Skip to main content

Ihave a friend whose father is on his fifth marriage. All of the unions except the last, which he is still in (for the moment), ended in divorce. My friend's mother, who was Mrs. OrigiWife, has gone to all of her ex's subsequent remarriages. "She's very fond of him," my friend says.

But the intimacy between his parents is darkly comic. "My mother always introduces herself to the new bride," he explains. "But it's not just about being friendly to the new stepmother. She wonders if the poor girl has any idea what she's getting herself into. It's almost like a form of entertainment. She's handing over the baton."

A bond may exist between former spouses, but often it's dysfunctional. "The flipside of love is not hate. It is anger," says Linda Chodos, a social worker who specializes in high-conflict divorce.

Story continues below advertisement

Tension with an ex is just another way of saying, "I'm not over you." It's an expression of emotional obsession, of heated connection. Like sex between you used to be. If you didn't care about your former spouse, you wouldn't bother to engage.

But is it possible for ex-partners to really bury the hatchet? Can hostility shift completely to respect?

Cate Cochran's new book, Reconcilable Differences: Marriages End. Families Don't., shows that many people who divorce go to extraordinary lengths to recalibrate their relationships. The effort is to create security for their children.

But still, it requires a rare equanimity from both sides.

The book is a lesson in mature adulthood.

Imagine for a moment that your wife comes home after 13 years of marriage and tells you that she is in love with another woman.

Swell. So what do you do? If you are Phil, whose family story is included in the book, you volunteer to move to the basement. There's a bedroom and a bathroom down there. You do it because you want to stay connected to your three children, a motive that overrides any sense of rejection by your wife - even when her new lover moves in a few months later.

Story continues below advertisement

She is upstairs sleeping with your former wife on the second floor. The children, aged 6, 9 and 11, are confused and angry, but your presence in the house comforts them. Lots of people think it's odd. Even your mom wonders if there's some kinky threesome going on.

The arrangement lasts for two years. A big blow-up happens, and you decide to move into a little house that the family had purchased that is kitty-corner to the big house. Eventually, you fall in love with another woman and remarry. Your ex-wife weds her lesbian lover. And for 15 years, the arrangement of living close by - in each

other's pockets, really - works, not always easily, but with generous emotional accommodation.

Or consider Allison and Andrew, who had just had their first baby. When Allison was six months postpartum, her husband announced that he was unhappy. Soon it was discovered that another woman was involved.

But with stunning forgiveness, they worked out an almost side-by-side living arrangement so they could be equally involved as parents.

The idea for the Reconcilable Differences started with Ms. Cochran's separation from her husband, Joe, after nearly 20 years together and two

Story continues below advertisement

children.

The reason for their breakup was a common one - a personality conflict that had become untenable. Still, they wanted to figure out a way to separate "without nuking the entire family," she writes. A therapist worked with both of them. One sage piece of advice was "to deal with the whole

person I had loved, not the two-dimensional man I'd created in my anger."

They eventually sold their marital home and bought another one that was split into apartments. He lives in the upstairs apartment; she lives on the ground floor. They rent out the space in the basement and the apartment on the third floor. Their son has a room with his father. Their daughter has a room in her mother's unit. The teenagers float between the two parents. So does the dog.

Ms. Cochran, who is a producer and documentary maker with CBC Radio in Toronto, first wrote about their family solution last year for Toronto Life magazine. She then looked for other divorced parents who had found creative living arrangements.

"I was really amazed how many of us there are," she says. Other people's stories also validated what they had done. "If somebody else did it, then we weren't nuts," she recalls thinking. Many friends thought their decision to cohabit was foolish. "We had no model," she explains. "It's like when you get married. You don't know if it will work. You cross your fingers and hope it's the right thing to do."

Each family finds a living arrangement that makes sense for them, Ms. Cochran discovered. One created a "bird's nest" whereby the children stayed in the house and the parents took turns moving in and out from their respective apartments on alternating weeks.

What unites the stories is a mutual trust between former spouses and what Ms. Cochran calls "amazing levels of goodness." They all understand that the children should come first. "Some of the reasons are economic, but there are also more involved fathers now who don't want to give up their children."

She also discovered that in the backgrounds of the couples there were often "compelling reasons for not abandoning their kids." In talking about his own childhood, a young father with a six-month-old baby revealed that it had been painful. His parents were divorced. He and his sister lived with their father because their mother suffered from manic depression. But he often had to fend for himself and his sister. He was sensitive to the difficulty of coping without full parental support.

The success of her upstairs-downstairs family arrangement, which began four years ago, has astonished Ms. Cochran. "It's all about establishing a reasonable, respectful tone," she says, admitting there have been a few bumps along the way.

It's also about making a big effort. "The first time I had a boyfriend come to the house, Joe came down to greet him ... Once, when they were both sitting in the back garden talking, I came into the house to get everyone a glass of wine, and I thought to myself, 'Wow, I can't believe we're doing this.' But it's like when people get sick. You rise to the occasion."

The payoff has been gratifying. "Recently, we were sitting in a restaurant, just the four of us, and we were telling family jokes. The kids were teasing me. They were teasing Joe. We can be a family. I will always grieve the loss of the traditional family. But we are making something new."

shampson@globeandmail.com

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.