Marty and Sarah Dowd always got along well. That was one of the reasons why they got married. When they split up, seven years after tying the knot, it was a slow process toward divorce.
Though he had moved out, Marty had free run of the family home, ostensibly to see their two children, but also because he and Sarah remained close. Though she has remarried and lives in another city, they still remain friends.
Once upon a time, divorce was a whispered word, a shameful option. But as our society begins the 21st century, couples who divorce aren't necessarily ending their friendships anymore.
With U.S. Bureau of Census statistics on marriage in the mid-1990s supporting their claims, prognosticators say that nearly half of all marriages in this country today are doomed to failure. Misery may love company, but happiness -- in this case, amicable relations between former spouses -- is much healthier, financially saner, and better for the children.
The "new divorce" is viewed not as a failure, but as an opportunity for old friendships to continue and new ones to be forged. According to Dr. Constance Ahrons, a sociology professor and author of "The Good Divorce" (Harper-Collins, 1994), "... one of our best hopes for increasing the proportion of good divorces to violent ones is to replace the old negative images of warring ex-spouses with new ones that normalize and support basic interconnection. When people change their expectations, their behavior usually follows."
Simply put, there is life after divorce, and for for many, it's better, not bitter.
A recent cartoon from a popular magazine could only be funny in the context of late century marriage and divorce. A couple is obviously engaged in an intimate conversation. He says to her, "You know, you'd make someone a great ex-spouse."
'Grace and dignity'
Not too long ago, Dorothy Sanderson would have failed to see the humor in that cartoon. But today, it capsulizes her feelings about ex-husband Mike.
(The couples interviewed for this story are from Western New York. All requested that their real names not be used because of the personal nature of the subject matter.)
He was the love of her life, her college sweetheart and then, the perfect husband, or so she thought. While she was busy taking care of their home and two daughters, he was becoming enmeshed in the corporate world and all the traditional trappings of success. He was a partner in a major accounting firm, and the office was an old-fashioned male bastion, with travel, long lunches, and late Friday night bar sessions required for those planning to climb up.
"I never connected the dots and realized what were the consequences of my behavior on our home life," Mike says now. "Dorothy never complained about my work -- I was there for the holidays and birthdays. Materially, I provided wonderfully well. In a way, we both fell into the trap of 'This is the way it must be.' "
When Dorothy first learned of his extramarital affairs, Mike moved out. For a long time, she hoped for a reconciliation, holding onto that dream throughout the couple's counseling sessions. But it wasn't until she was able to admit to herself that it was really over that true healing began.
Experts concur that the end of a marriage is akin to death -- there is a grieving process to go through, and it's important to recognize the need to mourn.
"To be friends after a divorce, both parties have to be -- what they weren't in marriage, maybe -- honest enough to move forward," Dorothy says.
One day she experienced an epiphany that changed her attitude, and her life. "I was driving home from work one day, feeling miserable as usual, when I suddenly thought, "I don't have to do this anymore. I don't have to try to make Mike want to stay married.' "
Once she let go, the next step toward a more amicable relationship was logical.
They agreed that their children would not be subjected to "one more minute of sadness or pain because of this divorce. We were just going to be friends." Both sought counseling, which worked much better with their new attitudes of cooperation. None of this was easy, but it was easier.
Still, at a family celebration attended by Mike and his lover, Dorothy found it helpful to repeat a mantra -- "grace and dignity" -- to get through it.
"I'd recently received a note from a friend who said she admired the way I'd been handling the divorce with grace and dignity. That certainly wasn't the way I felt inside, but it seemed like a good goal to aspire to," Dorothy recalls.
"I had some very supportive friends who helped me through this. To this day I tell my daughters, although you'll be involved with men, remember to cherish your women friends. They're the ones who will see you through the ups and downs of life."
Through therapy, Mike learned to face reality and responsibility. "Anyone who thinks they're going to have a casual affair and not be affected is crazy," he says. "The American culture has made divorce seem easy. It may be accepted culturally these days and have no stigma, but I defy you to go through it without change. I violated my marriage vows. I left my wife and family of many years. That profoundly affected me. "It's brought tremendous positive change and left a great deal of sorrow."
Stronger than sorrow for many is the post-divorce legacy of anger. How a couple handles that anger sets the tenor of life after marital break-up, experts agree.
"Use your anger constructively to build self-esteem," advises Dr. Stephen Gullo, co-author of "Loveshock: How to Recover from a Broken Heart and Love Again (with Connie Church, Simon & Schuster, 1988).
