You can read more about Jennifer at http://www.jenniferfreed.com/
Divorced. Split up. Broken home. Home wrecked. These are the biting and stigmatizing portrayals (or depictions) of marital dissolution that are too often paired with the exorbitant price tags of bitter legal battles.
This is the negative legacy that we unconsciously pass to our children and reinforce among ourselves. It isn’t just about the challenging change of marital status when that occurs, but the pejorative inferences about that alteration that sting like a hive of wasps whose nest has been rattled.
Perhaps it is time to come out of denial. Many marriages change over time no matter how much we may wish they didn’t. It does not help to consider this emotional loss a social failure or a personal defeat. It does not help to dramatize the familial wound in terms of the prognosis for the emotional recovery for the spouses, children, and the family friends. When couples do not continue on the road of marital compatibility–no matter how much they have worked on it (and even if we think they haven’t worked hard enough)–societal shaming and punishing does not improve our culture or marriage longevity rates.
If we add to the change of a marital status the heavy judgment and burden of verbal demagogy, we stack the decks against a change that could bring about many positives–positives that might outweigh or at least mitigate the sense of loss that often occurs.
What would it be like if we imagined TRANSFORMATION as the step after marital dissolution, instead of failure, defeat, and stigma?
Consciously transforming the end of a romance into a new beginning of friendship–or at least cooperative parenting–is the most mature and responsible act of loyalty and love one could imagine.
We have grown to be sadly complacent with the immature, rude, and regressed behavior of so many spouses who leave each other. We’ve come to normalize side taking of what were mutual friends, as if this is to be expected.
What if we hired “marriage midwives” instead of lawyers to help us instead of paying skyrocketing material and emotional costs to the old tired meme of breaking and failing? What if we actually made vows as a loving community to see couples through good and hard times, and to hold them accountable to transform their relationship if either one of the spouses no longer wanted to be married.
Just about now I can hear some of you screaming, “Are you advocating for people to feel good about splitting up”?
Firstly, we are not atoms or acorn squash and none of us are splitting. Secondly, as a psychotherapist, restorative approaches facilitator, and rabid idealist, I am a huge proponent of committed relationships for life. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we should take the vow of commitment for life more seriously and stop shaming and blaming people to death if their romantic love relationship does not last or work out as initially intended.
Romance is a thoroughly modern invention. As Esther Perel brilliantly points out in her work, Mating in Captivity, people were living much shorter lives when this utopian artifact was invented in the late 17th century. The average mortality rate was just 30-something years old, and therefore most romantic unions only had to last from 10 to 20 years. It is a miracle when romance and love lasts. Lets not make it a failure, or Scarlett letter, when marriage doesn’t.
When you’re eight years old and blindly do whatever your parents ask you to do, you are often subjected to random acts of totally uncomfortable things. For example, when I was little, my mom and I would jump in the car and drive to my Dad’s. She’d then ask me to pick up a check from under my Dad’s front door mat. I wasn’t allowed to knock or make noise, which can be kind of tough when you’re eight. But I did what was asked because that is how I was back then. I got out of the car, tiptoed to my Dad’s door, and looked under the mat. Unfortunately, 99.357 percent of the time the check wasn’t under the mat, which required me to walk to my Mom’s car and tell her, dreading the reaction I’d seen so many times before. Then we’d go back home to call the Dad who didn’t answer the phone. This would go on and so on, and we’d eventually get said check, and I would maybe get a glimpse of Dad.
I want to put a disclaimer here—I am not a sad sack about all of this stuff, and this was healed many moons ago. At this point in my life, I look at it as something that just happened but as something that shouldn’t have, and I want to share it with you for that reason.
Putting our littles in the middle of these big things sucks. It’s a super drag for them that often leaves them with lasting complications in the future. If I were to write a TV show about divorce and kids in the 1970s, it would be very funny in many ways because, sadly, too many people can relate to it. But for everything other than a TV comedy, it would be so much more beneficial if we stopped putting kids in the middle. For everyone’s sake, it’s so much better for parents to take responsibility and recognize that kids are NOT part of the break up and SHOULDN’T be playing an adult role as an errand girl/boy, therapist, or even our friend. Let the kids live a little—chances are their life is a bummer with just the break up to deal with.
So take it from an adult child of a hideous, selfish, ugly divorce. Leave the kids out of it.
