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The bright side of divorce, according to experts

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Amy Mazur spends holidays and vacations with her kids and their father, even after a divorce.

“It is so much less stressful for my children … and for myself,” said Mazur, a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York.

Her relationship with her ex-husband isn’t the picture that’s often painted of life after divorce, but it’s what works best for her family, she said. The marriage had begun in young adulthood and when it no longer worked for the people they grew into, she said they found a way to love and support one another while no longer being married.

Divorce rates have been steadily trending downward in the United States, according to recent data, but marriages ending are still a common, disruptive experience.

Most people probably don’t head into marriage anticipating divorce — but for those who find themselves in one, there are ways to encourage compassion for one another and ultimately build something stronger, experts said.

Grieving the loss

A divorce can be amicable yet still marked by loss and grief, said Rebecca Hendrix, a marriage and family therapist in New York.

There is the loss of the life you’ve built, including the home you lived in together, a name you may have shared and the routines you developed, she added. And then there are the emotional ties.

“This is your family. You have bonded with this person, for better or worse, even if you argue all the time,” Hendrix said. “Even if it’s kind of run its course and you both are not happy, you’re still attached to this person.”

One of the biggest hurdles Washington, DC-based marriage and family therapist Marissa Nelson sees people struggle with is grief over the loss of the vision they had for their life.

As with any other kind of loss, it’s important to find support to move through the emotions that come with grief, such as anger, sadness and difficulty reaching acceptance, Hendrix said.

Support can come from a therapist, a religious leader, friends, a divorce support group, or even books and media that make you feel less alone, she added.

It’s even better if you can ask your support network for specific things that could help you move through grief, Hendrix said. A recurring weekly dinner or a walk with a friend two or three times a week to get yourself out of the house can go a long way, she added.

“Reaching out to a few friends and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going through a hard time. I could really use some support’ is a huge, huge step for a lot of people,” Hendrix said.

Creating a new relationship together

But loss isn’t the thing to come out of divorce — couples can also build a new relationship with one another, Hendrix said.

“They can create any sort of divorce that they want to create if they’re cocreating it together,” she said.

For some people that may be a friendship, but for others that may not be possible. In those cases, it’s still possible to strive toward a kind and collaborative dynamic, especially if children are involved, Mazur said.

Former spouses “can kind of come together in a partner kind of way,” Hendrix said. “We may not have been the best at a relationship, but we can partner in dividing our lives or figuring out how to coparent our children.”

Mazur recommends working with a therapist to figure out how to move through the difficult feelings that come with divorce to build a new, more functional relationship. And be sure to give your ex-partner space and grace instead of forcing a new sense of closeness immediately, she added.

Divorcing partners may reach different emotional stages at different times, which is why it is your job to “keep it classy,” Mazur said.

“Keep returning with goodwill. Keep your side of the street clean. Always,” she said. “Don’t worry about what they’re doing … and just keep going back.”

How to take care of the kids

If the ending marriage involves kids, their experience needs to be a priority, Mazur said.

Coparenting apart is very different than coparenting as a couple, because you have to make decisions together while also dealing with your own hurt, Nelson said.

And just because you are no longer together does not mean that one parent should get to make decisions about raising the children unilaterally and inform the other parent, Mazur added.

There are a lot of questions that you still need to come together to answer, Nelson said, some of which will be negotiated in a custody agreement. How do you spend holidays? What do you do about birthdays? What happens when you start to date? When is it OK to introduce a new partner?

Bringing in a mediator who can help navigate the new system of parenting together can be one of the most effective approaches, especially when the parents are still healing from hurt and anger, she said.

Coparents need to rely on therapy or supportive adults in their lives to work through those feelings and not express them to the children, Mazur said.

“Your kids are watching. They notice everything,” Mazur said. “And that’s their mother or father that you’re talking about.”

The goal for both parents should be letting their children know that they are loved and still have a family, she added.

“You want to be able to go to school plays together and be cool and then go for ice cream all together afterwards,” Mazur said. “It doesn’t have to be vacations together — although that’s great, too — but they just need to know that they still have what other people have.”

Bright spots at the other end

Divorce may not be something you wanted, but you can find ways to get good out of it, Mazur said.

“Whenever you go through a crisis or tragedy or trauma like this, kind of the only way through it is to make meaning of it,” she said.

Maybe the meaning is letting go of the disconnection, anger and energy drain that came with your marriage ending, Nelson said. Finding growth could be reconnecting with who you are, your values and what you want in another relationship, she added.

Divorce may motivate some reflection on ways you want to make changes or even launch the first call you ever make to a therapist, Hendrix said.

“In life, it’s our times of pain that actually help us to grow the most,” she said. You can move forward seeing your “divorce as a catalyst for an extraordinary life.”

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