The divorce was inevitable, but I really believed that a high conflict divorce was not inevitable. Early on, for my children’s sake, I resolved to split with my ex-husband as amicably as possible. I told him this, and, on his good days, he agreed. His public-facing persona agreed. The parts of him that saw our extended families agreed. For the most part, the part of him that saw our children agreed.
Despite our personal hurts, we committed to having as peaceful of a divorce as possible.
Part of trying to maintain this commitment was that we would use a mediator, rather than attorneys and the court system, to complete the divorce process. We believed this would not only save us potentially tens of thousands of dollars, but that it would also reduce the amount of conflict and stress our kids would be exposed to. Why give all that money to attorneys when we could simply have a mature conversation facilitated by a neutral third party? It was a noble idea.
I often wonder about high-profile divorces, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s, where she never says a single negative thing about her ex-husband, Chris Martin. She even wrote a famously sweet Instagram post to him for his birthday in 2017. In an interview with Evening Standard this year, Paltrow explains, “And it was very difficult, but I think you see in the children that they got through it, so I am proud of us, I really am. We kept to our commitment that we would put the children first.”
As someone who has gone out of my way to always put my kids first, I can’t help but read between the lines a little here with what Paltrow is saying. When anyone brings up my ex, I speak nothing but positive things about him. In front of the kids, I lift him up as the greatest father ever. With anyone who knows both of us, or knows our children, I smile reassuringly and say our divorce is as amicable as divorce gets. And, on the surface, it is.
But not behind the scenes, and that’s the hardest part about an “amicable divorce.”
That’s why I read between the lines when Paltrow speaks so highly of her ex. Does she really “love” him? Are they really such good friends? Or was the threat of ugliness and warring attorneys and years of court battles always looming over their heads like it has over mine?
Maybe Paltrow and Martin really are the pillars of civility she claims them to be, but for me, and I think for many others, it wasn’t like that. I was so desperate to save my kids the heartache and trauma of a nasty, conflict-ridden divorce process that I sacrificed the truth of what I was going through to make that happen. And it left me damaged both materially and emotionally.
My ex knew how desperately I want to protect the kids from an ugly divorce, and he used that knowledge to manipulate me. He said and did awful things, confident I wouldn’t retaliate because it would hurt the kids to see us fight. He trusted I wouldn’t tell mutual friends because he knew I would do anything to keep it from getting back to the kids and damaging their positive view of him. He used my determination to protect the kids as leverage to negotiate me out of assets that were rightfully mine. The threat of “fine then, I’ll see you in court” was always hanging over me.
He said so many hateful things, I started keeping a journal about them. When I saw him acting like a model citizen in front of our mutual friends, I almost couldn’t believe some of the awful shit he’d said to me. It made me feel crazy. So I’d read the journal where I’d written down the things he’d said, so I could stop feeling crazy. I kept telling myself I just had to get through it.
I did get through it, but it was frustrating, isolating, and at times unbearable. There were moments when I wasn’t sure I could make it through a day, when I wanted so badly to tell someone what was really happening, but I couldn’t. Close friends weren’t close anymore because they knew my ex, and when they asked how I was doing, I couldn’t tell them the truth. I wanted to talk about what I was going through with my friends the way I would if I had some other bad news I was struggling with. I wanted to tell them I couldn’t stand to be around my ex anymore, that he wasn’t the person they thought he was, that our “amicable divorce” was anything but.
But I kept my mouth shut. Now that the divorce is finalized and my ex naturally drifted away from many of our shared friends, I’ve been able to be honest with a few of them, and that has been redeeming and affirming. A couple of them said they saw right through him, and it has helped to know that.
Ultimately, like Gwyneth Paltrow, we did manage to preserve the kids’ emotional well-being. They never knew, and I hope they never find out, how ugly it got behind the scenes. So I’m glad I took the high road.
But damn, it really was the hardest part of my divorce.