Divorce for most people conjures up images of bitter feuds and angry discord. But some divorces can be quite amicable – indeed, even beneficial – not only for the couple concerned, but for their children, too.
How is an amicable divorce possible?
Rather than cite statistics, I’d like to recount the experience of one or couple I know. For reasons of privacy I won’t use their real names but will describe their characteristics accurately. The story with some useful insights will be helpful in answering what is an amicable divorce and how to have an amicable divorce.
Story of divorce without war and an amicable separation
The former husband, Henri, was a struggling academic who worked as a part-time consultant to a major international organization, as did his former wife, Vivienne.
Together they had a daughter, Sophie, but after 5 years of marriage realized they were unable to sustain emotional intimacy.
Henri was withdrawn and perpetually anxious over his floundering career. Vivienne was stable and happy in her own life but concerned about the effect of her emotionally frigid marriage on herself and their daughter who was beginning to experience behavioral troubles in school.
The “normal” course of action at this point would be to call in a marriage counselor, which Henri and Vivienne did.
But remarkably, rather than try to “save” their marriage, the couple quickly concluded that they should split while there was still time for each – both in their early 40s – to find long-term happiness elsewhere.
An amicable divorce was a surprisingly swift and mutually agreeable solution. Henri recognized that he had deep “family of origin” issues to address and he couldn’t see how to approach them in the context of his marriage. Neither could Vivienne.
One might have expected a custody battle to ensue but instead, the two agreed to stay committed to raising Sophie, who loved her parents and felt dependent on them. Henri moved out but decided to buy a new house in the same neighborhood barely a half mile away.
Vivienne began dating and within several months had found a man whose company she enjoyed. In fact, soon she was in love again.
Bridging the divide with blended family dynamics
It turned out her new beau, Phillippe, worked for the same international organization that Henri and Vivienne worked for.
Coincidentally, he was also French and held a position at the organization that was comparable to Henri’s. Friends and colleagues sometimes remarked that he was “just like Henri” but “without the personality quirks.”
Henri, meanwhile, began therapy and joined a number of 12-step groups, including Al-Anon, to deal with the trauma of his abusive alcoholic father and its impact on his personality.
He postponed the idea of dating and remarriage and focused on his own “healing.” He soon saw the reasons why his marriage had failed. But he also came to see that his marriage was perhaps flawed from the beginning.
Neither he nor Vivienne blamed each other. When Vivienne remarried Henri as happy for her. In fact, he soon began socializing with the new couple.
It helped that Phillippe was a man of considerable emotional intelligence. In fact, he was divorced, too, with two children roughly the same age as Sophie.
His own divorce had not been a mutual divorce, but he decided that he would adopt a new attitude toward his marriage to Vivienne. He would accept that her former husband was part of a new extended family.
Within a year, Vivienne and Phillippe had a daughter of their own, adding a half-sister to the mix of the two families. It turned out to be an important bridge. Soon the two families were regularly socializing and celebrating birthdays and holidays together.
Henri began dating a woman – also French – and they became lovers and engaged.
And perhaps best of all, Henri and Vivienne discovered a new bond of friendship. In some ways, their bond was still a powerful sustaining force, significantly due to the amicable divorce. They were helping to oversee their respective families even though they were no longer married and sharing an intimate partnership.
Divorce may not hurt children
What is this new family like for the children?
It’s an enormous boon to them all. Sophie has a step-brother, a step-sister who are her peers and a younger half-sister with whom she shared a blood tie Best of all, she has two loving fathers, both of whom have nurtured her growth.
Sophie has developed into a bright and extraordinarily resilient child who regularly travels by herself all over the world, including several countries in Africa where Henri and Phillippe are periodically based.
She has attended school in Paris and Lagos Nigeria. She enjoys friends from dozens of countries. Many, like her, are so-called “sojourner” children, traversing one nation after another like nomads. Their multi-family roots keep them grounded but they still soar freely with supple wings of their own.
Breaking the divorce pattern
This case of an amicable divorce might seem extraordinary and admittedly, it is not that common.
But part of the problem is the way that couples treat divorce – as a failure for which one or both partners must take blame.
Often one ex-spouse will bad-mouth the other, knowing full well that the story of their break-up is far more complicated.
In fact, they may well harbor their doubts and feelings of shame about their own “fitness” for marriage, while continuing to project their anger and disappointment onto their ex-partner.
Worst of all, of course, if there are children, they often get caught in the middle of their parents’ divorce, feeling emotionally whip-lashed and absorbing negative lessons that damage their own hopes and vision for successful long-term partnership.
Statistics show that children of divorce are less likely to marry; they are also more likely to develop emotional issues that require therapeutic intervention, often while they’re still children living with one or both parents.
Sophie did see a therapist, as did Vivienne together with her daughter, and separately, and the process helped them both work through the negative feelings that had arisen from the collapse of their own family unit.
How re-marriage can heal
But the real healing came when Vivienne remarried and began fashioning an extended family. Rather than Henri and Viviennee’s marriage leading to a big void, it became a building block in the construction of something larger – and even more fulfilling.
Many family therapists seem to underestimate how children can benefit from the presence of multiple elders in their midst.
Sophie didn’t lose a father, she gained one. If Henri remarries, she may well gain a second mother. In past years, it might have been uncles and aunts that fulfilled these supplemental elder mentoring roles.
But like so many of today’s families, especially troubled ones, these relatives weren’t available to Henry and Vivienne, instead, through remarriage and family “consolidation” they added a brand new layer of “co-parenting” for their larger brood of children.
Also watch this video on blended families:
On any problem or issue that might arise in Sophie’s life, she has multiple sources of advice and support. Someone is always available to listen and to support and guide her. She sees family life as one of emotional abundance, not deprivation.
There may be some unique conditions that have allowed this amicable divorce to flourish. The most obvious one, perhaps, is a successful remarriage.
Many women (and some men) feel they cannot remarry or don’t want to, and they give up trying. Vivienne didn’t. Some would say she got a more perfect version of Henri. The most important thing is that she sought long-term happiness in marriage for herself. Just because her marriage to Henri floundered, she didn’t give up on a cherished life goal.
Did it help that Vivienne’s second marriage was to a man with the same cultural and professional background as her first husband? It might have.
The fact that Henri and Phillippe were also peers in the same international organization meant that life changed hardly at all for Vivienne. Work and family logistics, including school transportation and care for Sophie, remained much the same. She attended the same parties with much the same circle of friends and colleagues.
The main facilitating factor, though, was that all parties devoted themselves to self-less reflection and inner healing.
Henri and Vivienne found that by putting their own true needs first – but in a mutually supportive fashion, they protected and enhanced their daughter’s well-being.
It certainly helped that Phillippe made clear that his wife’s former family was now fully his own. In the end, Vivienne and Henri both courageously sought a better, more honest emotional life and seemingly overnight were rewarded with a much richer one.
Maybe Henri and Vivienne should never have married to begin with, but through a combination of extraordinary good will and sheer luck and circumstance they managed to turn a potentially dispiriting loss – so common among divorcees – into an enormous win.
And what of Sophie?
She’s graduated from college with straight A’s and is pursuing a career – in international development, no less. And she just got engaged to a nice young man – from Germany, not France. But he speaks fluent French, of course. After all, that’s still the lingua franca of Sophie’s family dinner table.
Not every couple can recover from divorce in the way Henri and Vivienne did.
These are extraordinary individuals who navigated how to end a marriage peacefully and chose to have an amicable divorce. But their example is worth studying. Divorce, though painful, can become a stepping stone to greater things. Love of self and others can truly conquer all.