Joan Ullman M.A.

Uncharted Customs


Yearning for a Friendly Divorce

Is This A Myth, Mystique or Mirage?

Posted May 30, 2014

Thanks to my nephew’s pending wedding, divorce was already on my mind when I read that Gwyneth Paltrow and her rock star husband, Chris Martin, were in the process of `consciously uncoupling.’ For several weeks, I’d listened to my sister’s increasingly frantic concern over where to seat the total of nine (including her) multiply-wed parents who would comprise the bridal party at her son’s upcoming wedding. She’d been so focused on this problem that we’d yet to start agonizing over what, until now, had been our main wedding stressor: what each of us planned to wear – and whether we would still fit into it.

“Maybe it would be easier if everyone had been `consciously uncoupled’ like Gwyneth and Chris?”

“What’s that?” my sister asked. Her voice sounded so loud over the phone I nearly dropped it.

“I’ve read that it’s a process to make divorce feel less painful and to foster personal growth.”

“Growth in the children?”

“No,” I said. “Conscious uncoupling’s a way to spur parental growth.”

“That’s hardly my problem,” my sister said. “We’re all pretty friendly. And we're  busy enough -just growing older!  I just can’t figure out the seating.”

Unlike most of my friends, divorce had been part of my life starting decades ago, when it was neither fashionable nor common. My mother had been widowed young, and her 2nd husband – my stepfather, with whom I grew up – was divorced. At the height of the Depression, when the crash had left him nearly destitute, his first wife had left him for another woman. Although census reports show divorce rates tended to climb in this country, decade by decade, in the early thirties, when even upper-class families like my stepfather’s were feeling pinched by the Depression, divorce was still comparatively uncommon. People didn’t have that much money to live comfortably in two separate households during those lean years.

My stepfather’s divorce was not just something of a rarity, however. It was famous, in its way. My sister – who was born after the two got married – and I had grown up hearing that our father and his ex-wife had `the friendliest divorce’ on Chicago’s North Side. This was shorthand for saying their divorce hadn’t required them to divide up their friends; he and my mother, along with his ex-wife and her new husband, (the man for whom she’d left my stepfather), could go on socializing with the same friends that the ex-couple had  partied with in the past.

I was a newlywed myself when I realized that my mother and her husband’s former wife were not necessarily thrilled to be in each other’s presence. But they’d maintained their facade of friendliness for decades, including, or especially, at those dinner parties, which one or the other couple happened to be hosting. It also turned out that my stepfather had settled for one of the least friendly type of arrangements in his divorce when it came to visitation rights with his daughter. Unlike most divorced parents, who got to see their child or children on weekends, school holidays, or vacations, my stepfather had agreed to spend only one such week-long vacation with her a year. He defended this arrangement saying he hadn’t wished to disrupt his daughter’s daily life.  But it robbed him, along with my sister and me, not to mention my mother, of any chance to really get to know her, and it certainly kept her from developing any feeling of real connection to our family.

Following my own drawn out and rancorous split, it took me years before I myself could believe that anything like a friendly divorce was truly possible. Instead for me, divorce—as it may have been for my stepfather—became synonymous with failure, a painful feeling of having failed to achieve a fantasy of `happily ever after.’

Reading of Gwyneth and Chris, I suspected that conscious uncoupling’s current appeal has to do with its promise of helping warring couples dodge their own guilt over the blatant failure divorce puts on display. Gwyneth, for example, when news of her break-up first became known, was said to have wished to have gone on as she’d been, living essentially apart from her husband but with no formal disclosure of their marital difficulties, let alone of their actual separation.

The proponents of conscious uncoupling, Dr. Habib Sadeghi and his wife, Dr. Sherry Sami, cited in the Paltrow-Martin announcement, explain the process somewhat differently. Conscious uncoupling, they say,  offers a way to look inward at whatever needs healing in oneself, so as to bring new `wholeness’ to both parties in the split; this, the experts claim, results not in a coming apart but in a new coming together. If the divorcing couple emerge in this manner, minus their animosity, they’ll be better able to continue their own growth in addition to co-parenting consciously, the therapists say.

