Podcast Episode 50: The Ex Next Door

Conscious uncoupling before it was cool: My reason for starting the 1,000 families project

Some of you may know that I was inspired to start thenewfamily.com and the #1000families project in part because my own family is a little unique. While the catch phrase “conscious uncoupling” may have come roaring into popular discourse this year with Gwyneth Paltrow’s announcement that she and Chris Martin were parting ways (as holier-than-thou that it sounded coming from the self-styled lifestyle guru behind the website goop) the idea has been our reality for five years and is the subject of a book I am endeavoring to write. Here’s how it happened and what family life is like for us.

I pedalled my bike up the driveway and into the solution to my problem. It was the landlord of the house next door, showing some people around. Oh, I stopped short of actually riding into the poor man and unsuspecting would-be tenants. Instead I asked, trying to sound casual in front of strangers, “Is the basement apartment available again?” “No, the girls upstairs have given notice,” he replied. Bingo. I needed that two-bedroom apartment. For my husband.

It had been about a year since our marriage came apart, and it was time to make some decisions. We’d been getting by in an in-between state, my ex living in the basement suite of our house. But as I had just been tearfully confessing to a friend over a chai latte an hour before, we’d hit a point where we needed to move forward; we just didn’t know what that would look like. Where would he live? Would it be near enough for us both to see lots of our two boys? Would we need a second car? Could I hold on to the house? The unknown location of his future home had become the nucleus of uncertainty in our patched-together world.

But within minutes of that chance driveway encounter, it was sorted. The father of my children would live next door, across the mutual driveway. We hugged to celebrate our relief. This, we could live with. We could be this kind of divorced people.

That was nearly five years ago now, and while nobody starts a family thinking they’ll eventually need two roofs over their heads, what we have feels like the next best thing to happily married life.

Today, the midpoint between our two homes is the basketball hoop out back, where the boys, now 11 and seven, spend almost every spare minute. From both of our kitchen windows we can call out a “Good morning!” if they’ve been staying at the other house. The proximity makes it easy for our kids to alternate nights at each home—they don’t even really need to pack. If a backpack or Lego guy is forgotten, it takes just a text message to arrange prompt delivery to either front porch.

Most important, being neighbours gives the boys lots of access to both of us. School mornings are a group effort. Their dad often wanders in eating a bowl of cereal, and one of us usually makes enough smoothie for all of us (our blenders are compatible so his frozen fruit can easily be pulverized on either side of the drive).

From the backyard, it’s easy for the boys to catch both of our attention to celebrate a triumphant hook shot or a new skateboard move. Come evening, if the off-duty parent is home early enough, we’ll often text to see if it’s cool to drop by for a bedtime kiss. We share Christmas mornings and birthdays (gifts are presented “love from Mom and Dad” so there’s no temptation to out-do one another) and have even taken them on a trip to Disney World together (renting a condo with enough space for everyone).

The question I get most often about our situation is usually something along the lines of, “But isn’t that too close?” In other words, “Don’t you need more privacy than that for your own personal lives?” Well, neither of us is the type to make a show of a new relationship. We’re discreet people. Even when things were fairly fresh, we kept our private lives private, never using them to wound each other or make any kind of statement.

Before the boys’ dad remarried a year ago, all three of us—mom, dad and new stepmom—thought long and hard about whether our next-door-neighbours arrangement should remain the same. I concluded that any discomfort I felt about witnessing their early days of marriage was far outweighed by the continuity and convenience the situation provides for both the boys and for us. They felt the same.

It may sound unusual, but it’s actually really simple: We’re guided by one principle only—do what’s best for the kids. If it benefits our boys to have mom and dad at the parent-teacher interview, we both go. If they’d like to see the two of us on the sidelines at soccer, we make that happen (their stepmom is a big fan of both sports and the boys so she’s often there as well). If it’s Halloween, we make sure we’re both around to admire the boys in their costumes and participate in the trick-or-treating and handing out of candy. Ditto school plays, birthday parties and first days of school.

