When talking about separated parents, one always bumps up
against the limits of the traditional language that the culture and
media have used. Our family forms outpace our language.
Families don’t break, they change.
Many of the parenting books I’ve read over the years have bemoaned the language of “ex” and “broken” but have not proposed a different language.
I am proposing new terms: “untangling” and “rearranging.”
These words describe what actually happens as parents move through separations and divorces and on to the next parts of their lives.
Adult children, the extended family and friends will be relieved to let go of the language of conflict. The new language more accurately reflects the kinds of families we all know.
“I did want him to fall off the edge of the earth at one point. It was going to be much easier if he just disappeared. But now, I can’t imagine not having contact with him. Every time there is a passage and these kids seem to have made it to the other side, we can connect. There’s really great tenderness around our parenting. And on Father’s Day, there’s nobody else I could have imagined raising my sons with. He’s a remarkable father.” (married 1979, separated 1987, divorced 1987, interviewed 2006)
The conventional wisdom fixes family change at the moment of public separation. But the people I interviewed for my book, Wisdom for Separated Parents, did not focus on the moment of separation or the day in divorce court. They wanted me to understand the smaller separations that led to their formal separation and divorce. Marriages usually don’t end in a big moment.
Divorce is not only a single legal event. It is a chain of relocations and shifting relationships. Rearranging is a more accurate word.
All families rearrange in large and small ways to accommodate growth and change. Throughout history, fathers went to war and died. Mothers died in childbirth. Families rearrange as they include in-laws, grandchildren, and aging relatives. It is no different for parents who have separated. They simply rearrange at two different addresses.
These words give a definition to the web of these continued connections and keeps children at the center of the connection, not as the remnants of something “broken.” As parents continue to care for their children they will be able to talk and think about success as parents rather than failure of marriage. “Untangling” and “rearranging” are words that support transition, not division.