My ex-husband and I had little love for each other in our last months of marriage, both of us wounded, both of us in tears, both of us heartbroken. If there weren't a child, we'd have put each other away like an old rag, either tossed in the garbage, shoved way back in a cupboard, or maybe burned to a crisp. It could have ended with us destroying each other out of spite. But there was a child. Jake. And we couldn't ruin him with bitterness.
Yet how do two people who have no need for each other raise a son? I had no idea. When my lawyer recommended that we see a co-parenting counselor, a type of therapist I'd never heard of, I did what I always do when I need perspective: I called my mother.
"You're divorcing him for a reason, Hayley," my mother said. "You're not supposed to get along with your ex-husband, otherwise you'd still be together."
"But I want to be friends with him, like you and Dad are," I said.
"It took years for your father and me, you know that," she said. "So don't create a fantasy about my relationship with your father."
She was right. My parents' split was messy. As much as my mother attempted to shield me from a lot of the hurt, they still fought, and like many couples, they made their share of mistakes. It took ten years, but eventually, my parents managed to share low-calorie cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving and brisket on Passover.
Still, when my own divorce struck, I was determined not to repeat their missteps. So I broached the subject of seeing this special kind of therapist with my soon-to-be ex-husband. He was more than familiar with my childhood divorce stories and was immediately open to the idea. When we scheduled an introductory session with Paul Dasher, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, it was the first thing we'd agreed on in months.
At our first appointment, Cason took a seat in a narrow wingback, his long legs and body cramped as he squeezed into it. I sat on the wide blue couch across from him, not knowing what to do with the space. Dasher took his place in a broken-in office chair, a yellow notepad in hand. He was a soft-spoken man, calm, different from the couples' counselors we'd seen before: He was nothing like our old long-haired therapist, whose mouth had peered off to the side as if it wanted to be anywhere except speaking to us. Nor was he like the red-haired one who was impressed by Cason's knowledge of religion and who said I needed to stop telling him what to do. Dasher, with his sandy-blond hair, had a somber demeanor, like a funeral director ushering us in to pick a casket. We were here for one reason only: The marriage was dead.
"Be open," Dasher said. "This is a safe place to say how you feel." We launched into the deterioration of the relationship, assaulting each other with bows and arrows, whatever we could find to perpetuate the hurt. My anger was explosive; I screamed at my ex with no control, forcing Dasher to close his office windows.
"Wait a second, is this couples counseling?" Cason asked. "Because this really feels like couples counseling. We did that, and it didn't work." "It's like couples counseling, but it's not," Dasher said. "To be effective parents, you have to get along when it comes to your child. And to get along, you have to productively work together."
Essentially, he wanted us to make up. But if all of our sessions were going to be like this one, the odds of us finding common ground seemed impossibly long. I called my mother as soon as I got in the car.
"I don't like that you have to work out these things with him," she said. "You finally got to a better place, and now it's making you upset again."
"I want to get along with him?for Jake," I said.
"But for you to be crying like this? It doesn't seem right."
It's true, I was sitting in my car hysterical, nose running and tears streaming over my steering wheel. But what was the other option? Argue in front of our son? Belittle each other? I had been through that already in my own childhood and wouldn't do it to Jake. Despite my doubts, I - we - had to go back.
The second session started much like the first. There is nothing comfortable about sitting in the same room with someone you are about to not spend the rest of your life with, so I attempted to hypnotize myself with the beige swirls on the carpet. Cason went first: "What if she remarries and her new husband becomes closer to Jake than me?"
"You are Jake's father," Dasher said. "That will never change." I looked across the room at my ex; I had been avoiding his eyes for months. I thought about his fear of losing Jake to another man, and as much as I had wished Cason would walk away from our lives, or at the very least, fall off a cliff, I knew another man would never replace him as Jake's dad. So I tried to convince him, too.
"I don't believe you," he said. "I don't believe anything you say." Once the session was over, we walked out separately and didn't speak in the parking lot. We had another appointment in two weeks.
Cason had asked Dasher to suggest a few child-psychology books as between-sessions reading, and he sent me one as a kind gesture. "I didn't really understand what it was talking about," he wrote. "But I bought one for myself, and I thought I'd buy one for you." Well, here we were: being forced to share something, even if it was only the obligation to read confusing books about child rearing. But it was more than that: This was his way of apologizing for the earlier meeting - and I accepted the offer.
