If you’re one of the million or so American men facing divorce this year, you probably aren’t exiting your marriage with a backlog of praise about your performance as a husband. Maybe you cheated, or spent all your time at work. Perhaps you lacked empathy, interest in her family, or the ability to pick up your socks off the floor. Or maybe she caused the marital breakdown, leaving you betrayed and bereft. Regardless of who was officially at fault, the waning years of a terminal marriage aren’t a forum for manifesting our best selves. As my own ex put it, “A bad marriage brings out the worst in both people.”
The good news? Now you are (or are about to be) an ex-husband—a totally new role, and one in which it is surprisingly easy to excel. As an ex-husband, your duties are discrete. Expectations shockingly low. You get credit for minor acts of kindness that were expected in marriage, and (in some cases) disparagingly assessed. If, as an ex-husband, you take out your ex-wife’s trash when you come to pick up the kids, as my own ex sometimes does, she’ll call five friends to sing your praise. As a husband? You should have done it yesterday.
In many ways, being an ex-husband is a fail-safe position. The slippery slope to husband failure has now been leveled and paved. You are not your once-wife’s main emotional support, meaning you can’t fail to be a good enough listener. You are not her romantic partner, freeing you from ever again missing your anniversary. You can’t cheat on your ex-wife. You can’t shirk your duty when it comes to keeping her house or garage or car clean; that’s not your job, it’s hers. You have your own house, and how you live in it is your concern. You can’t watch too much TV or listen to an excess of obnoxious talk radio. You can’t eat too much junk food, circulate with loser friends, spend too much time in the office or golf course or bar—providing that you meet your parenting duties, if you have kids, make spousal- or child-support payments on time, and refrain from suing her in court, or threatening such action.
Being an excellent ex-husband matters as much, if not more, than being a good spouse. We now have 40 years of research on divorce and children’s well-being, and we know that high-conflict between the parents is what damages kids, whether their parents are married or divorced. About 80% of kids of divorce do well and see no lasting adverse affects on their behavior or grades, social adjustment, or future happiness, as an avalanche of research shows, including a 20-year study by psychologist Constance Ahrons, author of We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce. The lifelong work of University of Virginia professor emeritus Mavis Hetherington also shows about 75% to 80% of children of divorce do well in life, as does a 2012 meta-study by child development expert and Cambridge University professor Michael Lamb.
It’s never been easier to be an ideal ex-husband. Marriage may not have improved much in the last few decades, but divorce has gotten dramatically better. No-fault law, introduced by Ronald Reagan in California in 1969 and now available in every state, allows unhappy couples to part without one spouse having to accuse the other of adultery, abuse, or felonious activity—the only legal “grounds” for divorce for centuries. No-fault spurred the development of cooperative ways to unwed such mediation and collaborative divorce, legal approaches that help former couples divvy up assets and create reasonable parenting plans, together. Mediation and collaborative divorce can also teach former couples new communication skills that can actually improve their relationship on the other side of marriage.
The rise and spread of talk therapy means more people are working through the anger, fear, and crushing sadness that can accompany divorce, rather than letting these emotions sabotage a decent parting. The incredibly damaging and mind-blowingly expensive splits happen when one or both spouses can’t control their emotions, and turn to the courts, rather than, say, a therapist, to work through them.
New technology lets parents track and share doctors’ numbers, photos, and plans without constant phone calls that can lead to new fights. OurFamilyWizard.com has a tone meter that alerts you when a message you’re about to send might sound aggressive. A newer site, SupportPay.com, will remind you when child support is due and process it for you, eliminating the need for reminders from your ex. The site also lets you and your ex record and share expenses, and line-item specifics to which you don’t want to contribute (ballet shoes, an after-prom dress).
Fathers are more involved in their children’s lives now, in marriage and in divorce, than they were in the past. While family courts once automatically assigned custody to the mother, that’s no longer true. In 1980, California became the first state to establish joint custody as being in the best interest of the child when both parents want it. Every state now authorizes joint custody, and more than a dozen have a preference for it.
Joint custody does not mean children necessarily split their time equally between your home and hers—or that they should. I’ve personally seen too many parenting plans involving a residential hopscotching routine so complicated, it requires an online scheduling program to manage it. But the idea that fathers have a real right—and a real role—in their children’s lives is becoming the dominant norm. Both parents increasingly share day-to-day decision-making, and with this joint responsibility comes ongoing involvement with your ex.
People like to say that whatever negative dynamic you had in marriage dictates the divorce, but this need not be true. Bile from your bad marriage need not carry over like frequent flier miles from your former fights. I’ve interviewed men who say their ex-wives find them more trustworthy, now that they’re divorced. Others say they can be better fathers, now that they’re no longer arguing about micro-aspects of their parenting style on a daily basis with a recalcitrant residential spouse. Two men told me that merely paying child support on time, every time, led to new appreciation and cooperation from their former wives. In the majority of divorces, it’s still the man who has been the higher earner and is paying child support. You can use this fact to improve your divorce. A man who had one of the worst divorces I’ve ever seen completely turned around his relationship with his ex by thanking her for raising their wonderful children and increasing the amount he paid. Sure, it may look like he was buying cooperation, but in this case, he could afford it, and it dramatically reduced the amount of ugly fighting his children had to see.
Surviving mythologies still color how we think about divorce, such as the notion of the “deadbeat dad.” Despite stories we may sometimes hear about negligent fathers, the number of men willfully abandoning their children post-marriage was never as high as the caricature suggests, as Sanford Braver has shown in his excellent, now-classic book, Deadbeat Dads: Shattering the Myth. Similarly, the fear that divorce plunges mothers into poverty while their once-husbands sip cognac on yachts anchored off the coast of Aruba is also a dark legend, this one based on a flawed 1970s study by sociologist Lenore Weitzman, purporting to show that women lose two-thirds of their standard of living in divorce. This study was one of the most widely circulated pieces of social science research in the 1980s and ‘90s. It still contributes to our thinking about divorce, despite the fact that New York sociologist Richard Peterson proved it to be false, and Weitzman herself ultimately admitted her error.
Let’s continue pushing this old myth off center-stage and recognize the role of the ex for the valuable position it is and work to excel at it. While some of us, sadly, failed to excel within our marriage, behaving well in a divorce is the first step to feeling at one at least with ourselves.
Wendy’s new book Splitopia: How to Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well is now available.