Many of the people I've interviewed who have decent divorces described their spouses as friends first. They entered the marriage with a genuine regard for the other, and this sense of fellowship made it easier for them to focus on creating better lives for both, unwed—rather than spinning out into anger and law suits.
For others, raising children is an intensely important shared interest that spurs cooperation, much like a pre-existing friendship. Prioritizing their mutual interest in raising happy, healthy children helps many couples transition into a friendly co-parenting relationship.
Even working together can act as a form of “friendship.” One woman in her 50s whose marriage ended after her husband cheated, said she was determined to keep their joint business going. This goal forced her to speak more kindly toward him than she might otherwise have, and even to work harder on her own emotional recuperation. My own ex and I have been working on our Splitopia website, a project that has definitely sparked some of our negative dynamics, but also encouraged us both to work harder to get along.
For others, though, creating a cooperative, peaceful divorce is not an easy task.
Here are three steps to try, in divorce or even in marriage:
1. Decrease negative rumination.
Neuroscientist Helen Fisher, author of The Anatomy of Love, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine neuroscientist Lucy Brown have shown that people in successful relationships can suspend negative judgment of the other person. As with many actions that work in a good marriage, this mental effort can help create a good divorce.
In one study, Brown, researcher Mona Xu and others looked at the brain activity of people in the early stages of romantic love, and then reconnected with them five years later. About half were still together. The researchers went back and reviewed the earlier brain scans; the still-happy couples had shown low activity in the region associated with negative social judgment. “To our amazement, it wasn’t the activation in any brain area but the decreases in activity in others, such as this one that has to do with social judgment, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” says Brown.
In a divorce, or the waning days of a frustrating marriage, the default of many of us is to criticize, to dwell on the ways we’ve been wronged. Talking back to your habitual inner judge can help you move on. “You need to be aware of the activity and inhibit your response,” says Brown. “Just practice that again and again. You’ll have the thought and you’ll say, ‘Let that thought go.’”
I found myself far less angry and ever-more appreciative of my spouse, once we split. If this doesn’t happen naturally, you can consciously work on replacing a habitual focus on his faults with intentional appreciation for his strengths—or for the positive moments in your own life now.
2. Learn from the mistakes of the past.
One of the stealth benefits of having divorced parents is that you know what not to do. Many people I spoke to said they remembered their parents’ horrible divorces and vowed to handle theirs differently. People told me their parents wouldn’t speak to each other or put them in the middle of arguments, making them feel like a “ping-pong ball between them.”
You can discuss a healthy approach to family relationships with your ex, and even with your spouse or fiancé. Talk about what you did and did not like in your family of origin, and how you hope emulate the positive characteristics and avoid the negative ones.
You also might learn from your own a divorce. A retired Army veteran from Oklahoma told me he was handling his second divorce in the opposite way he’d managed his first, destructive one. “Whatever she wants to do, is fine with me,” he said. This attitude was enabling him to go slowly, listen to her needs and his own, and better protect their children.
3. Consider a prenup before your wed.
What?! A prenup sounds so unromantic, exactly the opposite of taffeta and frosting and a honeymoon in Hawaii. Who wants to discuss the marriage breaking down when you're looking at wedding dresses and rings?
The point of a prenup is not to sap the spark out of marriage, but rather to prevent an emotional and financial battle, should it end. “In 100-percent of the high-conflict divorces I’ve done, there was no prenup in place,” says Regina DeMeo, a family law attorney in Maryland. "Divorce is a known risk. The best way to prevent problems on the front-end is with a contract.”
You can use a contract to protect a good divorce, too. I met one couple who created a type of post-nup, a contract they signed agreeing that neither would take the other to court if their good divorce soured in the future.
None of this is to say that a good divorce is easy. “When I think about how hard it is, I’m amazed that any of us can change the way we think and behave,” says Brown. But we've all seen the emotional and financial destruction of bad divorces, an awareness that can remind us that the effort is worthwhile.
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 family law reform. 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.