Sure, there is a mountain of hurt, disappointment and shifting self-perceptions to face when a marriage breaks down. Our culture reveres marriage (and to a lesser degree, long-term marriage-like relationships). While there are now more single people in our communities than ever before, in many ways, we still equate marriage with being a successful person. If you’re “settled down” in a marriage, we take that to mean you’ve got yourself sorted out personally. And once you’ve been married for some time, chances are good that your social circle is comprised mostly of other married or common-law couples. It can be tough to cope with the loss of social capital, real or imagined. Working through all of that is, well, work. But I think if we’re willing to rewrite our fairy tales, we’ll find (surprise) happy endings waiting for us.

As for our boys, they seem satisfied when we tell them that while it might be nicer for them if their mom and dad were still together, we’re about as close as a divorced family can get. And that’s not so bad.

This is #1000families post number 37. Do you have a family story of your own to contribute to the 1,000 Families Project? Or do you know a family that might want to do so? Learn more about how the series got started and how to get involved here. You can find all of the #1000families posts here.

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Brandie Weikle

About

Brandie is a long-time parenting editor, writer and spokesperson. Most recently editor-in-chief of Canadian Family magazine, Brandie has also been the parenting and relationships editor for the Toronto Star, founding editor of two Toronto Star websites, and an editor for Today's Parent. Brandie is a single mother of two in Toronto and a frequent television and radio guest on parenting topics. A former digital director at House & Home Media, she also consults on digital audience engagement. Contact her here.


'Conscious uncoupling before it was cool: My reason for starting the 1,000 families project' have 44 comments

  1. October 28, 2014 @ 11:15 am Kathryn Dorre;;

    I have immense respect for you, your ex and his new wife … what a model for all families!

    Reply

  2. October 28, 2014 @ 11:17 am Julie

    I love this story. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  3. Mary

    October 28, 2014 @ 11:51 am Mary

    What a thoughtful, insightful read, Brandie. Well done.

    Reply

  4. Louise

    October 28, 2014 @ 12:36 pm Louise

    Brandie, I loved this post. What an inspiration all of you are and certainly the perfect example of what this website is all about. Family, in all its forms. xo

    Reply

  5. October 28, 2014 @ 12:53 pm Sandy

    This is a wonderful story! You are an inspiration and I am in awe of you and your family.

    Reply

  6. October 28, 2014 @ 12:57 pm Jack

    I think your story is great and that many people can benefit from it. Not every marriage is going to last and there is no reason why the dissolution has to become so nasty the kids wonder what happened to the adults.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      October 28, 2014 @ 5:27 pm Brandie Weikle

      Thanks so much, Jack. I agree with you entirely and I really appreciate the positive feedback.

      Reply

  7. October 28, 2014 @ 2:40 pm Shawn

    As a product of my parents messy divorce some 30+ years ago, I applaud you and your ex. You will be rewarded and have very happy well adjusted children! I think I turned out reasonably okay. But my childhood would have been much nicer not being a pawn along with my sibling.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      October 28, 2014 @ 5:26 pm Brandie Weikle

      Hi Shawn, Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’ve experienced the consequences of acrimonious divorce as a child as well; it’s so hard on everybody. I’m glad you’re living a happy life now. Brandie

      Reply

  8. October 28, 2014 @ 3:00 pm Linda Ruth

    I’m inspired by the love and maturity in your story, Brandie. This sentence says it all: “We’re guided by one principle only—do what’s best for the kids.”

    Reply

  9. October 28, 2014 @ 4:08 pm Deborah / Mom2Michael

    This sounds like a wonderful solution in an amicable split. And it’s wonderful that it has continued to work long-term with an added new wife. I remember when I was first with my husband, his son was only 5 and he was still so sad about his parents splitting up a year before. He asked us why we couldn’t all just live in the same house, so he could see both of them whenever he wanted and not have to pack up his things on alternate weekends. Your kids are pretty much living his dream, which is amazing!

