Destructive storm or life-giving rain? Your choice.

The first time a friend asked me for advice about divorce was a bit surprising. Yes, I was divorced and it was working well. “It just looks like you have figured it out, so maybe you can give me some tips”, said this female friend who was preparing for a break up. I was happy to help.

Over the next year or so, however, three more friends contacted me. Their messages were almost identical to the first. It was strange to offer advice about something I took for granted. I had often said that I had the world’s best divorce or that I had a happy divorce but now I found myself having to formulate pro tips for friends. So why not write it down.

I did a quick search for divorce advice in English to see what was out there. The results were dominated by American links to divorce lawyers and there wasn’t much else. A life event that is so common for many people seems to lack serious conversation on the internet.

Divorce can be a beautiful thing

That statement can seem counter-intuitive and contrary to what you may have thought or heard. But I choose to look at it pragmatically. Divorce, if it happens, is a major life event. It is both a milestone and a crossroads on a person’s life map.

Think about how humans prepare for our other life events. We don’t usually employ negativity or prepare ourselves for a battle. When learning how to crawl or walk we are focused and determined and have an unwavering belief that we will succeed. The first achievement that we remember is learning to master a bicycle and that, too, is preceded by determination, practice and a clear vision of eventual success.

Perhaps we exit high school or university with butterflies in our stomachs but also with hope for the future and all that life may bring. We bring enthusiasm and a desire to do good to a new job. Marriage is entered into with love, hope and optimism. If we have to mourn the death of friends or loved ones, we try to cope with the pain by remembering all the best things about the deceased, as well as reminding ourselves to live life to the fullest.

Then, if divorce appears on our radar, so many of us are gripped by a fear of the unknown and an expectation of potential conflict. A defeatist attitude often overpowers the optimism inherent in homo sapiens. This is completely out of character for our species, who are always setting goals and trying to achieve them — and able to readjust them if we don’t.

There are still so many stigmas velcroed to the subject of divorce that it is admittedly difficult to keep our eye on the positive ball. Not many couples experience a divorce process that is one big happy hug. It is often a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Sometimes it is one of the two partners who drops the bomb and declares their intention to leave. Other times a couple will reach the point where splitting up is the only clear option.

It can hurt, sure. My ex-wife and I exploded in an argument one new year’s eve. We woke up the next morning and agreed we should maybe give it three months, instead of letting the previous evening’s emotions dominate. We realised that the race had been run at that point and there was little left to salvage. Neither of us will say it was an easy process. It was hard. Of course it was.

Without making a conscious decision to do so, we started to approach the challenge with pragmatism and rationality. Moving towards this major life event steadily. A new chapter in your life is imminent. Look towards it, as much as possible, with positivity. That’ll pay off in the long run.

Sure, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard wrote that, “everyone wants progress, no one wants change.” We like stability. But divorce is progress and we are designed to adapt and pursue it, once we realise that change is inevitable.

Add to this a recent study that a bad marriage can seriously damage your health, as reported in The Guardian.

Divorce is not failure

The blame game can rear its ugly head in a divorce process. Emotions can run high. Regrettable things can be said. A feeling of failure is understandable. After all, you invested so much time, energy and emotion in a long-term commitment and it didn’t work out. You BELIEVED in it and now it all fades to black.

Did you fail? No.

Whether your partner suddenly declares they are leaving and it comes out of the blue or the relationship slowly slip slides away, it can certainly feel like YOU did something wrong to make that happen. Self-doubt is a part of searching for answers. If we look at it pragmatically, there are over seven billion people on the planet. Two of them met up, got along and decided to be together. The odds that such a union will be forever carved in stone, however, are not extraordinary.

The excellent book Sex at Dawn — How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha is a go-to tome that challenges our preconceived notions of human relationships. For most of human history, many cultures had a relaxed relationship with what was expected of couples. With the advent of monotheistic religions and their influence on our cultures, the idea of lifelong partners was established and firmly cemented in our minds. We have been conditioned to think that if a relationship fails, we have failed. Failed ourselves through the veiled guilt trip of religion and society. Anthropology would have it different.

Two people couldn’t make it work. That is all that’s happened. We make friends and drift apart. Certain family members are less interesting to us than others. We roll with it. The same applies to splitting up. Infidelity is not the disease as such, it is often just a symptom of something else.

Nobody fails. It’s just human nature. I have many friends who have split up and I have friends who have an awesome relationship and will spend many years together. It can go either way. Both outcomes are great. We now live in societies where accepting human nature is much more widespread than in previous generations. My parents were married for 59 years before my mother passed. The last 15 years, they slept in separate bedrooms and — in a modern context — should have split up long before, in my opinion. They wouldn’t have been able to bring themselves to do it, such was the mentality of their generation. Now we have the opportunity to live our lives and to reboot and start again. The pursuit of a happy life is central to the existence of homo sapiens. We can continue that pursuit once we realize that divorce is not failure, it is just a new (exciting and challenging) life event.

A relationship ending is just a relationship that had a shorter shelf life. There will another one, or there will be others.

Divorce is so sad for the kids

So maybe there are kids in the relationship. The one comment that irritated me to no end when my ex and I started telling people we were splitting up was also one of the first out of peoples’ mouths: “Oh… what a shame for the kids…” I had to control myself when emphatically answering, “no!

Our children were living with two adults who didn’t get along. Two parents who tried to control the growing antagonism — for the benefit of the kids — but still it was not a happy home near the end. Who wants to live with people who aren’t happy? No one.

