How my family was torn apart by a divorce bomb: To warring parents, splitting up often feels like the only answer. But as JANE GREEN reveals from bitter experience, the fallout – for your children, your friends and yourself – can be worse than you imagined
Actor Ewan McGregor said recently: ‘A divorce in a family is a bomb going off in everyone’s life — my children’s lives. The sort of healing of that is ongoing.’
And anyone who has ever been through a divorce will understand exactly what Ewan — who was married to his ex-wife Eve for 22 years and shares four children with her — is talking about. The fallout from a divorce can take years to heal — and for some, healing never comes.
Sixteen years ago, I separated from my first husband. At the time, I was convinced it was the right thing, not just for both of us, but our four children — then aged six, four, and two-year-old twins.
It’s only years later that I realise I was naive to the point of idiocy about the effect it would have on them, convincing myself it was far better for children to grow up in a single, happy household than in a family home where their parents were miserable.
Growing up, none of my friends was the product of divorce. It wasn’t part of my narrative and I never imagined I would end up divorced. My parents’ generation tended to stay together, even when they so clearly didn’t get on. I married just after I turned 30, that dangerous time for women when our biological clocks start ticking, when so often we say ‘yes’ to the man who asks, rather than stepping back to ensure we are making the right choice, that this actually is love.
I married the man who looked good on paper, the man I thought someone like me should choose as a husband, rather than someone who was actually a good match for me.
Moving on: NY Times Bestselling Author Jane Green with her daughter
I’m ashamed to say I had no idea who I was at that age; I had so little self-esteem, so little experience of relationships, I simply turned myself into whoever the boyfriend at the time wanted me to be. I could step into any role and play it wholeheartedly, convincing myself that was who I was.
So I married the man I thought my parents would have chosen for me — although much later they confessed they didn’t understand how we were ever together, that they could see how different we were, how wrong.
We were two good people, emotionally immature when it came to relationships, who were not on the same page about anything in life.
By the time I realised how different our goals and lifestyle choices were, we had children, so I determined to work through those issues. I believed I could make our marriage work. Until I couldn’t.
I grew lonelier and lonelier in our relationship. Then my husband got a job hours away and we started to spend the weeks apart.
It soon became apparent to me that I was happiest on my own, that the weight of dread only hit on a Friday morning when I knew he was on his way home.
The moment of our split after seven years of marriage followed what should have been a normal row. Except this time, when he asked if I wanted him to leave, I said yes.
Though I still believe that divorce was the right thing for us, I see now how much my former husband was blindsided by this and I am truly regretful at the amount of pain I caused.
Our divorce was indeed a bomb —one that exploded into every area of our lives. The children were so young, I hoped they would escape unscathed.
Finding happiness again: Jane Green and her family today at their Connecticut home, which she shares with husband Ian Warburg, and six children
But how do you escape unscathed when you are suddenly shuttling back and forth between two homes, when your parents think they are being careful not to denigrate their now-ex, yet their anger is palpable?
And each parent wants to be the one the children choose.
Soon after our separation, we sold the family home, though as the parent with primary custody I decided to stay in the same town.
The children stayed with their father every other weekend in a series of different towns, none of them too far, but none of them providing easy access to their friends or activities. And I see now how different our respective households were, and how hard that was for them. Those weekends were lonely for them, becoming lonelier still when he found a new partner who insisted the children be out of the house for hours every weekend to ‘play’.
Jane Green is the author of twenty novels, including eighteen New York Times best sellers
They would have to be on their best behaviour on weekends at their father’s then, when I got them back on a Sunday evening, I’d watch them fall apart. Finally free from the pressure of being ‘good’, they’d tear around the house just to release all that pent-up energy.
As for me, I had no idea who to be without my children on those lonely weekends. When I tried going to friends for the regular family barbecues and weekend parties, I felt like an outsider, the only one there without children. My God, I missed them. And though we kept in contact via phone, it was heartbreaking to hear them upset when they weren’t with me, knowing there was nothing I could do.
Though, overall, I felt they coped well at the time, now as young adults I wonder just how well.
For while two are in long-term relationships, two seem ambivalent about finding partners. I often wonder if that is down to the divorce, if they are left with attachment issues from their childhoods, from being the children of divorce.
Oh, the pain of your parents finding new partners. More often than not, children of divorced parents harbour a secret fantasy of their parents getting back together.
A new partner, however nice they are, whatever lengths they go to in a bid to make the stepchildren love them, can ruin that illusion. There is a key quote used by counselling service Relate that reads: ‘I always thought Mum and Dad would get back together and that I could make it happen. When I finally realised this wasn’t going to happen, it was the saddest day of my life.’