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      October 28, 2014 @ 5:24 pm Brandie Weikle

      Thanks, Deborah. I really appreciate the kind words.

      Reply

  10. October 29, 2014 @ 1:29 am Jennifer Hanterman

    Brandie, this piece is so insightful. As a family legal assistant, I far too often see the rancorous side of divorce and custody. You and your family are role models. I wish more divorced couples were as mature as you and your ex-husband.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      November 14, 2014 @ 8:12 am Brandie Weikle

      Thank you so much, Jennifer. (Sorry I am just getting to your comment now.) I’m sure it’s quite heartbreaking for you to witness what those families are going through at times. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      Reply

  11. October 29, 2014 @ 5:14 am Janeen

    Wow Brandi ,this is great. You are a great example of what is possible when people have their priorities in the right order.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      October 29, 2014 @ 9:12 am Brandie Weikle

      Thank you so much, Janeen. I really appreciate the kind words.

      Reply

  12. October 29, 2014 @ 11:03 am Rachel

    I really respect how you have worked this out. As a child of divorce I believe both our expectation that all relationships will be forever and our attitude that separation is a failure are unhelpful and we need better models (like this one) to move forward. That being said, I wonder about whether the proximity (indeed, sharing the same roof) worked at the start. While any parent may want to do what’s best for their children, hurt and anger are inevitable. Looking back, do you wish you had more space at the beginning?

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      November 14, 2014 @ 8:10 am Brandie Weikle

      Somehow I just saw this comment, Rachel, because it was hidden among a flood of spam comments that came in. Sorry about that. Hmmm. I think the situation with D in the basement worked because it was all we could manage/fathom at the time. This was in part because our youngest was only 15 months. Would we have made a cleaner break and moved on more quickly had he been under a different roof? I guess that is possible, but I don’t regret the way we did it. We wanted to manage the adjustment for the kids in a very gradual way and this helped to do so.

      Reply

  13. October 29, 2014 @ 2:12 pm Nancy

    I love that you and your ex husband live next door to one another, and you can see your children at all times! I also really like that the Christmas gifts are from both parents. I know someone who’s parents were completely outdoing one another and it was just a sight to see – the kids are now grown adults and are just… weird, and spoiled because of their past.

    Reply

  14. October 30, 2014 @ 12:28 pm Ryan

    Hi Brandie, I’d love to hear what other living arrangements you considered … Such as “nesting” in the same house (essentially partition off a portion of the house), or any other considerations.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      October 30, 2014 @ 12:40 pm Brandie Weikle

      Hi Ryan, For the first year of our separation my boys’ father lived in the basement apartment of our house. When he was on duty I would just sort of make myself scarce going to the gym or out with friends (I also saw a lot of movies that year). But that wasn’t sustainable for us over the long term. We didn’t consider a reno of the property to be two equal units. It just wasn’t feasible with our house. But I have heard of three cases like that and I think it’s very interesting. I have also heard of people maintaining the family home where the kids always stay, and then trading off time at a shared apartment when off duty.

      Reply

      • October 30, 2014 @ 12:50 pm Ryan

        Thanks Brandie – exactly the considerations we are running through right now. This new age, new way, new amicable living is certainly an interesting era.

        Reply

        • Brandie Weikle

          October 30, 2014 @ 12:52 pm Brandie Weikle

          These transitions are no cakewalk, but it sure helps to be amicable. Best of luck as you find your new way forward.

          Reply

  15. October 30, 2014 @ 9:11 pm Dana

    I love your honesty. It is so nice to here a family moving forward in a healthy, mature relationship. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply

  16. Lisa Bendall

    November 4, 2014 @ 10:42 am Lisa Bendall

    Brandie, this is a wonderful story. Congratulations on making this work.

