Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Conscious Uncoupling – A Decade Later

May 12th, 2021
Durham, North Carolina

I went for a stroll in my London hood before my flight back to America. It was a gorgeous day—the sky a cloudless Cerulean blue and the air warm and weightless on my face. Everything seems possible those first days of spring, dreamy and light. I was smiling to myself when who should I spot as I rounded the corner but my ex-husband eating lunch outside at a popular local restaurant. Alone. My first reaction was to look down at the sidewalk and scurry past—I should add—there was no second reaction.

Who doesn’t see their ex and immediately cross the street? Well maybe Gwyneth. But the rest of us conscious uncouplers understand, you can’t really have polite superficial conversation with someone you used to share toothpaste with, whose skin you knew better than your own, whose likes and dislikes were once second nature to you, someone who used to be your forever man and is now just him.

Don’t get me wrong, we get along fine when we’re prepared, when our three adored children, the ties that bind, are present –

like at Christmas, weddings, graduations. But those accidental sightings when I am on my own, not a mother, just me, Elena, enjoying springtime in London, I walk the other way. I am sure Peter feels exactly the same. We have both moved on, time heals, I’m even getting married soon.

Two weeks later it’s our youngest Julia’s graduation from Duke University in North Carolina, one of those events where Peter and I get an A* for getting along.

We aren’t faking it either. We really do get along. If we hadn’t had the soul-wrenching heartbreak of divorce, we’d probably still be friends, old friends. We get each other.  I met Peter when I was sixteen, and he was twenty so he’s not just my ex-husband, he’s also someone who knew me in my formative years, and vice versa. I remember his gold Honda Accord with the amazing sound system, and he remembers my stick shift Fiat that I never learned to drive. There were plenty of happy years until we reached our sell-by date, when we just weren’t working anymore.

Peter and I met up at the hotel in Durham with a polite peck on the cheek. Kate and Thomas hadn’t arrived from London yet. So, the two of us walked with Julia to the first of many graduation parties that weekend. Julia runs off to chat to her friends. Peter and I meet the other parents and I am aware that to many we seem like we might be there together, actually, and not just circumstantially.

At some point I notice that my ex is standing alone. My first thought is to approach him and include him in a conversation I am having with an acquaintance. Peter was always the guy in the corner at a party. Back then I would find him and bring him into the group. But then I realise, this is not my job anymore. He can take care of himself.

The next day, at lunch, just the five of us, Peter says,

Elena, do you remember that trip to California where we stopped in to to visit your ageing grandmother and she just stared silently at me with those big eyes, terrified me.”

I’m not big on reminiscing. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Either it makes you sad remembering a happy distant faraway time you miss, never to be re-experienced, or it makes you sad remembering a sad equivalent. Nostalgia is a temptress to be avoided, which is pretty easy, except when you’re at a college graduation and your ex revels in trying to get you to talk about the past.

Yes,” I reply quickly, “we were in the dining room in Woodside.”

Julia has just graduated, a marvellous outdoor, in-person procession with the warm Carolina sun beaming down on us. Julia has shoved her cap and gown into a paper bag and is sipping a much-needed Bloody Mary, hair of the “graduation party” dog.

No, I think it was in her bedroom,” Peter corrects me.

I hate this even more. My ex correcting me about memories of my family. Anyway, I know I’m right. I can visualise the scene perfectly—but I don’t want to go there. Our recollections differ about an event that took place over thirty years ago. As our three kids look on, I wonder if this is even the time or the place.

Julia, how’s that Bloody Mary? Think I’ll have one too,” I say.

Later at the lunch, while Peter is talking to one of our other children, Julia confides to me that her friend Anav told her he had warned his parents,

Oh, you should know Julia’s parents are divorced.”

I am fully aware,” Anav’s mother had replied. “Elena called him her ‘ex-husband’ three times at the dinner last night and three times on the ride to the graduation this morning.”

I never know what to call him, “ I say defensively to Julia.

How about Peter?”

Stretch didn’t come to the graduation—only so many tickets allowed. Despite how much my kids like Stretch, I  know that they prefer the nuclear five of us. It’s not wishful thinking anymore, just a group they know in their bones, in their DNA. As Julia said to me,

We rarely get together, just the five of us.”

We are a forever family, even if their father is not my forever man.  I have always thought that Peter and I made amazing children,

that we were meant to be together for that very reason.  I agree with Gwyneth when she says,

I know my ex-husband was meant to be the father of my children, and I know my current husband is meant to be the person I grow very old with. Conscious uncoupling lets us recognise those two different loves can coexist and nourish each other.

Stay tuned for the next instalment:  Getting Married – Round Two.

May, 2021