Still confused, I asked noted sex therapist, Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, recently dubbed by the New York Times `the new go-to sex therapist,’ for clarification:

“We cannot talk about conscious uncoupling without thinking about conscious coupling,” Perel emailed me. “It says to me two people who are intentional, careful, and sensitive not to destroy and act recklessly. It shows maturity, forethought, and awareness of the children. The rest will show in action.”

I thought of my sister’s current problem. I suspected that even if she, both her exes, and the six other divorced parents who comprised her son's wedding party had all been consciously uncoupled - everyone  of whom had an equally compelling reason to be seated next to the bridal couple - she might still be facing the same logistical problems that she’d been struggling with for weeks.

“Maybe you should start with my system for keeping track of who’s who. It sometimes helps at complex weddings,” I said.

“What do you mean?” my sister asked. Her voice on the phone sounded a note just shy of hysteria.

“Every key bridal party member gets identifying initials. For example, Mother-of-the-Bride is MOB; Mother-of–the-Groom is MOG; Father of the Groom—that’s FOG; Groom’s First- Step-Mother is STEP-MOG #1; Groom’s Current-Step-Mother: CU-STEP-MOG.”

“It sounds like a law firm. “MOB, STEP-FOG and FOG.”

“Or a hedge fund,” I said. But it does simplify the process.  For instance, will you be seating your first Ex, namely your son’s FOG,  at  our table?”

“Too complicated,” my sister said. “Your system is already making my head spin.  Besides, our son and his bride-to-be recently had the brilliant idea of seating both my Exes, and their current wives, at a second parents table. That’s where I thought I would also seat the bride’s `real,’ family—her mother, maternal aunt, and uncle."

 “Who doesl that leave for our table?” I asked.

“I’ve decided that we should sit with my Ex’s 2nd Ex-wife—you know, my son’s first Ex-Stepmother – along with the bride’s father, and his 2nd wife – the bride’s Stepmother.   

I myself am not  among those veterans—as Time has referred to them—of "frequent marriage, frequent divorce." I’m just long divorced, with a happily re-wed ex-spouse. Until his recent death, however, I had enjoyed an un-wed relationship with a long-time partner. Yet I more than empathized with my sister’s plight.

As a seasoned MOB and MOG myself—four times in all—I knew that for the nearly half  those   parents whose initial vows have come asunder, 21st century weddings are not what they used to be.  When I got married in the 1950’s, my ceremony in a lavish Chicago hotel ballroom was partly for show, partly to celebrate the occasion, but mainly to  join our two families, most of whom mightnever have voluntarily socialized.

Today’s weddings serve a different function. Tying the knot and attendant rituals often morph into a form of hypersophisticated war games—a sport in which wedding bells herald not so much “Bride Wars” as `Ex-Brides’ Wars’. In instances like my sister’s, women guests often play a new, strategic role: We’re the team of Special Op Forces on whom today’s mother of the bride (MOB) or mother of the groom (MOG) relies as she steers her way through the ballroom minefield of openly warring coalitions, often within her own family, as well as the one with which her child is becoming allied.  

Such female support systems are particularly crucial when your Ex has remarried, one or more times, and when, in consequence, he may well be surrounded by a tribe of adoring grandchildren, descendants of his series of ex-wives, while you remain a glaringly SINGLE WOMAN, like I was at each of my own four children’s weddings, and like my sister will be at her son’s pending nuptials.

Judging from experience, I can attest that practice never did make perfect. Before my fourth child’s wedding I felt just as touchy about where on the dais I’d be seated as I did before the first of my children’s weddings. From my perch at the far left ( left out) or right ( right field)—an afterthought in every respect but name—I would invariably find myself locked in silent  combat with my ex’s wife— my STEP-WIFE, or, in my preferred  terminology, my WICKED-STEP-WIFE (WSW), as I privately refer to her.

 My feeling of alienation reached its height when my oldest daughter got married in a lavish ceremony hosted by my Ex and my WSW.

“Joanie, your daughter makes such a beautiful bride! I’ve never seen her or any of the children looking so well!”

