When Divorce Expands a Family

Divorced families are often described as disconnected, diminished and cut off, but last week I met an old friend, Brandy, who reminded me that this stereotype is often unfair and inaccurate. Brandy’s story offers the opposite lesson: that while divorce brings with it many losses, it can expand and enrich a family, sometimes in incredible ways.

Twenty years ago, when Brandy married Joel, his active, energetic two year-old son Brian came to live with them.  One morning, late to work and racing to get out of the house, Brandy burst into tears trying to get Brian’s sneakers tied to get him to daycare.  Working full time and juggling their new domestic lives, she and Joel had quickly moved from the romantic stage of their relationship to “Did-ya-dump-the garbage-and-what-are-we-having -for dinner?” How had her life become so overwhelming?

Just then the phone rang. It was Brandy’s mother, Sheila, who lived three flights up in the same apartment building. When Sheila heard Brandy’s plight, she flew downstairs, arrived at Brandy’s and made short work of Brian’s untied shoes. Sheila promptly fell in love with the adorable toddler.

 

At this time, Brian lived with Brandy and Joel during the week, and spent weekends with his biological mother, Lynn. In those early and painful days of divorce, Lynn and Joel had stopped speaking. Feeling loyal to her new husband, Brandy avoided Lynn as well. Later Brandy would admit to feeling threatened by Joel’s ex wife, a beautiful and bohemian actress. True to stereotype, divorce had disconnected and diminished this family.

Slowly, things changed. For a starter, Sheila, a working playwright, realized Brian needed all the adults in his life to get along—and she could play a crucial role. She offered herself as a “bridge” between Brian’s two families, creating her apartment for  pick-ups and drop-offs. Routine, casual meetings with Brian’s mother allowed Sheila and Lynn to bond; soon  Sheila learned that Lynn, who  had lost her mother at an early age, now felt adrift about mothering. Sheila adored mentoring the young and floundering Lynn, professionally as well as in the mothering department.

When Brandy learned of Lynn’s vulnerabilities and saw the bond that had arisen between her mother and Lynn, she began to feel less threatened by her husband’s beautiful ex wife. Feeling more secure, Brandy became curious, and one evening, when Lynn called to discuss the weekend schedule, Brandy found herself lingering on the phone. The two women began a lengthy conversation about their shared interest–Brian.

 

Therapists often talk about the domino effect in family systems— when one person in a family grows, new options emerge for healing the entire system. That’s what happened with Brandy and her family.  Brandy soon realized that if she wanted to get along with her stepson she had to get along with his biological mother. Lynn, for her part, continued to thrive under Sheila’s nurturing. Sheila found the role of “bridge” suited her in ways she could never have imagined. Before long, Sheila, Brandy and Lynn often found themselves putting their heads together to resolve the everyday problems of managing an active two year old who was now living in two homes.

The healing connections spread. Now that Brandy felt comfortable with Lynn, it was easier for her to encourage Joel to reconnect to Brian’s biological mother in positive ways.  Once Joel and Lynn’s relationship thawed, a new and loving expanded family could heal the place in everyone’s hearts that had been torn open by the pain of divorce.

Brian now had four people (Joel, Lynn, Brandy and Sheila) who cared deeply about him. And this had all sorts of practical implications. Most Mother’s Days and many holidays were spent in the company of his father, his biological mother, and his stepmother and her mother too.

What astonished my friend, Brandy was how much she, too, benefited from this expansion. When Joel was in one of his difficult, workaholic phases, it was Lynn who helped Brandy understand him better. When Brandy had a breast biopsy, it was Lynn and Sheila who waited with her for the  results. And in Sheila’s final years, when she was stricken by a series of debilitating illnesses, she was tended not only by her daughter, Brandy, but by Lynn as well. “She was a second mother to me,” Lynn said at Sheila’s memorial service, years later.

This story offers simple but profound lessons. If you are interested in creating a better—not a bitter divorce:

1)   Create a vision of the relationship you want;

2)   Take a first step;

3)   Risk failing and know that failing won’t kill you—and it might make you stronger!

4)     If you fail, create a new vision and start over..

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