It's best for ex-spouses to get along for the sake of their children — and each other, says not only some research on the topic, but common sense. Yet examples of ex-spouses who actually get along seem rare, right?
Not necessarily so, says Judith Ruskay Rabinor, a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist who claims she hopes to reverse this trend and increase the harmony with her latest book, Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids, and, Yes, Your Ex.
Founder and director of the American Eating Disorders Center in New York, the author — who runs divorce support groups in New York — says the inspiration for this book came out of her personal experiences of befriending her own ex, and as a result, successfully co-parenting her now two grown children. To increase the book’s scope, she also interviewed approximately 150 other exes.
“If they were able to be friends, why didn’t they simply stay married?” That’s the common refrain of those against such befriending, Rabinor states in her book. But she Rabinor disputes this, saying that because of the lower expectations, it’s much easier to co-parent than it is to be married to someone.
Interviewees describe pleasant encounters they had with an ex during a Thanksgiving dinner or a child’s graduation, and then add with a sigh of relief: “But I’m so glad I’m not married to this person.”
Research has yet to provide actual numbers, but Rabinor estimates that 30 percent of divorced couples are friends.
Rabinor cautions that befriending won’t happen right away. It’s a process. While some couples part more amicably than others, divorce often ignites feelings of anger, bitterness, failure, hurt, betrayal, guilt and grief. Even spouses who initiate a divorce mourn over the end of a marriage, the end of a dream.
An important component of the befriending process is learning how to live with these feelings, process them and then let them go, Rabinor elaborated in a telephone interview. Otherwise, feelings such as anger may take over a person’s life, and 20 years later, that person is still venting about his or her ex.
It’s also important to protect children from these feelings, which leads to the second component of befriending — “keep in mind the children,” she cautions.
Children adjust better when they have two loving parents who create a non-conflicting environment, she says. So Rabinor advises that if it helps parents to curb their tongues, they should put reminders of “Be Nice,” on their dashboards, refrigerators and bathroom mirrors.
After all, she notes, a marriage may have been lousy, but there are still opportunities to have a civilized divorce.
The third component, she says, is to “take the high road.” Rabinor says that “this practice is actually for the parents, not the children, because “we feel better when we do the right thing. We feel better when we help an elderly person cross the street. You can think of your ex as an elderly person crossing the street and you’re going to feel better if you help this person become a better parent.”
Rabinor describes in her book how to apply these general principles to various specific practices. One practice is the use of rituals, which can be developed to address emotional and spiritual needs when a divorce is legally finalized.
One way to sustain going through the get ceremony, the religious proceeding for a Jewish divorce, is seeking Jewish symbols to address feelings of loss, plus hope for new beginnings, which can be found on the website, ritualwell.org , sponsored by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabinor suggests that co-parents develop new daily rituals so that children feel more stability. After one parent moves out, or the children actually move into another home, the kids’ worlds can be shattered. They need new routines. One could be that every Sunday night when Dad drops them off at Mom’s, before heading home, he comes inside and talks with his ex for a half hour about the passing weekend and upcoming week.
Or better yet, she says, if a family ritual used to be that on a Sunday night the family went out for a deli dinner, maybe after some emotional processing, this ritual, attended by both parents, can resume, too.
While childless and divorced couples with adult children can also benefit from befriending, Rabinor’s focus is on exes with children still living at home. She also recognizes that befriending isn’t possible for everyone. Mean and mentally ill exes can exacerbate a problem, she says, and the best outcome for dealing with these individuals is to have minimal contact.
However, Rabinor adds, based on her studies, “there are fewer of those and more of the divorces with good potential than you can imagine.”