Sometimes the Marriage Is Over but the Friendship Sticks Around

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Nick and Robert have known each other for about 18 years now, and like any old friends, they've been through a lot of changes together. They don't get together very often these days, now that Robert has moved from Orange County to Sacramento, but they do keep in touch. And a couple of years ago when Nick and his wife, Karen, were vacationing in Northern California's gold country, Robert insisted that they stay at his house.

"It was really kind of pleasant," says Nick, who lives in Yorba Linda. "We had dinner, spent the night, and the next morning he and I went fishing. We talked about the usual kinds of things: golf, work, health, you know." Meanwhile, Karen spent the day with Robert's wife.

"It wasn't awkward at all," Nick says. But it might well have been. Nick has been married to Karen for 17 years. Before that--with only a three-day gap between divorce and wedding--Karen was married for nine years to Robert. Karen and Robert had two children together; Nick and Karen saw them through to adulthood.

Karen may not love Robert anymore, but she still likes him. "Sure," she says. "He's a likable enough person. For me, I guess, it was like losing a brother. But we're very comfortable with him and his family. We have our children in common. That makes a difference."

When we asked Family Life readers to tell us how they get along with their ex-spouses, we planned to keep the focus on the present, not the past. But in Nick and Karen's case, it helps to backtrack a bit to put it all in perspective.

They were all friends back in 1970: Karen and Robert, Nick and his wife, Carol. They had known each other about a year when Nick and Karen noticed "a feeling. We had never spent a moment together alone," Karen recalls. "But we both felt we had a lot more in common with each other than we did with our partners."

One evening Nick and Karen found time to talk about their mutual feeling--they insist all they did was talk--and that was the turning point. "Once everything started coming out in the open, it forced me to realize my marriage was at a dead end," Nick says.

"We both did," Karen says.

Without bothering to have an affair or even spend much time talking it over, both Karen and Nick decided to divorce their spouses. By the time the decrees were final, they were ready to marry each other.

"Robert was shocked at first," Karen recalls. "But he adjusted to it real quickly. He's just a realistic person. There were no hard feelings. I'm sure he still cared for me, but he got on with his life."

Nick's wife, Carol, didn't take it so calmly. "She was screaming, hollering; it was a hysterical-type reaction," Nick says.

"And it's been the same for the last 17 years," Carol adds.

"I don't know that she's ever gotten over the fact that this occurred," Nick says. "She could never accept the fact that the marriage went bad."

For a short time, the foursome resembled Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, the partner-swapping movie couples from the height of the sexual revolution. "They (Robert and Carol) seemed more attracted to each other than we were," Karen said. "They even had a little fling together, but it didn't work out."

Nick and Karen are reluctant to take credit for the good relationship they have with her ex, lest they also have to shoulder the blame for their not-so-good relationship with his.

"Initially, we tried and tried and tried to get along with Carol," Nick says. "We were doing it with the ex-husband. We bent over backward. But all we got was it pushed back in our faces."

Carol and Nick had three children together, but after the divorce she wouldn't cooperate with visitation, even though he went back to court several times. Then she moved, taking the children with her, and from then on "there was always a reason or excuse they couldn't visit," Nick says. "It was like we were going to be punished one way or the other."

"She would throw away our Christmas presents to the kids," Karen says. "But the worst thing was that she kept telling them he didn't love them."

"It backfired on her," Nick says. Eventually, all three of Nick's children moved in with their father and stepmother.

"She just didn't realize that there can be room in their lives for everybody," Nick says. "It doesn't have to be a contest; you don't have to hate one parent to love the other."

All five of the children are grown now, so Nick and Karen have no contact with Carol. But their relationship with Robert is still going strong.

"His wife is on a first-name basis with my parents," Karen says. "We went to their wedding. When we see each other, there are hugs. It may seem weird, but it's not weird. It's nice."

But isn't there a twinge of jealousy at times, when Nick remembers the kind of relationship Karen once had with Robert?

"We both know what we had with our former partners," Nick says, laughing. "That's not a problem."

Another Robert--this one lives in Garden Grove--says he and his ex get along much better now than they did when they were married. "She was an alcoholic, and I was what they call an enabler, a co-dependent. I bailed her out for years," he says. Although he was trying to cushion the impact of her addiction, Robert realized after he left that he'd been helping it along.

"After we split, there was an initial short period . . . where there was a lot of animosity and tongue lashings. But then she went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and got help, and now she's become a lot more mellow."

Because they have six children together, ranging in age from 26 to 17, Robert and his ex-wife have tried to keep up a congenial relationship.

"There have been instances, but most of the time we've worked them out," he says. "One of the reasons I get along with her so well, I think, is that we didn't have any big problems with the property settlement or custody. We tried to be logical."

"My ex is treating me just fine," writes Royce, who lives in Yorba Linda. "So are his wife and their children. My husband and I have spent many happy occasions with my ex and his family, including aunts, brothers, cousins and his new in-laws. We baby-sit for my ex's children and consider them part of our family too.

"The reverse is also true. My ex and his family see my parents, sisters, nieces and other family members on a regular basis.

"On the other hand, our only communication with my husband's ex-wife is a cryptic note sometimes included with medical bills for my husbands' teen-age sons."

When Royce and her husband were married four years ago, she says, "we were outraged at (the ex-wife's) attempt to spirit the boys away on a vacation so that they would miss our wedding. Last weekend we found out that she's taking them away for the weekend, which includes Father's Day. Nothing's changed, except the boys won't fight the 'injustice' anymore. We've never spent a Christmas, Thanksgiving, or birthday with my husband's children. Even though we only live 1 1/2 miles away, we haven't seen them at all for six months.

"One of these days, we're going to come face-to-face with Jim's children in the supermarket . . . and not recognize them!

"By the way, Jim's ex is a licensed marriage and family counselor," Royce says. "I often wonder what kind of advice she gives her clients."

The birds and the bees and a fatal disease

U.S. Surgeon Gen. C. Everett Koop wants to talk frankly with every family in the United States about AIDS, and he's sending out millions of information pamphlets this month to make sure he reaches every home.

When you sit down with your children for the talk about the birds and the bees, will you also tell them about acquired immune deficiency syndrome? Or maybe they've already asked you about it. What do you want them to learn--and not learn--about the subject in school? And how do you feel about the surgeon general's efforts?

School's out; now what?

The end of the school year sends some parents scrounging for all-day child care or summer camps. And many children of divorced parents pack up for a trip to Camp Daddy. Tell us about your family's arrangements for the summer and how you feel about the changes you go through.

Send your comments to Family Life, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that a reporter may call you. To protect your privacy, Family Life does not publish correspondents' last names.

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