There are couples that divorce, work things out and then re-marry. That is the classic definition of reconciliation. It is possible to achieve reconciliation with an Ex without redoing the marriage vows. It may take years to achieve, but it is possible and it’s good for our health if we can reconcile without remarrying. In fact, that is the only way reconciliation is possible if one or both of you have married someone else.
I recently had dinner with my Ex, our daughter, her husband and their younger daughter. After dinner we were attending a play together on campus where their older daughter had a part in Shakespeare’s play – Othello. Dinner was rather poignant since that day was the fiftieth anniversary of the day we met. I opted not to point that out. There didn’t seem to be any good way to incorporate that fact into the dinner conversation.
Still Connected in Many Ways
I appreciated the opportunity to reminisce about our earlier years together, the houses we renovated, the history behind heirlooms now passed along to adult daughters, challenges overcome, and the status of one another’s various childhood family members.
I did wonder how, given we each had such strong memories of our formally shared lives, we stayed apart and estranged for so long. By the end of Othello all the major characters have died. The play is about jealously run amuck and the tremendous power our feelings sometimes have over us. Sometimes those powerful emotions are destructive. Sometimes they end marriages.
Reconciliation as the Path to Peace
Sadly, we each played a part in just such a drama, though mercifully the results were not fatal. Reconciliation is a peculiar thing. It is the sun shining after weeks of overcast skies and damp weather; it is the warmth of a fire on a night when temperatures dip to single digits.
Reconciliation with an Ex takes time. We play a leading role in the drama; but we must also be willing to let the process unfold in its own unique way by whatever path that may take. Reconciliation requires us to relinquish our personal preferences and patiently wait for an unknown outcome.
In ancient Israel Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were estranged for decades. It started when Jacob and his mother connived to cheat Esau out of his rightful double inheritance as the first-born male. To say that caused problems would be an understatement of huge proportion. Jacob fled for his life. Years later – we’re talking two wives, over a dozen children, and decades of virtual slave labor to the uncle that took him in – Jacob and Esau were reconciled. Jacob quaked in his boots when the encounter with Esau was imminent. How would he be received? How would he respond? Years of animosity slipped away in an instant, followed by a tearful reunion.
Reconcile Without Remarrying
We don’t talk much about reconciliation following a divorce. We talk more about moving on, getting over it, and even forgiving – but not reconciling. What does reconciliation look like when one or both formerly married people are now married to other people? It can’t mean getting back together again. It can mean no longer having to avoid one another. It can mean accepting that the marriage is dead, but there are survivors and the survivors can come to a place of mutual respect, appropriate affection and appreciation for the other.
A friend, who is also a professional mental health counselor, pointed out to me that divorce ends the marriage. It does not end the relationship. Divorce certainly does change, absolutely, every aspect of a couple’s relationship.
In addition to figuring out who keeps what, there are all those family events that keep showing up on the calendar of life year after year. What about graduations, milestone birthdays, or the death of an ex-father or mother-in-law? What about the weddings of mutual children or grandchildren? In this case, what about showing up to the performance in which a mutual granddaughter was on stage?
An Endless Series of Emotional Land Mines
These and other family moments can feel like an endless series of emotional land mines divorced people must navigate. Each one requires the ex-spouse to decide whether to stay away and be left out, or go and risk being received like someone suspected of carrying a contagious and lethal disease.
In the midst of all the animosity, anger, depression, and confusion that often accompany a divorce, it may seem impossible to imagine ever being in the same room together again without a lawyer to mediate. The idea that sharing such special family moments could be mutually pleasant– or at least not a teeth grinding-stomach-lurching experience – seems like the definition of impossible.
Is Reconciliation Even Possible?
Is it possible? Perhaps it is, perhaps its not. Perhaps reconciling to the point where there is more pleasure than pain involved when two formerly married people both attend these events is a good post-divorce goal.
But how? How can we move beyond the issues and hard feelings that instigated the divorce? There is no magic formula, but it can and does happen. It may take many years to reconcile, as it did for Jacob and his twin brother. It may come only after many awkward encounters that make walking barefoot over nails seem like a better option than attending a family event together.
Advantages of Reconciling
It is possible – and to reconcile without remarrying the rewards are great. Children and grandchildren no longer fear an outbreak of unresolved anger and hurt spewing out to ruin the occasion. Other divorced couples might look on and consider the possibility of life without vitriol toward their own former spouse.
For me the seeds of such a possibility were planted at a casual neighborhood backyard party. Though the Ex wasn’t there, that party paved the way for future events when we would both be present. The hosts, Bob and Lucy, were friends of my daughter and son-in-law. Their kids were on community summer swim teams together.