Kids, like adults, prefer stability. Homo sapiens are conservative by nature. But children are also much more intuitive and can sense what is going on even when we clever adults think we are masking it. My kids KNEW something was up long before we informed them that we were breaking up. Getting the news was clearly a confirmation for them — and a relief — that their intuition was right.

As a parent, I see a part of my responsibility as being teaching my children that adults can recognise and solve problems. Because of my divorce, my ex and I had the opportunity to teach them some anthropology — that humans don’t always stay together — and that it is possible to solve that challenge intelligently and in a civil manner. Not a bad thing to learn. Hopefully our kids will have learned that happiness is a goal and actively working to remove yourself from an unhappy relationship is positive and can be rewarding. Learning to rise to a challenge and overcome it is a great life lesson that can be applied across the board. Seeing your parents transform from sad and angry to hopeful, happy and optimistic can’t possibly be bad.

Less Yours and Mine — More We’ll Be Fine

On an emotional battlefield, assets are used as weapons and as indicators of success or victory. I’ve never concerned myself much with owning stuff. When the time came to divide our possessions, it was a smooth process. At that moment I was a little more solvent than my ex, so I saw no issue with her keeping most of the furniture and everything else. Our priority here was also the kids. We decided that I would move out but we both wanted the kids to have one stable, known environment to balance the new life in my new apartment.

At one point we considered selling our apartment and both moving to new digs but the idea of one of us keeping it felt better for both of us. So I found a new apartment and furnished it on the cheap over a weekend thanks to the WalMart of Scandinavia — IKEA. Over the past seven years I have developed a home. It was hard work and there was an expense to this but I sincerely saw it as fun. As adults we get so stuck in our ways so, for me, rebooting was a welcome deviation from the norm. It also lets you focus on something practical instead of the lingering emotions of the break up. My ex benefited from the stability of not having to do so — win-win for both.

I couldn’t see the value in fighting for a tv or a sofa. It just felt silly what with all the challenges of the divorce and focusing on the kids’ well-being. My ex ended up buying me out of the apartment and we are both happy we didn’t sell it. It’s a cool apartment that we created together. She still loves living there and I like to visit.

I understand that many couples have a more complicated situation with figuring out how to divide up property, homes, cars, savings. I know that I am lucky to have an amazing ex-wife who shares these values. I just think that there were more important issues to deal with at the time than bickering over stuff.

Equality on Paper

I am well aware that the divorce process differs from country to country and often differs greatly. Here in Denmark the process is designed for compromise first and only then for conflict mediation. You fill out a form informing the State that you are separated. After six months you both visit an office where a mediator guides you through the divorce proceeding and helps divide up assets and child custody, among other things. If a couple are in complete, unresolvable dispute it can end up with lawyers. In my circle of friends and colleagues here in Copenhagen, that last resort is a rare occurrence.

When all was said and done, we both received a letter confirming that the State recognised our divorce. Brilliantly simple. The last thing we needed was more dragging ourselves through a drawn out process. Such are many aspects of the gender-balanced Danish and Scandinavian society that has developed over the past century. Although historically, perhaps we are influenced by our Viking ancestors whose society was far more gender-equal than most others. Thanks to a democratic system and respect for individual rights.

But hey, there are places where your first course of action is to lawyer up. In liability cultures, lawyering up involves drawing up aggressive battle plans for winning stuff and for child custody. Such a system is designed for inevitable conflict. Perhaps some of the ideas in this article will not be directly applicable where you live, but I remain confident that the gist of them still works.

My ex and I decided to divide up custody of the children straight down the middle in order to reduce the severity of unforeseen situations in the future. As is typical in Denmark, we share custody of the kids “7–7” — they spend a week with her and a week with me and so it repeats. I registered our son at my address and she registered our daughter at hers, even though they are together when they move between the two homes. I pay alimony to her each month and she pays it right back — it’s the same amount here. We agreed that I would buy clothes and whatever else for our son and she would do the same for our daughter. We help each other out with various expenses that fall in a grey area. We are both involved in our kids’ schooling, of course, but generally I communicate with my son’s teachers and she does the same for our daughter. A clear and defined division of expenses and of labor.

While it is not always easy to do, I managed to find an apartment 200 meters away from her so the kids don’t have to schlep back and forth. Whoever has the kids on the date they have a birthday hosts the family dinner and a party for the school class where applicable.

This whole section of the divorce process is by far the most pragmatic and the clear and even divisions have made so many things so much easier. So even if you don’t live in a place with an easy divorce system, there are hopefully some good takeaways from the idea of dividing as much as possible up in the most even way.

Remember Yourself (Yourselves)

One person is the priority and that’s you. It’s important that you come out on the other side of this positive, strong and confident. My ex and I were never the kind of parents who had kids and then promptly projected ourselves onto them. We never wanted to be that kind of parent who talks incessantly about their children and, in effect, declares to the world that they have stopped living their own life. We were still around and still wanting to live, work, succeed and contribute to society. I think that helped us both get through the divorce. Focusing on ourselves and then, in second place but only by a fraction, the kids. A strong, happy parent will be beneficial to kids in a situation like this.

Be Gracious

It’s not always easy. One partner could get nasty or vengeful in a way that if completely out of character. Crazy stuff happens but if conflict is expected right off the bat, the chance that the situation will get bad is much higher. Someone needs to take the high road. Humans can engage in conflict when feeling attacked or vulnerable, but we will always prefer to get along and seek compromise where possible. Make THAT the point of departure.

I understand if a person is afraid of the future and emotionally vulnerable in a difficult phase like a divorce. It is, however, only a phase. Remember that this is just a life event to get through and seek to be positive before, during and after. You have one life. Keep it shiny and gorgeous and rise to whatever challenge you face — including divorce.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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