Eighteen years ago, the moment I realized my marriage was almost surely doomed, I phoned my friend Tom for advice. He said, “I’ve been happily remarried for 10 years, but still, I think you should do whatever you can to stay together. Divorce is devastating when you have kids.” I was 50 and had three kids, ages eight, nine, and 13.
That same day I phoned a child psychologist. She said, “All decisions should be driven by what’s best for the kids.”
After another year spent trying to regain trust for each other and work out our differences, my husband and I decided to separate. I’d taken Tom’s advice, and the therapist’s, and yet there we were, divorcing. There were so many decisions to make.
During our marriage, my husband had often remarked, “Whenever Susan’s faced with choices, she asks ten people’s advice and then does whatever she wants.”
This assessment seemed basically true. In divorce, seeking opinions from those who'd gone through it before served me especially well. After all, no two divorces are alike; I needed a panoply of perspectives.
Here are five of the best pieces of advice I received:
1. Know when to compromise and when to hold firm.
One divorced friend said, “I gave in a lot during my divorce—I thought it would make him nicer. Now I’m kicking myself.” Another friend offered almost the exact opposite piece of wisdom, “The mom’s the one who has to suck it up for the sake of her kids. So get used to it.” My attorney had a third opinion. “You have to give in on some things,” he said. “Compromise will help you complete the divorce sooner, and yield a better settlement that works for everyone.”
What did I take from these three ideas about compromise and holding firm? Don’t give in too much in an effort to make your ex nicer or more generous, but do get very clear on your own bottom line, the items and arrangements that are truly critical to you. I took their advice and figured out my bottom lines, both money- and custody-wise, and was basically happy with how we settled our affairs.
2. Don’t let current anger cloud your faith in the future.
It wasn’t easy. In the beginning weeks of our separation, I spent the time my kids were in school composing lengthy letters to my lawyer: My husband did this. He did that. And another thing . . . All this obsessing about his faulty actions and fear of how they would affect me in the years to come made me stressed out all the time. A therapist told me, “Don’t look more than three feet in front of you.” In other words, don’t cast forward into the future with the intense negative emotions careening around today. This was good advice. Once I internalized the idea of getting through the next three feet, I could stop ruminating about all I needed to do to get through the years ahead. Keeping my focus on the day before me made me feel less overwhelmed, far calmer, and able to actually make decisions that needed to be made.
3. Don’t use a lawyer when you need a therapist.
This piece of advice actually came from my lawyer. I found sharing my kids even more excruciating than I’d imagined. My lawyer said he was not equipped to give counsel on living arrangements; rather, he told me, we should negotiate custody with the help of a child psychologist. We did this, and my lawyer was right. A therapist can help you through the emotional hurdles and figure out what is best for the kids in the way a lawyer cannot.
4. Whatever you do, avoid going to court.
Some divorcing couples battle over money. For us, the struggle was over the hours, or even minutes, with our kids. After my rage about having to share our children settled into a silent-scream phase, I came around to realizing that keeping our arguments out of court was the first goal. It was one of best bits of advice I received, repeated by several formerly-married sages. For my kids as well as for my sanity and bank account, it was crucial to dissolve our union without tearing each other to smithereens before a judge and also winding up with a custody arrangement designed by a stranger who didn’t know us—and who didn’t love our children.
5. Remember: Good things can happen when you’re alone.
The first time my daughters drove away with their dad for their nine days with him, I sobbed on the train ride to Philly, where I’d decided to go to visit my parents. When I arrived, my mother said, “Before long you’ll appreciate having time to yourself. Think of all you’ll be able to do.” Right then, one of the best results was the extra time I got to spend with my parents. Then, the possibility of a new romance nudged into my vision. I lived in Washington D.C., and one weekend, when my children were with their father, I went to New York to see friends. There I began a flirty relationship with an old beau. This made my ex’s insistence on having nine days in a row with our kids far more palatable.
When my new relationship ended, I was back to feeling lonely during my child-free nine days each month. My old vengeful side reared up, egging me on to go after my ex, to try to “stick it to him.” However, my love for my daughters, plus all the advice I’d received, triumphed. I worked hard to foster a strong relationship between my kids and their father—and between this man I’d once married and myself. In fact, I later began to admire him for wanting that continuity with our kids.
Today, we’ve taken ten vacations together as a family—my ex and I, and all three kids. I don’t think I could have managed to keep my mouth shut whenever I was dying to badmouth him without the plentiful, and often conflicting, advice of my friends. Or without my own determination to take the good advice and use it to help me create the best divorce possible, given our situation.
Susan Orlins is an award-winning journalist and author of Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers and Others and co-author of Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina. She has three grown daughters and has been divorced since 1998. For more than a decade, she has taken yearly vacations with her ex-husband and their daughters. She lives in Washington D.C., where she is an editor of Street Sense, a newspaper written and sold by homeless vendors.