From the Unthinkable to the Unsinkable

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I like to think of myself as a composed individual. When I am stressed, rattled or anxious, I keep it quietly to myself, hoping no one will notice or pay much attention. So it threw me for a loop when my divorce counsellor said: you are exhibiting signs of PTSD.

I was in disbelief. Surely post-traumatic stress disorder was a diagnosis only for soldiers and survivors who had lived through much worse ordeals. That’s when she explained PTSD is a normal reaction to a painful, distressing or shocking event that exists outside of our typical life experiences and beyond our control. When we have been through the unthinkable.

The symptoms, including nightmares, irritability, sleeplessness, fear, dread and being on edge, are disruptive to everyday life. We carry around the trauma with us. The tendency to relive the painful event over and over, a hair trigger reaction to the most innocent, harmless situations, was especially difficult for me to manage. After finding out I’d spent two decades married to someone leading a double life, my broken heart and injured ego had plenty of real and imagined fodder to sort out.

Only 15% of people develop long-lasting PTSD; for the majority of us, the common emotional and physiological reactions to trauma will gradually fade with time.

In her book Option B (which I highly recommend!), Sheryl Sandberg devotes a chapter to bouncing forward after a traumatic event alters the path of our life. In Sheryl’s case, it was the sudden death of her husband; in my case, it was the sudden death of my marriage. The chapter discusses trauma and its two possible outcomes: either we can develop PTSD along with debilitating anger, anxiety or depression – or we can bounce forward, a term the book calls post-traumatic growth.

I learned that post-traumatic growth takes five different forms: finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities. We may experience one, a few, or all of these as we take the necessary steps to move forward after an unwanted event leaves us grieving and shaken to the core.

Thinking about my own post-divorce journey since 2011, I recognized passing through each of these areas as if driving by signposts. Finding personal strength came from realizing that I could fly on my own after depending on another person for 20 years. I could continue to run my business, hold our family together and still manage to keep a roof over our heads by myself. I learned to not only cope but to keep living life despite the constant, painful reminders of what I’d been through. And every day, things got better and I grew more resilient. As Sheryl puts it, “I had gained strength just by surviving.”

Gaining appreciation is one of the most apparent areas of post-traumatic growth following the rawness of divorce. It is only when you are at your most vulnerable that you realize how strong you are. It is only after you experience pain that you are able to gain empathy for others’ suffering. And it is only through betrayal that you learn the value of loyalty and trust. Many of the friends I’ve met over the past six years have shared these insights as well as this: divorce has made them more compassionate and appreciative of all the good things in their lives. It’s true that there seems to be so much more to be grateful for now. Only when it is dark enough are you able to see the stars.

Divorce brought me closer to my children, my parents and my sister. It deepened our relationships and formed an intimacy we had not experienced up until then. It also was the catalyst for new friendships I formed with people who had been through similar losses; particularly with the divorce support group that I joined. “When people endure the same tragedy, it can fortify the bonds between them. They learn to trust each other, be vulnerable with each other, depend on each other,” Sheryl writes. I felt that from the first meeting I attended, and I don’t doubt that members of other support groups share similar bonds. Adversity drives us to build stronger connections with one another.

The fourth form of post-traumatic growth is finding greater meaning and a stronger sense of purpose. For many people, divorce or death deepens their faith or at least, puts them in touch with their spiritual side. I know that this was the case for me. I am not a religious person, but I believe there is a higher power looking out for me and even if I don’t understand all the reasons bad things have to happen – I am assured knowing that there’s a greater purpose. Having faith in something bigger than you provides a calm steadiness in times when things are out of your control. It gives you hope. And it helps you to remember that eventually, this too shall pass. Little wonder that I found comfort in the mantra: ALL WILL BE WELL. Even if I didn’t know exactly how or when, I had faith that everything was going to work out just fine.

