I wish there was a river I could skate away on …
Yep, that old Joni Mitchell song was the very first Christmas tune that I heard this holiday season and I can’t tell you how many times that line ran through my head over the following weeks.
My goal for the holiday season this year was to be like a stone skipping across the water. I wanted to be aerodynamic — get as far as I could before I hit the water. And after I hit, I wanted to pop right back up and cover as much distance as possible before I hit again. So I stayed really, really busy. I did hit the water a bunch of times — mostly around Thanksgiving — but after that first bump it got a little easier.
So now that the holidays are safely over and tucked into my “2010” file folder, I can write about them. And I learned a lot about divorce and co-parenting (what a tidy little term for all of this) and I want to share some of it. We’re only a few days in to 2011 and I’m already starting to hear about new divorces, from the people who decided to wait until after the holidays to share the news (and let me say “Wow” to you folks because I can’t imagine carrying that around through the holiday season).
I could sit here and list the sad moments for you but what’s the point of trotting all of that out? Instead, I’d like to paint another picture: Christmas morning. The single-momma townhouse. Kids playing happily with their new toys. Me shuffling around picking up papers with a coffee cup in my hand. Tom at my stove making eggs for us. I go over, give him a high-five and say, “Look at us. We’re doing it.”
So Tom stayed over on Christmas Eve night — on the couch — and we all did the Christmas morning thing together. Was it all warm and Hallmark-ish? No. It was a little awkward at some points. Will we do this again next year and every year after that? Who knows. But for this year, six or so months out from The Split, I think it was pretty good.
And let me paint another picture: Tom came over at the last minute the other day to watch the kids so I could go to the doctor. As I was grabbing my stuff to walk out the door, he was telling me about a wedding he was working at a few days earlier: It was the second marriage for the bride. Her ex-husband was one of the groomsmen and even gave a speech at the reception. “Isn’t that great?” he said.
So here’s the thing: Divorce doesn’t have to be a war. I think we’re all programmed to believe that it has to be ugly and that you have to get all you can before your crappy ex-spouse screws you to the wall. But you can have a different outcome, too.
Here I have to say that I understand that some of you out there have ex-spouses who are CRAZY. As in, certifiably nuts. Let me just say that if that’s the case, you’re dealing with a whole different animal and the things I’m about to say probably aren’t going to work for you. I’ve had a front-row seat to a similar scenario for the last few years and all I can say is that I wish you luck.
When I was going through the decision process about splitting up my marriage, I worked with a life coach (who became a great friend) named Patricia Omoqui. (Check out her Web site at patriciaomoqui.com. I can’t say enough good things about her.) Tom also met with her several times and she even came to our house and acted as a mediator while we were figuring out the terms of our trial separation. Patricia’s take was this: Even though you’re getting divorced, you don’t have to make it the biggest tragedy of your life. You can set each other free in a peaceful way, wishing each other the best. You can be cooperative co-parents and still give your kids a peaceful, stable life.
From reading this blog, you may sometimes get the impression that Tom and I one day decided we’d had enough of being married, so we shook hands and called it a day. I don’t know. Maybe you don’t get that impression. But we went through some really ugly things, like probably every on-the-edge couple does. Those things are between us, but suffice it to say that each of us probably had days where we were sure the other person was an absolutely irrational beast from hell.
So how did we get where we are now? Let me see if I can break this down a bit (here come the bullet points):
1. Get a vision for your divorce. What’s your long-term goal? Is it to endlessly battle over stupid shit like “You were a half an hour late!” or is it to have a cooperative parenting partner to work in tandem to raise happy kids? Pick one. Then base absolutely every interaction with your (ex) spouse on that vision.
2. Talk about it. You know how when you’ve been with someone a very long time and you have that couple’s shorthand to get inside someone’s head? That’s going to go away. It’s probably already on its way out. But if you’re in the early stages, you can probably still get there. Sit down with him or her, look the person in the eye. Say, “I know we’re both hurt and mad right now. But I don’t want to fight with you forever. I want both of us to be happy and I want us to work together to make a great life for our kids. Maybe we can’t be married, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be great co-parents.”