Every other Sunday, I waited for the sound of my Dad’s VW camper van to hit my ears. I got all dressed up and stood by the window. I would hear the van about three minutes before I could see it, and my heart would be beating so, so fast. I really missed my Dad. Seeing him every other Sunday just wasn’t enough time, but I wasn’t given much choice in the matter. My parents didn’t speak to each other, and I didn’t speak up.
This wanting and needing more—and not knowing how to make it happen—is one of the driving forces behind my need to share about my divorce when my kids were in the picture. The pain of that 1973 child custody arrangement is still with me. Thankfully, I have had partners that are also interested in what is best for the kids. They have put personal agendas aside and frankly forgiven me.
For me, ceremony played a big role in my healing and in my children’s understanding of what was happening. The skeletons in my closet that became the story of who I am also created this desire to make rituals around everything—including endings. I’ve found that acknowledging the end of something big in a tangible way can make miracles occur for all involved. When the children in our lives see their parents work through the messy stuff with honor and grace, it speaks volumes. I won’t know for sure until they are older, but through this, I believe I help my children find peace with change so they don’t have to the spend years and tons of money as I’ve had to in order to heal from the pain of unspoken needs and wants.
A new trend is developing in the field of visitation schedules with kids called 252. I know a lot about it because I do it with my son Nikolai. It is a bit different than the standard model because I see Nikolai every weekday until about 7 or so. But overall I really don’t like it, and here’s why.
Most custody arrangements are made without including the kids in deciding (especially with littles). Now adults/lawyers/courts have decided the best way to share the children is using the 252 rule—or, as I refer to it, torture. Their father gets our son for two days. Then I get him for two days, and then he gets him for five days. Then I get him for two days, then his father gets him for five days, and then I get him for two days… and on and on.
In theory, it makes the adults feel good because it’s all fairsy. But fairsy is not always fair, and it’s certainly complicated.
In the 1970s and 80s, we were a society that really didn’t value fathers spending time with the kids after divorce. Every other weekend was the norm. Then the pendulum swung to include the Super After-Divorce Dad that did everything. Now we are trying to make a shared plan.
While I agree that kids need stability with both parents and a clear plan in which to do that, they also need simplicity. Sharing equally is super complicated. Asking a child of any age to readjust every few days to a new environment is tough.
I have different plans with each of my kids and their dads. The 252 plan works with Nicolai’s dad, but still seems rougher than the loose plan I have with Ava’s dad. Ava’s father and I do the “kids are with each parent when it works for the parent” plan. This plan requires good communication, loose guidelines of what that looks like overall, and lots of humor and flexibility.
We all have jobs that change, moves that need to happen; travel, sickness, and so on, so why not have what is happening in the real world of our lives dictate what is happening? How can you get to this more humane option? What do you think?
Sometimes we just need a ceremony because further communication with our ex-partner is lame and not good for anyone. I spoke to a really cool young woman just last night that is in the middle of going through the first big break up of her life. She was worried that she was still depressed even though it has been months since the split. She was also in the middle of writing him a letter about how grateful she was for the relationship, which I thought was a crappy idea. I had to ask her: What is the letter really for?
This woman ended the relationship because her ex was verbally abusive and scared her. After one of his big blowups, which involved hours of screaming at her, she decided it was best to end the relationship. What was obvious to me when we talked is that she is bound to the belief that she ended the relationship because the words “Let’s break up” came from her mouth, not his. But really, who ended it? Isn’t it truer that the abusive actions of her partner ended their connection? And why does she live with guilt because she took care of herself?
Taking action to relieve the guilt will really help her let go of the guilt and allow both partners in the relationship to move forward.
Now, about the letter and the motive for writing it: If we feel guilty, it is natural that we seek approval from the person we feel we have harmed. To do that, we may write a letter or look for other signs of approval. In her case, it turns out she is looking for forgiveness and his approval in taking care of herself. In reality, however, if she sends the letter it is basically an open invitation to let the crazy back in. What do we do with this ultimately unhealthy need to write the letter and still continue to live in our integrity?
This is where ritual is really useful. Most specifically, I recommended a fire ritual in this case. I suggested she write the letter to get the words out of her brain, and then burn the letter in a ceremony to let go of the guilt and to let go of the unhealthy relationship.
The aftereffects of the ritual can be subtle or dramatic, but either way it is likely to lift you out of whatever you were stuck in. Be willing to take action when you are in the shitter of any kind, and it will have a dramatic impact on your overall well-being.
Find the directions for fire rituals on our ceremonies page.