Coping with the Ex Factor

Coping with the Ex Factor

Some mothers will say things to their kids like, “Just remember, she’s not your REAL mother!” But I think, well, it takes a VILLAGE to raise your kids – so let’s share it around! Be my guest (I say to her, mentally) and help with running this family!

Parenting after divorce

Many people emerge from separation and divorce feeling scarred, bitter and broken. But there are exceptions. Jill Darcey found her divorce just as soul-destroying and heart-breaking – but, far from having her life ruined, she discovered new strength and new life. And, today, she’s busy helping others come through with flying colours.

What made the difference? In a word: ATTITUDE! Jill decided, even in the cauldron of the white hot moment, that she would NOT allow what was happening to ruin her life – or the lives of her three kids. Inspired by her success, she then went on to establish the Complex Family Foundation … coaching and counselling other ‘leavees’ and ‘leavers’ (as she calls them) to survive the storm and chart a new course with hope and courage. Plus she’s authored a new book, Parenting with the Ex Factor … urging divorced mums and dads to “stop drinking poison” and, instead, build a better parenting style.

We caught up with Jill in the middle of one of her seminars and asked her where all this new hope comes from …

GRAPEVINE: Many people regard life-after-divorce as a sort of prison-sentence, without hope or happiness, don’t they?

JILL DARCEY: Sadly, that’s true. The one who leaves (the ‘leaver’) often has someone waiting outside the relationship – so has lots of hope. But the ‘leavee’ is shattered and hope has gone. There’s a lot of judgement about divorce, and when it happens the leavee often feels condemned – and convinced that they’ll never find another partner.

GRAPEVINE: Are they right to feel that?

JILL: No, I believe there IS hope. I too went through that deep, dark nightmare. It’s very real and overwhelming. But in the end, divorce is an event, not a life-sentence. And it’s how you deal with it that makes the difference.

GRAPEVINE: You suggest it mostly comes down to taking a positive view – giving yourself a talking-to: “I’m going to be civil. I’m not going to degenerate into bitterness and fighting!” But isn’t that very hard to do?

JILL: Phenomenally hard! That’s why so many don’t. The fact is, you can’t hold a marriage together if one party wants to leave. I felt initially that, somehow, I could. But if the other person decides, “That’s it – it’s over!” – there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re gone.

However, the leaver is still a parent.

Often the person left behind believes that their “ex” is not only saying “I don’t want to be with you,” but also, “I don’t want to be a PARENT!” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re not leaving their children – they’re leaving the marriage!

So we have to say, “Okay, we made babies together … how can we protect the children we made?” And that’s not easy. You’ve got to put aside your own hurt feelings. I don’t mean you ignore stuff – you’ve got to deal with that hurt eventually. But, when it comes to the children, we have to look very dispassionately at things … we have to disassociate ourselves from those bruised feelings.

GRAPEVINE: Do many people mix those things up?

JILL: Oh yes – it’s often a complete shambles! There’s not much positive structure around divorce. The preconceptions are nearly all negative. The standard reaction is: you talk to your lawyers; you go to court; you set in motion a whole chain of processes that end up being not helpful at all.

GRAPEVINE: So it’s important, right, to resist the urge to vent your rage and punish the other partner?

JILL: Yes, very important. And St Augustine explained why: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

Through the early stages of my separation, I had to concentrate not on what my ex-husband was doing, but on what I was choosing to be and do.

Even though I was really hurt, shocked, stunned, upset … I had just enough character and, I guess, enough courage, to know that there had to be a better way than descending into recriminations and revenge. I had to ask myself, “Who do I want to be in all this?” And who I wanted to be was still a lovely person.

GRAPEVINE: So what’s your message to people who are stuck, wallowing in anger and self-pity – poisoning themselves without realising it?

JILL: Well, it’s about gaining your own healing. First, you must acknowledge what’s happened. You must validate the feelings you have. And then, odd as it sounds, you have to actually feel the feelings. But, finally, you need to positively choose that you aren’t going to wallow any longer.

Then you have to learn to forgive – even though it may not seem a sensible thing to do. Forgiving is actually letting go of all that negative energy. Once you can do that, you find it’s easier to cope with all the day-to-day things – because that anger’s no longer draining you.

GRAPEVINE: But some people would say, “Well, I just can’t forgive! What my partner did to me was so hurtful that to even suggest forgiveness is like saying what they did is okay!”

JILL: Forgiveness isn’t saying what happened is okay. It’s about surrendering … accepting that it has happened and there’s nothing more you can do about it … and then making a positive choice for yourself.

