I've always loved Valentine’s Day, and this year was no exception. Here's 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.
I don't agree with this idea. I've long thought that we need to update Valentine's Day, reposition it as an all-inclusive day of love. It's a chance to celebrate all the people who bring love into our lives—our children, our parents, our friends, coworkers.
And our former spouse.
I know this idea might sound odd, but here's a person you once loved, who brought many things into your life. For many people—especially those of us with children—it's also someone who remains involved in our lives.
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 (non-romantic) 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.
Celebrating your ex (in a non-romantic way) can help your new, less-enmeshed relationship continue to evolve positively.
This Valentine's Day, I got my ex a portable, nylon hammock to carry along on a camping trip. I first saw this type of hammock on a hike in New Hampshire about a year after we split, and have been thinking about getting him one ever since. He loves to stay fit, to go hiking, and camping—an activity I have not had to do for the past five, blissfully mosquito- and mud-free years.
My ex came over to get out son a couple days before Valentine's Day, and I handed him the hammock, wrapped in cellophane printed with hearts. It's a Roo camping hammock, made by a company called Kammock, based in Austin, TX. The hammock, 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 came with a second pack filled with straps for tying it to trees. The hammock is big enough for two, meaning my ex can 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).
He unwrapped the hammock, and seemed very surprised. (I may not have shared with him my one-woman campaign to rebrand Valentine's Day.) Two weeks later, I invited him and his girlfriend over for Sunday night dinner. My ex and I often have Sunday night dinner together with our son, but his girlfriend, who lives in New York, was in town. So I invited her, too. This wasn't strictly a "nice" invitation. I've been uncomfortable about the existence of this girlfriend all along, because my ex began bringing her around to parties with our mutual friends within a few months of our split, and before I was sure I really wanted to go through with the divorce. I have yet to fully "get over it." The only way to get over it is to go through it, I repeated to myself, extending the invitation.
We had dinner. Which was fine. Then I woke up at 4 am, still not totally over it. Which was fine, too. Divorce is a multi-part process, and it can take years to "get over" every single aspect of it.
Then last weekend, I took my son to Atlanta for a family event. I was sitting in the hotel on Friday night, when I got a text from my ex.
"Stray question: Am I being as good a former husband as I can be? If not, please let me know what else I should be doing?"
Where did this text come from? It certainly seemed liked a very stray question. But then again, I had to remember, I'd done a lot for him during the previous few weeks.
One thing I got for Valentine's Day is an ex-husband continually dedicated to making our divorce work.
Here are few ways to show appreciation for a former spouse:
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 part of 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 and can help ease a still-angry ex into a more cooperative frame of mind.
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 doesn't read 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.
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.