The change in him wasn’t obvious. He didn’t take up golf or beat-boxing. He didn’t start running or become a gourmet chef. His transformation existed solely in my mind.
Our divorce left me shattered. I’d loved my husband Billy for decades, and we had enormous shared history. After we separated, every interaction we had was tinged with memory. Even the happy ones triggered feelings of failure and regret.
Seeing him was painful. Because we had three young children, seeing him was also unavoidable.
In the early months of our separation, I realized two things. First, if our children were going to heal, Billy and I had to learn to coparent effectively. Committed to raising our children together, neither of us was going anywhere. Coparenting meant I was going to see Billy often. Second, the kids were going to see me seeing him. They would observe every clenched jaw, every pointed look, every glance away. They would see my pain, and make it their own.
Something had to change
I began to shift how I thought about Billy. I stopped thinking about him as my ex. I stopped letting the sight of him trigger memories of sitting together in our university cafeteria, legs tangled underneath the table. I stopped thinking about all the ways we’d hurt each other, and how much I missed him.
I gave up thinking of the plans we’d made and now abandoned. I stopped remembering how we’d walked through the house we’d built together at 25, with our first baby strapped to my chest, dreaming of our life together as the rafters went up. I stopped focusing on the trips we’d never take and the retirement we’d never share.
Billy had been my best friend and confidant. He had been my constant companion. Remembering those roles filled me with grief and stopped my progress. Those memories turned my attention to the past, and we can’t change the past.
We can only move forward
I started slowly. Instead of seeing him as my former partner, I saw him as my current business partner, with our business being the three children we brought into the world. Instead of seeing him as my ex-husband, I saw him as the father of my children. Instead of labeling him as the source of my heartbreak, I labeled him as the only other person in the world who loved our children as much as I did.
Shifting my focus from our past history and broken promises to our current ties and the promises we kept put Billy and me on the same team.
Changing my thinking wasn’t easy and it wasn’t unconscious. It didn’t happen quickly. It took several months of practice, and an active internal dialogue. I had to remind myself often that in order to work together, I had to reframe my ex as my current partner. Sometimes I had to remind myself out loud in the mirror. Sometimes I had to remind myself over drinks with a friend. Sometimes I repeated it over and over in my head as we bickered about kid minutia. Sometimes the day ended and I couldn’t muster the strength to see it that way. When I woke up the next morning, I kept trying.
Slowly, I began to see Billy differently. Our interactions weren’t about us anymore. Our story had ended. This was now our children’s story, and Billy and I were each important characters. We had the same motivation and wanted the same happy ending, even if we sometimes differed in our approach.
We are one team
We want the same things. We are a different kind of family, but still a family nevertheless: I repeated this mantra often, to myself, to the children, to my family.
My family and friends heard me talk about this so often, they internalized it as well. I inadvertently created the expectation that we were all on the same team: the children’s team. Children’s team members support both parents. Children’s team members don’t speak negatively about anyone else on the team.
I didn’t know until years later, in a conversation with my mother. She told me she’d started out ready to abandon my ex if that’s what I wanted; she was wholeheartedly on my team. But, she soon saw that being on my team meant being on the children’s team. Because I still wanted a supportive extended family for my children and my parenting partner, my mother and the rest of my family continued to support my ex-husband.
Years later, the shift is complete. The Billy who sits next to me at talent shows and parent teacher conferences is my parenting partner first, and my ex a distant second. We now have far more history together as parents than we ever did as a romantic couple.
The story we’re telling now, as our children’s mom and dad, matters more to each of us than the one we started as Billy and Kate at 19, and we’re each committed to making it a happy one.
Note to readers who just finished this and feel hopeless: you’re not alone. If I’d read this article in the early months after my divorce it would’ve seemed like impossible, overly-optimistic drivel. Coparenting is a journey, and can take time. Don’t compare your second chapter to our twenty-fifth. The good news? You can start today. Even if you do it alone. Even if it seems impossible.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a coach and a background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Follow Kate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest on her blended stepfamily adventures. Need help? Check out her curated collection of more than 2000 divorced and blended family resources on Pinterest.