Ex-spouses at the Christmas table

December 23, 2013
blended family funny

My friend has a knack for turning old lovers into friends. Cleverer still, she manages to turn the ex-lovers’ new spouses into friends as well. This year there was a variation on the theme. Her Christmas lunch was held (a little early) at her current partner’s first wife’s house. You wouldn’t yet call the first wife her pal but they get along swimmingly. My friend and her lovely man have been together about ten years. Previously he’d been married for 30 years before his wife left for another man. He and his ex-wife have two children, now in their 40s. My friend’s ex-husband (long converted to dear friend status) lives in Europe.

So here’s how it was at the Christmas gathering: my friend and her partner, and the partner’s ex-wife with her new husband and her brother happily chatting. But for the next generation at the lunch the story was a little more complicated. The two grown-up children, a son and a daughter, were each separated from their spouses. The son came to the lunch with his new partner who was pregnant. But he wouldn’t allow his ex-wife and her new partner to join the band. It was all too raw for him, apparently. The daughter was at the lunch but her ex-husband and his new partner couldn’t make it. All five grandchildren, aged 10 to 14, the progeny of the son and daughter, were having a grand time. After all Christmas, early or not, is for children.

My friend, who has no children of her own, is pleased to be among this troop. But befriending an ex-wife never comes easy. “It takes a lot of effort and time,” she said. “I feel completely comfortable around her but it wasn’t like that at the beginning. You have to decide whether to invest the time; some people don’t want to. I’m absolutely happy I have.” In any case my friend understands the shared history of a 30-year marriage is not easily erased, nor should it be if all parties behave decently enough.

It’s astonishing how fast the family has changed. Divorce, sole parenthood, gay parenting, atheists marrying Baptists, Indians marrying into Irish Catholic stock…. It’s more egalitarian on the whole and more diverse. But at Christmas time it can all come unstuck; or with good will, produce something richer than the disparate parts.

“Richer” is the word my friend uses to describe why she’s gone to such effort over her life to remain friendly with her ex-boyfriends and ex-husband, and to get on with their new spouses where possible. She’s babysat for their children, and then when the children have grown up, gone to their weddings. “You didn’t choose them [the men] because they were horrible; they were nice people,” she says. “And for whatever reason, you broke up. We’re all much richer people for having stayed friends.” And now there’s another reason: children deserve a happy Christmas. It’s a good role model for them to see their grandfather with his newish partner at the same table with their grandmother and her newish partner, being civil, being friendly. “It takes the stress off the children; they don’t have to tiptoe around,” says my friend.

Divorce can break things up, do irreparable harm but it can also create new bonds and kinship ties, new twigs on the family tree. The relationships are not always easy at first. But I can’t help think the children in this family, already loved by one nice grandmother, are enriched by the relationship with my friend who’s an ex-teacher and gifted in her relationships with children, especially troubled ones. She provides an extra support system.

I understand why some people want to move on, leave the ex-spouse behind, and have a fresh start. If spouses were cruel, if all respect is gone, if the hurt is too deep, then there can be no basis for friendship. From my observation, friendly relations are easier to cement after the passing of time and when both partners are happy in their new life. I feel lucky to have kept in my life as a dear friend my ex-partner. Though it’s about 28 years since we split, we still meet for lunch from time to time.  My husband’s ex is also a friend. All this civility and genuine affection never ceases to amaze my mother. “Why wouldn’t I want them in my life?” I say to her. “They’re terrific people.”

I’m not sure I could go so far as two couples I’ve heard about, all with former partners and complicated combinations of children. During the summer holidays the couples and their former spouses all rent houses in the same resort. But most of this lot are French. The one Italian man involved has wondered whether there’s something wrong with him to feel unenthusiastic at having to spend his holidays with his wife’s former husband.

My friend and her partner went to a second Christmas lunch the next day. This time it was at the house of the much-loved ex daughter-in-law. Everyone agrees her new partner treats her children exceptionally well. All the rest of the family popped in – all except for the ex-husband, the children’s father. “How many years will we have to have separate Christmases?” asks my friend. “He needs to come around.”

Whatever shape your family takes, I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

Have you stayed friends with your ex? Is yours a blended family Christmas? Do leave a Comment.

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