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What are the appropriate emotions for an ex during and after divorce?
April 8, 2011 11:33 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend recently finalized his amicable divorce, but I am more wary than ever. What are the emotions one goes through after divorce and what sacrifices are required on my part? It's a little long - thanks in advance for reading.

My boyfriend just finalized his divorce from his ex-wife. They have known each other close to 20 years: dated for 3 years, broke up and dated other people for 6 years, and got back in touch and married (lasted 10 years). They do not have children. The divorce is amicable - no cheating, lying, or huge drama, but by the looks of it, two people who respect each other but decided the marriage wasn’t working.

The reason for the divorce is that, while being good friends, they wanted different things from a relationship. In fact, he tells me that his ex is a good person and good teammate - dutiful and selfless and steady in crisis - but had zero emotion, no interest in maintaining a romantic/marital relationship, no needs for affection or intimacy, and generally wanted to be left alone. During a good 2/3 of the marriage, they lived on separate floors in the house, didn't go on vacation together, and generally lived like roomates. After campaigning for change and putting up with this arrangement for 6 years, he asked her for the final time whether she really desired to build a real relationship and make it work, or if she wanted to separate. She chose the latter.

He and I started dating several months later and, to date, have been together for 16 months. Initially I was hesitant to date him because I didn't want to be a rebound. However, I also recognize that people and circumstances vary, and while rebounds are statistically likely, sometimes you meet an exception. I believed that my boyfriend was an exception. He pursued me in a way that a man does when he is very interested in serious relationship, he was up front with me about his ex and his divorce, he took responsibility for his part in the divorce, he didn't smear his previous relationship (by the way, this is a huge one for me - can't stand people who smear someone they've professed to love once), constantly talks about and is excited about our future together, and generally make me feel very loved through words and actions.

So what's the problem? The divorce was just finalized and the process has stirred some emotions in him. I have not been married or divorced, so I can't really understand. I happened to see a note he had written her just a few hours after the divorce was finalized - an emotionally raw time, I guess - and it said that he really didn't want to divorce, but in the end it was the right thing to do because they were separated for so long and because he couldn't make her happy. He also says that even if he remarries, he wants her to remain in his life. He feels like she is a part of his family and love will always remain. He talks about sharing too much history for them not to be in each other's lives anymore and how he hopes that she feels the same way. He had verbally shared some of these sentiments with me - that love never truly dies, that the sadness of losing an old friend is strong, that he feels an obligation toward her if she needs something because she had been dutiful and selfless toward him in the past, that he is glad that their divorce doesn’t mean the end to knowing each other but it has evolved into a friendship, etc.

People say that even the most amicable divorce is always painful and that emotions run intense, but even so, this isn't an indication that the people divorcing want to reconcile. On one hand, I understand his sense of loss, but on another, I am stunned and hurt. How many people who are divorcing tell their ex that love will always remain? How many people who are divorcing tell their ex, who they don't share children with, that there's too much history and they want to remain in each other's lives? By the way, I don't think of myself as a very jealous person and don't mind them staying in touch once in a while and catching up, but "love always" seems a little much! I feel like confronting him about my feelings on this, but that doesn’t seem like a good tactic because the best way to enforce feelings is to make them forbidden and hidden. What should I do?

I am impressed with inputs given by MeFi - mature, thoughtful responses shaped by diverse life experiences. If you went through a divorce, please share some insight on how the hell I am supposed to interpret/deal with this. Thank you very much!
posted by gardenbex to Human Relations (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
On one hand, I understand his sense of loss, but on another, I am stunned and hurt. How many people who are divorcing tell their ex that love will always remain? How many people who are divorcing tell their ex, who they don't share children with, that there's too much history and they want to remain in each other's lives? By the way, I don't think of myself as a very jealous person and don't mind them staying in touch once in a while and catching up, but "love always" seems a little much!

I don't think this is uncommon. It sounds like he really loved her, but it just wasn't reciprocated. He was with her for 20 years. He's not going to be over her soon. At the same time, it also doesn't sound like he's going to get back together with her.

This is a guy that's been starved for love and affection for years. She won't or can't give it to him. Can you?
posted by empath at 12:00 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I have never been married. There are ex-boyfriends I will always love.

J married and has a kid now. His wife hates me, and thus we've been mostly out of contact for years, minus facebook and the like. But he was a grand love, my first real partnership kind of relationship, and if he showed up on my doorstep tomorrow looking for a place to stay, he'd be welcome. I love the guy, always will. We've moved on; I have no interest in a romantic relationship with him whatsoever, but he's one of the few who's always welcome back in to my life. Much like your boyfriend and his exwife, our split wasn't about lack of love, but lack of compatibility.