On the nightly news, we see parents who have tragically lost a child become powerful advocates for the rights and protection of children. They turn their grief into action, giving greater meaning to a senseless event. In a way, embracing this opportunity fulfills their child’s legacy of making an impact on the world. The same is said of those who survive natural disasters, mass shootings and plane crashes – they transform something negative into something that brings positivity and awareness so that others do not suffer needlessly. Think of the number of new firefighters, police officers and military recruits that signed up to serve after 9/11. From tragedy, they were able to see new possibilities and answer the call to do something to make a difference. No, we don’t have to buckle under the weight of unthinkable trauma. We can keep swimming, propelling ourselves forward and getting stronger until we are unsinkable.

Having gone through divorce, I now appreciate how this traumatic experience cleared the way for me to imagine new possibilities. It was an opportunity to clean out my emotional closets and drawers, rearrange priorities and rediscover who I am and perhaps was always meant to be. After a trauma, we can’t help but change. As one of Sheryl’s friends confided in her, “It’s like you’ve been through a portal. You can’t go back. You’re going to change – the only question is how.”

So much has changed in me and in my life since D-Day. I certainly never imagined that I’d be writing a blog about what I’d been through, but here I am, turning grief into action. When readers reach out to share their own stories or simply to say something I wrote resonated with them, it still reminds me that even our worst life-changing events can be a change for the better.

 

 

Happily Ever After Marriage: Q&A with Author Sarah Hampson (Part 1)

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I wasn’t looking for a self-help book (ugh) as I wandered aimlessly through the bookstore that day, but somehow ended up perusing paperbacks about surviving and thriving after divorce. That’s when I found Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Mid-Life by Sarah Hampson, creator of The Globe and Mail’s hugely popular divorce column Generation Ex.

The book immediately appealed to me – the author telling her own story of being a bride in her twenties and divorced with children in her forties, along with a balance of storytelling and reporting on the realities of what Hampson called “a new rite of passage in mid-life.” A few pages in and I realized this was no self-help book; it was a find-yourself book.

Sarah Hampson’s insightfulness meant the world when mine had fallen apart. I related so much to what she candidly, warmly, humorously and wisely wrote about embracing the traditions and the transitions of life. Happily Ever After was my go-to read the summer my marriage ended and the inspiration, comfort and camaraderie I received within its pages will always be with me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I was thrilled to interview Sarah (@hampsonwrites) about her column, her book, and about how embracing change at mid-life, no matter how difficult, can lead to inspired reinvention and all exciting new pathways to emerge.

Where did the idea for the Generation Ex column come from?

Sarah Hampson: I had been writing interview profiles for the Globe a long time. A new life section was starting and I remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking I should write about divorce because it seemed everyone around me was going through the same thing. That was in 2007, so six years had passed since I left my marriage and five years since the divorce was finalized.

I pitched the idea for Generation Ex, a column that would explore the social phenomenon of divorce and how it’s changed from being taboo to being a contemporary rite of passage to maturity for women. I wanted to use my own experience and the experiences of others to write about divorce in a way that I thought would be helpful. The column was initially supposed to run every two weeks, but it immediately became so popular with readers that we did it weekly.

And Happily Ever After Marriage came out of that?

The book deal arrived one year after Generation Ex debuted. Because the column went through the roof, literary agents came out of the woodwork saying I should write a book since the topic obviously resonated with so many. Although it was a different creative exercise than knocking off a column every week, the research I’d previously done very much helped in terms of putting the book together.

Was it difficult to put your personal experience out there for so many people to read?

When I started writing the column, people would say, “How can you write about your personal life in such a public forum?” I mean, gee, it was only Canada’s leading national newspaper. At first, I received quite a bit of criticism in the online comments along the lines of “What’s wrong with this woman?” and “Thank God she’s not MY ex!”

I felt that I’d already worked through a lot of my feelings about being divorced by the time I pitched that column in 2007. I’d gotten through it, survived it, and taken the time to explore my own emotions – and I think that this served me well in trying to be graceful and fair about it. I never thought that I was writing the column to be vengeful; that would’ve been too easy. I was simply writing out of the knowledge that I’d gained with the purpose of trying to better understand the emotional archaeology of what underlies our decisions to marry, to divorce and then to survive the divorce.

