have to lay the foundation for it from day one.
No Relationship is Beyond Saving
Even in the circumstances where a couple goes through a messy break up, I still think it’s worth putting in the effort to find peace between each other.
Often a significant waiting period is needed, but after that, doing the work to clear what’s between you will ultimately pay off in the long run. I’ve said before that once someone enters my heart, they always have a parking space, but that can also apply to people I hold resentment toward. To the extent I resent them, they own me.
It’s not worth my mental sanity to hold resentment for people, especially people I’ve been in love with. Is it always easy to clean up?
No, but it’s always worth it.