Saying things (about divorce) people are afraid to say

Amicable split lets both people emerge on other side for the better, Paris writes

Wendy Paris' new book "Splitopia: Dispatches From Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well," mines the vein of the "conscious uncoupling" movement made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow. It is part argument, part memoir and part deep research into what it means to marry and divorce in the 21st century.

Paris, a University of Houston alum, now lives in Los Angeles. She has some experience with divorce. Her parents split amicably when she was 5, and she grew up with step-parents and step-siblings. Then her mom divorced again, not so amicably, in her 60s. Paris, who has been divorced for four years, now lives with her 8-year-old son just three blocks away from her ex, with whom she says she has a "warm co-parenting relationship."

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'Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well'

By Wendy Paris

Atria books, 336 pp., $26

Q: I have to admit, as intrigued as I was by the concept of the "good divorce," I also was skeptical. My biggest question is how a couple can have a good divorce if they are really on different pages. For instance, if one person wants the divorce and one doesn't, or if one person is still very angry and tends to want to punish the other partner.

A: I have a friendship with my ex-husband, but not everyone wants that. Sometimes a good divorce means extricating yourself from the chaos of the other person, not actually spending time together. The more you move toward your own life, the more you'll be able to untangle yourself. In my book, I talk about my seven principles of parting, which I think can help improve divorce in any situation. It's not about having a perfect divorce but about getting through your divorce better.

Also, remember that people recuperate at different paces; the grief process isn't always synchronous, and we have to beware of the urge to compare. People are at different stages of acceptance of the ending of the marriage, so it's important to establish clear boundaries and to be clear about where both of you are emotionally.

Q: You mention in the book that the way we talk about our divorces can have a big impact, not only on our partners and our relationships but upon our communities and certainly our children. Could you talk about the narratives we tell each other - and ourselves?

A: While you can't change the facts, the same facts can support different narratives. It's important to take agency when thinking through what happened in the marriage and also while going through the divorce process. There are often noble impulses behind a lot of our behaviors, which we tend to forget.

Taking ownership is not the same as taking blame. Ownership is identifying how you were involved and ideally finding your strengths somehow in the process. It's also important to have self-compassion. In one of the most interesting studies about divorce, self-compassion correlated most strongly with positive recovery. You also want to aim for compassion for the other person, if you can.

Q: Writing a memoir can be challenging, especially when one of the "characters" is an ex-husband. How did you handle that?

A: I think of my job as a personal essayist as being willing to say the things that other people are afraid to say or uncomfortable to admit. With memoir, with personal essay, you're working out what you think on the page.

I do make an effort to be careful about other people's privacy. It is possible to avoid exposing someone else's vulnerabilities and still be an honest writer.

Also, when I was writing this book, I was controlling the narrative, so if I talked too much about some bad behavior of my ex-husband's, or what I thought was bad behavior, it would wind up reflecting poorly on me. When you're controlling the narrative, you're limited in how much you can expose someone else's foibles without turning off the reader or pushing the reader to take the other side.

Q: You're known for what some people call "immersive journalism," in which you personally experience your subject matter. What's that been like, particularly now that you're writing about divorce?

A: I actually felt fortunate to be able to write about something I was going through. It was on my mind all the time, and I was so glad to have a writing project that let me investigate more deeply.

Currently, I feel mission-driven to help people not destroy their lives when their marriage ends. I feel driven to help people to have better divorces and to become good at being ex-spouses and at co-parenting. At some point, though, I want to write about successful second marriages, so maybe, ha, I can now do "aspirational immersive journalism," where I learn about good marriages, and then have one. I know how to make a good divorce, but I don't know a whole lot about how to make a good marriage, so that might be the next step. I want to learn what I can about marriage, divorce and co-parenting and then share what I've learned with others.