 It’s interesting that you use the term “survive” – as if some don’t make it out alive.

In the immediate aftermath of my divorce, there were some crazy difficult years where things were up and down. My ex-husband was not terribly helpful financially or in his parental responsibilities for our three boys. But I refused to let an unhappy marriage – and of course, not all 18 years were unhappy – dictate how I would go forward with the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be poisoned by my own difficult experience. I think it was an innate survivor tactic. It didn’t make sense to go forward for the next part of my life always feeling resentful or angry or disappointed. In a way, I think that saved me and allowed me to transcend that difficult period, to make sense of it by writing about it.

What role has your now-grown sons had in helping you to move forward?

When I think back to the decision-making process that went on in terms of leaving that marriage, I remember feeling that I didn’t want my boys to think that’s what marriage was. Not to suggest there was anything horrible going on, but it certainly wasn’t harmonious. There was a lot of controlling, a lot of emotional manipulation in the marriage and it wasn’t what I wanted them to think it was supposed to be like. I didn’t want them to think that a mother who was slightly depressed or upset was normal.

Now my boys say they learned a great deal from watching me, seeing how strong I became as a single parent, stabilizing our lives and my career. In a way that’s a good thing. But I also wanted them to them to believe in marriage and see how family matters. One of them is married and one of them is engaged to be married in the fall so I’m pleased about that.

How do you feel toward your ex-husband now?

There are times I get upset when he doesn’t do things you’d expect a father to do for his sons, but I no longer feel anger at him. If anything, it’s revisited upset. It’s doesn’t last long, because it really doesn’t have much to do with anything anymore. The boys are doing well and getting on with their lives.

Sometimes, I feel a little badly that my ex made the precipitous decisions that he did. He’s had a tumultuous life; he remarried someone 23 years younger, started another family and now he’s divorced for a third time. I feel a degree of sadness for him. He hasn’t taken the time to know what great kids he has and doesn’t benefit from having good relationships with them. That’s unfortunate. It’s hard to look at someone who was once your whole world and see that they haven’t made a success of their life.

I hadn’t seen him in years until he came to my son’s wedding last year. It was cordial. My son had asked if I would be okay with him being invited and I said of course it is, he’s your father. Their relationship really has nothing to do with me anymore.

What did you learn most from your divorce? 

I married young. I’d always worked outside the home and was a working mom, so it wasn’t like I depended solely on my husband but still, I had to come to terms with my worries, my ambitions and my ability as a parent. Those are the things I had to learn about myself and focus on in the aftermath of the divorce. It’s made me who I am, it’s made me so much stronger and it’s made me a more interesting person – even to myself. I think that if you want to be happy, you have to be willing to make difficult decisions like getting divorced. But then you need to learn to live with your decisions and learn how to survive them too.

Your book helped set the tone for me post-divorce, especially the importance of being gracious and taking the high road when it comes to your ex. How did you manage it?    

Choosing to take the “high road” is partially about being a parent and wanting to protect your kids from the harsh reality about their dad. There have been times I may have crossed that line, and I think it came from the hostility I felt towards him for not stepping up and doing what he was supposed to do. But I think generally, I’m the type of person who’d rather be thoughtful about relationships than vengeful.

There’s a part of me that wanted to view my marriage and divorce on a higher level. That comes from a place of knowing that life is such a beautiful thing and you can choose to see the beauty in life or focus on the hard things. I don’t want to be on the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be confrontational. I want the motif of my life to be generosity of spirit.

We all know people who were divorced in mid-life and just never got over it. The truth is, we only sabotage ourselves by holding on to that anger and we risk missing out on the good things that are around the corner. Just as there are unexpected bad things that make you think “how the hell did this happen to me?” so too are there unexpected good things. You just have to remain open to that possibility.

NEXT: “Life has a way of offering surprises you could never have predicted.” Sarah Hampson talks about finding love over 40 and giving marriage another try. 

