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How I Learned To Forgive My Ex-Husband (And Myself)

What I learned through trial and error and oh-so-much failure.

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Cindy Echevarria
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My son turns 11 tomorrow, and he is oh-so-excited for his birthday dinner: steak, pasta and ice cream cake at his dad’s house with the four people he loves more than anyone else in the whole world — his dad; two sisters; and me, his mother. 

I will show up with gifts and a smile — and past-resentments nowhere to be found. My ex and I will share a birthday celebration that will make even the happiest of married couples envious.

“How do you two get along so well? You make it look so easy!”

My ex-husband and I hear these comments often. We celebrate birthday parties, end-of-the-year report cards and sports tournaments together … as one, happily divorced family. Observers assume there is no bad blood between us.

But there was bad blood for a long time. When the divorce was fresh and raw, we could not have a productive conversation or compromise about anything, ever. There was too much anger, too much hurt, and way-too-much of us trying to control things that were simply out of our control. I wanted to change what the courts had certified in a legally binding contract and keep fighting until every little detail looked the exact way I had decided it should look. And for a long time, I did just that.

For years I hated the judge and my lawyer and my ex, and I wanted everyone to know just how angry I was. The resentment took over, and I let it. I didn’t want to let go of it. I wanted to stew in it, and that meant that everyone around me was stewing in it too. My kids were the ones who suffered the most when they witnessed Mom yelling at Dad and when Mom and Dad couldn’t sit near each other at school or sporting events. I was rarely present; I didn’t dance in the kitchen or make crafts with my kids. I didn’t laugh freely or often; I didn’t enjoy the precious moments of life that were right in front of me.

Over time, I started to get angry with the anger and wondered, Why am I angry all the time? Why am I always snapping at grocery store clerks and bank tellers, and my ex-husband and my kids?  

I knew that finding the answer required me to look in the mirror and shift my focus from others to self. When I did so, I realized that although I was angry at my ex and the judge and all the circumstances, too, beneath it all I was most angry with myself.

Ironically, I (or my alcoholism) was to blame for the very things that left me feeling so angry at everyone else — a temporary loss of custody of my kids, an order to pay large sums of child support, no payment of alimony from my ex to me, and a permanent order giving my ex sole decision-making rights over the children. It was a large pill to swallow and so naturally I did everything in my power to avoid gulping it down. I blamed everyone else and played the victim.

You see, I had gotten sober shortly after the divorce, and by justifying my anger toward others I escaped self-blame and fed my anger. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say resentment is the same as drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die, and that is exactly what I was doing. I was hoping my anger would somehow hurt my ex or punish him. I thought my anger would somehow fuel the change I so desperately wanted. But holding on to it as tightly as I did for so long made me a person (and a mother) I was ashamed to be and led to an enormous amount of guilt and emotional pain.

But here’s the thing about emotional pain: When it gets heavy enough, it can be the catalyst for change. I was sick and tired of feeling guilty for yelling or making my kids sad or fighting with my ex. It was exhausting and defeating and, quite honestly, shameful. And so, I owned my part in all of this because it was the only way to release the anger. To stop blaming. To stop the rage. To stop participating in the exact behavior that ultimately caused me shame, guilt and remorse. I did the internal work and accepted the fact that no one did this to me without my own negative actions. I played a role in all of this, and the fact that I was indeed better didn’t erase my past actions.

Slowly, my anger died. I treated my ex with kindness and watched my kids’ eyes light up. We slowly become capable of having short and sweet conversations in front of the children. The kinder we were to each other, the happier the kids became. I was going to sleep without all of that hate and anger, and I felt lighter and happier.

Divorce and coparenting and resentment can break you if you let them. The experience can be defeating, soul-crushing and exhausting in ways that words can’t describe. I chose to use my experience to make me a better, stronger and wiser human being — one who now both happily celebrates her 11-year-old’s birthday alongside her ex and proudly shares her story with others, in case it helps the next struggling, angry parent face something that feels too heavy to put down on their own.

If you find yourself struggling to coparent after divorce (or let go of any other resentment), here are some tips based on the lessons I learned through trial and error and oh-so-much failure. 

Experience all of your feelings

Be sad. Be angry. Be envious. Take your time with this; just make sure you are growing through your feelings and not stewing in them. Write about them. Read about them. Talk about them. Be thoroughly and painfully honest about your feelings. Seek therapy if you would like help with the process. This process will unfold for you in your own time.

Practice empathy for yourself

Be gentle with yourself and those you may feel resentment toward. Empathy did not come easily to me. I had to put myself in the minds of my children to comprehend the power my own actions had on them. It took time and practice. It isn’t my default setting to be empathetic, but I have learned how to do it.  

Be accountable

Enlist the help of a friend, therapist or loved one to be an accountability partner. Tell them when you are acting in a way that you aren’t proud of. Sometimes we need someone who will call us on our BS, and sometimes we need someone to just be an ear. Saying our truths out loud help us to avoid the (easier) route of denial and avoidance. 

Visualize the act of letting go

Close your eyes and imagine placing the cause of your anger or the anger itself into a helium balloon. Visualize yourself letting it go. Watch it float away and exhale — and feel the weight fall off your shoulders. You can, of course, do this in real life too.  

Be sure to celebrate every small victory along the way

Change is hard. When you feel yourself responding in a new and improved way, letting go or practicing empathy, give yourself a pat on the back or a trip to the nail salon.