Forgiveness isn’t a feeling – it’s an act of the will. And it takes a lot of effort. That’s why I talk about it as an attitude.

GRAPEVINE: Sometimes a divorce is inevitable. But, other times, reconciliation might still work. How can people know if their marriage is worth saving?

JILL: I try not to do too much in the way of relationship counselling. I mainly focus on helping people whose divorce has happened.

But, in a nutshell, my tests are these: if there’s still progress, even very slight progress … if the partners are still willing to talk and to work … then hang in there.

Many people believe that all their problems will be solved when they step outside the relationship. It’s not true. It’s just as hard outside as it is in. So don’t abandon the relationship to “make life easier”. We’re too quick to walk away nowadays.

Obviously, if there’s violence and abuse, then that relationship’s got to a point where it’ll be affecting children terribly. But if things are moving … if the gaps between the ‘downs’ are getting longer, and the ‘downs’ aren’t quite so deep … then you’re making progress. And if you are – stick it out.

GRAPEVINE: If someone says “I don’t want to be married to you!” then you can’t make the person stay. But is there anything a husband or wife can do to help the relationship survive?

JILL: We’re always looking for that ‘golden key’ that’s going to turn our spouse’s heart back to us again. But, all too often, there’s someone else in the picture … the ‘other woman’ … the ‘new man’. And once there’s someone else in the picture, there’s no golden key that will work.

It’s not that there’s necessarily an affair going on. The relationship could be threatened by nothing more than some idealised picture of life with this other, wonderful person.

The best thing the husband or wife can do here is dig deep and learn what real love is … and that sometimes means letting someone go. That’s what I had to do, heart-breaking as it was.

GRAPEVINE: You refer in your book to a wife where divorce has happened. And she decides that, since her children are going to be exposed to this ‘other woman’ who’ll be involved in bringing them up, then it’ll be better for the kids if she’s friendly and co-operative – even welcoming the new woman into the wider family arrangement. Was that you?

JILL: Yes, that was me! And it was very hard! I had to wrestle. I cried – every night. I’d go to bed and lie awake – but I knew that I just had to do this for the good of the children.

GRAPEVINE: So if a divorce or separation is unavoidable, you obviously believe there are things you can do to make the best of the situation?

JILL: Definitely! For a start, you can watch your labels. We usually call this a ‘broken home’ and a ‘split family’ – which is terribly negative. We’re immediately disadvantaging our children with a label like that, saddling them with this handicap for life – almost like they’re damaged goods.

I tried to come up with a term that describes the reality, but avoids the negativity – one that could make things whole again. Because that’s what kids long for.

I came up with the ‘complex family’. It’s neutral. There’s nothing wrong with ‘complex’ … it just explains what the family’s situation really is: complicated.

GRAPEVINE: When you’re counselling people in that tempestuous, early stage of separating, what do you encourage them to do?

JILL: Talk! I say, “You’ve got to draw a line in the sand. Your relationship has ended. Don’t keep looking at all the problems that need to be fixed – because that’s finished. What we now have to concentrate on is just being parents.” So we need to talk – about how we tell the children, how we organise our daily routines, all those nitty-gritty details.

If you go to professionals, they’ll tell you things like, “Make sure you’ve got the same routine in each home so you’re not confusing the children.” But the kids don’t want that – and I don’t want that. I don’t want to live as though their Dad and I are still together.

I say: don’t try and make the two households identical, but give your children ways to handle the differences.

If we can teach kids how to handle what’s happened, then we’re giving them a gift for life. I mean, in the future they’re going to have difficult bosses, difficult friends, difficult relationships – so they might as well learn about getting on with difficult people now.

GRAPEVINE: How did you prepare your kids, especially the very little ones, for their new ‘complex’ family?

JILL: Well, I actually told them very little, because they don’t need to understand a lot. We did a few days out – me, my ex-husband, the new lady and the kids. We’d do things like family picnics, where she was “just a friend” coming along … so, no biggie. The kids got used to her as a friend.

We then had a conversation about how Daddy’s going to live in another house, and he’ll come and see us all – frequently.

There was no tension between the adults, and no big drama – and the children never realised that there ‘should’ve been’. It was really that simple. They didn’t know about divorce. They didn’t know whether divorce was good or bad. It was just that Daddy was going to live in this other place … all treated very normally.

Of course, if a kid is older you need to say more. But you never need to go into all the morbid details. Kids aren’t helped by that.

GRAPEVINE: How about if your kids are teenagers?