Ultimately, I think you should take a deep breath. If you're old enough to be dating someone who's ending a 10 year marriage with 10 years of history beforehand, everyone you date is going to have previous relationships. Not all will be so present and at the surface as this divorce is, but everyone with 20 years of relationship history has past loves and past losses under their belt. You're unlikely to be someone's first love ever again.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:03 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


He sounds like a keeper to me! He is sad about the end of the relationship but recognizes even at that moment that it is the right thing to do. He is a loyal friend and respectful ex to someone who sounds like she wasn't really capable of being the wife that he wanted. Pretty much, all those things that you like about him are showing up in the way he is breaking up. Assuming that you are not rushing into marriage with him, I think you should see this as more evidence of why you love him. As long as their relationship remain appropriate for a friendly non-intimate relationship, just accept it as part of his past.
posted by metahawk at 12:21 AM on April 9, 2011 [16 favorites]


How many people who are divorcing tell their ex that love will always remain? How many people who are divorcing tell their ex, who they don't share children with, that there's too much history and they want to remain in each other's lives?

*Raises hand*

My ex-husband and I don't have nearly the same history your bf and his ex have, and we split because (among other things) we just weren't right to be married to each other in the first place, but the morning I moved out (nearly 11 years ago) we said pretty much the same thing to each other. My ex-boyfriend who I was with after my ex-husband and I also felt quite similar upon splitting up. I'm still friends with both of them. They both have moved on to other long-term committed relationships (my ex-husband is remarried, actually), as have I. I'm in touch with both of them now and then; my SO knows about them, and their SO's know about me.

The thing is, people can love each other and, simultaneously, not be able to move forward together in a committed partnership. It sucks, it's painful, it's hard. It also doesn't mean the break up isn't the right thing to do, and that the parties involved aren't capable of loving and committing to other people.
posted by scody at 12:25 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


He seems lovely. Do you love him? If so, love him. Don't be jealous because he's a nice person. They're divorced and he's with you.
posted by mleigh at 12:35 AM on April 9, 2011 [9 favorites]


How many people who are divorcing tell their ex that love will always remain? How many people who are divorcing tell their ex, who they don't share children with, that there's too much history and they want to remain in each other's lives?

In my experience (my marriage and my father's first marriage) it's common. My father's first wife (who he left for my mother) was a good woman, a good friend of my father's. He had his first heart-attack during his 2nd marriage and his first wife bought him a TV (a very expensive and thoughtful gesture in the late 1950s). Heck she even gave my mother part of her inheritance from my estranged paternal grandmother. They didn't work as husband & wife (high libido meet v low.) but they worked as friends for over 40 years.

In my case I know I will always love my first husband and I would help him out if ever he asked. We don't see each other often, and never in a planned way, but when we do it's hugs & smiles and well wishing. I loved the guy. Just cos he didn't cut the grade as a husband doesn't mean he's a bad dude or worse, unlovable.

I feel like confronting him about my feelings on this...
Sweetie, it's always hard being the next relationship after a divorce. If the divorce was unwanted then the worry that we are not her may be very strong. But please don't 'confront' him with how you feel - discuss it sure but remember that it is your attitude that needs to change in this situation, not his, if you want him to love you too.
posted by Kerasia at 12:38 AM on April 9, 2011 [8 favorites]


I agree with those above. In fact, I still love the majority of my exes. I feel a deep gratitude and connection to them. We shared ourselves deeply at key periods of our life. I'll probably send love out to some on my deathbed. And these are people I didn't marry!

I strongly feel that certain relationships become almost sacred, and one's ability to do right towards those people is a crucial part of one's sense of personal honor. Asking him to not feel that way or not help her in an emergency is like asking someone to curse their mother and spit on her grave, or something. If you love him, you have to grant him the space to behave in a way that honors this connection that is near-sacred to him.

To me what this means is that he is an honorable person, and she was/is a valued person in his life. But they are no longer married. She is his ex-wife, emphasis on ex-. Their connection is still strong, but it is becoming something else.

Meanwhile, as you and he get to know and love one another, your bond is deepening. Yes, you are new in his life; you would have a new and only-beginning-to-deepen connection with anyone you started to date rather recently.

