01/02/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why I'm Giving Up My 'Amicable' Divorce

I am finally divorcing my ex husband. No we didn't get remarried, and it's not legal. I'm just divorcing him in the way I probably should have five years ago when I first left him.

When my ex and I separated five years ago (on Christmas Eve to be exact), we maintained an incredibly amicable relationship for the sake of our son. Something happened during our separation that was like pixie dust on our relationship. Once we took all that marriage stuff -- all that "getting our emotional needs met" stuff -- off the table, we were suddenly able to be friends. Things would flare up every once in a while that reminded us of exactly why we had separated, but for the most part the separation was a relief that enabled us to be the best of ourselves with each other, whereas our marriage had really brought out the worst in each of us.

Our divorce was hailed by our friends, our mediators, and our families as being the pinnacle of success. People asked us how we had done it. Friends who were separating sought our counsel because they wanted their divorce to be as "good" as ours. We always told them the same thing: put your kids at the center, not in the middle. When you put your children at the center of every one of your decisions, including how you treat your ex, everything else will ultimately fall into place.

Over the years, we have spent all holidays together as a family. We have had Christmases and Thanksgivings and Halloweens together. We have traveled together, just the three of us, to San Francisco, sharing a hotel suite and a six-hour drive there and back. We have laughed and played and suffered some pretty intense challenges as well. When our son was diagnosed with a very severe case of ADHD, we had some very deep and difficult waters to navigate that lasted well over two years as we worked on home and behavioral adjustments before finally going through an extremely difficult yearlong process of finding the proper balance of medications. Our communication was constant; it had to be. Doctor's appointments were attended together every three weeks because our differing points of view were necessary, given that our son's behavior varies greatly from house to house. All voices needed to be heard.

When my ex-husband got a woman he barely knew pregnant three-and-a-half years ago, we navigated those waters together too because it was a family issue, not just his issue. Our son was going to have a brother and we had to find the best ways to talk to him about it. As that relationship devolved into a sea of psychosis, arrests, restraining orders, and court appearances, again, I was there to support my ex in his pain, stress, and emotional breakdowns. We were friends, and that's what friends do. When he gained full custody of his small child, we had to explain things to our son no seven-year-old should have to try to understand (drug addiction, mental illness), and we did it together.

More recent friends would ask why on earth we were divorced; it made no sense to them to see two people so affectionate and working as a team not married. But our older friends would assure them that the only reason we were like this was because we weren't married; that when we were married things were really, really bad.

As proof, always, at some point, my ex and I would revert to the dynamic that had been the backbone of our marriage for ten years. At some point we'd have a differing of opinion on how to parent (like that time he gave our son a 20 minute time-out at his own birthday party, which I thought was really harsh) and things would spiral out of control. We'd argue publicly, in front of the children and friends, and things would get ugly. Fast. I remember seeing the shocked faces of our newer friends at that birthday party (just six months ago) as they got a tiny glimpse into what our marriage must have really been like.

The starkest truth is that for the ten years we were together my ex-husband abused me, emotionally and psychologically. My best friend begged me not to marry him, but at that time I had no inner-strength or self-awareness; ultimately I thought this was the best I could have. He told me I was fat, in not so many words (he'd just ask why my body couldn't look more like my best friend's body: no hips, long, skinny legs, flat abs after three kids, or if I'd gone to the gym today and if I was going tomorrow). He once told me he hated the sound of my voice, and I promptly lost my voice for four days (completely mute). We'd leave a party and he'd tell me all the things I'd done wrong, how socially awkward I'd made him feel. When we were with my friends and I was fully self-expressed and vibrant, he'd take me down as soon as we left — and he'd take me down hard. When we would fight he'd go on the attack in the most vicious of ways and then stand back cool as a cucumber when I finally went off the rails, pointing out that clearly I was insane. He called me "angry girl" and the truth was that I was angry. I was also a shell of a human, completely vacant, with no vibrancy, no esteem and no hope for happiness. I was deeply complicit in this relationship. I wouldn't have been attracted to this kind of a man had my past not dictated it in oh so many ways. My codependence was staggering, my lack of emotional tools shocking.

Eventually I sought out the help of a therapist, who I saw three times a week. After six months or so I finally decided to leave my marriage. I was getting some sense of self back and I wanted more. I was a complete wreck and made some really bad decisions throughout the next few years, usually around my choices of men (surprise surprise), but as time and therapy went by I finally found myself, my confidence, my sparkle, my voice. I can't even say I found them "again." I'd never known them.

After five years of devastatingly difficult work, I know exactly who I am and what I offer the world. And that might not work for this relationship anymore.

It is a fact of Family Systems Theory that people occupy various roles in the Family System. In commedia dell’arte (16th Century Italian theatre and the source of improvisation as we know it) there are stock characters which appear in every play. The characters are always the same (the young lovers, the old doctor, the miser, the clown, etc.), although the story changes with the play. Similarly, there are certain roles that are present in any family system and one person or another will occupy those roles at any given time (the nurturer, the retreater, the pusuer, the disturber). Not every family system will have the same roles, but once the roles are established in the system they are extremely difficult to eliminate. Additionally, once one person vacates a role it is usually re-occupied by someone else in the system.

And so here we sit, five years after our initial separation, almost to the day, and my ex and I had another one of our spells yesterday — one of the worst in ages. It was full of some of the most vile and abusive texts ever to come across my phone, and what I'm realizing is that for the last 15 years, I have been in a role I no longer want to occupy. I have what we relationship coaches call "Role Nausea" and the only way for me to vacate my role is to draw very distinct lines in the sand and vacate the system as best I can. It is no longer enough for me to vacate the role, because the system continues to dictate a need for it and I am the one who keeps slipping into it, despite my best efforts to vacate it. Once I vacate the system, it is possible the role of "Abused" will leave the system. It is also highly likely that it will be occupied by someone else in the system, likely my ex's girlfriend, who up until this time he's treated with love and respect. For her sake, and the sake of the three children involved (my ex's two and hers) I hope not.

I often ponder how our life would have been different if we'd had complete separation right off the bat post-divorce. I often wonder if the way we did it initially, while it looked good to others, felt good to us and fed our egos as they were stroked by the outside world, was really the healthiest choice. I am a life and relationship coach and I focus my practice on coaching single moms and yet the god's honest truth is that I have no idea. What I do know is that the process of divorce is ever changing, ever shifting, ever complicated. As we continue on in our daily lives, as we meet new partners, as we forge new careers, as the rules change by necessity, so do the parameters of the divorce. Divorce, I've learned, is a living breathing entity, just as a marriage is, and it needs to be fed and stroked and examined, just like a marriage.

My son has often been confused by how well my ex and I get along. He's often said, "Well, if you guys get along so well, why don't you just get back together?" After five years apart, my son sat on my ex's porch with me just three weeks ago crying about wanting us to move back in together. Perhaps a greater separation will allow him the space to recognize more fully that our divorce is permanent and necessary. It will take a careful balance of respect for my ex and clarity of my needs for me to communicate the changes as they occur. We have always sought the counsel of professionals for major life changes (such as our divorce and the introduction of my son's brother) and I expect this time will be no different.

And so, five years post-divorce, I am putting my own oxygen mask on first and I am finally divorcing my ex-husband. No more holidays together, no more vacations, no more family dinners. We will communicate about our son the way "normal" divorced people do, see each other at school events and birthday parties and communicate about what is necessary. My hope is that we will all find peace in that. I know I will.

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