How to get divorced without hating your ex or tearing your family apart

Wendy Paris and her ex-husband David have been divorced for seven years. In that time, they’ve both moved from New York to Los Angeles, but have never lived more than three blocks from one another. They still host parties together. For years they walked their son, Alexander, who’s now 11, to elementary school together every morning. David still comes over several times a week to make breakfast, and the three of them generally spend Sundays together.

Staying so close to an ex, physically and emotionally, might not work for everyone – and Paris admits that at times it is difficult. But she likes that Alexander can easily run back and forth between his parents’ homes. “It’s sort of like a stretched-out house with several blocks in between us,” says Paris, author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.

“I have been largely staying this close because I’m not comfortable with my son having a parent I’m estranged from,” she says, adding that people often think a divorce means the parents don’t trust each other. “That means your child is at someone else’s house and you’re not part of it, and I think it’s alienating and scary.” So Paris and her ex devised another model that works for them.

As Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos prepare for their own split, we spoke to divorce lawyers, a divorce coach and regular people who’ve been through it about how to divorce without tearing your family apart. (Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Every relationship is different, of course. But whether the details of your relationship are played out in the media or the carpool line, here are some principles to keep in mind.

Divorce can still involve compassion.

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos agreed a record-breaking divorce settlement of at least $35bn (AFP/Getty)
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos agreed a record-breaking divorce settlement of at least $35bn (AFP/Getty)

When Nicole Sodoma, the founder of Sodoma Law in Charlotte, read the Bezoses’ divorce announcement, one phrase stuck out: After a period of “loving exploration and trial separation”, the couple decided to split. The use of the word “loving” in a divorce announcement seems like “an attempt to find compassion in the separation process,” Sodoma says.

“The people we marry are not the people we divorce, because people change,” Sodoma adds. And we don’t often grow at the same pace. During a divorce, it helps to acknowledge that, Sodoma says. Even if a couple is “no longer intact, they can still have an opportunity to focus on the things that count”, she adds, such as respecting one another and keeping things stable for their children.

Do not expect to get emotional closure. “People go into divorce hoping they’ll get some emotional justice,” says Kiri Maponya, a certified divorce coach in Westchester County, New York, but that rarely happens through legal proceedings. “Divorce is a process of transition, it’s going to create upheaval in us,” Maponya says, adding that it’s important to be able to regulate your emotions and understand our own triggers. Allowing anger, grief, betrayal, sadness to distract from the business of divorce can prolongs the process, she says, costing you more emotionally and financially.

Get the kid stuff settled and then delve into the financial decisions.

Caroline Krauss-Browne, an attorney in the matrimonial and family law department of Blank Rome, advises getting children-related issues – such as who’s getting legal and physical custody – resolved as quickly as possible.

“I don’t like the idea of holding children hostage to money,” Krauss-Browne says. “Your kids are the things you love more than words can describe.” If both parents know when they’re going to see their kids and that they’re going to have a voice in their lives, it makes the money stuff easier to deal with, she says.

Legal custody covers who will makes the major decisions regarding medical care, education and religion; and physical (or residential) custody covers where the children will stay, when. A parent can have sole, primary or joint (50-50) physical custody. The children’s schedules “can change as children get older and mature”, Krauss-Browne adds.

Avoid going to court.

Settling a divorce between both sides’ lawyers – what’s called an “amicable divorce” – costs a lot less than litigation. And it can be more personalised. “Judges divide with a meat cleaver and lawyers divide with a scalpel,” Krauss-Browne says. Settling might involve bringing in neutral appraisers to assess the value of property and businesses before coming up with a fair way to divide assets. What’s fair isn’t always 50-50, Krauss-Browne says, noting that if you were to get 25 to 33 per cent of your spouse’s business interest, “you’ve done very well for yourself”.

If both parties and their lawyers are having trouble coming to an agreement on their own, there two options to avoid litigation: mediation or arbitration. Both involve a neutral third party. A mediator, for instance, can help both spouses and their lawyers come to a decision but can’t render a decision themselves. “No one’s ever really happy because successful mediation means that everyone compromises,” Sodoma says. Arbitration, by contrast, is a court proceeding (though not in a courtroom), and the arbitrator can make decisions for the divorcing couple.

Resist the urge to speak ill of your ex in front of your children.

Early on in Vicki Larson’s divorce from her husband Fred, she remembers saying something negative about her ex in front of her sons. The younger one spoke up, saying: “Don’t ever talk that way about Dad.” That resonated with Larson, co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. So she stopped calling Fred her “ex” in front of her sons; after all, he’s not their “ex-father.” From then on, Larson says she made an effort to refer to him as “your dad” or simply “Dad”.

Don’t let others influence your opinion of your ex – or your situation.

Paris cautions couples not to let their friends or lawyers make them feel more suspicious or less trusting of their ex. “Base your relationship on your knowledge of this person,” she notes, not someone else’s.

When couples who have kids divorce, Larson notes, “there’s still that stigma of a ‘broken home’.” But she thinks of it differently: “What happens now is the children have two homes, and they’re still a family.” When her sons were young, she and her ex-husband celebrated holidays and their children’s birthdays together. They’d both show up to their kids’ baseball games.

That has also meant setting boundaries. “Whenever they had a problem at Dad’s house, I would say: ‘I can’t fix that for you. But tell your dad how you’re feeling about it’.”

If you stay very close, your ex remains a member of your family.

Since Paris is still close with her ex-husband, “he allows me to not feel totally alone”, she says, “and he has a sense of responsibility for me, too”. For example, when they came to the end of their four-year agreement on child support, he decided to keep paying it a little longer.

The problems Paris always had with her husband didn’t magically disappear – she just doesn’t take them as personally. “I have a more objective view of some of the differences that made it difficult to be married,” she says, which means “I can have more empathy for things that used to drive me crazy.”

“We’ve been able to laugh at some of the areas that were frictions before,” she says.

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