 

The Pickled Wedding Dress

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My wedding gown has been folded up in a cardboard box since 1991. Even though I designed it and had it custom made just for me, I didn’t bother having it preserved. Of course I’ve thought about throwing it away, yet as the most beautiful dress I have ever worn, I can’t quite bring myself to take it out to the curb.

My daughter doesn’t want it either and I don’t blame her a bit. I suppose I could donate it, but there is that superstitious part of me that worries residual bad luck might rub off on the starry-eyed bride that wears it next. So it remains in storage, still dusted with odd bits of confetti that well-wishers showered upon me 25 years ago.

So I’ve had zero ideas on what to do with my gown. Until I saw the Pickled Wedding Dress.

Now on exhibit at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles is a silk floral wedding dress crammed in a pickle jar. It is owned by a San Francisco woman whose husband told her that he felt “stuck” in their seven-year marriage and “probably” didn’t love her anymore.

“He’s been gone a year and I haven’t really known what to do with the dress,” writes the anonymous owner. “Every option has felt wrong. I hate throwing perfectly functional items in landfills and would hate to see someone walking around in my once beautiful but now sadness-infused dress.”

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She goes on to say that she didn’t like looking at it either, so she stuffed it down inside a jar “mostly for space reasons but any sort of appropriate pickle metaphors can also be invoked.” Truly inspired.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, which opened earlier this month, has 115 heartbreaking artifacts from jilted lovers – a case filled with mixtapes, a ripped-out payphone, a dried-out prom corsage, excised silicone breast implants, even an ax that one woman used to destroy her cheating husband’s furniture – along with the story behind each of them.

And in case you’re wondering, the museum is open to receiving future donations, too: “Have you ever had a broken heart? If you’ve wished to unburden the emotional load by erasing everything that reminds you of that painful experience by throwing it all away – don’t. Give it to us,” the curators plead. “Donate your object to the museum and take part in the creation of collective emotional history.”

According to the museum’s director, their graveyard of grief receives 10 to 20 new items every day.

Why do we bother holding on to relationship rubble – those love letters, stuffed animals, ticket stubs and other trivial keepsakes left behind in the wake of a break up? It’s probably for the same reason we retain souvenirs of the places we’ve visited: to prove we were once really there.

Although I still have my old wedding dress, it’s not for a sentimental reason but rather, a practical one (how the heck do I dispose of it?). After all, I had no problem clean-sweeping the house of any traces of my ex in what has become known as The Great Purge of 2011. We threw out so much stuff that my shell-shocked son still refuses to call “decluttering” anything but “the d-word.”

Honestly, the only things that remain of my 20-year marriage aside from the dress are photo albums, and a cute hand-painted vase I bought on a beach in Puerto Vallarta 22 years ago. I keep it not to remind me of my ex, but of the only time I’ve been on a winter vacation. In the aftermath of my marriage, I found very little worth saving.

IMG_3068What I think is most interesting about the Museum of Broken Relationships is that it puts the raw emotion of being dumped under glass – or inside glass, in the case of the Pickled Wedding Dress. These are just ordinary objects that mean absolutely nothing to anyone except the person who donated it for the world to see. And yet, it’s painfully obviously that these items are so much bigger and more significant than what first meets the eye, just as a pickle jar can barely contain the totality of that woman’s heartache.

Each strangely intimate, cringe-inducing museum exhibit is an opportunity for its donor to receive a sense of catharsis or closure – and for visitors to get a sense that even after love ends, life goes on.

“Hopefully, you can look back and know that even if it didn’t work out, it contributed to who you are today,” says the museum’s director. “We’re all failing together and we’re all trying to get back up together. And that, I think, is very beautiful.”

What relationship rubble do you continue to hold on to? Why did you choose to preserve it? And what the heck do you think I should I do with my old wedding dress?

 

Q&A With The Chump Lady

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Lemonade, anyone? A new research study by Binghamton University reveals that women betrayed by unfaithful partners end up in stronger relationships later in life.

