Dear Level

A Guide to a Happy Divorce

It’s never easy, but there’s still a relationship you can salvage

After my 20-year relationship ended in divorce, I mourned. I mourned not just for the end of a marriage, but for what I thought would be the loss of my best friend. This was the first person I shared good and bad news with, the person I’d had children with, bought homes with.

It was all just devastating. Our teenager was starting college, and now we were raising an eight-year-old in separate homes. Everything — attending family weddings, parent-teacher conferences, taking the dog to the vet — was different now.

I know a lot of divorced couples, particularly those who are still raising children, and adjusting can take many years; many never find equilibrium at all. But I will say this: Five years later, my relationship with my ex is more than I could have hoped for. He’s my friend. I still call him to share good and bad news. We’re still raising our now 13- year-old daughter the best way we can. We live a few blocks apart, and our families are still connected.

If you have children, their antennae will detect every nano-ounce of tension. A coffee shop, a front porch, a fire escape, a backyard: If it’s manageable, take your conversations somewhere else so you can keep the home free of icy feelings.

There’s no handbook for breakups. At least not one that would work broadly for every scenario. But I can tell you what helped us, so here are my thoughts from my world. Remember, your mileage may vary.

1. Get therapy — immediately

I don’t want to hear excuses about why you don’t want to talk to a professional about your feelings. If you’re lucky enough to have halfway decent health insurance, use it. (And if you don’t, many therapists have sliding scales). How do you feel about this breakup? Scared? Happy? Disappointed? Broken? Whatever it is, a few sessions talking it out with someone objective can be helpful. You may end up finding it helpful for the long term too.

2. Get therapy — together

One of the main reasons my ex and I remain on good terms is because we got post-marital counseling. We went in for regular marriage counseling to see if our relationship could be saved, but when we realized it couldn’t, we continued our sessions in order to see what life would look like after we were no longer together. Whether you’re leaving a marriage or just a yearslong relationship, consider a few sessions with a therapist to work out what a healthy breakup will look like.

3. Say all of the things

Are you angry? Disappointed? Hurting? This is not the time to bottle things up. If you know it’s over, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page. If you’re open to reconciliation, say so, even though it’ll hurt if the other person is not here for it. Whether it’s been three months or 30 years, walk away knowing exactly how you feel — and make sure your ex knows too.

4. Keep it outside

This is not possible for every couple. But your living space should be neutral. If you have children, their antennae will detect every nano-ounce of tension. A coffee shop, a front porch, a fire escape, a backyard: If it’s manageable, take your conversations somewhere else so you can keep the home free of icy feelings. And if you don’t live together, all the more reason for The Big Talk to happen in a neutral zone.

5. Let it go

If you want the person to stay, it’s understandable and your feelings are valid. But a relationship is a two-way street; if your partner is done, you need to respect that. No boomboxes in the air, no grand gestures. Respect yourself. Respect the relationship for what it once was. Go prepare yourself for what’s next. And if you need help with that, refer back to step number one.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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