Many people assume that since hate is the opposite of love, discord must be the opposite of marriage. But our feelings aren’t wired on an on/off switch. I’ve met plenty of former couples who get along far better now that they’re no longer married. This truth can discomfit well-meaning friends or family who expect your divorce to be an emotional severing as clear as the terms of your legal split. As a father of two in San Diego said, some friends continued to insist that he “hadn’t moved on” 10 years after separation because he wasn’t fuming with rancor at his once-wife.
While everyone knows that marriages evolves over time, we don’t always realize that divorce continues to change, too—and for the better. Old resentments don’t have to carry over like frequent flier miles from your former fights. Many people craft positive, more peaceful relationships with a former spouse.
Here are four good reasons that your relationship might improve, post-marriage:
1. You need less from an ex than from a spouse
We expect different things from a spouse than from an ex; changing the terms of the relationship can make it function more smoothly. Sometimes our idealized hopes for holy matrimony cause friction when they crash up against the reality of this particular person we have married. But even if we think we have a totally rational, super modern view of marriage, and are not expecting a prince on a white horse, the very singularity of our one and only spouse puts a lot of pressure on that person to be just right.
When you downgrade this person’s role in your life from spouse to something else, long-standing frustrations may disappear. I found myself suddenly appreciating my once-husband’s specific strengths. After we separated, he’d sometimes take out my trash. He’d move my car on street-cleaning days to prevent me from getting parking tickets. He did these things while married, but back then I was often too frustrated by our problems to care. Now? I was thrilled with the help.
I could feel his concern about my comfort in a way I couldn’t when we were married.
As Zsa Zsa Gabor said, “You never really know a man until you’ve divorced him.”
You’re the same people as before and your incompatibilities may well persist. But in a less enmeshed, interdependent relationship, you run up against them far less frequently, or in such contained circumstances that they don’t exert the same influence over your life.
2. Your ex might change
On the other hand, you’re not exactly the same people you were in marriage. “People grow and change in divorce, and you have to keep updating yourself on who they are now,” says M.J. Murray-Vachon, a licensed clinical social worker in Indiana who has been seeing couples and individuals for 30 years.
With a marriage’s end, some people break out of a carapace that hardened over them with the years. Your ex may begin to operate differently, in a way you find easier to take. Also, once you separate, your former spouse still has your complaints in her head. She may well address them on her own. She may work harder or show an interest in art or finally keep her car filled with gas.
Your former spouse may change into someone you get along with better.
3. You might change
Sometimes your ex remains his same old self, but you change. You become stronger, more independent, happier, less angry. You finally feel free to live your life on your own terms, and this sense of “fit” in your home and your days enhances your confidence or patience, your magnanimity or ability to let disagreements slide.
Some people find that taking responsibility for an old point of contention changes a dynamic. “I’ve seen entire cases change because one person looked at the other and said, ‘Thank you for being such a good provider all these years.’ Or, a women felt undervalued, and the man says, ‘I just want to say what a great job you’ve done with our children’,” said Colorado Lawyer/mediator Beth Henson. “Never underestimate the power of a sincere ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry.’”
In my own life, I found that once we split, I could actually practice some of the good communication skills marriage counselors always stress. Marriage researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman, claims he can tell within five minutes if a couple will divorce based on how they speak to each other. In his bestselling marriage guide The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert, he describes what he calls "The Four Horseman of Apocalypse": criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These behaviors are so corrosive, that when he sees couples engaging in them, he sees a divorce in their future.
I knew about these Four Horsemen from personal experience. But once my husband moved out, my ability to community kindly increased exponentially. If I was angry, I could wait until I calmed down to say something about it. I could hear, for the first time, how a “casual” critique wasn’t constructive at all. I felt proud of my newfound ability to communicate well. I felt skilled, subtle, mature.
Many people say that when they remove the underlying pressure to accept very real incompatibilities for one’s entire life, the day-to-day experience of them is far less disheartening, and less likely to trigger a verbal spat.
4. You see yourselves as partners with a goal
Sometimes former spouses get along better because they can see themselves more clearly as allies in a strategic goal—such as parenting their children or keeping a business afloat—whereas spouses in a waning marriage can feel like opposing camps in a cold war. The mere act of cooperation can change how we view and treat our once-wed.
It takes works to continually improve your divorce, but it’s worth the effort. For parents, there’s the added incentive of modeling compassion for their children.
As a mother in Beacon, New York said about her good relationship with her ex, “Our kids see not a marriage, but a loving relationship. And they see what it’s like when adults who love each other disagree.”
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for the family law reform movement. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.