After surveying more than 5,000 women in 96 different countries, researchers found that although a woman may “lose” her mate, she actually ends up the winner in the long run. Not only will she experience personal growth, she overcomes being cheated on with a higher mating intelligence that allows her to make better decisions in the future.

That “winning” is the foundation for an empowering new book called Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life by journalist, cartoonist and relationship blogger Tracy Schorn, aka The Chump Lady. Chump Lady is a wildly successful blog that combines sass and satire with solid advice that champions self-respect. Think about it. Much attention is focused on serial cheaters’ unmet needs or their challenges with monogamy. Chump Lady has changed the conversation by lampooning such blameshifting and putting the focus squarely on the cheated upon (“chumps”) and their needs.

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview Tracy about the origins of her blog and her new book – a fresh voice for “chumps” seeking a new message about infidelity as they find the courage to start all over again.

How did “Chump Lady” begin? Was it a way of dealing with your own betrayal and if so, what was the turning point for you in deciding to turn pain into something positive that could help others?
Chump Lady: My experience with infidelity was in 2006. I’d been married six months. Eighteen months and several more D-days (the ugly surprises known as Discovery Days), separations and false reconciliations later, we were divorced. When I went through it, online support was hugely important to me, however, it was unfocused. The blind leading the blind, really. The happiest and sanest people I found were divorced. Even when I was healed up and remarried (in 2010, to a fellow chump) — I was still out there trying to give advice to other chumps. The why isn’t my own making sense of it (I had made sense of it – he sucks), but more from a sense of injustice that the advice for infidelity out there was so universally AWFUL and assumed reconciliation.

chumplady_400x400My husband said, “You should write a book.” That seemed like too much of a commitment, so I thought, I’ll start a blog. Just a brain dump of everything I learned about infidelity and chumpdom, so other people wouldn’t repeat my mistakes. I initially thought of it as a clearinghouse. Hey, I’m done with this crap, but please skip ahead. Hope it helps you. The blog became very popular quite quickly. Within 3 months, I was invited to write for Huffington Post Divorce and that in turn, brought more readers. People wrote to say how much it helped them, so I kept at it.

Do you think “Chump Lady” comes from a place of anger or acceptance? 
CL: Both. Anger at the Reconciliation Industrial Complex, which assumes entitlement as natural and that chumps’ default position must be winning back cheaters and Making the Marriage a Good Place to Be – AND acceptance. I had a MUCH happier life after I left a cheater. I’m very happily remarried. Yes, as a squidgy, middle-aged, twice-divorced, uber-chumpy woman in her 40s. If I can get to the other side and have a good life, anyone can.

I wouldn’t have thought being a “chump” was a badge of honor. How do you define it?
CL: “Chumped” is how it FEELS. You feel stupid, conned, played for a fool. The term “wayward partner” is offensive to me – cheaters do not lose their way; their manipulations are deliberate and chosen. Adults have agency. “Chump” is also a way of taking language back; to take a slur and make it a term of empowerment. Okay, I got played. I was a chump. And now I’m mighty.

Chump Lady is very funny – is it important to get over betrayal with a sense of humor?
CL: I don’t know how to write about infidelity any other way. It IS absurd and comically pathetic. Also, humor is a way of asserting power; of turning things on their head and looking at them differently and laughing.

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You have a colorful vocabulary, like “cake” for instance. What does “cake” mean?
CL: Cake-eating or cake means having the marriage AND the affair, and trying to maintain that position of advantage. But I didn’t make up “cake” – that one is on all the infidelity boards. I do have other terms that are uniquely Chump Lady — kibbles, untangling the skein of fuckupedness, etc.

One of your most popular features is the UBT (Universal Bullshit Translator) which debunks articles about infidelity. Why do we still buy into myths like “he cheated because you didn’t give him what he wanted?”
CL: Because it gives chumps a sense of control. When your world has fallen apart, control is a very seductive commodity. If I did something wrong, then I can FIX it and stop that terrible thing from ever happening again! It’s much harder to feel vulnerable and powerless because you trusted someone and got played.