Recognizing the voice of my high school friend Sarah, I turned. I noticed that she and my WSW   were conversing animatedly. Before I could catch my friend’s eye and answer, however, my WSW said in a voice that carried from one end of the huge, flower-draped dining room to the other: “Yes, isn’t it marvelous! They’re all really thriving these days.”

I told myself that since both women lived in Chicago, whereas I’d been in Manhattan for the last 30-plus years, it wasn’t surprising that they should have become friends. But I couldn’t mask my feeling of anger at feeling myself being elbowed aside—by my Ex’s wife passing  herself off as my children’s real, even better, or legitimate, mother, by all but obliterating me. I imagined wedding guests murmuring her praise. "Hasn’t she done a wonderful job raising these children," I imagined these wedding guests marveling, notwithstanding that by the time she’d wed my Ex, our oldest child was working on his doctorate, and our youngest was poised to enter college.

If not for the presence of my sister and several close women friends, I would have felt more like a wedding crasher than a key wedding party member at each of my own kids’ weddings. I felt no less a misfit even when I was escorted by my longtime partner. At weddings, tradition rules: Only legal couples count.

As blatant failures in the traditional process of marriage counseling, I harbored no illusions that my ex-husband and I would ever have been candidates for conscious uncoupling, when, after 16 years of marriage, we got divorced in the mid-1970s.

Superficially, I didn’t seem all that different from many of my eagerly divorcing women friends in the 1960s and '70s. It was a time when, thanks to the advent of no-fault divorce, divorce rates had roughly doubled from what they’d been in the 50s and early 60s. Back then, I, not my husband, had sought the divorce, just as earlier, I, not my husband, had been the more eager of us to wed. In hindsight, I’ve often wondered if one of the prime pluses that had spurred me to acquire a wedding band had been to free myself from the fear of being seen without a Saturday night date. Thanks to the huge premium my parents had put on their own social life, from my teenage years on, I’d felt no bigger shame than having to admit to being home alone on a Saturday night. The fact that I knew myself to be less than totally smitten with my prematurely balding fiancé mattered less to me than that he was from Chicago like me, thereby offering the promise of  endless dates on vacations from college into a limitless future. 

We might even have made a go of things had he not opted to move back to Chicago, which I’d never wanted to do—and if I also hadn’t, in my 30s, become totally enthralled with a much older married man. I was not only in the wrong, but for close to a decade, when my children were still little, I couldn’t help put the needs of my ailing elderly lover ahead of the needs of my four young children. I not only did this willingly, I did this for a man who, I knew perfectly well, would never, had our situation been reversed, gone anywhere out of his way like that for me. And I’d still been helpless to stop.

When I finally did get divorced, it was after I’d spent years envying friends who had the courage I’d lacked to act much sooner than I did. And both my ex-husband and I were far better suited to the people we ended up with, my ex wed to a woman who worked in public relations like his mother, and I with my long-time artist companion. Still, today, when I realize that none of my children seems to have ever really recovered from the trauma of our divorce—when I watch as they forever readjust to it at different stages of their lives—I’ve begun to wonder if, like our grandparents, we  might have been wiser in making do with bad situations that eventually somehow grew into more than acceptable companionate relationships.

Not long after I met my companion, however, he introduced me to Leo and Allison (not their real names), friends of his, who had what everyone I knew, and I too, once I got to know them, agreed had achieved a genuinely friendly divorce. The parents of three children, they had been wed 25 years when Allison, without warning or explanation, as she recently told me, one day just left. “I was young, I had this affair, my libido just took over my senses and I was gone. Our kids were grown.  But today I wonder, `how did I do this?’ It was not a kind, thoughtful thing on my part. Leo was really a wonderful man,” she said.

A writer and painter, who’d had various high-profile magazine editing jobs before they moved to Long Island where he tried to write, Allison  said that—in contrast to how I felt about my own ex-husband—she’d always liked and respected Leo. Even during the last decade or more of their marriage, when she’d been the sole family breadwinner, going back to school to get her education degree, and working as a kindergarten teacher, Allison recalls that, “even then, it was never a bad relationship. Leo was always respectful and supportive of me. Looking back, I’m amazed that he was able to absorb this, what must have been like a terrible shock. But he never showed any resentment or bitterness towards me.”

