We were to meet the first time at a housewarming party.
Jill (the "girlfriend") and I (the "ex-wife") felt the weight of the titles we held -- titles neither of us expected in life nor wanted, titles fully loaded with assumptions and negative connotation. Surely, the ex-wife was a woman scorned; surely, the girlfriend was a home wrecker. Neither were true, yet I still felt the weight of others' assumptions and expectations. We were supposed to hate each other in a way that was largely condoned by society.
Our very first meeting was like a collision of sorts -- forced, unexpected and accidental. I hadn't fully understood what it meant to have an ex-husband let alone another woman in my life. Similarly, Jill had not expected to fall in love with a man with a history that included such permanent fixtures as myself and our son.
We had not planned for this life when we were young and dreaming of our futures. There's no training or preparation. But there's one thing we knew for sure -- we might have to suffer each other's presence for the rest of our lives.
And there we stood, face to face for the first time, at a housewarming party. In that moment, we were surrounded by the blur of loud conversations, flowing cocktails, the passing of presents. And yet, for me, it was as if we were the only people in the room. It was a pivotal moment and there was no question this was a first impression that would be difficult to repair if it went awry. Although it was planned, our first meeting also had that unfortunate quality of uncertainty, the kind that causes your heart to sink to such depths, you wonder if you'll remember to breathe.
Jill extended her hand in greeting while my ex stood by her side in what seemed like a protective stance. I took her hand and met the gaze of her brown eyes, my curiosity piqued. I was meeting the woman my ex-husband now loved while she was meeting the woman her boyfriend once loved.
Leading up to this moment, I'd secretly hoped Jill wasn't as pretty as I was or as smart (I was terribly disappointed in both regards!) I am human. There was still something within me that felt a sense of competition, even though we weren't competing. I'm not sure if this was a societal crumb that worked its way into my thoughts or just old-fashioned insecurity, but I'll admit, I toiled over what to wear that night. I spent so much time worrying about how I looked, I hadn't considered how I'd feel seeing my ex with another woman.
And it hurt. It hurt even though our divorce was amicable and the right decision for us. It hurt because I'd never before seen him with someone else (we met when we were just 19.) It stung with all of the awkwardness accompanying thoughts that "this wasn't how my life was supposed to be."
Thankfully, in our burgeoning 30's, Jill and I handled a delicate moment delicately and with maturity that, to this day, I'm grateful we had. I do believe that fateful meeting set the tone for the decade to follow, a decade that found us growing and adapting into the friends we are today.
The magical ingredient, the golden key, was so very simple and readily available, yet something that escapes so many women in our situation: kindness. In retrospect, we were kind to each other. Of course, kindness seems overly simplified for divorced couples who endure ugly spats over money and custody or who've suffered abuse at the hands of an ex. Our chosen path is not for everyone. Thankfully, our situations didn't include insurmountable circumstances. But feelings and emotion still run raw and deep and can give even the most amicable of divorces rough edges and foil the best intentions.
There were plenty of raw emotions (my perfect family picture had disintegrated and it took years of therapy to recover from disappointment.) In an effort to maintain decorum, kindness was a safe haven, a place to turn when I sat in the shadow of sadness and insecurity.
Over the years, kindness created a foundation on which our blended family was raised. A few years later, this same kindness made it possible for Jill to warmly invite her own ex-husband's new wife into our family. Kindness...it took us farther than I could have anticipated all those years ago
Of course, there are many other ingredients that contribute to our blended family -- patience, empathy, understanding and tolerance during our more human moments. But that first step, kindness, is where it all began.