3. Let it go. It’s easier to be angry than sad. It’s easier to vilify and lash out and blame. But after The Final Decision has been made, put away all that stuff that you’ve been fighting about. Yes, all that stuff is still going to make you mad for a while — bitch about it to other people. Just stop fighting about it. If you’re really getting divorced, it means that you probably can’t resolve it anyway. Then look at your partner and say, “I’m sorry it had to come to this and I’m sad about it. But this is where we are. There are many things to figure out so let’s stop fighting and start working together to figure out how we’re going to move forward.”
4. Be the grownup. Take it upon yourself to set the tone. Don’t indulge any bullshit. Refuse to rehash. If an old argument creeps back up, say, “I’m not interested in rehashing anything. The only thing I’m interested in is finding ways to be cooperative co-parents. Going over old business is only going to chip away at our ability to do that. Let’s look forward.”
5. Stuff is just stuff. You’ll get more. Don’t be a dick about who gets what.
6. Put away the contract. Back when I used to work for the circus, we always had contracts between the show and the venue. They were pretty specific, as in how many phone lines the arena was going to provide and who was going to secure permits for stuff, etc. But the thing was, over the years relationships developed and sometimes the venue would throw in extra stuff but there was also, invariably, a few minor things that they stopped doing over time. One promoter I worked with had a great philosophy about all of this. She said, “If you have to pull the contract out, you lose.” Because the fact is, there were probably things that the show let slide, too. That’s how I look at divorce and custody. I try to be human. So does Tom. If I can throw him a bone here and there, I do, with the knowledge that I’m building goodwill and that he will provide the same consideration for me. Life doesn’t conform to contracts. Schedules change. Circumstances changes. Things come up. As long as it’s not constant and completely disruptive to your children, roll with the occasional blips.
7. Money isn’t just money. It’s also security and peace of mind — and that is all stuff that bleeds over into how you parent your children. If you’re up at night, worrying about whether you can pay the bills or whether or not you’re going to get evicted, you’re going to be distracted and probably pretty irritable with your little munchins (at best). If you’re the one paying, do it. It might burn your ass a bit, but it’s part of divorce and you can’t change it. If you don’t do it, keep in mind that you’re torturing your children’s other parent, which in turn is going to affect them and their quality of life if that other parent is just scraping by all the time. (Not talking about Tom here, BTW. But I’ve seen other people lay down on the job with stuff like this. “I’m unemployed so I can’t pay …” Oh, then why are you driving a new car?)
8. Say goodbye to the gravy train. Unless you have a lot of money already, expect to feel a financial pinch. Are you going to be able to continue to live in the manner you’re accustomed to? Probably not. It costs more to run two households than it does to run one. Budget carefully. Get some real numbers to work with so you know what you need before you sit down to talk turkey with the ex.
9. Shut up. Tom and I have a strict rule that we don’t talk about our financial agreement with anyone else. Why? Because people will inevitably start saying that one of you should be asking for more and one of you should be paying less. If you have something that you feel is pretty fair, don’t monkey with it. But understand, once again, that circumstances change. Unexpected things come up. Be human about this. Be fair.
10. Tune out the peanut gallery. Another circus analogy: There was a horrific tiger attack (that I didn’t witness) while I worked for the circus. One of the tiger handlers later told me that when the first tiger took out the trainer, several others lunged too as soon as the guy was down. This happens in divorce, too. In the past seven months, there have a been a couple of instances where people around us have smelled blood and tried to jump in and get a piece of the gory action — not family or friends, thank God, but people on the periphery of our lives who have tried to start trouble. I don’t know what the impulse was to make these people do this. It shocked me every time. And you know what? These instances could’ve made things pretty ugly if we let them. The first time this happened, much to Tom’s credit, he talked to me about the situation and we sent the (effing crazy) person who apparently stalks this blog a note saying that we didn’t wish to have any contact with her and we signed it “Trish and Tom Johnston.” There will be people who will view your divorce as a spectator sport. They’ll want to stir things up. Don’t indulge them. Remember that vision from point #1? Pull that out and think about that. Even if someone says something that really ticks you off, let it go.
So that’s where I sit right now. In the grand scheme of things, this is still pretty new but I think we’re off to a good start. It’s not always easy. It’s been a conscious choice on both of our parts to do all of this, but I’m really, really proud of us. I hope I can always say that.
Best of luck to all my newly-single readers. It’s a tough road but you’ll be OK. Hugs from me.