My partner and I were together for a couple of decades when I discovered he’d been unfaithful. As far as I was concerned, the relationship ended the moment I made the discovery – and there was never any question of repairing it. I made it clear from the outset our relationship was over, and I have never regretted or questioned this decision.
We have three daughters together and our priority was making sure they were all okay. We worked incredibly hard to keep things non-confrontational in front of them, and with the help of some major therapy we’ve got to a stage where we spend regular time each month together with the kids, including the occasional holiday, and sometimes without them as well (we often catch up over coffee and lunch and sometimes go to the theatre together). Partly thanks to this, the kids seem to have got through the first few years of the separation without any obvious lasting impact on their wellbeing, and they’ve adjusted well to the new normal of us living separate lives. My ex has made huge progress with personal therapy and understanding why he behaved the way he did during our relationship, which has helped me to make some kind of peace with what’s happened too. I value our shared history and consider us friends as well as co-parents, and he seems to as well.
It would be naive to try to paint this as some kind of ideal break-up. It’s been a long journey, and of course feelings of hurt and loss sometimes resurface, but the longer time goes on, the less this happens – and I feel we have a good foundation for an amicable co-parenting relationship and (hopefully) an ongoing friendship. It’s now been several years since we split and my ex has moved on enough to find a girlfriend. This has been very good for him, and while it’s naturally been a bit painful for me, it’s also helped me to move that bit further on too. I’m now looking at things through her eyes. My ex and I communicate every day, largely about the kids, but also about work and how we both are, and we spend more time together than you might expect given the circumstances. I enjoy his company, though after a while I need to be alone again, so there is a limit, but perhaps we’re still too dependent on each other? There’s absolutely no question of anything romantic between us or any rekindling of the relationship – but I get the impression she’s a little threatened by the situation, which I completely understand.
The long and the short of it is that I would say we lean on each other as much as close friends would, practically and emotionally, but I’m now wondering if this is inappropriate or if I’m (characteristically) overthinking things – or whether it’s simply not my problem! I’d really appreciate some advice.
I got shivers while reading your email, because – bar for the circumstances of your split – it is almost exactly where I, too, find myself: in a happy, co-parenting relationship with my ex. The impact on our kids has also been (thankfully) minimal – because we’ve worked damn hard – as you have – to make it so.
We get on, spend time together, text each other a lot, send jokes or songs we think the other will like. In a way, things aren’t so different from before – except that we live apart and are no longer romantically involved. It’s not the way you start out hoping life will turn out, and I understand what you mean about being hesitant to brand it as some kind of “ideal break-up” – but it comes close, and I am grateful. It feels much more like a Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow-style “conscious uncoupling” than it does a bitter horror-split. I’ve seen far too many friends go through those, and wouldn’t wish one on my worst enemy.
In my experience, the problems seem to come – and I wonder if it might be the same for you – not from those inside the break-up, but from people outside it. I have had well-meaning friends tell me they think we are “too close”; that our “boundaries” are messy. Some can’t believe my ex still has a key to the house, and lets himself in when he arrives to take the kids to school. Others find it insane that he makes me coffee and brings it up to me while I’m working, that we chat and laugh and are making (some) shared plans for Christmas.
I also discovered that when you split up with someone, people are practically champing at the bit to take sides. It brings out a sort of gladiatorial divide: people seem desperate to bitch and pick the other person apart, to prove their love for you, perhaps, by harvesting hatred for the other. But when nobody is at fault (I’m also a firm believer in the fact that it’s on us all to “own our part”), why are we so desperate to see acrimony?
Never has Sartre’s “hell is other people” seemed more apt – half the time, I am convinced, the reason people who split from partners and spouses can’t “get along” afterwards is because of everyone else chipping in. To be fair, you don’t mention other people in your email. But what I want to say to you is this: who cares if your break-up doesn’t fit the mould of the classic “couple who hate each other’s guts” – isn’t the fact that you remain loving and mindful of each other, even in the wake of something as traumatic as infidelity, something to celebrate?
So-called social boundaries, in my opinion, are entirely subjective – what works in terms of closeness for one person might be a suffocating nightmare to another, and vice versa. The only thing that matters here is your happiness, and the happiness of your children. It also doesn’t have all that much to do with “luck” that you’ve managed to maintain such a healthy bond and co-parent brilliantly – you deserve more credit than that. It takes calmness, patience, forgiveness, strength, communication and a lot of hard work.
As for your ex’s new girlfriend, I can see why that causes you some angst – but I’ll be brutal: it isn’t really your problem. It’s down to him to reassure her of his feelings for her (it sounds like she needs that reassurance for reasons that are nothing to do with you) and to reiterate that – frankly – you aren’t going anywhere. In a far less harsh way, he needs to tell her to suck it up – you’re the mother of his children, after all.
And, if it were me, I would infinitely prefer to be with a man who treated his ex-wife with respect and tenderness than contempt and abuse. It would be a major red flag if there was a terrible relationship between the two of them – obviously all circumstances are different, and people do get hurt – but I would be asking myself why they weren’t doing more to make it better for their children. Anything less than civility just seems pretty selfish, if you ask me.
So, my best advice is to stop overthinking things (as someone who also does this, you are not alone!). You’ve earned this happy split – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact DearVix@independent.co.uk