01/07/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Creating Harmony After Divorce

Recently, I was reminded of the power of small acts of kindness. I was at my ex-husband Arnie's house. Arnie had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly only months earlier. Now, just being in his house brought up a residue of feelings from when he was so sick: loss, sadness and grief.

When I walked into an upstairs bedroom, I did a double take. On a table stood a lamp I recognized but could not quite place in my mind. Suddenly I remembered: it had been in my living room years ago. What was it doing here?

Then I remembered, and took a deep breath. It was one of a pair of lamps Arnie and I bought in 1969, shortly after we had married. We were setting up a home together. We'd both fallen in love with the idea of getting a pair of Chinese jar lamps. We'd been shopping in the Bowery on Canal Street and, by chance, we came upon a shop where a pair of lamps in the window called out. The green and white scenes painted onto the porcelain base spoke of a life lived with vitality, elegance and permanence. Nose to the glass, we breathed together: Yes.

Thirteen years later, when Arnie and I divorced, I kept the house and most of the furnishings, including the Chinese lamps, which graced the living room. Arnie had moved six blocks away and our divorce arrangement included his having dinner at my house twice a week with the kids (who were eight and twelve) while I was in school training to become a psychologist.

One evening, I came home to find a broken lamp sitting on the table next to the couch. My ex and our son had been playing ball in the living room and not surprisingly, the ball had hit and shattered the porcelain base.

"I'm sorry," Arnie said. "It's my responsibility. I shouldn't have let Zach play ball in the living room." Then he offered to pay for a new pair of lamps for my living room.

That's what I mean about a small act. It wasn't only his willingness to take responsibility and apologize, but his offer to replace the pair that touched me. Replacing one lamp would have fulfilled his responsibility, but by replacing the pair, he'd clearly gone beyond. He knew how I valued the lamps, and wanted to make it up to me.

After getting new lamps, Arnie asked me for the remaining Chinese lamp. Although I really wanted to hang onto it, of course I gave it to him. Now, 27 years after that small act of kindness, here was the single lamp, reminding me of the story of what had happened so long ago.

There's more to the story. Arnie died on September 6, 2012. Six weeks later, hurricane Sandy flooded my beloved house by the beach. Arnie's house, farther from the shore, remained intact. Had I kept the lamp, it would in all likelihood have been damaged by the storm. Unwittingly, he had been safekeeping it all those years. And after all the losses -- Arnie's illness and death, and the upheaval of the storm -- the lamp felt like a gift, a memento from our earliest days together. What I've learned is that it's not easy to changes ourselves or our exes, but recurrent small acts of kindness can make life better. They can heal. There are so many ways to be kind to your ex. But first, for those who wonder, "Why should I be kind to my ex?"
  • Maybe because you share a precious gift: your children
  • Maybe because your ex will be in your life forever
  • Maybe because you and your ex share a history and in a funny way, you know each other oh so well
Here are five small acts of kindness that might help you befriend your former spouse:

1. Compliment your ex on something ordinary: "Thanks for bringing the kids home on time!"

2. Compliment your ex on something extraordinary: "I heard you went on a great canoe trip- how exciting!"

3 Apologize: "I'm sorry I'm late with the kids -- I hadn't predicted the traffic!"

4. Create new rituals: Invite your ex to a family celebration at your sister's home.

5. Practice anger management: Breathe when you feel like shouting.

6. Practice gratitude: "Thank you for reminding the kids to get me a holiday card!"

Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD is a psychologist, workshop leader and the author of Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2013). If you have a story to tell about befriending your ex after divorce, write her at