As I said in Offbeat Divorce, Part 1, my marriage failed. After a period of struggle, we decided to separate (and have since divorced). The separation process was also fraught and sometimes felt impossible, but I got through. Here are a few things I learned.
(Note: We have a daughter together, so these guidelines apply to parents more than they might to divorcing couples who can sever all ties if they choose.)
I'm not referring to actually cheating on your partner. Instead, I'm talking about the rules and guidelines you work out between yourselves as you separate. I agreed with my ex that we would inform each other about certain things regarding our daughter (times when she'd be watched by a third party, for example, or when she has an upsetting experience). We've kept that up, even when telling the other person about an incident leaves us open to criticism. That's challenging, but worth it, because it fosters trust.
ACCEPT YOUR EX'S FAULTS
During the time of separation, you're probably vividly aware of your ex's faults. Some of them may have played a part in your split. But now is the time to stop trying to change, fix, or fight those faults, because you're never going to be able to do that now. Instead, try to find a way to work around your ex's faults, to make allowances for them and the intense emotional struggles they're going through. They're imperfect, and so are you, and it's to both of your advantage to find a way to work together anyway.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Separation is a slow emotional process. It took me a long time before I could even use the term “divorce” for the direction we were headed. That's OK. Don't rush yourself. There are so many things to be decided between you (especially if you're parents), that you can work on the easier stuff while you put off the things you don't feel ready to tackle. In my case, we worked in spurts, focusing on the decisions and paperwork for a while, then taking an (unspoken) emotional break. Once we'd developed a track record of being able to agree and move forward on things, it felt more possible to discuss the difficult issues without derailing everything.
THINK BEFORE YOU RESPOND
During our separation process, we both did things to hurt each other. Maybe we meant it sometimes, maybe we did it without knowing, maybe we couldn't help it in the heat of the moment. The point is, we were each sometimes faced with behavior that was hurtful. Because we were separated, this usually happened via phone or email. When it happened to me, if at all possible, I tried to stop and think before responding. My body and heart reacted in pain or guilt or anger, but I tried to respond as if what he had said were more neutral. I tried to avoid escalating the problem, and instead tried to model the kind of behavior I wanted us to exhibit. I tried to think about the long term instead of the current awful moment.
For us, it was as simple as that. We chose to cling to any remaining shreds of trust we still shared and do everything in our power to keep lawyers out of the equation. Take the time you need to decide things on your own. Consult friends. See a mediator. Divorce is expensive enough as it is; don't pour unnecessary thousands more down the litigation drain, unless it's truly necessary.
Updated to add: please remember that this post is written from Kate's perspective about what worked for her. Avoiding lawyers won't work for all situations, and your mileage may vary. We understand many of you have needed lawyers, and that's ok too.
50/50 CUSTODY FEELS GOOD
If you're a parent, I encourage you to seriously consider 50/50 custody. For us, it was a natural choice because we'd been equal parenting partners all along. In retrospect, though, I'm especially glad we did. It just feels better, when it comes up, to say that we're still equal co-parents. That both of us share equally in our daughter's life, and are both equally entitled to make decisions, get notifications, etc. That neither of us appears, even just on paper, to be a more primary parent than the other.
YOU DID YOUR BEST
Chances are, there are times in your relationship that you look back on and feel bad about now, given how things ended up. For me, I had a hard time thinking back on our good times and shared dreams. It was hard to reconcile that with the current awful situation. Eventually, what I realized was this: I did my best. And so did my ex. Back when we were happy, we did our best. And when things were complicated and falling apart, we did our best, given the mighty challenges and crazy situation. It doesn't mean our happy past was a lie — it was real to us. We just didn't know then what we know now. If you're able to see the past in this light, it can allow you to forgive yourself a little bit more.