Everything is fine. I would trust him. I would also be generous in giving him whatever emotional space he needs to adjust during this transition.
posted by salvia at 1:47 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


He seems like an emotionally articulate person. Ask him how he's feeling now it's over and how you can help.
Maybe a ritual would be good, or maybe the letter already was his closure ritual. Maybe a weekend getaway with you to clear his head would appeal. Ask him.
And I would suggest that he not regularly rehash his feelings with you about his ex. I hope he has friends who will do him that service. It's fine to tell him you find that a bit painful. Also, it is fine to share how insecure the situation makes you. Just don't confront and accuse, he's done nothing wrong to warrant that.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:05 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


You never learn anything to your advantage by delving into the past love life of a significant other. You'd have had more to worry about if he'd cheated on his ex wife - because if he cheated on her in the past he'll cheat on you in the future - but if he could stay loyal to her in a sexless relationship I don't think you've too much to worry about. People can love more than one person, what matters is whether he loves you. Also, if you love him, you won't care about this stuff. Are you doubting him or really doubting yourself here?
posted by joannemullen at 3:33 AM on April 9, 2011


You "happened" to see the note he wrote to his ex-wife, and now you want to confront him on it?

I say this as kindly as possible: your boyfriend's divorce should not be about you. It's clear it's made you uncomfortable, and maybe that's why you kept reading the letter even though you know you should've stopped the moment you realised what it was. But now that you've done it, the kind thing, the loving thing to do is to pretend you never saw it. It wasn't meant for you.

Ten years of marriage isn't something a person should be able to flick away like it was nothing. The fact that your boyfriend still cares about his ex is a good sign in my book. He sounds like an honourable and decent man, and he needs you to be there for him right now. So just... be there. Let your insecurities go and be the best girlfriend you can be.
posted by Georgina at 3:51 AM on April 9, 2011 [14 favorites]


My partner of seven years has two exes that are very present in our lives. One is his first long term girlfriend, whom he had an artistic partnership with, and still does. The other was someone who he lived with for three years, who was also a close family friend. These women are probably his best friends. We have had many meals with both of them together. In the beginning, the fact that he broke up with them many years ago, and that they are both in long term relationships with other people helped me deal with it. But now, I really like both of them and consider them friends, and in some ways family.

Even when romantic relationships don't work out, deep friendship can abide. And that's not something to expect a new partner to give up. As others suggest, I would not confront him on this. Your relationship with probably strengthen by being supportive of him during this time, rather than blindsiding him with your knowledge of the note. And down the road, you may actually be happy that he has a close friend in his ex wife.
posted by kimdog at 5:47 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Your question reminded me of my favourite scene from What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Johnny Depp's older and recently widowed ex-girlfriend is leaving town, and his new girlfriend, Juliette Lewis, witnesses their melancholy farewell. 'Are you gonna miss her?' asks Lewis. 'Yeah,' replies Depp. Lewis pauses and then, with a averted eyes and small smile, says, 'Good.'

She sees his sadness as an indication of his true character: that he's capable of real love, and doesn't wipe people from his heart once they're physically gone. It's a positive attribute, and she's lucky to have him.

You should feel similarly.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:00 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


I also dated a man who was finalizing his divorce. He had also been with his wife for a long time (15 years, married for 6). This was my first time dating someone who had made such a huge commitment to a partner--my boyfriends up to that point had only had ex-girlfriends. The range of emotions he went through as the divorce finalized--sadness, regret that they couldn't work it out, anger, relief-- were overwhelming for me, even though their romantic relationship had been long over. I sometimes felt like a bystander, and I resented it it greatly, considering the commitment and devotion and love I felt in our own relationship.

If I could change anything, it's that I would have encouraged my now-ex to talk about those particular feelings with a counselor and/or friend instead of confiding them all to me. I thought I was being a good partner by listening to all of it, and even encouraged him to share with me. I thought it was important for me to know everything that was going on in his heart and mind, especially concerning another person. But I wish now that he had worked through all of those things first, and then shared with me after he'd made sense of it all.

You shouldn't have read that letter, but I understand the compulsion. You can't un-read it, but certainly don't confront your partner about its contents. Those words weren't for you to read for myriad reasons.

My advice: step back from this whole thing. Take a break, take a breath. Go do something fun with your friends and also spend some time alone for a few days. Be there for your partner, but take care of yourself. Eventually, you'll see that his feelings about his divorce are healthy and bode well for his character, but you can't see that while you think they're taking something away from you.
posted by swingbraid at 6:26 AM on April 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


You are very fortunate that instead of hate and drama and anger and betrayal and general angst-city, your boyfriend carries mere regret and love from his previous marriage. This is an excellent thing. Stop reading his letters and generally work hard at being the kind of partner he is in fact looking for, please.
posted by SMPA at 6:34 AM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


I am a a firm believer that one ought not re-marry till at a minimum a divorce from a previous spouse has lasted three years.
posted by Postroad at 6:54 AM on April 9, 2011


"He also says that even if he remarries, he wants her to remain in his life. He feels like she is a part of his family..."

