Lives get complicated after divorce and custody has been “settled.” Mostly because nothing is ever really settled. The way it evolves for most, I’ve found, is that the divorce leads to a custody battle which leads to an eventual smoothing of things as routine returns under some sort of agreed-upon schedule.
The trouble is that two grown adults who were formerly romantically involved are going to have issues. Probably forever. Because that old “this is why we were together” thing will continue to come up, even if it’s just on the emotional down-low. Even those who are (more or less) functional as adults and even amiable to one another will fall into this occasionally.
Coping is difficult. I personally have fallen into the “have to take care of things for her” trap because I spent most of our marriage as the caregiver. Stepping away from that old habit is not easy and requires constant, conscious vigilance on my part. I fail regularly. Just this morning I spent a bunch of time going through paperwork for her in an effort that was mostly to sooth her nerves rather than to actually help get the forms filled out.
What I’ve realized is that, at least for me, there are two things that have to happen for me to become really good at not falling into the “how it used to be” trap with her.
- Remembering why we broke up to start with and what the wedges were that split our relationship.
- Treating her as an adult child. Harsh but realistic.
The first point is to remember why we broke up in the first place and why it’s made me happier that I’m no longer responsible for her or tied to her in that way. My best reminder for that is my new relationship, which is showing me how adults can interact in a healthy way and how beautifully co-inspiring it can be to have intimacy on so many levels.
For example, my ex and I were never really friends in that we have little in common and share very few common interests. Our relationship was largely based on co-dependence rather than love. It took me a long time to realize that, but I still remained involved out of feelings of obligation. When the children came, they reinforced that with further expected commitment. With my girlfriend, we’re both independent adults who don’t need one another as caretakers, but have grown to need one another only on an emotional plane as both friends and lovers. That’s been amazingly eye-opening for me.
On the second point, because of our children, I am still tied to my ex-wife because we share custody. This means dealing with her on a regular basis. What I’ve learned from that is that if I treat her as if she were a grown child whose left the nest but still occasionally shows up to ask for things, I am much less likely to get worked up and angry when she pushes emotional buttons.
That creates a dynamic wherein I can help her occasionally, but give reasons to not help when I’m not interested or too busy. Just like parents of adult children do. Because she’s “grown and out of the house,” I can ignore her messages for a while or give simple “No, not interested” answers without explanation. This tells her that she’s not always in charge of my time and isn’t involved in all aspects of my life.
This isn’t a foolproof plan, but it seems to be working for me. For the most part. It’s not perfect, but it is the best I’ve come up with so far.