Later, after Leo got involved with another woman, Karen, (not her real name), the two women became close friends as well. For years, the three spent holidays together with their children, often with Karen’s son by her ex-husband as well. Eventually, their frequent, extended family celebrations expanded to include their various grandchildren. Sitting alone while my own children and grandchildren vacationed with my ex and WSW during such holidays, I couldn’t have felt more envious.  

Nor was Leo the only person in his family who’d succeeded in creating a rancor-free divorce.  When he turned 70, he hosted a party for his whole family, one that included his two brothers and  their own ex-wives, children and grandchildren.

“How do you explain the total lack of anger you and your brothers seem to have  towards your former wives?” I asked Leo some time later.

“Actually,” he said, “it’s because of my father. He really loved all of our wives. And he hated it when we got divorced from them. My father just didn’t believe in divorce. He thought each of them was a wonderful person. So he always remained friendly with them, and as a result, so did the rest of us.”

“He was really a devoted family man, from the time we met,” Karen told me recently, a few months after Leo died. “Also,” she said, “Leo and I were so great together that I never for a moment was jealous of Allison whenever we were with her.”

I asked Karen and Allison if they’d heard of conscious uncoupling.  They both laughed. “Leo would have thought it a ridiculous idea,” Allison said.

“He didn’t need to define himself with any kind of concept,” Karen said.  “He was just a genuinely loving, family man.”

The literary legend Allison, herself wed some years after her affair ended, also managed to remain on friendly terms with her new husband's own series of ex-wives.

“He was a very charismatic man,” Allison pointed out.  “While he could be hard to live with, he was also very generous. He gave them jobs, helped them stay connected. Although each one divorced him, the ex-wives were always invited, and they always attended any award ceremony in his honor.”

If Allison, Karen, and their two deceased husbands are rare examples when it comes to achieving genuinely friendly divorces, I‘ve learned that they are not unique. Mike, my pediatrician friend, who had a nasty divorce from his first wife, said this same was not the case with his second wife, Dawn (not her real name.) When Dawn’s first husband, also a doctor, and a friend of Mike’s, after years of periodic depression and times when he would abruptly abandon Dawn and their two daughters, finally left for good, she and Mike got married.  But the three remained friendly, Mike says. They still socialized with Dawn’s ex. They invited him and his second wife to dinner, and they stayed friendly even after he eventually walked out on his second wife and her children. It wasn’t until Dawn’s ex-husband announced that he was leaving wife Number Three that Mike and Dawn finally had enough. “We stopped seeing him after that,” Mike told me. “We just had enough of his kind of nasty behavior.”

 Mike knew another couple who’d also succeeded in fashioning a friendly divorce.  A friend of Dawn’s and his had spent  20 years living a kind of double life, much of it, completely unknown to his wife, domiciled with his lover. Finally, his children, aware of the situation like everyone but their mother, blew the whistle.  Even then, Mike said, the wife wasn’t all that angry. Until then, she’d wondered why her husband had been absent so often, even suspected that he might be gay. But on learning the truth, and even after getting divorced, she still didn’t feel all that angry. To this day, the three people, husband, now ex-wife, and mistress-turned-wife continue to spend family events together in seeming harmony, with no apparent show of rancor.

 “Most couples start out thinking they will have an amicable divorce,” says child psychiatrist Alex Weintrob, who frequently testifies before the courts. “And if there are no issues about money or kids, if both people agree, and if each really respects the other, or the husband is willing to be fair, then I think a friendly divorce is possible,” he recently told me. “But many people are disappointed (by the failure of the relationship) which can lead to anger, or if one had an affair and the other felt betrayed. So despite thinking we will have an easy, amicable divorce, it very shortly becomes much less friendly."