FWIW. My daughter's Dad was married before, for about a dozen years or so. His ex is known to our daughter as "Auntie" Hername (we are not from a culture that normally calls older unrelated women Auntie). I do look at her as a part of his family. We have even stayed with ex's sister while travelling.

This is all very good stuff, and props are due to your boyfriend. There's just no need to cast people aside because: divorce. Befriend the ex, if you can. Twenty years from now when boyfriend is having a 'cardiac incident' you will probably be grateful you have her number in your phone, y'know? Having somebody who loves and cares about somebody you love and care about is a good thing. Couplehood is great but it's much nicer to go through life with many circles of people who wish your family well. And how nice to have that caring come from somebody genuinely and deeply acquainted with your boyfriend.

And, should you ever break up with this fellow -- look at what lovely treatment you can expect. Sounds like a sterling dude, really.
posted by kmennie at 7:07 AM on April 9, 2011 [13 favorites]


I have an ex that I'm very close friends with still. We have no desire to be a couple ever again, but we will probably always be friends because we were partners/basically family for a long time. You shouldn't be so concerned about this. He doesn't want to be with her, but it makes sense that he regrets that things worked out like they did. You should also stop reading his letters. If you can't trust him, or if the ex thing is such a problem, maybe you shouldn't be with him. However, if you can trust him to be with you and respect that he has strong emotions about the divorce that will surely wane over time, then just enjoy knowing that your boyfriend respects people he's with.
posted by elpea at 7:44 AM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


gardenbex: it said that he really didn't want to divorce, but in the end it was the right thing to do because they were separated for so long and because he couldn't make her happy. He also says that even if he remarries, he wants her to remain in his life. He feels like she is a part of his family and love will always remain. He talks about sharing too much history for them not to be in each other's lives anymore and how he hopes that she feels the same way.

These are not he words of an emotionally raw time; these are the words of a mature, well-balanced, emotionally sound adult. I have never had a less-than-friendly parting with an ex, and these are relationships of 3, 4 and 5 years. As a general proposition, I speak to, love, see and am there for all of them. The focus of those relationships is tidal because that's how lives and friendships often work with adults.

None of this was an impediment to meeting, falling in love with and marrying my husband. It should go without saying that he is my highest priority, gets the vast majority of my attention, and shares my commitment with nobody else, but in case it does need saying: my feelings for my exes are in no way am issue or part of my love for my husband.

How many people who are divorcing tell their ex that love will always remain?

Lots. It should remain, in my book. Just because I fell out of love with an individual does not mean I stopped loving them. The people I am no longer with tend to be pretty good, smart, fabulous people, which is why I was with them in the first place. That doesn't change because we're no longer a couple.

It sounds to me like you have a pretty fantastic guy here. I'd try very hard to stick with this and I suspect this will not play out the way you fear it will.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:37 AM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I went through something very similar. My poor girlfriend had to watch the magical giddy part of our new(ish) relationship get derailed when I got my final divorce papers. I too had been up front about my marital status. I had signed the papers months before and I mistakenly thought I was done grieving and dealing with the emotions.

That final paperwork hit me hard. And I couldn't understand why - I didn't want to turn back the clock or not get a divorce and it was "just a piece of paper." But I sank into a pit of despair. My girlfriend was amazing and stood by me until I got back to normal. But it was scary and confusing.

I can't erase or forget the past. And there will always be some sadness for what I lost. This was a woman I spent about half of my 40-year life with. Rest assured that the raw emotions will go away in due time.

I can answer further questions via memail if you'd like
posted by O9scar at 9:49 AM on April 9, 2011


The friend I'm closest to after my husband was my first boyfriend. He's friends with my husband as well.

I'm also friends with an ex-lover. His wife isn't fond of me, for some reason. Not sure why--he left me to be with her, which I accepted as gracefully as my 20-year-old self could.
posted by luckynerd at 11:54 AM on April 9, 2011


I just remembered something from my first marriage. I was wife #3 to my husband and one year we had his mother-in-law from marriage #1 come to visit with us for a couple of weeks. So not only was he friends with his ex-wives, he was friends with an ex-mother-in-law too. MIL#1 was an interesting, open-hearted woman who had no problem remaining friends with her first son-in-law and his subsequent wives over the years.

To me, that kind of acceptance and lack of resentment is a sign of Good People.
posted by Kerasia at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've got some thoughts on this that I'd prefer to keep off the green...check your mefi mail.
posted by Sublimity at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2011


To me, that kind of acceptance and lack of resentment is a sign of Good People.

Totally, completely, 100% agree.
posted by wansac at 6:13 PM on April 10, 2011


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