JILL: Teenagers are the hardest. They’ve had time to gain their own opinions about divorce, and they’ve got friends who’ve been through it. That helps frame their questions. You tell them, “Kids, it’s different between me and your Dad than what your experience is. It can be hurtful, but this is what Dad’s chosen. Dad’s decided that he’d like to live with … (whoever).”

And you add, “While I’m upset about that, I respect your father’s choice.” And leave it at that. Just focus on being the best mum you can possibly be, and answer their questions as honestly and fully as you can – remembering: we don’t air the dirty laundry!

GRAPEVINE: Now that your children are older, have they questioned you about what happened?

JILL: Yes – a lot. And they wanted to know why it happened. So I’d talk to them in the context of their own playground relationships: “You know how you were very friendly with Jimmy so-and-so – and now you don’t see him at all? Well, that’s sort of what happened with Dad and me.”

They get that. And that’s all they needed to help them understand.

Once they’re teenagers and they’ve had a boyfriend or a girlfriend (and a broken heart), then they’d go, “This is crap, Mum.” And I’d reply, “I know it hurts, sweetie! I really understand!” And you’re able to tell more of your story. They’ll say things like. “I don’t know why you like her!” They went through a stage of real anger towards their step-mum, and we just had to get over it.

GRAPEVINE: Is it ever worth ‘staying together for the sake of the children’?

JILL: I don’t think so. I neither condone nor condemn divorce. It’s just an event that happens. It’s like the Christchurch earthquake. Bang! What are you going to do with it?

And there are things you can do. The step-parent will be able to show the children how much their father (or mother) can be loved. Much more, perhaps, than the mum and dad could while they were together. That, to me, is a positive thing for children – provided, of course, there’s no toxic interchange between the birth parents. If there’s toxic stuff, then, divorce or no divorce, it’s going to screw up the kids.

Some mothers will say things to their kids like, “Just remember, she’s not your REAL mother!” But I think, well, it takes a VILLAGE to raise your kids – so let’s share it around! Be my guest (I say to her, mentally) and help with running this family!

GRAPEVINE: We’re tempted to think that the partner who leaves doesn’t have to cope with the same stresses and shocks that the leavee does – but that’s not always true is it?

JILL: It all depends why they’ve left. In 65% of ended relationships, it’s the woman who’s pulled the plug. Of course, many of them felt they had to end the relationship. Other leavers might be facing abuse … secret affairs by the partner … dysfunctions like alcoholism, gambling, you name it. The one who leaves isn’t always the man flitting off with a new woman.

I look at it this way: the leaver often grieves before they leave. The leavee grieves once they’ve gone.

GRAPEVINE: What about the wider family dynamics that a bitter divorce can trigger – like where grandparents are prevented from seeing and interacting with their grandchildren?

JILL: Oh, those situations can become really ugly. And what’s paramount here is the good of the children. Both parents need to recognise that grandparents are vital in a child’s life, and it’s a massive bonus if you’ve got grandparents still wanting to be involved.

To the grandparents I would say: be the best grandparent you can be, and prove the value of the relationship. If either parent is afraid you might take sides, overcome those fears by the way you spend that time with the child. Don’t try and correct the parents. Don’t say anything that might make tensions worse.

If you’re hearing negative things about mum or dad or one of the new step-parents, the thing to remember about this kind of poison, regardless of who it comes from, is: “Hurting people hurt other people.” And it’s sometimes helpful to say, “They obviously don’t feel good about themselves or they wouldn’t say such horrible things …”

That can defuse the situation – and it helps the kids realise: “Oh, Dad can’t be feeling very good about himself.”

I also encourage outside parties, like grandparents, to get creative. There are so many different ways to stay in contact – mobiles, internet, emails, Skype. There’s all sorts of things you can do.

GRAPEVINE: Parent/teacher evenings can be troublesome for complex families. But your solution is to attend with your ex-husband, and his new partner, and presumably your new partner too – you’re all there! How do you encourage people who’re locked in bitterness to move towards openness like that?

JILL: Firstly by assuring them that yes, it is possible. I know how painful it is to contemplate actually doing it. But this is not about you and your hurt. This is about your child’s education, and you’ve got to focus on that. It’s wonderful for kids to realise that their education is important enough that mum and dad will both turn up.

GRAPEVINE: It’s usual for the leaver to be in a new relationship if not before the divorce, certainly soon after. But, often, the leavee also eventually gets to the stage of being ready for a new partner. How do you tell the children that?