Things went well in the next couple of sessions. We were able to talk instead of just yell, especially about one of the last sticking points in the settlement: custody and visitation. Our son was rounding 2 years old, and I was against joint custody. "Jake needs a home of his own and to not feel like he's shuffling back and forth between us," I said. I told a story of a friend who'd spent a week with her father and then a week with her mother. She'd felt nomadic, lonely, and related to neither place. Cason was fairly reasonable, and he understood my point. Still, he wanted me to be more lenient about random visits. He said I wasn't giving him enough time to develop a real relationship with Jake.
"Can't I come over for an hour and play in the backyard?" he asked. I cringed. I didn't want him looking in my window. I didn't want him stopping in for coffee.
"I'm not ready for short-notice visits or drop-bys just yet," I said. He then accused me of taking over our child's schedule. But Dasher reminded him that as time went on, we'd be able to soften the custody agreement. "For now, though, stick to the boundaries," he said. That would keep us from unnecessary arguments. He also gave us a few more suggestions: Wait until the sessions to discuss problems. Keep interactions short during drop-offs and pick-ups.
We tried to follow Dasher's directions, though neither of us was very good at boundary keeping. We deliberately kept e-mails and phone calls to the point. We spoke in a friendly manner in front of Jake, and discussed discipline, nursery schools, and potty training amicably. I chose a potty seat, and he bought the same one for his house. If Jake had to go to his pediatrician, I'd call my ex with the information. We even managed to discuss some division of money without involving our lawyers.
But then I canceled a visit. "Jake's tired from being up late last night," I said, hoping he'd understand. "I shouldn't have said yes in the first place, but I felt guilty because I knew you wanted to see him."
"It's not up to you to decide when I should see my son," Cason said.
There. That's where he drew his line in the sand. I had worked hard in the past six months to get along with him, so hard to make a healthy space for our child. Now he was accusing me of something this horrific?
"You saw him two days ago. He's not a doll you can just swing around," I said. "Plus, people cancel playdates all the time with kids this age."
"This is not a playdate, Hayley," he said. "I'm his father."
A selfish father, I was dying to say. Now Jake, who was cranky all day because he couldn't sleep the night before, was going to have another late night because his father was trying to make a point.
While Jake napped in his room, I sat sequestered in my bathroom, arguing on the phone with Cason. He didn't understand that I wanted him to be more flexible for Jake. I didn't understand how desperate he was to see his son. There were caustic words between us, a few threats to call lawyers, and a few hang-ups. Then I remembered Dasher's advice: It takes time to trust again. Try to be reasonable even though you're angry.
Calm down, I told myself. If you want a civil outcome, act civil. I lowered my voice, took a few deep breaths, and assured and reassured Cason that it would never, ever be my intention to keep Jake from him. Finally, he said canceling the visit was probably right. Jake needed to get to bed early, and we'd reschedule for the next day. It was the first time in months, maybe years, that we were able to defuse an argument. And as the months continued, and as we kept to the boundaries, we did it again and again.
A divorced relationship is similar to any other relationship, Dasher said many times. It takes work. The payoff? A healthy child. I could see that with my son. Jake smiled, laughed, and played well with other kids. He was - and still is - an incredibly loving and happy child. We'd done what we'd set out to do. In our last session with Dasher, we discussed the division of major holidays, which were to be switched each year.
"What about Halloween?" I asked.
"If things are going okay, then you should do Halloween together."
It wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. Trick-or-treating in the neighborhood with Cason sounded too much like a date, but I knew my son would be excited to spend time with Mommy and Daddy. That day, Cason and I walked out of the session together into the parking lot. It was our first time walking anywhere together since we'd separated ten months earlier. We stood next to my car, and he said, "I'm sorry. I really am sorry."
"I know," I said. "I am, too." I watched him pull out of the lot, and I followed behind. I knew that for us to raise our child together, I'd have to take his lead sometimes, just as he'd have to take mine. We couldn't be married anymore, but we still needed each other - and always would.
Check out these resources for more info on helping kids - and yourself - through separation and divorce.
- Coparenting101.org This site was developed by a successful co-parenting couple; don't miss the resources section for a list of recommended reads.
- The Split at Parenting.com Follow our blog chronicling one mom's separation.
- Two Homes, by Claire Masurel If you've got kids under 5, this book offers a positive picture of what it can be like when parents divorce.
- What in the World Do You Do When Your Parents Divorce? A Survival Guide for Kids, by Kent Winchester Geared toward kids 7 and up, this book helps them understand what's happening in their life - with lots of reassurance.
- Mom's House, Dad's House, by Isolina Ricci This classic has been helping divorced parents create separate - but loving - homes for their kids since 1980.