Recently, when visiting a family attorney's office, I noticed a framed cartoon hanging in the waiting room. It showed a father in his tycoon businessman's suit, arm proudly draped around his young son's shoulder, the two of them looking out of the corner office window. Together they gazed at warehouses and smokestacks, enjoying the sight of the father's success. The caption read, "Yes, someday son, this will all be…your ex-wife's.
Divorce has become an expected part of the life cycle, even though we concern ourselves with avoiding it. The question of what went wrong in the relationship is a question most exes will consider at some quiet moment. Commonly, that thought will pass and every ex settles into a general explanation that stays comfortably away from serious personal responsibility. After all, ask anyone why they're divorced and the top two answers you'll hear are: We were young and stupid when we married or he/she was crazy and impossible. Both of these are safe bets; they avoid having to look internally and face any music. And off we go. We find other relationships and throw our emotional baggage around, sideswiping a whole new set of characters: stepkids, in-laws and possibly exes of the new partner.
Do you ever think about what it would be like to get back with the ex? "Ugh, not again," or "Maybe it wasn't as bad as I remember. Maybe if I were a little more mature, things could be different." We can't say this is a new trend because court systems do not commonly keep statistics on people who remarry their exes. But it's a concept that has caught our attention with the new movie, It's Complicated , starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. It might even be one of those things that make you go, "Huh?" Is it possible that after the excruciating pain of divorce, people really can return to one another and find happiness? When it does happen, like in the movie, it seems to come at a later point, well after the sting of attorneys and "Who gets the kids when?" is in the past and a smoother rhythm has returned to the divorced family?
Sadly, just when a couple is in the throes of dysfunction and chooses to divorce, things often go from awful to incredibly awful immediately. Strangers are introduced to help each spouse get what they "want" instead of trying to understand what is now best for this family in its new system (this is not to say that there aren't excellent attorneys who help their clients see what is best for their children). If they couldn't communicate before, now they have a host of new issues to fight and be angry about. When the dust settles, the thought of returning to each other is usually out of the question. But there are those that don't have the knock-down, drag-out fighting through divorce and even those that do but years later have found that had they been a better spouse, things might have been significantly different.
The facts are that second marriages have a higher divorce rate than do first marriages (61 percent) and just when you thought it was safe to date, third marriages have a whopping 72 percent chance of divorce. Why? First of all, imagine that starting a second marriages often involves much more than two lovebirds. Typically, there are a mixture of children who did not fall in love with your new spouse, plus each new spouse usually has commitments the size of Kansas with an ex-spouse and schedules that hardly ever match up with the the ones you have with your kids and ex. I'm tired just writing about it let alone someone living it.
Secondly, we move into that second marriage without really understanding what happened in the first one. This means we're taking our same issues into a new relationship, expecting a different outcome. The statistics remind us that trading in for a newer model doesn't mean that what's under the hood is any different.
How to make a romantic relationship with an ex-spouse work
Maybe returning to that previous marriage is possible. You might be wondering about the anger. How can there have possibly been so much anger during and after the marriage that you'd consider returning to that relationship? And statistics do show that many divorced couples continue to have anger and fight for years after the divorce, which is, of course, perplexing because the primary reason so many people say they want out of the marriage is so they can stop all of that. But consider that as odd as it may sound, postdivorce anger is really a way of saying, "I still have feelings here." That may be too strong a statement, but I've long thought that people who fight long after the divorce is done are looking for ways to still connect to that ex. After all, you can't call up your ex, invite him to dinner and laugh about the good old times.
Realistically, the primary way that an ex can stay in regular contact is through conflict. Anything else would just be too weird (and the new spouse would obviously object, as a general rule). Recently, I read a quote by a Gerald Schroeder, a physicist whose books I love: "We sometimes say that love and hate are opposites. But that is not true. The opposite of love is indifference. With hate there is still strong emotional attachment that often has at its roots what was once, and could be again, love." So, that steamy anger might reflect some steamy love residue. Keep in mind how many marriages break up over cheating. This means that one spouse, the victim, didn't necessarily ever fall out of love or become indifferent. Quite the opposite. That spouse often never intended to ever be divorced. What about the emotional energy that has been shockingly stunted? It doesn't just go away.
Knowing this can help us learn to fight less and find some greater peace even if we never want to consider remarrying our exes. We have to learn to respect where we've been emotionally and how hurt we are. Seeing this with our eyes wide open will allow us to grieve without just pushing those emotions into angry tussles with the exes. But after some time, we may heal and wonder what would've been had each of us been more self-aware. If both of you are available, dare you consider the possibility?
If you do, consider this:
Are you both healthier? Returning to each other to find out you were right in the first place when you divorced would be simply cruel to yourself and everyone around you. Have you both really learned to be better lovers? Have you sought out counseling, seen true changes in each other and experienced a different feel in the way the two of you now communicate?
Have a game plan. Especially if you have children (little or grown), this has to work. There can be little worse than a child who's finally gotten to the endgame of finding some internal resolution that her parents will be divorced only to have to relive it all. If you have serious doubts whether it'll work, date for as long as it takes before remarriage.
Protect your children. Although it may be somewhat impossible if you have little kids, rekindle your relationship without your children knowing. You can't be sure where it's going to go until you have some time together, and it's brutal to have your children who wish for your reunification to get all wrapped up in this only to have it explode in their faces. Sneaking around might not sound ideal, but doing everything you can to protect your children is.
Don't cheat with your ex. If you go to see It's Complicated , you'll see some rationalization of this when Alec Baldwin's character cheats on his new wife with his ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep. It may work in Hollywood, but how are we to assume that your reunification will be a healthier one than before if it begins under the circumstances of cheating? If you or your ex are married, take your emotions elsewhere.
Go to counseling. Whether a mental health professional or spiritual adviser, open up to someone else who can objectively help you. Resolve the past to the best of your ability. Talk about what went wrong and why it'll be different this time around. I'm not suggesting every divorced couple reconsider. I'm saying that surely before divorce, couples should seek some sort of counseling to help them make healthy choices because their family is depending on it. I've spent more than 20 years helping families both in marriage and divorce and have been able, through The Oprah Show , to help us all learn from children what they need from their families . Once divorce occurs, the idea of remarriage in any case seems daunting. Learn from the divorce. And if you feel that there are unresolved possibilities with your ex, go slow and explore with a lot of patience and planning.
M. Gary Neuman is a family therapist , New York Times best-selling author and frequent guest on The Oprah Show. He co-authored his new book, In Good Times and Bad, Strengthening Your Relationship When the Going Gets Tough and the Money Gets Tight, with Melisa, his wife of 22 years. They live in Miami with their five children.