31 August 2011 by Charlotte Friedman

How to have a happy divorce

The recent wedding of two 50-plus friends, both divorced, got Charlotte Friedman thinking: can you have a happy divorce? Is a 'good' divorce ever possible?

Wedding cake Dreams in Colours

I do, again, and so does my ex. Photo by Dreams in Colours

Despite the fact that statistics tell us that three out of five marriages end in divorce, it is still, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most traumatic life events that can happen, right up there with death of a loved one.

Dignity and respect for their exes meant they could fully embrace their new lives

It may be that an occurence that has become part of the everyday fabric of our society might have become less painful perhaps for the individuals involved.

Certainly, the stigma that attached itself to divorce 20 years ago has gone. But has the fact that it is so common and relatively easy to divorce made it any less emotionally devastating?

A post-divorce wedding

A while ago, I went to a wedding of a couple in their early fifties. Both had been married before and both had children from their previous marriages. This wedding seemed to be different from other second weddings I had been to.

It was a full-on, huge event that might have been more in keeping with a first wedding of a couple in their twenties. It went on from 5.30pm to 1am. There were drinks, dancing, dinner, more dancing and more food.

Two hundred of their friends, most of us in our fifties, had been brought together to celebrate that they had found each other.

I was trying to think what it was that made this wedding so different. This was no attempt at a quiet and discreet wedding. It was an extravaganza, a celebration, but the most unusual part was that the new husband’s ex-wife was there. She was lovely and spent the evening smiling and dancing and seemed genuinely happy to wish him and his new wife well.

Their children moved between the groom and their mother easily and both of them made a speech. The new wife’s 10-year-old daughter also made a speech, saying she was glad that her stepdad was so nice and that he wasn’t like the ones in the movies.

She finished by saying, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but this time, please don’t ruin it.”

My friend’s first husband, on hearing that she was going to marry again, said how happy he was for her. I think, had she wanted to invite him, he would have been thrilled to attend.

I write about this because I think it is rare and a testament to this particular couple. Neither of them had a happy divorce but they had achieved a good divorce.

Making the best of a bad situation

That doesn’t mean the end of their respective relationships hadn’t been a huge wrench or shocking for them – it had – but they had both taken the decision not to make a bad situation worse and they had preserved the essence of a relationship with their ex-partners despite their own hurt and pain.

Out of the gloom and darkness they had maintained a dignity, respecting that the other person was someone they once loved and who was still a parent to their children.

It was that dignity and respect for their ex (both of the newly-weds had been left) that meant they could fully embrace their new lives together and keep something of their old ones for the sake of their children.

Examples of a good divorce

Another couple I know divorced after 30 years. The wife says now, two years on, that she really misses him and that he was her friend for so long. However, despite her pain, she invites him to share family occasions and welcomes him in when he comes to pick up their children.

These are, I think, examples of a good divorce. I think the term a happy divorce is a contradiction. No one comes out of a divorce feeling happy, but you can feel OK and you can feel some sense of autonomy and agency that, given it has happened, it will not be allowed to wreak total destruction in its wake.

It is possible, as these examples show, that with some effort, something bordering on dignity can be salvaged and that there is life after divorce.

What is a good divorce? One in which people can be less destructive, more empathetic and more able to contemplate a renegotiated relationship which honours the past and looks to the future despite the tsunami of emotions that come with divorce.

Charlotte Friedman is a former barrister, a specialist divorce and separation therapist and founder of Divorce Support Group, a nationwide support service to make separation more manageable.

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