I saw Bob’s father and mother, long since divorced from one another, chatting away the afternoon with his father’s current wife and his mother’s current husband. I only knew these were their relationships because my daughter pointed it out to me. To the casual observer the four appeared to be two couples that had been friends for a long time.
The Influence of Reconciled Couples
Though she said nothing at the time, I think our daughter was hoping the day would come her own divorced parents might have such a relationship. Such geniality was not how it went down for many family events following our divorce. Sometimes we would stay as far apart as possible to still be at the same event. Several times one or both of us came with a companion recruited to come along as a buffer; not quite a bodyguard, but closer to that role than a date.
Being at such events was about as pleasant as a root canal without benefit of Novocain. Other times I opted to skip the event, staying home to lick wounds real or imaginary. That led to dealing with feelings similar to what I imagine Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl experienced when she was on the outside looking in on the happiness of others.
Time Really Can Heal Old Wounds
It is true “time heals all wounds” and “practice makes perfect.” The ice between us began to thaw, slowly, as it does when winter temperatures rise above freezing. Encounters gradually became less like taking a test for which I was totally unprepared and more like walking into an unfamiliar place recommended by a trusted friend. Over time – much time – the temperature between us started to warm up a bit. It became possible to exchange pleasantries as two people just meeting might do. Yes, we were truly able to reconcile without remarrying
Meeting Again for the First Time
In a sense we were two people meeting for the first time. Divorce changes us in profound and deep ways. We are forced to look at our own inadequacies that prevented us from measuring up to the “until death do you part” expectation. Regardless of who did what to whom, when, or how; a divorce brings disillusionments and unrealistic expectations to center stage.
Starting over again as single-again adults forces us to come to terms with unresolved issues. Assumptions we could conveniently ignore as long as the other person was there to blame now demand our attention in the lonely hours when we are totally on our own.
Over a period of many years and family events, the bitterness receded, making it feasible to approach one another with positive regard.
I mark last Thanksgiving as the real turning point in our post-divorce relationship.
Our daughter invited me, and my current husband, to her home for the annual turkey gobbling meal. She told me she also intended to invite her father. The last Thanksgiving meal we shared was at least fifteen years ago.
“Well, your house, your rules. We will come anyway.” So there I was, sharing the same menu I’d eaten pretty much every Thanksgiving since I was young child.
Seated to my left was my former spouse. Sitting to my right was my current one. Across from us were our three young adult grandchildren. At either end of the table were our daughter and son-in-law.
We laughed. We recounted tales of adventures when we were the ages the grandchildren are now. We talked about trips taken and plans for ones coming up. Conversation around the table flowed back and forth like a good game of Ping-Pong.
Recapturing What We Have in Common
When I reflect on that day, I realize just how thankful I am for whatever subtle changes we’ve both experienced that made that meal possible. It took over a decade and many false starts, but we did it. We shared a traditional meal with people we both love – people in whom we both have a vested interest.
I have no advice about how to achieve reconciliation with an ex-spouse. I do think there are some mile-markers along the way that indicate reconciliation is replacing resentment. We’re moving toward reconciliation when:
- We are able to again focus on the other’s positive traits that made them attractive to us in the first place.
- We refrain from pointing out their flaws to others. No matter how tempting or how justified it may seem, confessing someone else’s shortcomings is like putting drops of rat poison in our own coffee and waiting for the other to suffer as a result.
- We can walk into the room in spite of how temped we may be to turn tail and run. Eleanor Roosevelt’s wisdom comes into play in such situations. She famously said, “No one can insult you without your cooperation.” Choose not to cooperate when being insulted.
In our case reconciliation meant we moved beyond the tensions that kept us away from one another for years. We can again enjoy the fruits of our union together. Some divorced couples do re-marry each other. If you may be contemplating that, this article by Caroline Choi in Huffington Post may be of benefit to you.
Whether or not there is the possibility of re-marring the person you divorced, finding a way to be at peace is worth the efforts. Dina Haddad’s article at Mediate.com has tips for how to achieve a workable post-divorce relationship with your Ex.
Reconciliation does not come easily, which makes it all the more precious when we do experience it. Divorce hurts. Recovery takes time. Achieving reconciliation is the spiritual and emotional equivalent of getting a clean bill of health from the doctor after a serious illness. How sweet it is to enjoy the benefits of good health.
For more: Kathryn Haueisen is the author of Asunder, a novel approach to divorce recovery. Asunder is both a novel of life beyond divorce and a study guide for personal and group reflection on the painful topic of divorce.