Anna Thomas, a doctoral student in Clinical-Community Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a registered nurse, shares her experience of "divorcing differently," shedding some light what may be a common but unheard reality for many couples:
I’m sitting on the floor at Barnes and Noble, trying desperately to find the right book to talk to our children about the upcoming changes in our family. Nothing fits. What I see are books that detail a common experience. It's an experience that breaks my heart. But it’s not us. It’s not our experience.
My husband and I are divorcing, but we are divorcing differently.
Redefining "Divorce" in Our Own Terms
I won’t ever forget the day we filed our paperwork. We walked into the courthouse, and Cris—my soon-to-be ex-husband, and my very best friend in the whole world—smiled his most mischievous grin, handed the clerk a large stack of papers and said, “We’ll take one divorce, please!”
We made her laugh that day in a way that made my heart happy. We made ourselves laugh, too. Afterward, we went out together, grabbed some lunch, and went to the movies.
Because that’s how we are.
Other scenes flash through my mind, moments I won’t ever forget:
My husband and I are divorcing, but we are still best friends. We may have different bedrooms now, but we still share the same house. We parent as a team. We spend time together alone, just the two of us, because we simply love to. While we won’t be married anymore, we are still wholly a family, whatever the paperwork may suggest to the world outside
Fighting for the Relationship, Not the Marriage
How did this happen?
We chose to focus on saving our relationship and our family, not our marriage. So often, we ride our relationships to death. We see something that signals the need for a change, but the reality is not what we wanted, dreamed, or planned. So we deny its existence. We don’t want to face it; maybe, we think, if we deny the issues, they will disappear. And the longer we wait, the more we ignore the things that demand our attention. When we finally do begin to focus, we care more about saving a form of a relationship—a marriage—than the relationship itself. For many people, facing realities and focusing on the relationship will result in a marriage that endures. That’s a beautiful thing. For some, like us, that focus will lead down a different path—and that is beautiful, too.
Before Cris and I went to the courthouse to give final testimony, I spent some time going through our box of wedding memories—letters and journal entries; well wishes from friends and family; little keepsakes. At that moment, a few things were very clear:
I’m not saying it has been easy. Loving each other like this hasn't come cheap. In so many moments, it would have been easier to walk away. This last year has been the hardest of both of our lives. After almost a decade of being together, we determined that the source of our struggles cannot be modified, changed, or fixed. We discovered that we had different sexual orientations: Cris is asexual and I am sexual. That realization hit us like a Mack truck. In some ways, there was relief. In other ways, it was devastating. We began working through what that reality meant, tried the few things we had left to try, and finally discovered that a romantic relationship isn’t the type of relationship we have. And there were nights of tears and angry words, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and pure grief.
Throughout this process, we failed each other. Our fears took over and the resulting wounds were deep. We watched our relationships with others stretch and strain, as people who love us tried to understand what we were doing—and often didn’t agree with the decisions we made. Some of that may have been partly our fault: We didn’t always have the emotional energy to communicate what we were going through. We nodded and smiled when people explained why our plan was impossible. We saw the weird looks and heard, “Well, whatever works for you,” in a tone of mild incredulity tinged with a hint of disgust.
But we’ve also experienced so much love and support from friends and family who dared to keep loving us, even when they didn’t totally understand. We’ve heard the pain in people’s voices when they told us, “Man, I wish my divorce could have been like that.” We saw the sadness in their eyes, and longed for a world where people believed they could divorce differently, too.
Cris and I are different people. And in that difference, we aren’t marriage material. No matter how much we want to be, we just aren’t. That’s tough to accept. But when we did accept that fact, and let each other off the hook for being someone we are not, something amazing happened: We began to learn to love each other for who we are, no matter what that meant for our marriage. As we did that, we began to see our divorce as a victory, not a defeat.
We have begun to see victory in celebrating every member of our family, and embracing fully the reality of our lives. We have started to dare to imagine and build something precious and unique. We’ve found a path forward that we believe God gave us the grace to walk. This grace allows us to continue to support each other, to raise our beautiful daughters together, and to love each other like crazy in a way that actually makes sense for our lives.
Another Way to Soften the Negative Impacts of Divorce
So what are the possibilities when we divorce differently? The benefits for the couple are clear, but what about the impact divorcing differently can have on others—and most importantly, the children involved?
In 2013 researcher Sol Rappaport wanted to understand why divorce affects children negatively. Previous research has shown that 75-80% of children do very well after their parent's divorce, but 20-25% of children have some serious problems. Upon examination, he found that it was not the divorce itself that caused the vast majority of these problems for children, but several of the factors often associated with divorce.
First, the level of conflict between parents played a huge role, as well as how much children were exposed to that conflict or were brought into it by their parents. Children who witnessed and/or were involved in conflicts between their parents suffered. The effects were felt in their relationships with their parents, as well as in their ability to have healthy relationships with others in the future. Rappaport also found that when parents are unable to meet their children’s needs during a divorce due to the process of the divorce itself, and the breakdown of those relationships, children were hurt.
We innately know that children need their parents. Still, parents are often so consumed with their broken primary relationship that they simply lose sight of their children. Mothers stop nurturing or fathers disappear altogether because the breakdown in their relationship with each other has become so painful and extreme.
Adding to these findings was the effect this chaos, loss, and grief had on the mental health of the adults involved. Rappaport noted that parents’ mental health during this period plays a tremendous role in the mental health of their children. When the parents are unhealthy, it becomes impossible for them to create a healthy, stable environment for their children. Finally, the financial impact of the divorce and the children’s own perceptions of the divorce impact how well children come out on the other side.
The great news is that all these factors can be positively affected by divorcing differently.
When we divorce differently, we focus on our relationship instead of on a form of a relationship. The level of conflict changes because you still have something to fight for and to save. That hope allows love to exist even in the midst of change. When we support each other through the process, we have resources available to meet our children’s needs together that we would not otherwise have. We also have the opportunity to approach our lives in a healthier way. At times, the only option for optimal mental health is completely releasing a marital relationship in every way. At other times, however, retaining the relationship you built with a loved one can contribute to your own sense of well-being and stability. This has certainly been true for us. Financial arrangements will be different for every family, but for us, approaching divorce this way was by far the cheapest option: There was no need for lawyers, and because we still live together, our financial situation changed very little.
Parents set the tone in a home. What we believe about the divorce impacts the way our children perceive it. The other day, my daughter and I talked about the divorce while she prepared for school. She said she was glad we still lived together, but she wished we were still married, too. I held her in my arms and told her it was OK to be sad and happy at the same time, and that I often feel that way, too. I reminded her that even though we are different as a family, what makes us different makes us special. As we closed that moment, she felt peaceful, even while she dealt with the hard parts of the reality.
Divorce can turn ugly quickly. For many, it inevitably signifies the end of fighting for each other, and the beginning of a fight against each other. But what if we were able to keep fighting for each other even in the midst of the change? Perhaps there is another way.
Anna Thomas is a Clinical-Community doctoral student and a Registered Nurse. After completing 10 years in the field of nursing, specializing in critical care and community health, she transitioned to the field of mental health in 2013. She completed her first year of doctoral training at the American School of Professional Psychology in Arlington, VA before transferring to the University of Alaska Anchorage in the fall of 2015. Anna specializes in the integration of medical and mental healthcare services, and is passionate about helping to create patient healthcare systems that focus on the whole person. If you would like to reach out to Anna regarding the article and to find some community/support, contact her at: email@example.com.
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