You must receive a lot of mail. Have you heard it all or are you still surprised by things people tell you?
CL: I’m still surprised. I do get a ton of mail, but certain telling details still catch me up. Like the cheater who took his mistress to Disney World instead of his kids; and the chump had to spend the Disney savings in the money jar to buy groceries. I still get pissed off at those things. Which keeps me writing and lampooning narcissists.

What would you say you’ve learned most since becoming the Chump Lady?
CL: That people are very, very resilient. I’ve read tens of thousands of stories, and people bounce back from the most horrific stuff. I think the saddest stories I read are from people who were cheated on while pregnant, and divorced cheaters with infants or high-risk pregnancies, or toddlers at home, who are physically and financially vulnerable on top of everything else. When those people make it, I cheer. I LOVE the “tell me how you’re mighty” stories.

holly_petraeusI’d say my other takeaway is that no one should ever be a stay-at-home mother unless they have a trust fund. I hate to come down on the mommy wars; I worked part-time when my son was little. I just think to take yourself out of the workplace is a terrible risk. The odds of divorce are 50/50. Now factor in disease, disability, early death? You should always have a way of supporting yourself. (And before the Men’s Rights people beat me up — I think stay-at-home parenthood sucks for men too: she cheats and gets alimony because she was out of the workplace.) Chumps who are financially vulnerable have fewer good choices. I want everyone to have good choices. Infidelity and divorce can still be overcome, but in my opinion, it’s much harder without a safety net. You gotta be very scrappy in court.

What do you hope readers get from reading your book?
CL: I hope my book is exactly what it advertises itself to be — a survival guide to infidelity. I want chumps to protect themselves after infidelity and focus on THEIR needs over those of cheaters.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on monogamy? Is it achievable?
CL: Of course it is. Cheating isn’t a monogamy problem, it’s a character problem. The reason people feign monogamy and then cheat is to maintain an unfair advantage — you invest all your resources in THEM, you play by the rules, and they keep their options open (cake!). That’s a character issue. Don’t use and abuse people. We are created to bond with one another, and trust is the social glue that holds us all together. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. And I think it will always be aberrant and painful when people violate those norms.lovemonkey

I think everyone should love again after infidelity. I don’t necessarily mean being coupled up again in the traditional sense; I mean don’t let a cheater be the last person you ever invest in. Go engage with the world, give of yourself and “gain a life.”

 

Tracy Schorn’s book Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life: The Chump Lady’s Survival Guide (Running Press) is available now. 

When The World Ends

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Facebook just reminded me that five years ago today, I wrote this on my wall:

“But don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.”

…I was echoing lyrics to a Dave Matthews Band song called When the World Ends.

The irony in this is ridiculous because 72 hours after posting it came the annihilation of my 20-year marriage.

At first, I was mad that Facebook threw that tidbit back at me. I don’t need a reminder of my naïveté in the finals hours leading up to Destruction Day. Especially not this weekend. I remember all too vividly how things unfolded, thank you very much.

But a few hours later, I realize maybe there was a serendipitous reason I needed to see that message today.

As the 5th anniversary of that milestone circles around once again, I must remember that while my relationship ended, my world did not. Sometimes, the universe just has to shake you up to wake you up. It may have felt like free-falling at the time, but I’d eventually land on my feet and everything would be okay. Better, in fact.

Five years ago this week, I survived the end of my marriage. And really, I didn’t have to worry ‘bout a thing.

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6 Things I Got Right For My Daughter After the Divorce

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With Mother’s Day this week, my heart is telling me to write about daughters. Specifically, my own.

I worried how both of the kids would fare upon getting the news of our divorce. My son N., who has Asperger’s and gets flustered by disruption in his routine, had just turned 13. He adjusted surprisingly well (he was more concerned that it meant we’d have to move, which we didn’t). But my daughter D. was at a precarious age. At 16, she was “not a girl, not yet a woman,” as Britney famously put it – and I feared the irreparable damage that our breakup might have on her.

