Growing up on the kind of romantic comedies that Doris Day and Kathryn Hepburn made, and Leave it to Beaver, it's hard to see how I was not flummoxed by the other things I grew up with, like West Side Story, Gone with the Wind, and The King and I. In these latter, boy-meets-girl, but they sure don't turn out like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson, or Tracy and Hepburn film. We didn't know Rock's back-story until he was dying. Tracy and Hepburn were a not-just-movie couple, never living openly as a couple. Things were not always as perfect as they seemed.
As Maria Bello concluded in her wonderful "Modern Love" piece, "Maybe…a modern family is just a more honest family." With my post-divorce coaching specialty, I am constantly confronted by people trying to put together new families, often with pieces that seem very disparate to them. There are the ex, the new lover, the step-kids from the now-ex-spouse, the ex-in-laws, and everyone's friends, among others.
What's a person to do, post-divorce or otherwise? I don't mean to reduce this to four simple steps, but I am suggesting some things to ponder if you want to create honest, authentic relationships.
Is whatever this is working? Sometimes a client will ask me something like, "Is it okay to do Christmas with my ex's family?" Or they'll say, "After the baseball game we all went out for dinner; is that too confusing for the kids?" I usually point out that there is no rule and there is no right and wrong, except the rules and judgments we create for ourselves. Each family must decide what works for them. It doesn't have to fit into a neat category like remarriage or platonic friendship. Don't forget to ask yourself if it's working for you, not just for everyone else.
Relationships are dynamic. By dynamic I mean that relationships are always changing and morphing into something you never envisioned at the start. As Bello pointed out, her current romantic relationship started as a friendship. Sometimes the friendship continues after the romance, as it was for her and her ex-husband. Sometimes this doesn't work out at all. You may be good friends with an ex until the next relationship, and then it just doesn't work anymore. Sometimes after you deal with the anger and guilt, you find the friendship can resume. You get to change course if you want.
What will people think? My clients worry about what their kids will think about a gay lover, or how their family and friends will react. I worried about what my clients would think about my divorce as I was helping them negotiate their own difficult relationships. Then I worried about what people would think about me being in a relationship and not re-marrying. We know that kids accept what their parents are doing as long as the kids are getting the care, love and honesty they need. I realized that if I had a client who left because they learned I was divorced, it was for the best. Life is way too short to worry about what everyone will think of your choices.
You can't force a square peg into a round hole. You may have your own creative, fantastic ideas about what needs to happen in your post-divorce family. That doesn't mean everyone else is going to agree. You ex may pull the, the-papers-say–this-is-not-okay, line on you. If that's what the papers say, they can do that. You may love your ex-in-laws dearly, but they feel they have to stick by their child who doesn't want them to have contact with you. Your ex can't control what others say about you or whether others want to stay in a relationship with you. It's great to have creative, fantastic ideas about what's going to happen, you just need to be realistic as well.
Be honest with yourself and authentic about your beliefs as you try to figure out what you and your family need. Give yourself permission to be creative. Perhaps your finances dictate you need a housemate. As Jake Dobkin points out in "The Gothamist," you're never too old to have roommates. Never reject a solution simply because it seems unconventional. Keep tweaking until it works for you.