Once you marry, you acquire a network of people who grow accustomed to your face as one of a matched pair. When you’re no longer married, these people are still there. But you may well find that they – and you – are up against Culture Lag.
We have a high and rising divorce rate, but we haven’t yet settled on an etiquette for dealing with all the people who used to know you as the female (or male) half of the Joneses, now that you’re not.
If your marriage produced children, your network will include people who are important to them as well. But even if it didn’t, it will include all of your mutual friends.
You will probably continue to see some people whether you want to or not because your kids have relationships with them. People stop being in-laws when the decree nisi becomes absolute, but they don’t stop being grandparents, or aunts and uncles.
I think you’ll find many people will be embarrassed, bewildered, or just plain flummoxed about how to react in this situation. What should they call the lady who used to be Mrs. Jones? What should they say – if anything – about the breakdown of her marriage? Very few friends will feel perfectly comfortable about inviting her to their partner matched party next Saturday night.
On the principle that some guidelines are better than none, I have compiled my own interim solutions to this widening area of social uncertainty.
Announce the fact that you are no longer married. Say it briefly, informally, and unemotionally to anyone who needs to know – such as your child’s headmistress and your bank manager – and also to your friends.
If you used to be Mrs. Jones and you now wish to be known by some other name, announce that, too. Don’t make it necessary for people to flounder around helplessly for the proper way to address you without hurting your feelings.
Remember you don’t owe an explanation of why your marriage broke down to anyone except yourself. If people are tactless enough to ask for one, they deserve an abrupt answer.
Very few people really want to hear a blow-by-blow account of who said what to whom during the fracas.
Don’t go on about your ex-partner’s obvious faults, either. This kind of monologue tells your listener far more about you than it does about the dirty dog who did you down.
The most boring thing of all, of course, is to demand that your friends take sides, or that they choose between your friendship and that of your ex-husband.
It is quite in order to let people know how you feel about meeting your ex-partner at parties given by mutual friends. Go slowly here, though. Your reaction at such a confrontation might be more emotional than you had expected it to be.
This is especially so in the early days (or after a couple of drinks) – no matter how hard you’re trying to be civilized.
Remember that some people are massively embarrassed, or even threatened, by other people’s marital failure, no matter how correctly the parties to that failure have behaved. It may take these friends quite a long time to adjust to the two separate individuals who are now standing where a couple used to be. Give them time – and if you value their friendship, be persistent. Try inviting them to a party you’re giving, or to dinner at your house.
Accept the fact that you will probably have to talk the whole thing through until you get it completely out of your system. Don’t even try to bottle it up. Instead, pick your listener very carefully.
Talk with your doctor, especially if you feel depressed. It may be that your doctor won’t have time for the kind of listening marathon I have in mind, though. In which case I suggest you pick the most detached and unshockable person you can find, if at all possible someone who isn’t involved with your ex-spouse in any way, and get it said – all of it, with gestures – until you’re talked out.
If you and your in-laws have regarded each other with mutual distrust and barely civil tolerance since your wedding day, there’s not much chance your relationship will improve once you’ve confirmed their worst suspicions.
But your children are their grandchildren, so you’ll probably continue your relationship with them at intervals of Easter-Christmas-birthdays, especially if they’re living fairly close by. The best you can aim for is the appearance of cordiality – or at least amnesty – the same as before the divorce.
If your relations with your in-laws have been friendly, or even downright intimate, you’re facing much subtler pitfalls.
Close though you may be to them, none of these people is an appropriate confidant of your marital woes. Your ex-husband may well be someone only a mother could love, but remember: you are speaking to his mother no matter how close your friendship might be.
Incidentally, if you’ve called your in-laws Mum and Dad Jones all through your married life, now is the time to ask them if they’d prefer to be addressed as Alice and Joe.
Divorce and separation aren’t much fun for anyone. But it’s better to hang on to some dignity if nothing else. Drawing up a few rules – however personal – helps you to be more objective about the situation; even acts as a kind of back-stiffener during despairing moments – and certainly relieves your friends if they’re unsure of what line to take.
Children, of course, are another matter – and the commonest source of acrimony between divorced or separated parents. You’ll need altogether firmer guidelines for avoiding it.
Occasionally one or the other of a child’s divorced parents abdicates his or her parental role and disappears completely from the child’s life. More often, though, children continue to have two parents following divorce: one to live with (usually Mummy) and one to visit (Daddy).
Mummy and Daddy tell themselves, each other, magistrates, and anyone else who’s willing to listen to their endless post-marital catharsis how reasonable it is all going to be, vis-a-vis the children.
Sometimes it is. Other times, though, the permutations of emotional blackmail can reach heights of sophistication undreamed of by anyone in his or her right mind.
Here are some suggestions to help you deal with the man you’ve outgrown, replaced, or just can’t stand the sight of until the children you’ve produced together are old enough to leave home and make their own mistakes.
If Daddy is expected between six and seven on Friday evening, have the children ready to go at six. Don’t make a habit of sock-searching and toy gathering while he cools his heels in the entrance hall.
And make sure Daddy is there on time. If he can’t, he must ring up and say so. A friend of mine was exasperated by the fact that her ex-husband was never on time when coming to collect their two children. She didn’t want to be seen as his bitchy, uncooperative ex-wife. So she leaned over backward until her head touched the floor. She even invented excuses for Daddy’s chronic lateness so the children wouldn’t be disappointed.
Make all “access,” holiday, birthday, Christmas, and other arrangements directly with your ex-husband, either by telephone or post. If all else fails, make arrangements through your lawyers.
Do not attempt to pressurize the child’s other parent by announcing to the child: “If Daddy will permit it, I’m going to let you take riding lessons/increase your pocket-money.” This is blackmail. It is unfair on the children, and it is in no one’s best interests.
If you must pick a bone about Susie’s missing hair ribbon or Johnny’s filthy white socks (and sooner or later, you probably will), don’t do it while Susie and Johnny are standing there listening. They’re already unhappy enough because you’ve split. You don’t have to rip each other to shreds right before their very eyes.
If he shows up on Friday evening to claim his children for their usual weekend visit and he says, all casual innocence, “Oh, by the way, you won’t mind if I fetch them Wednesday after school for the toy exhibition with burgers to follow, will you?” you are left with two unattractive options.
Either you can say a meek and cowardly “no, I don’t mind,” or you can have an argument right there in front of the kids, and possibly the neighbors and the passers-by.
Of course, Mummy also uses this cheap trick against Daddy, so I applaud any parent who refuses this stratagem.
Don’t insult Daddy. I don’t mean to insult you by including this one. Yet it seems the most obvious rule of all. It is, however, often disregarded, especially among the very bitter parents of very young children.
Remember that even very small children are likely to understand more than we give them credit for about what’s going on around them. And no child should be asked to deal with your venom against your former husband or wife.
Marriages may come and go, but Mummy and Daddy are fixed stars in the firmament for a very long time.
So bite back the spiteful comments, however bitter you feel. This is even more important if you do marry again; you’ll have to be especially sensitive about comparing old and new Daddies. Your children will do this naturally. Try to stay objective about it.
If some (or all) of this advice seems more like preaching than practice perhaps it’ll go down better if I include something my father said to me several years ago, when I was reliving the indignities of my own divorce. “After all,” he said when I had finally finished, “he’s still the same wonderful man you married.”