    Reply

  17. Nancy Forde

    November 5, 2014 @ 1:14 pm Nancy Forde

    Wow, Brandie! I finally got around to catching up on this site and some newer stories and I loved reading this and knowing a little more of your own situation. I admire you and your ex so much for putting your kids first, not just in words but actions and really setting an example for how that can be peacefully achieved. And kudos as well to the people who come into your mutually arranged situation and keep your kids as the priority as well. That’s wonderful. So much stability for your kids and they will grow up learning that peace and selflessness and compromise are ways to work out challenges in life versus conflict and anger. I take my hat off to you all. So amazing. Your boys are very lucky. You are all lucky. Congratulations.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      November 10, 2014 @ 10:52 am Brandie Weikle

      Thank you so much, Nancy. I really appreciate your kind words. The situation works well for all of us and we feel pretty fortunate indeed.

      Reply

  18. Angie Gallop

    November 12, 2014 @ 11:30 am Angie Gallop

    Bravo!!! So eloquent and precise, Brandie. I can’t wait to see that book come out. This story, and the 1,000 Families project is doing some great cultural work. Can’t praise it enough. Good on you and Derek, and Derek’s wife, to practice peace in your family. Your boys will always have what they’ve learned from a family that didn’t give up on being together.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      November 14, 2014 @ 7:55 am Brandie Weikle

      Thank you so much, Angie. I appreciate your encouragement regarding the book (in progress) and blog. 🙂

      Reply

  19. January 3, 2015 @ 12:16 pm Trasie

    This is not dissimilar to my arrangement: we are a few blocks apart and living in the same school district. Next door would be ideal, but this is working for us as well. Truth be told, I often wondered if currently active marriages could benefit from separate habitats, but for this divorced family, this is working well. I may be single, but I’ve never been a single parent.

    Reply

    • Brandie Weikle

      January 4, 2015 @ 12:18 pm Brandie Weikle

      I’m so glad to hear about your amicable situation, Trasie. And I have often wondered the same thing about separate habitats for spouses. I read an article recently about an interesting married couple who live apart. If I can remember where that was I will pass along the URL. Again, congratulations on your peaceful co-parenting arrangement!

      Reply

  20. Jody Robbins

    May 11, 2015 @ 12:42 pm Jody Robbins

    Love this. How wonderful for your boys to have both loving parents so close at hand. My brother-in-law and his wife managed to also have a successful uncoupling and it goes to show what can be done when you focus on what’s most important.

    Reply

  21. August 7, 2015 @ 12:31 pm My Ex And I Were Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool | Slantpoint

    […] We both knew we had to find a more permanent solution, but as I detailed in a blog I wrote called Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool , we really struggled to figure out what that would look like. Neither of us could really stomach […]

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  22. August 7, 2015 @ 12:37 pm My Ex And I Were Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool - LogHim.com

    […] We both knew we had to find a more permanent solution, but as I detailed in a blog I wrote called Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool, we really struggled to figure out what that would look like. Neither of us could really stomach […]

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  23. August 7, 2015 @ 12:45 pm My Ex And I Were Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool - Oroola

    […] We both knew we had to find a more permanent solution, but as I detailed in a blog I wrote called Conscious Uncoupling Before It Was Cool, we really struggled to figure out what that would look like. Neither of us could really stomach […]

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  24. September 10, 2015 @ 9:41 pm The New Family / I Bet We Can Find 1,000 Ways To Be A Family

    […] Brandie was also inspired to start this project in part because of her own unique family story. She lives next door to her ex-husband and his new wife, across a mutual driveway. you can read about it in her post Conscious Uncoupling Before it Was Cool: My Reason for Starting the 1,000 Families Project. […]

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  25. October 10, 2016 @ 10:08 am The New Family / Podcast Episode 104: Conscious Co-Parenting - The New Family

    […] Our story, “Conscious Uncoupling Before it Was Cool” […]

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  26. November 28, 2016 @ 4:02 am The New Family / 114: Straight Talk on the Financial Realities of Splitting Up - The New Family

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