Like others I’d asked, Dr. Weintrob had not heard of conscious uncoupling. ”I wouldn’t focus on friendly divorce, but on the least detrimental alternative,” he said. “I try to counsel people to avoid going to trial, because that will lead to the most costly and contentious outcome. But after practicing for almost 50 years I’m pretty humble about how little we really know about what’s good parenting, ideal visitation, etc. We urge people against going to trial or listening to professionals, but I know that most people aren’t going to listen to my advice anyway.”

I suspect that even Dr. Weintrob might think my nephew’s wedding unique, however; it’s my first experience in which every adult member of the wedding party is divorced. There are nine parents who have exchanged a total of—count them—14 "I do’s." None of the original four parents has died.  And no one practices plural marriage like something out of TV or Chassidic tradition.

The soon-to-be newlyweds have their two blood parents—mother and father of the bride and of the groom. But the bride has one extra parent, her stepmother, while the groom boasts four additional parents: a current stepmother, an ex-stepmother, an ex-stepfather, and his ex-stepfather’s current wife, a woman I term an adjunct ex-stepmother.

I realized that my sister is juggling the seating arrangements of about the same number of immediate family members as those in my own bridal party. But back in the day, this meant grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles. My sister’s son and his betrothed are getting married as they near 40, more than a decade older than my ex and I and other brides and grooms in my generation. But as the age of bridal couples has risen, the ranks of grandparents in attendance have thinned, replaced by new cohorts of adults who range downwards in age from about the same as that of the newlyweds’ parents, to roughly that of, or younger, than the bridal couple itself. Unfortunately, it’s a gaggle of grown-ups who can’t be counted on to behave themselves nearly as well as our grandparents did. Just one day after my sister told me about her seating plan, she called again.  Some of the parents had begun to toss hand grenades into her carefully conceived arrangements.

First it was the bride’s father. “He wants to sit with my son’s father,” my sister said, her voice again rising in pitch. “He phoned to say he already knows me, and he thinks I’m great, but this would be his chance to meet and get to know my first ex.”

“Switch the bride’s mother,” I suggested.

“Our table will be the EX-WIVES CLUB! The bride’s divorced Mom, me, you know, the groom’s divorced Mom, and the groom’s divorced Stepmom.”

“And me,” I added unhelpfully. “I’ll compound the look.”     

  The following day I called my sister back. She wasn’t feeling much better.

 “Mom, I want you to try to focus on how you feel about this, not about how it looks,” she quoted her son as saying.

I instantly recognized that maddening tone of calm and reason my own adult children love to affect whenever I find myself on the brink of parental hysteria.

But how it looks is how it feels! And when last I checked, a new problem had arisen, courtesy of the groom’s current stepmother.  

 “The in-thing is for the parents to sit with their friends!” the CU- STEP-MOG informed my sister.  “My husband wants to sit with his friends.”

“My Ex can’t sit with his friends!” my sister shouted. “Some of them are my friends too. Besides, stepparents aren’t supposed to have a say!”

Two days before the wedding, my sister and I were still debating what to wear. She had, however, solved her seating dilemma: She had decided to do forgo the use of place cards at both parent tables. By then, however, a fresh worry loomed. The new man in my sister’s life phoned from Chicago to say his divorce had just become final. My sister will soon be grappling with seating arrangements for the bridal party at her upcoming third wedding.

She and the rest of the family hope the third time will be the charm. Members of her prospective new wedding party are also all divorced, but none is known to have been consciously uncoupled. If there is such a thing as conscious coupling, however, my sister and her husband-to-be definitely plan to look into it.

To date, neither of them has been much of a TV-watcher.  But they might do well to make an exception for Bravo’s pending new series, Untying the Knot, starring  New Jersey mediator Vikki Ziegler, whose specialty is helping couples plan for peaceful post-divorce lives. In the early 21st century, this process may well hold the most promising route yet to  `happily ever after.' And hopefully an end to needing a degree in higher mathematics just to figure out a wedding party’s seating arrangements. I for one am especially happy. It may have taken more than 80 years. But as Esther Perel notes, perhaps with the advent of conscious coupling, friendly divorces may soon become a true realty as well.