The end of a marriage means having to grapple with what is family after divorce. It can mean having to rethink everything you grew up believing, it can mean throwing away the vision for your own family that you’ve held for as long as you can remember and it can leave you wondering, “What now? Are we still a family?”
It’s something that we all have to deal with, regardless of the length of marriage, your age, whether you have children or how old the children are. I do think it’s harder with long-term marriages because the family patterns and connections are more established. It’s also harder with adult children—there is less daily interaction, there may be fewer occasions when you’re forced/required to all be together and that means renegotiating your relationships takes longer.
My current guest, Elizabeth was married for thirty-eight years. She has three children all now in their thirties. She’s been divorced now for almost two years. She sees the end of her marriage as destroying their family unit. Here’s Elizabeth:
What I can say about the whole thing is I didn’t take one shortcut. I don’t abuse any substances so I felt every morsel of pain.
I went to a therapist. I stayed in my 12-step recovery. I didn’t overeat. I didn’t get drunk. I didn’t go shopping. I actually experienced all of the pain and sadness and grief of this very long-term marriage.
My vision for my life was that I would be married to somebody until the end of my life and that we would be a complete family. And divorce destroyed the family unit. It completely destroyed the family unit. We had three grown children. And we have not been together as a unit since that time.
Although I have been with my children, he and I have not spoken since the day of divorce.
It’s this weird, bizarre thing that’s sort of free floating out there with a man that I was in a relationship with for forty years. Other than receiving the alimony check, I have no communication and that’s a very weird thing.
I’m not pointing a finger but I have done a tremendous amount of work on myself. I’d be open to it but I don’t in any way feel like I need to initiate anything At this point, maybe it will come from our children, maybe it will come from him, it would be some kind of reproachment for the family. I don’t feel hostilely towards him.
I really am sad that we don’t have our unit.
What I make up is that he’s really shame-based and guilty because he did go outside of the marriage. He didn’t say, “I’m unhappy, I need to do something.” He didn’t say, “Let’s go for counseling.” He covertly found a relationship and pursued it. And the woman is five hours away by car. It was very active on his part.
I don’t know what’s inside this man’s head, but probably being from a shame-based family as I know him, he has to feel ashamed because of what he did. And he covers it up in his own way.
But, I have no desire to be the generator of something happening as a family. Even though, I know it would please my children to no end, if just doesn’t feel right to me.
What helped me was to not to think in terms of no longer being a family but rather still being a family that was just different from what it was before. Visually, I thought of us as a Venn diagram … you know the interlocking circles. I had my circle, he had his circle. We’d always had our circles. The kids each had their circles and all these circles have overlap. The circles are changing all the time and the overlapping parts change and continue to change.
The overlapping part is smaller than what it was when we were married because we don’t all eat meals together or vacation together for example, but we still interact at the kids’ after-school activities, parent-teacher conferences, birthday parties and so on. My ex and I didn’t share a formal meal together until my daughter’s high school graduation when we were entertaining out-of-town family.
These days, it seems that there are fewer occasions that bring us altogether as one family group but the occasions that do call for it are more significant, such as freshmen move-in week at college or helping my daughter move into her apartment. I think the passage of time and the practice we’ve had being in each other’s company means that we’re able to participate in these events for the most part without drama. I hope it continues that way because I know, like Elizabeth says, the kids do really appreciate it when it happens.
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