I was anxious about the potential fallout when D.’s dad told her that he was moving out that same day. The first male object of love in our lives, our fathers set the standard of how a relationship with man should be. The way dad loves shapes and colors our perceptions of love and commitment, and as a result, that has a big influence on our expectations of our future intimate relationships.

It broke my heart that this devastation was not something I could prepare her for or protect her from. Despite her age, she was still our strong-willed yet sensitive little girl, the same one who used to write little notes and slide them under our door.

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At first, D. was angry at her dad, and it didn’t help matters that his only reassurance was that she’d get over it with time. As I was grappling with my own rage and resentment, it would have been very easy for me to feed into her teenage angst and attempt to punish my ex by driving a bigger wedge between them – but I didn’t.

Instead, I saw my role as one of peacemaker. Strange, I know. But I believe that wounded girls can become wounded women with trust issues unless they have an opportunity to heal that all-important relationship with their fathers. I couldn’t do the healing for them, but I wouldn’t stand in their way. Heaven knows it wasn’t always easy, but I tried my best to encourage D.’s connection with her dad.

The main reason I chose to take the high road is because I understand how much daughters need their daddies. I am fortunate to have a strong bond with my father, who has been married to my mother for nearly 50 years and in love with her for 55 years. So, yes, I do know how important that relationship is to building healthy self-esteem and having the confidence to love and be loved.

They say that the two best gifts a mother can give her daughter is 1) the opportunity to have a relationship with her father and 2) encouraging her independence. I honor the fact that D. has her own identity; that she must make her own decisions and learn from her own mistakes, but at the same time, I hope that she has learned from my mistakes too. That includes embracing her right to recognize what she will not tolerate in a relationship and finding the courage to speak up when faced with unacceptable behavior. In other words, believing in her own strength and truth.

Looking back on the past five years, I may have made a few missteps, but I’m glad I was able to get these six things right especially for D.’s benefit:

1. Be honest with her from the start. There is heated debate over telling the kids why the marriage ended. In my case, I not only believed they were old enough to handle a carefully-worded version of the truth, but that they deserved to know why our once “unbreakable” family had been suddenly smashed into a thousand pieces. Psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman says: “When an affair happens, it cheats the spouse and the family of the love and commitment of a partner and parent. Telling the child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth. And if there is one thing that affairs teach us, it is how devastating lies can be.”

2. Not prolonging the “Pick Me Dance.” A natural response to discovering infidelity in your marriage is attempting to salvage the relationship. Wanting to bargain, to fix it, to try harder, to seek counselling, to take up the other person’s hobbies, to have more frequent, non-vanilla sex, and to otherwise turn your life upside down to “win” a partner back is a process known as the “Pick Me Dance.” This is a very painful and humiliating stage that can cause confusion and false expectations in a family situation. While it can go on for months, I mercifully ripped off that Band-Aid in less than a week, thus saving my kids from harboring false hope of a reconciliation or from having D. see me devalue my personal worth.

3. Not badmouthing her father (or man-bashing anyone else). I tried to be careful in how I talked about their dad in front of them because I didn’t want them to feel guilty for continuing to love him, nor to feel conflicted in their loyalties. Children of divorce can struggle with their own identities (if someone says mom/dad is bad, does that mean I’m bad too?) and I wouldn’t want them to think they are genetically predispositioned to disappoint. I also didn’t bash men in front of D. It would have been grossly unfair to cynically reduce the entire male population to a handful of negative stereotypes.

4. Continue to offer her stability and consistency. After the shake-up of divorce, I wanted to quickly upright our world so that D. and her brother could feel surefooted again. We were all stressed, but I reassured them that we would be fine, and that they would continue to be provided with all the love and basic necessities they needed. With help from my immediate family, I re-established our home as a refuge of stability and consistency and more importantly, did my best to assure the kids that they could always count on me to be there for them.

