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My 20 Percent Husband

After getting divorced,  a woman discovers an unprecedented level of happiness with her former spouse.

Untying the Knot: Wendy Paris craved more from marriage than what she got. Photo courtesy of Wendy Paris

It’s Saturday night and I’m sitting on the couch, sipping wine from a champagne flute. I’ve just thrown myself a birthday party, and the guests have all left. My 7-year-old son, who was allowed to stay up late for the occasion, is sprawled across my lap, asleep in his orange dump-truck pajamas. His father is in the dining nook stretching plastic wrap over the leftover hummus. “Rule number one of party cleanup: Consolidate all the mess in the kitchen,” he says to me.

This is a familiar kind of tip from the man I married. He’s orderly and disciplined. Hardworking and efficient. He has a calm, even disposition. I appreciate these good qualities now that we’re divorced.

People often think of marriage and divorce as opposite ends of a relationship spectrum: black versus white, love versus hate. We’ve certainly all witnessed vicious splits that justify that conception—the escalation of anger, the ongoing acrimony, the bizarre breakup-onset psychosis that can seem to seize our formerly reasonable friends.

However, almost from the moment we acknowledged that our nearly 8-year marriage should not continue, my husband and I had a different idea of what we wanted out of our divorce. We didn’t want an end to all interaction, till death do us stay apart. We had a child together, and we didn’t hate each other. We had a vision that our relationship could somehow morph into something different, less intense. We wanted to ratchet back our expectations and, we hoped, get along better by looking for less.

Three and a half years after breaking up, we’ve largely achieved this aim. But I’ve also wound up with something I hadn’t quite anticipated—a relationship that doesn’t really fit any old-style divorce template. My ex has basically come to feel like a 20 percent husband, fulfilling about a fifth of what I’d hoped for in a spouse.

Most mornings, he comes over to make breakfast for our son and walk him to school. On Sundays, we go hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains as a family. He drives me to the airport when I’m heading out of town. He occasionally takes out my trash. And I, in turn, am a kind of 20 percent wife. I pick up items at the store that I know he needs for his apartment: coffee cups, a broom, a dustpan. I forward articles I think he’d like. I visit his family members, whom I still consider my relatives.

Our son, who doesn’t remember a time when we all lived together, has a stable routine that involves time with each of us separately as well as time with us together. He says that having parents in separate houses feels normal. Of course, this is no one’s ideal for a child, but he’s as happy and well adjusted as any 7-year-old boy, and I feel much better with his having divorced parents who get along, rather than married ones bowed under by mutual resentment.

Our closeness in divorce is not as unusual as you may think. My downstairs neighbor has her own “20 percent husband” who lives a few blocks away and takes care of their daughter at her place after school; they all spent a few days together in San Diego last summer. Not long ago, I went on a date with a guy who told me he often makes dinner for his ex-wife and their daughter. I know another former couple who’ve continued to successfully manage their family business after their split. I’ve spoken to divorced couples around the country who work together, celebrate holidays together, even vacation together, in relationships that bear some semblance to what a happy marriage would look like—except they’re no longer married.

Obviously, plenty of people have had amicable divorces before. Yet our degree of positive involvement seems to be sort of a new phenomenon due in part to the current culture of coparenting. Today’s hands-on fathers want to remain highly involved in their children’s lives after divorce, which can have former couples remaining far more connected when, say, both want to attend parent-teacher conferences or contribute to building the first snowman of winter. The legal proc­ess itself is also paving the way for kinder splits as alternative dispute-resolution methods—such as mediation and collaborative law—which developed after the passage of no-fault divorce law, help dissolving couples work together rather than against each other. Many exes also bring the benefits of therapy to their postmarried life, with divorce counselors helping them learn how to thrive in their new family configuration.

Still, a lot of people express skepticism about my relationship with my ex. “If you get along so well, why didn’t you just stay married?” they ask, as if hiking or having a glass of wine together means that we also could cohabitate and rely on each other as our primary emotional, physical, and domestic support. The intimacy of marriage arouses a longing for deep connection, a desire to be seen and understood, to be loved in a way that erases doubts and salves old wounds. I’d wanted my husband to be deeply involved in the details of my life—to celebrate, commiserate, and care. The gap between our desires for emotional intimacy left me feeling hurt and lonely and him feeling criticized and inadequately loved.

The man I married is a great ex, but a full-on spouse is a very different role. Here are some things my 20 percent husband doesn’t do: He doesn’t rub my back if I’m stressed or toast my personal milestones—he hadn’t remembered it was my birthday and was probably doing the dishes after my party in part because he felt bad. We don’t have candlelight dinners or take romantic trips to Spain. He doesn’t go with me to synagogue, yoga, or art galleries. We don’t have sex. But most important, he doesn’t engage in my emotional concerns, nor do I expect him to.

It isn’t true that any relationship can function well in any form. We all have friends we love but wouldn’t want to live with (let alone get naked with). I often think of those old plastic Fisher-Price figurines. Sure, you could force the fireman into the bus driver’s seat, but that wasn’t where he belonged. People acknowledge the value of some relationships that are time-limited, like having a high school girlfriend or boyfriend. Yet they resist the idea that marriage might also be time-limited, and that if so, it can evolve into something else of worth. We fixate on the framework, but the lived experience of divorced people like me exists on its own terms. The relationship itself is the constant, even though its parameters may change.

“Wouldn’t it be better to just cut the cord?” others ask. “Doesn’t seeing him give you pangs of longing and regret?”

No. Or rather, sometimes. It might be easier if ours had been a passionless marriage, if I’d never found him attractive (and if he hadn’t gotten in the best shape of his life after our split). But I think the type of gut-wrenching emotions others imagine are a feature of unrequited love, not unsuccessful marriage. I have slept with this man, many times. I’ve planned a wedding with him, built a house, had a baby, sold the house at a loss, and grown frustrated enough with him to sleep on the couch. I don’t have fantasies of what might have been.

To Cherish and Protect: The couple’s son, now 7, regards having parents in two homes as normal. Photo courtesy of Wendy Paris

I do have flashes of nostalgia, though, and feel shades of the tenderness we once shared—and that can be uncomfortable. But I think a little discomfort is OK. I’d rather sit with those feelings than manufacture anger to keep my emotions safely immured. We need to accept a bit of ambiguity in our lives if we hope to have meaningful and evolving relationships. The divorced often have to develop a tolerance for the occasional zing—in my case, of attraction and of sadness that the marriage didn’t work. Despite the neat boxes we might wish they fit in, relationships are variegated experiences. They’re messy patchworks of disappointment and connection, irritation and joy.

Of course, like most people, I ultimately do want a full-on, full-time spouse. I had assumed I would meet someone right away and continue on with my life, just with a better partner. But we fall in love so rarely, it turns out. While I feel that my relationship skills have improved after having been through one marriage, that union has also made me less eager to try to make a romance work at any cost. I do hope to find a new partner, and while I’m sure that would alter my dynamic with my ex—another concern onlookers like to raise—I’m confident that he and I would still be there for each other, in sickness or in health.

For now, I’m grateful for the relationship we’ve created, because we’re finally in roles that work. The day after my party, we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Topanga Canyon. Our son was in the back seat with two friends. My ex-husband, behind the wheel as usual, had chosen the hiking trail and where we’d stop for lunch. I’d always admired his decisiveness, but when we were married, I wanted a partner who also would follow my lead sometimes, take an interest in my passions, go along for my ride. Now? I sink into the passenger seat and gaze idly at the ocean spinning out beyond the windshield, relishing the fact that one afternoon a week, I can cede control. With this man as my 20 percent husband, I’m 100 percent happier.

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