The (Un)Friendly Divorce

When marriages fail, divorcing spouses sometimes attempt to remain friends with an estranged partner through and after what is sometimes called “the divorce process. ” The dance of divorce usually begins with the leaver blindsiding the person who is left, and the wreckage of the marriage leaves in its wake the debris of complicated unfinished business, raw guilt feelings about the breakup or even in hope for reconciliation. Some couples try to set aside the pain and suffering, the anger and despair by agreeing to what is called “an amicable” divorce. “We’ve grown apart. No one’s to blame,” they tell the world (or at least their family and friends, who struggle to make sense of the apparent oxymoron, amicable divorce).

“The first stage of the breakdown occurs when one or both spouses realize that they are not getting a need met by the marriage. This is how the erosion of a marriage starts,” says Diana Mercer, who is a divorce mediator and founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services in Los Angeles, California. That “turning,” as she calls it, is the beginning of the end, a road that former lovers cannot walk as friends.

Going into a break-up with the expectation of no friendship, however, can be beneficial because being friendly does not mean being friends. Going into a break-up with the expectation of no friendship clogs the mind because divorce works best as business deal.

According to one lawyer, staying friends with a former spouse in the service of an amicable divorce is a bad idea because healing starts when the relationship naturally dies and frequent contact abrades a wound that must close.

Divorce is the death of that formerly living third person of a marriage – we. In ending the marriage, the spouses create new identities as individuals who must be created to separate the person from the couple.

Because it is death, divorce means the pain and suffering of grief, which requires the empty space of solitude. Staying friends when a true friendship never existed creates an existential fiction.

Remaining cordial with a former spouse can be beneficial for children, but boundaries are often in the best interests of all involved. Taking care of oneself is important following a break-up, and anything besides maintaining a co-parenting relationship with a former spouse can prevent that. The focus following a divorce should be on the person and the children, not the former spouse.

To put it all another way, as one observer puts it, former spouses must stay apart because they have seen each other naked. It’s difficult to bring a relationship back to its normal state after being intimate. Intimate partners always have an image of that person naked, and memories of the trysts triggered by the smell of her skin or perfume, or even by hearing a song. After being entangled in each other’s skin and sharing a moment of sheer ecstasy with one another, is difficult to downshift to “just being friends.”

Much is made of reducing conflict and fighting, and correctly so, but that means the civility associated with business.

According to Lauren Howard, a clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in New York City, the myth of the amicable divorce ameliorates the shame of the failure of the marriage.

“How better to ameliorate our shame of our failure than to posture a divorce as a constructive motion toward benevolence? This is a lie you can’t live with. In amicable divorce, someone is either compromising too much or they’re hiding their animosity. ‘We’ve grown apart. No one’s to blame.’ This is yet another lie. Growth, by virtue of itself, is new and different. It is neither predictable nor certain. You enter into marriage with the knowledge that you will traverse growth and navigate your changes as partners. Growing apart means you have stopped partnering. Someone has let go; lost their edge, and now the two parties are in a free fall…separately. So then, how can it be authentic for them to come to the business of divorce as one; unified and together?” Howard writes.

Amicable divorces — “friendly divorces,” as they are called, when partners “enter the ring of divorce with smiles on their faces and a song in their heart” — can actually make it harder on   family and children, friends and associates. “The divorcing couple wants an amicable divorce for the sake of the family, but they are actually making things harder for their families and confusing their children.” Children, “who are completely baffled by how their lives got turned upside down while their parents seem to be peachy keen,” become confused seeing parents spend frequent time together.

Howard suggests that the friendly divorce mask the hidden hopes of the rejected party “to regain the love of the whistle blower,” but that by not purging him or her from the heart, the victim spouse “may be divorced, you may be unmarried but you are not available. You are just alone.”

“Taking the high road has taken on new stratospheric heights. Everyone is uncomfortable, except for the un-couple who bask in their “superior” amiability. How well children weather divorce has more to do with how their parents manage their conflict than the actual conflict or breakup itself. But it is simplistic to think that that means Mommy and Daddy should be best friends in order to insure the well being of their children. If they’re such good friends, why didn’t they stay married? What is marriage, then, is it not friendship? Is it not love? Is it really just about sleeping together? Because that seems to be the only thing that’s changed in Mommy and Daddy’s relationship,” writes Howard.

“Being best friends is not the answer any more than being arch enemies is. No matter how or why two people come to the divorce table, one thing is for certain. At least one of the two are dissatisfied. And even if they both agree to disagree, in the words of Bob Dylan, “One of us cannot be wrong.” There is a big difference between handling disagreement maturely and pretending there is no disagreement. Divorce does not have to be about hate, but it cannot be about love. Divorce is a business deal that is afflicted and compromised by the emotional instruments of the marriage. It is a beginning and it is an end. But it is not something that two people can accomplish while holding hands any more than it can be accomplished at gunpoint. You can’t be afraid to be angry any more than you can be afraid to be kind. Marriage at its best is about love. Divorce at its best is about business. And while one is a union and one is a dissolution of a union, they are not opposites.”

Not all marriages are worth saving, says the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. “Life is filled with tragedy. Not all marriages can survive, and some marriages are so destructive to health and human dignity that they should be dissolved. Sometimes couples come to therapy when one spouse has made an irrevocable decision to divorce. In other words, there are times when every experienced marriage therapist knows that the cause has been lost and that the best approach is to help minimize the damage of an inevitable divorce. There are responsible divorces, and therapists can assist in that process. But that does not mean that we hold the view of one prominent therapist who says, ‘The good marriage, the good divorce—it matters not.’ Like a surgeon facing a wounded limb, we first want to find a way to save a marriage, even if at first a spouse is demoralized and feels like giving up. A good marriage therapist, in our view, offers hope and works hard to help couples succeed in their marriage, and then accepts their ultimate decision on the future of their relationship.”

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