My Modern Family
By Ruth Balbach
It's Thursday night and I have a full house. My 15-year-old son, who lives with me full time, is playing games with his friends. My ex-husband (who lives with me part time) and his girlfriend (who is visiting for the weekend) are at the kitchen island with a bottle of wine. My 22-year-old son is up for dinner, and he's got a friend along. I'm cooking, and my heart is full. This is my happy place.
Jim (the ex) and I were married 21 years. We experienced the slow fade that so frequently happens when you aren't paying attention – busy schedules, career, kids, and all the distractions that fill the day. By the time I realized I wanted more than "ok" in my marriage, I also wasn't interested in putting in the effort to make it great again. We talked a lot and ultimately decided to separate. Once that decision was made, the focus switched to doing it well, with as little impact to the family as possible. Family - not just kids - is an essential distinction for us. That's glue.
We worked with just one lawyer, who was free thanks to legal insurance through my work. We used a financial consultant to untangle the money, and a mediator to help us find "fair". It was hard and it hurt.
We lived together, then we lived four blocks apart. We flowed between homes. We did holidays together (and still do for the most part). We got a family dog. Our family's physical radius grew, and the boys expanded to fill the spaces, occasionally complaining that we should "act divorced" so they could get double the presents at birthdays and holidays. This was our new normal.
Then I received a job offer in LA. It's hard enough to move a family across the country, but a divorced family? How do you do that? To add complication, we are a single income family – I work while Jim takes care of the boys. It's nicely balanced when you are in the same city. How does it work long distance? When this opportunity came up, our older son was already in LA at USC. Our younger son was heading into 6th grade and the tricky years where friends really matter. We considered every conceivable option and eventually landed on one that keeps us together as much as possible.
Back to my full house. We are an incredible, extended family. The boys are the center of our decisions. Jim and I have both logged a lot of air miles over the past 5 years. When I am in Minneapolis, I stay with him. When he is in LA, he stays with me. It's just easier. During the school year that's pretty much full time, and he's a big help. We make decisions that accommodate each other. We have a family calendar. We don't sweat the small expenses. Occasionally we cover each other on the big expenses as well.
I date casually. It's a slightly complicated story to tell someone you are meeting for the first time, so I don't spring it all on the first date. Generally though, the men I like “get it” and are, on occasion, in the same boat. One of these days one of these men will stick, and he will be family as well. It is slightly weird when your ex checks in on how your date went, but it is handy to have him with my son for late nights out.
Along the way friends have asked – how do you guys do it so easily? How do you still like each other? Is it weird to live together part-time? My answer is simple – the secret to a good divorce is to marry well. Jim and I loved each other, and in many ways, still do. He is a good friend. We are kind to each other, and more importantly, have each other's backs. It's all about trust – which is glue as well.
We figured out early how to work around the things that bug each other (for me it’s dishes in the sink at the end of the day), and those considerations did not change when we got divorced. The significant issues we had as a couple are still there but neutralized now as we aren't planning a life together. We’ve managed to keep what is good about our relationship and let go of what was not.
I am fortunate to make enough to keep all the plates spinning and provide a nice lifestyle. That certainly has helped. We are still connected financially for a few more years. It just is, and I don't spend too much time thinking about what if. That type of thinking isn't helpful. Jim carries his weight in many other ways. Family is the heart of it. Luckily, ours is strong.
A few tips that have helped me along the way:
Remember that you loved each other once – enough to get married. Focus on the good things when you are feeling frustrated.
Support each other as divorced co-parents. You are still connected through the kids.
Keep talking about the big things and be flexible– who pays for what, time together and apart, new boyfriends/girlfriends, vacations, etc. You’ve likely spelled a lot of this out as part of the divorce, but there are always nuances. Things change.
Do things together, but only comfortably. If it’s uncomfortable to be together, then it’s uncomfortable for the kids too. Don’t force it.
Focus on what really matters and don’t sweat the small stuff.