Monday, July 7, 2008

Book Review: Reconcilable Differences

In the words of Nietzsche, "What does not kill you makes you stronger."

When I read the back of the book, RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Marriages End Families Don't, by Cate Cochran, I literally embraced it and knew I had to have it. In ten chapters, featuring the stories of ten unique families, Cate shares inspirational and unconventional ways that these families have remained intact even after the parents' marriages have come to an end.

My ex-husband and I no longer live in the same home, but I tend to believe that our situation is more like the families' in this book than other couples we've met who have also had to redefine family live after a divorce.

When we first separated, my husband and I each took a co-parenting class called Parents' Turn. It was a class that was meant to fulfill our requirements for the court during our high conflict divorce and we each walked away from that class feeling very lucky considering how well we were getting along compared to those we met along the way.

One of the things that struck me the most was when the instructor pointed out that: Someday, when our son decides to marry, or have a child of his own, it will be necessary for his father and I to be in the same room. Our son may want us both to walk him down the aisle, for example, or be there when his baby is baptized or celebrates a birthday.

Looking towards the future - and the future of our relationship - forced me to step back and put aside my own feelings and really focus on getting along with his father and reconfiguring our family in a positive way. Not only did we start communicating more often after our separation, but to this day, we make sure that both of us are there on our son's birthday and special occasions to celebrate with him.

Back to the book: Ten couples, all with different reasons for ending their marriages, were brave enough to experiment with the family dynamics in their home by continuing to reside together, under the same roof, so their children could have both parents involved in their lives on a daily basis.

My ex-husband and I discussed this idea, briefly. Unfortunately, neither one of us were in a place, emotionally, to work together on this. Discovering that your spouse brings out the worst in you (and vice versa) is reason enough to no longer live together. I don't think that this solution (of living together after a divorce) works for each and every family, but I have a great deal of respect for those who can make it work. They sacrifice many of their own needs and wants in order for it to happen.

What I found most inspiring about the stories inside RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, are the lessons that the children learned from their experiences (and their parents' experiments) with the re-creation of family life:
"It's a bizarre idea to think that staying in an unhappy situation is good, because kids know what's going on. It might not be said out loud, but we know...If you can figure out a way to be happy, the pieces will fall into place." - Maggie, 21 (she was 6 years old when her parents "transitioned")

"I wasn't mad at them for their marriage not working, but I was mad that they had tried to hide it." - Julie (age 12)

Bethan, still a toddler when her parents separated, gave her mother a card which conveyed her true feelings when she was old enough to put her thoughts into words: "I'm glad that you and Daddy got divorced."

Marc and Mary decided to continue sharing a house together after Marc admitted to himself (and his wife) that he was gay, and they realized that there are other options for couples after a marriage ends. According to Mary, "what was empowering was making the decision that [their relationship] didn't have to be shattered, that it could be reinvented."

When Peter and LJ divorced, Peter stayed in the home (in a separate unit) and LJ later remarried Jon, who had his own thoughts on the reconfiguration of families: "If you divorce in an agreeable way, especially in an arrangement where it is peaceful and people are satisfied with their lives, you show kids on a deeper level that life can be good and you can make it good."

After twenty-five years, Anna and Tom finally admitted to themselves - and each other - that their marriage was not working. After having three children together (and two from Tom's previous marriage) they had woken up to the reality that staying married was no longer a healthy option. Their teenage children learned many things from their relationship including the reality that the prince charming / happy ending fairy tale does not exist for many people. As Anna states, "That's what I want my kids to know - enjoy it and love it and be totally there for the person. But be sure that you don't need that person, that you only want that person. There's such a difference between those two words."

As a single parent, still defining my role as a divorced mom, I have to agree with the way the author chooses to view her relationship with the father of her children and hope to use them as a model to further reinforce the role of our extended family and the importance of community in my son's life.

"We have been taught from the time we were tiny children that marriage is an endgame; once we get there we are supposed to stay there. When marriage vows include the phrase 'til death do us part,' any other outcome signals failure...When we put the nuclear family on a pedestal as if it's the best structure within which to live, we set ourselves up for disappointment and disaster.

"The families in this book looked to themselves for inspiration when it came to reconfiguring. By letting the shape of the new arrangements evolve from what felt right, they created families that best fit the needs and desires of their individual members.

"...when we take the first steps toward severing marital arrangements, we tend to seek help from the 'experts' we hope will guide us, but no one knows our children better than we do.

"When we have to reconfigure the family structure, we should take it step by step, trusting our own instincts and trying to remember that we're forever linked to the father or mother of our offspring. We are the only two people in the world with that relationship, and there's something to be cherished in that."

Other books that may also be of interest:

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Why Do I Love These People?: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families
The Good Divorce
We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce

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