The parent may think they are adding stability by introducing a new partner, re-creating a ‘family unit’ complete with two parents, but that is rarely how their children see it. Children of divorce have already dealt with the loss of the nuclear family; a new partner coming in is often perceived as taking their parent away again, leaving them fearful of yet more loss.
It was two months after I split from my children’s father that I fell in love, aged 37, with my new landlord, who is now my husband of 13 years.
I was lucky that they loved him from the outset, with our two families — he had a ten-year-old daughter, who also had an eight-year-old half-brother who, though not biologically his, called him Daddy — blending with ease.
It wasn’t so easy for me. I adore my stepdaughter today, but we struggled for years, my poor husband caught in the middle. There was one year in particular when we very nearly split up. It took a tremendous amount of work, therapy and commitment to reach the place of peace we are in today.
It’s not just your family who will be impacted by the shockwave of divorce. I had no idea, when I first separated, of how the split would also affect the other important relationships in my life. We were the first couple to get divorced in my circle of friends. I remember driving to the home of our best friends, who were devastated at the news.
The husband, who wasn’t a drinker, pulled a bottle of Scotch out of the cupboard and sat at the kitchen table, demolishing the best part of the bottle.
Perhaps he understood what I didn’t then; that it wasn’t just our marriage that had crumbled, but that many of our friendships would follow suit.
It wasn’t that our friends were forced to choose sides, rather that when a new partner was introduced the dynamic wasn’t quite the same. A newcomer, however liked, wasn’t part of our shared memories of raising kids together.
All of my friendships shifted; some remained, some grew stronger, some did not stand the test of time. My former husband had long-term college friends who I adored. Their loyalty was to him, rightly so, and I spent years missing them.
A decade after our divorce I ran into them, unexpectedly, and all four of us burst into tears. We had all missed one another so very much, had missed watching our children grow up, had missed those easy fun-filled evenings we had once shared.
Yet we all understood, as painful as it was, why they felt they had to make the choice they did.
Actor Ewan McGregor (seen here posing at Obi-Wan Kenobi photocall) said recently: ‘A divorce in a family is a bomb going off in everyone’s life — my children’s lives. The sort of healing of that is ongoing.’
So it is only in the 16 years that have passed since my divorce that I have truly realised just how large a bomb it was. My ex-husband and I had a difficult relationship for years, but I think we have now healed. When I bumped into him at an event recently after a gap of a few years, I was truly glad to see him.
Whatever resentments and difficulties we may have had in the past, we have put them aside.
My children are healthy and happy. They love both their parents and have occasionally expressed their surprise that we ever married in the first place, so clearly ill-matched are we.
They like that their father and I are now able to have a conversation, can come together as a team on those important occasions like taking them to their first day at university. I was reminded of the importance of repairing those bonds last year, when we shared Christmas Day with my current husband’s ex-wife and her fiancé.
Seeing the happiness of my husband’s kids, having both parents together as part of a happy, blended family was wonderful.
If I have regrets about my first marriage, it is that I didn’t have wisdom then that I have gained in the years since it ended. Years of therapy, of reading self-help books, of trying to better understand how my past has influenced my relationships today have changed me.
I wish I had known then that kindness and putting someone else’s needs before yours are the key to a successful outcome.
Ex-wife Eve Mavrakis of Ewan McGregor (left) with actor before their split in 2016 and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and McGregor (right) pictured at Obi-Wan Kenobi premiere this year
I wish I had known how to communicate my feelings, rather than retreating into myself. But back then my husband and I had no tools in our toolbox, no knowledge of how to be in a committed relationship, no ability to handle our many differences once the honeymoon phase was over.
Because healing after a painful split — if we are lucky — requires accepting our part in the downfall of our relationships and letting go of our resentments.
It can take years to forgive (disagreements and divorce lawyers — Oh! The hell of divorce lawyers! — can stoke that ever-simmering rage) but forgiveness is key.
So I also applaud Ewan McGregor for an earlier display of awareness about the complexities of family dynamics in the wake of divorce.
At the 2018 Golden Globes, the year after his initial split, the Star Wars actor thanked not only his current partner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but his ex-wife Eve Mavrakis when he won a lead actor gong for his role as Ray in Fargo. He said: ‘There would have been no Ray without Mary Elizabeth Winstead, so thank you very much,’ he said, before adding: ‘I want to take a moment to just say thank you to Eve, who always stood by me for 22 years, and my four children, Clara, Esther, Jamyan and Anouk, I love you.’
I would never want a world in which divorce is harder — I know too many devoutly religious couples who sleep in separate rooms and hate each other — but I would very much want a world where we are better taught how to navigate marriage, how to cope once those honeymoon days are over.
It is so easy for young women and men to focus on the wedding itself, rather than the fact that you are committing to spending the rest of your life with one person.
But whether you’re famous or not, should that commitment fail, it will indeed take many years of hard work to heal the pain.
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