"Think of this crisis as an opportunity for growth," says Dr. Genevieve Clapp, author of "Divorce and New Beginnings -- An Authoritative Guide to Recovery and Growth, Solo Parenting and Stepfamilies" (John Wiley Sons, Inc., 1992). "Form goals and set priorities, otherwise you may drift aimlessly."
Talking through the pain
The anger Marty Dowd felt was fueled by what he perceived as common knowledge of his wife's unfaithfulness, when she took up with a prominent member of their community.
Trying to focus on the positive -- the couple had had a genuine friendship before marriage, and both remained devoted to their two children -- and talking through the pain with some close friends helped him deal with the trauma.
Although he and Sarah were separated, they did not officially divorce for more than 10 years. During that time, he stayed close to their boys, even acting as a single parent for a time when Sarah tried a new job out of town.
"For our kids' sake, I made a conscious decision to get past my anger," he says. "I tried to remember above all, it was really important to keep our family intact."
He and Sarah tried to give their children the gift of their loving friendship, not the usual result of a divorce. They continued to take family trips together.
Now that Sarah is remarried, Marty is on friendly terms with her husband. When he visits, he is a guest in their home. He and Sarah spent a lot of time recently preparing for their son's marriage.
Despite his own involvements with other women since the divorce, Marty says he still feels a "soulmate" connection to Sarah. Therapists agree that such lingering feelings are common after a divorce. Putting it all in perspective is one of the keys to managing an amicable aftermath.
"In order to move on to accepting divorce and keeping an ongoing relationship, it's important to work through whatever went wrong, how things had deteriorated, and to try to look at this as an opportunity to grow after working through anger," says Dr. Maxine Cavanaugh, a clinical psychologist.
"The basic predictor of how a divorce will work out is based on the coping skills of the two partners and their ability to see that a divorce is traumatic, but not the end of the world."
Like devoted siblings
Karl and Ruth Watson have a continuing, working relationship in their post-divorce years: she's the financial manager of his accounting office.
They had a tempestuous marriage, including affairs and dramatic scenes; now they have settled into a mutually supportive relationship, though he now has a third ex-wife and she has had other intimate partners. When Ruth's mother died, she thought to call Karl first, and he, her second ex-husband by then, handled all the funeral arrangements. Her first ex-husband was a pallbearer.
Ruth remains the mother hen to Karl's children, and a shoulder for him to lean on. "I'll always love him, not like a husband, but we're still extremely close," she says. "In spite of his many girlfriends, he says I'm the one constant in his life. He needs stability, and I'm the one person he can depend on."
For her part, Ruth gets the benefits of financial security -- Karl has given her a "wonderful opportunity in a job I love."
Both characterize their post-divorce relationship as similar to one of devoted siblings. The longtime partner in an accounting firm that often evaluates divorce cases, Karl believes divorced people can get along much better if they're not in love with each other. Rollercoastering emotions can get in the way of a good friendship.
A new relationship
Counselors who assist divorcing couples agree that the successful paradigm -- the new, improved, friendly divorce -- ultimately depends on what a couple chooses to make of their new life apart. If what was broken can't be fixed, consider another solution: fashioning a new relationship from the dismantled elements.
To begin, you must communicate on a regular basis. Mike and Dorothy Sanderson were getting nowhere in terms of moving on after their divorce until they agreed to meet once a week just to talk things through. Things went so much better that Dorothy's attorney commented, "I never handled a case like yours, where the people getting a divorce actually still talk."
Nurture what were the best parts of your marriage. Do you miss those extended family relationships? Just because you and your spouse are divorced doesn't mean you have to close the door on everyone else -- the in-laws and friends you had in common. Professional counseling may be your salvation. A good therapist can help you reorder your priorities and gain a healthier perspective. A mediator can help you make decisions when volatile emotions cloud your thinking. To find someone, check the Yellow Pages, call your local mental health society, talk to a clergy member, get referrals from friends.
Figure out what's best for the kids, and do it. If you can get around the temptation to start hating, so much the better. "Kids become the most messed up when they lose their parents and all their other relatives because of a divorce," says child psychologist Dr. Kenneth N. Condrell, author of "Be A Great Divorced Dad" (with Linda Lee Small, St. Martin's Griffin, 1998). "A divorce works best if the parties have respect for each other, acknowledging that although they didn't get along, he's still a great dad or she's a great mom."
Resolve to get on with your life. Letting go of the past can mean letting go of debilitating anger. You must also recognize and learn to be comfortable with those troublesome feelings of ambivalence. As Dr. Joyce Brothers writes, "A funny thing happens on the way to recovery from divorce. Even though you thought you hated your ex, when he remarries you feel a bit sad. ... It's best for your kids if you, your ex-husband, and his new wife all behave like supportive, responsible adults."