5. Be an example of what love looks like. D. is in a long-term relationship; she and her boyfriend were together two years before her father and I split up and they are engaged to be married next year. I am grateful that she had someone to help her through this traumatic time and was already in a committed relationship with a foundation strong enough to withstand the impact of her parents’ divorce. All the same, I’m glad that D. is still living at home so that she can witness how happy I am in my new relationship. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, who studied 1,400 divorced and remarried families, found that a successful remarriage, competent parenting and low conflict in the home can counteract the negative effects of parental divorce. I hope my partner and I model a healthy and respectful relationship and that D. sees us as an example of why it is important to never close your heart to the possibility of love.

6. Show her what a strong woman can do. Actress Valerie Bertinelli said that one of the keys to a happy life after divorce is to “Love your children more than you hate your ex.” While I have been far from perfect in my divorce recovery, one thing I have always been good at is putting my kids above everything else – even how I felt about their father. 

Two years ago, my ex got engaged. That Christmas, I sent him a card expressing my best wishes. This did not come easily, considering that this summer he is marrying the woman he was seeing when our marriage ended, but I thought it was an important gesture to make in front of the kids. I was proud of myself for displaying that level of generosity and for making a move to start bridging the great divide, a gap that hurts no one more than it does our children.

Then last fall, I took it one step further by initiating a family dinner for the six of us at a local restaurant while the kids’ father and his fiancée were in town. It was the first time she and I met face to face, and I knew D. and N. were apprehensive about potential fireworks (believe me, I was a nervous wreck inside). By putting the kids’ best interests first, it assured that the atmosphere around the table was not only civil but friendly. That dinner paved the way for our family’s future by forging a cordial relationship with the kids’ father and soon-to-be stepmother, regardless of our past history.

I think that evening went a long way in showing D., and the rest of us, that even after something as ugly as divorce, love always wins.

Jennifer Garner Speaks (Some of) Her Truth

Jennifer Garner’s beautiful face is all over newsstands this week, as magazine headlines herald her first candid, post-divorce interview since the demise of her 10-year marriage to Ben Affleck.

I have never been a huge fan, but am reconsidering that stance after being impressed both by what the actress said and what she didn’t say here.

Conducting herself admirably, Jen does not shy away from unavoidable questions regarding the lurid details of the high-profile breakup while still upholding her ex-husband’s privacy and generously acknowledging that he too, is dealing with his shame and pain. She does, however, use the Vanity Fair interview to demystify the fairy tale of her marriage without further sullying what she still considers sacred.

As a celebrity, Jennifer Garner has a platform for spilling her guts to the point of decimating her ex, but she keeps it in check knowing that a tabloid is not the forum to express the depth of her grief and grievances. She speaks her truth, at least a well-controlled portion of it, while still taking the high road – which means choosing to do what’s right even when it’s not the easiest.

I found that out early in the legal process. When filing for divorce, I wanted an opportunity to speak my truth by citing the reason my marriage ended. Not only because it would ensure an expedient judicial process, but because I wanted there to be an honest, God-as-my-witness record of what had transpired. However, I was strongly advised against that by a lawyer who urged me to instead choose a prolonged separation and a “no fault” divorce to spare anyone, especially the children, from ever knowing the full extent of the situation.

Gee whiz, I thought, if a court of law isn’t the place to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – when else would it have a chance to be made known?

The answer, as it turns out, is never. The judge doesn’t want to hear it, your friends don’t want to hear it, your children don’t want to hear it, your ex’s new partner doesn’t want to hear it, and frankly, neither does yours.

As I came to realize, you need to make peace with the fact that the only living person who knows, and will ever know, all of the intimately gory details of your divorce is the person that you’re divorcing. I guess that’s why I found it particularly gratifying when Jen Garner disclosed that Ben is “still the only person who really knows the truth about things. And I’m still the only person that knows some of his truths.”

I read that as a wink-wink to anyone who has ever found themselves walking a tightrope between talking about the truth and taking the high road. Yes, of course there is much more I can say, but I won’t. Oh, but if only you knew.

Perhaps that is enough, then; to simply acknowledge that we live with unspoken truths that are very real, even if we are restricted from ever fully revealing them.

Celebrity or not, we may have more story to tell, but sometimes it’s best if we never do.