I love the idea of Valentine’s Day–a holiday that celebrates not only romance but also chocolate. And flowers. And fluffy stuffed animals. What's not to love?
Oh, I know: the idea that Valentine's is for couples only.
In some ways, Valentine’s Day is better for the divorced and separated—we're among the few people not disappointed by the holiday, since we weren’t expecting to have a good time anyway. But we can also participate in the theme of love, without it having to revolve around a partner.
It’s time to update our image of Valentine's Day, to reinvent it as one that is more inclusive, a day in which we celebrate all the people who bring love into our lives—our children, our parents, our supportive friends, our coworkers, pals from high school, the guy at the coffee shop who always smiles when you arrive.
And our former spouse. I know this sounds odd, but this is a person you once loved, and for many—especially those of us with children—someone who remains involved in your life. Celebrating your ex (in a non-romantic way) helps your new, less-enmeshed relationship continue to evolve positively.
My own relationship with my ex has gotten steadily better (with occasional moments of backsliding) as we approach the five-year mark of our split. So what am I getting him for Valentine's Day? He doesn't eat candy. Or cookies. He loves to stay fit, to be healthy, to go hiking, and even camping—an activity I have not had to participate in for the past five, blissfully mosquito- and tick- and mud-free single years.
So this year, I'm getting him a hammock. I've long had the idea that he would like a portable, nylon hammock that can be carried along on a camping trip, and strung between any two proximate trees one sees. I first saw this type of hammock on a hike in New Hampshire about a year after we split. I was doing a residency at the McDowell Art Colony in Peterborough, and one Monday, we all went out to a local dive bar to play a set during the open-mic night. A handsome local drummer played after us, and later, he and I went out for a hike. He showed me his portable hammock, and I've been thinking about getting one for my ex ever since.
This is the year. I'm going to give my ex a Roo camping hammock, made by a company called Kammock, based in Austin, TX. The hammock is fabricated from a special lightweight, tear-resistant fabric, is cute and bright (and an item the PR department offered to send me to try). It's big enough for two, meaning my ex may share it with our son while hiking, or maybe with his girlfriend, when she's in town. That's fine, too. One of my suggestions of what to get for your ex is something that will help him move on (see below).
Write a Gratitude Card
A now-classic experiment of the early positive psychologists, writing a heartfelt account of your valuable relationship moments, and then reading it to the person it's about, has been shown to increase happiness more than a recreational activity such as going to the movies—and not only for the receiver. A gratitude letter reminds you of all you have, and counteracts the negative focus of so many divorce proceedings.
Chances are, your former spouse brought strengths and skills into your life, which you now have as you.
Maybe you learned how to rock climb (like I did). Or you went to law school with her support. Or you count his lovely parents as your family. I’m grateful for my once-husband’s consistent calmness and support during our split. Your gratitude letter acknowledges this.
Give Something Back
Plenty of perfectly sane people can let a good divorce devolve into a protracted fight over jointly accumulated stuff—most of which they don’t need. Of course these items generally serve as proxy for resentment or hurt-fueled anger about something else, but fighting over possessions only escalates fury—and the cost of your divorce. So this Valentine's Day, go ahead and give your ex the thing you're still clinging to.
Just give it back. Then take yourself on a shopping spree for some new fabulous item, an indulgence you deserve for being so magnanimous, and can afford since you’ve saved on legal fees by not fighting.
I once met a woman in a coffee shop in Santa Monica, CA, who told me about a divorcing couple racking up legal bills over custody of the cutting boards. There is no cutting board so unique it could not be replaced in five minutes on Amazon. Or, if you own a cutting board of such exquisite craftsmanship that it should hang in a museum, give it to your ex and buy one you can use.
Help Your Ex Move On
One woman I write about in Splitopia said she edited the online dating profile for her ex about six months after she’d moved out. This might be too much for most of us, but there are other ways to support your former spouse’s efforts to rebuild a life. Get him motorcycle lessons, perhaps, a desire you loathed while married, but can see the value in, from a fuel-economy perspective, now that you don’t have to hear the engine roaring toward your home. Bring her the catalogue to the nearby college if she wants to return to school. Give him access to your Kindle library if he’s complained that he never reads enough. My ex bought me a Kindle some time after he moved out, and every time I use it, I feel a moment of appreciation for him (which helps allay any anger that might have been building for something else he said or did).
Offer A Word of Apology or Appreciation
Marriage and divorce are interactive relationships. What you say or do not say directly affects how your ex behaves. I've spoken to therapists, mediators and lawyers who stressed how helpful an apology, or a sincere expression of appreciation can be.
“One thing my clients taught me is the power of one. One person can really set the tone when it comes to working toward a good divorce,” says M. J. Murray Vachon, a licensed clinical social worker in South Bend, IN, who has been seeing couples for 30 years.
For many formerly-weds, an apology is worth more than gold. It changed everything for Catherine, a mother of one in upstate New York who I write about in Splitopia. Catherine moved from Toronto to the U.S. when she was 24 to marry a man who’d long been her best friend. The relationship unraveled a year after their child was born, ending in separation, with an ugly argument following. Though they resumed their friendship, Catherine didn’t fully get over the fight until he apologized. It was their first real conversation about the split, and one that enabled their friendship to return to its early, genuine closeness. “I have a huge amount of confidence in our relationship now, “ she said.
Why waste your time thinking of—and doing—something nice for your ex?
Because our relationships have a huge impact on the quality of our lives. Because as parents, we have our children to consider, and 40 years of research shows that conflict between parents is one of the most damaging experiences for children, whether the parents are divorced or married. Because one of the biggest stressors on a second marriage is resentment from the first. Showing your ex some love lays the foundation for your next, much better, romance.
Which, if it works, will have you facing the stress of Valentine’s Day as a couple, once again, this time next year.