In Praise of Exes

I recently had dinner with three college friends I hadn’t seen in decades, all of us now divorced. Before we knew it, we were talking about our exes. First, Ruth casually mentioned that she was looking forward to having lunch with her ex-husband; they speak frequently, not only about their two children who are now grown, but about old friends and family members. Laughingly she told us they still argue over current events. Julie jumped in, saying she wished she could talk to her ex-husband, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Then Debbie “admitted” that following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center she had called her ex-husband Tom. Touched by her call, he spent the weekend with her and the kids. His presence made her feel a little more secure and a new phase of their relationship began.

I glanced around the table as these stories were told. No one appeared a bit surprised. Neither was I. In the twenty five years since I’ve divorced, my ex-husband and I have become fond friends. Although I have been happily remarried for the past thirteen years, I still count my ex-husband as one of my most significant and long-term attachments. He was present when both our children were born. We sat shiva together when his parents died. He knew my mother in her more coherent days and my father when he was still alive. This is a history that cannot be replicated with anyone else.

In my therapy office, in conversations with strangers on airplanes, at parties and professional conferences, I hear story after story about caring friendships between ex-spouses. Certain stories linger. After my friend Ann divorced and remarried, when she learned that her new husband was embezzling her money, she called her first husband, an attorney, who came to her aid and helped to recover her money. Just yesterday, a newly divorced father told me in my office how he and his wife had been on incredibly hostile terms until their seven-year-old was seriously injured. When both parents took turns staying overnight at the hospital pediatric ward, a shared gratitude for their child’s recovery restored warmth to their relationship.

I am continually amazed at how ex-spouses can behave with kindness and generosity to one another when the explosiveness of a divorce calms down. When children are involved there is a real motivation to establish a cooperative relationship; any psychologist will testify that how parents handle the divorce and treat one another afterward is a key indicator of how well the children will adjust. This is not new news. What has surprised me is that over and again I have learned that the relationship between exes often goes way beyond mere pleasantry in the mechanics of custody arrangements. The ex-spouses who choose to vacation together at Disneyland with their children and respective new spouses clearly enjoy one another person’s company. I have seen how affection, caring and generosity can accumulate for decades after a marriage ends and produce a deep attachment. When my mother’s elderly friend took in her cancer-ridden, long-divorced ex-husband and cared for him as he lay dying – she was acting from a much deeper emotion than obligation.

The truth is that ex-spouses get an undeserved bad rap. Stereotypes abound of the deadbeat dad and the money-hungry ex-wife. Popular culture would have us believe that every ex-husband is a jerk and every ex-wife is vindictive. While this is certainly accurate some of the time it is not the only role ex-spouses get to play. I suspect that there are plenty more empathic ex-husbands and caring ex-wives out there than meets the litigator’s eye. Recent research shows that as a species, we humans are hard-wired for compassion and love. What’s more, experiencing positive emotions is good for the heart and overall well-being. Many spiritual traditions teach that you don’t necessarily have to feel kindly towards another person, but that if you behave kindly the feelings may follow. Divorce is as good a time as any– perhaps better–to stretch one’s self towards compassion, kindness, and caring. For yourself as much as for your ex.

Posted by Judy Rabinor

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