JILL: If you handled the original split well, it’s easier when the next relationship comes along. But if you’ve been a really toxic ‘ex’ … well, you can hardly expect it to all go swimmingly! For me, having a new man come into my life wasn’t threatening for my children because they’d watched how well it worked for their dad.

But – that said – how will the new arrangement impact on the kids? They’re about to have someone new in their home, someone they’ve had no choice about.

Very carefully! He and I dated for a year before he had any interaction with the wider family. I’d only date him on Wednesday nights, and every second weekend, because that fitted our family routine. If he couldn’t cope with that then he wasn’t going to cut the mustard!

Then we had a year where we’d bring him into family activities – like picnics and outings – so the children were getting used to him.

I told them that they weren’t losing me, but that there was a ‘special someone’. And then, when we decided to move in together, he didn’t move into my house and I didn’t move into his – we all moved to a new location and set up home as a family in “Our House”.

GRAPEVINE: And how long was it before you introduced the new man to your ‘ex’?

JILL: Straight away. There was five years between our separation and my meeting someone new. But once we moved in together I made sure they knew each other. I had to say, out of respect, “This is the man who’s going to be living with your children. Here’s how it works …” And that gave them both a bit of breathing space.

GRAPEVINE: Is it ever too late to move from a ‘broken’ family to your ‘complex’ model? I can imagine people thinking, “If only I’d read something like this before it all went toxic …!”

JILL: Well, I’m working with people who are 28 years into the process! The truth is, it only takes one person to change – and then, by the laws of nature, the whole relationship changes.

If you’re willing to work on yourself and your own attitudes – the way you relate to your ‘ex’ and his/her partner – you can start making a difference. The power is with the individual. If you’re always supportive of your children … if you’re always trying to think constructively and speak positively … if you’re happy to go out of your way to just smooth the waters – then that’ll have a beneficial effect, and you will change the dynamic forever.

GRAPEVINE: Which brings us back to what you said about forgiveness – right?

JILL: Yes. And gratitude. Gratitude’s a big one. People often wish that their ex-partners were dead! But when you think of the effects on the children – the death of a parent is monumental! The effects of a divorce aren’t as bad. In most cases, the kids still see that parent – they’re not gone. So what I say is, “Everything positive that you achieve, be grateful for it instead of ignoring it.”

Sadly, when we’re married we overlook all the crap – but when we’re divorced we overlook all the good!

GRAPEVINE: You counsel people to talk not just to those who sympathise, don’t you?

JILL: Sure. Go to wise people, and talk to them about the grief and stress and anger. If you feel better from having spoken to them, then chances are you’ll feel more loving towards your children – and more relaxed about their on-going relationship with your ‘ex’. If that’s happening, then carry on talking to that support person …

If your supporter is saying hostile and excluding things like, “Don’t trust your ‘ex’!” and “Don’t let them near the kids!”– then stop talking to that person. Those conversations will poison the dynamic between the two of you and hamper any real progress.

GRAPEVINE: The trouble is, most of us prefer talking to people who’re going to say, “Oh, you poor, poor thing!”

JILL: Absolutely! Because we like that! But we need to understand that this is just encouraging the lonely ‘victim-mentality’. Sure, you can have your tears with your girlfriends and pour it all out – but as soon as they start belittling your ‘ex’, that’s when you should say, “No, I can’t take that from you. I need you on my team to help, thanks!”

GRAPEVINE: Do you see many toxic situations that are turned around?

JILL: Yes, lots! I’ve had lots of people who’ve been in and out of Court for 8, 10, 12 years. They come to me, and after a while I hear, “You’ve transformed my life!”

I get beautiful emails most mornings about how well it’s working – which is so lovely. But I also get others that say, “Crap – it’s not working and I’m crying!” That’s the reality of how hard it can be!

But, on the whole, people do start getting their lives back on track. A lot of them end up in better relationships and are able to make contact with more appropriate people – because they’re no longer consumed with vindictiveness or bitterness.

The kids are more relaxed and can start doing normal-kids’ things. (Whether they do better at school or not isn’t one of my measuring sticks, because some kids are never going to do all that well at school.) But what I do see is kids becoming more content and happy in the home. And that’s what’s most important.

The over-riding encouragement I’d offer to those struggling with divorce is … “It’s worth the effort!” The fact that you made babies with this person is the connection that you’ve got to acknowledge.

I was always told, “Marriage is the biggest decision you’ll ever make in your life!” But now I tell everyone, “No it’s not! Who you make babies with is the biggest decision you’ll ever make … so be very careful.”

Who you make babies with is with you forever.



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