Today begins a new series with author Judy Osborne. As a marriage and family therapist, Judy has seen many former partners effectively reinvent themselves, expanding and reclaiming the family circle as kin. She’s seen them successfully navigate family life post-divorce, breaking societal norms of how divorced partners are supposed to behave. Her book, Wisdom for Separated Parents is a collection of stories from extensive interviews. Judy believes that few of us likes to be told what to do but through these stories, readers will begin to sense possibilities and find the path that is right for them.
Most of my interviews have been with people whose divorce is fairly recent and most of us have found that time does change our perspective. Judy’s own divorce was in 1975 when her two children were aged five and three and so she can add a very different dimension to the conversation. Let’s start with Judy talking about why she wrote the book. Here’s Judy:
The picture we all get of divorce is the angry, hostile one and that’s what I am trying to change. I intentionally want to try to change this mislanguage of broken and ex’s. I know that it’s deeply embedded in our culture, but hopefully we can think about it in a new way, this untangling an adult relationship and rearranging the family seems to be much more useful and accurate for what people really do.
I think the journalists add to the misconception. Not to be too critical, but it is a quick-paced industry and you pick up on the drama and the drama is in the first few years. Even the drama of the celebrity stuff seems to go away. Mick Jagger and Bianca have a nice relationship now and with their children and they fought. I was curious to see that in the Schwarzenegger-Shriver announcement of their divorce, it not only included that their relationship was breaking but that they intended to stay connected with their children. I think the Gores’ press release included that. Those are all good models of which we need to be reminded. Adults can have problems but if they’ve chosen to be parents, that’s still there.
This is a book of interviews with the adults, so they’re talking about divorce and what it means to them. One woman that I quote in the book who was twenty-five said she was kind of ashamed in some way that her parents had a good relationship because of this societal expectation that they should be angry with each other. She didn’t quite know what to do.
I know one woman, she’s a same-sex partner and they just had a marriage here in Boston and both her parents came to the marriage. The parents hadn’t spoken to each other for forty years. She said she was terrified about their coming because she knew how angry they were or had been about each other. She was blown away by the fact that they sat at the same table and chatted with each other. She said they fought the next day, but she was so happy that on her wedding day, what she watched was that.
One of my own friends said to me,
“You mean you’re talking to him again? I went through hell with you trying to understand how angry you were with him.”
It’s not just the kids, but friends can find it quite disconcerting too. I think it’s all in the overarching notion that we’re not supposed to change, we’re supposed to stay the way we were. Yet, parents can be respectful. What they have as goals is to remember that they’re connected forever and that they can create that space between them and that everything will change.
I’m not sure there’s a magic formula for handling that change. I think there are models and in my experience, I have learned mostly by other peoples’ stories. I have learned constantly in my work from other peoples’ stories. I learned when I was going through this from other peoples’ stories. I think stories are the things that teach us and that is why I wanted to collect stories, not a how-to book. People asked me to write a how-to book, but I don’t think there is a how-to. I think there are stories that you can learn from.
The Divorce Coach Says
I’m with Judy on stories. How-to books tend to lay it all out, step-by-step, giving the impression that that’s the path to be followed and in that order. That definitely works for some things that follow a more defined path but with something as individualistic as divorce, they can be discouraging when they don’t quite fit your circumstance. Stories on the other hand, are just that and I think you approach them with a different mindset. You almost don’t expect to find a story identical to yours but you can glean parts from lots of different stories to come up with your own. The other thing about stories is that they leave you free to write your own ending and that I find very empowering.
I know that some of you may read this and think that there is no way you have any interest in cultivating a post-divorce relationship with your ex. I remember thinking the same thing too. When my ex and I were in the process of separating, I agreed to meet with him and his therapist. I recall sitting there listening to his therapist talk about how he and his second wife go skiing with his former wife and her new partner. I was thinking that was not what I wanted, at all. All I wanted then was for us to live apart, (for me, our marriage was already over) and to figure out how to co-parent civilly. I was not interested in sharing a Thanksgiving feast or gift exchange at Christmas and I certainly didn’t see myself spending my leisure time with him.
Now it’s four years later and next week my daughter will be going to college. Originally, I’d planned to help her get settled with all her stuff in her dorm room and leave. Then I got the new parent welcome letter from the college. The last paragraph was directed at me. It cautioned parents of local students against leaving as I had planned and encouraged us to stay and join the family picnic in the evening otherwise our student would be on his/her own surrounded by out-of-state students and their families. Not exactly how I want to picture my daughter at college. So now, it’s a family affair. I’ve enlisted my son to come and help move in and then my ex will join us in the evening after he’s finished work. It’s all new territory for us and I didn’t see this coming when I was sitting in that therapist’s office.
Coming next, Judy talks some more about the idea that the end of a marriage comes as a result of a series of separations.
Photo Credit: Emerson College Flickr