Taking the high road to Splitsville: the new break-up can be surprisingly civil.
Walk into The Tavern at Croton Landing on a random weeknight, and you’re likely to find Nancy and Bob Geller saddled up at a table for two. Talking and laughing over drinks, the pair looks like any happily married husband and wife catching up on a casual date night.
But, while the couple is indeed amicable, they’re actually not—surprise!—a couple. In fact, the Gellers are in the process of finalizing their divorce. So why are they out having fun instead of tearing at each other’s throats? After all, isn’t that what couples in the throes of parting usually do?
Welcome to the new divorce, where couples dissolve their marriages and then stay friends—often, close friends. Obviously, many do so for the greater good of the kids—and children do benefit from avoiding parental tugs-of-war—but what divorcing parents are often most surprised to learn is that, when it comes to untying the knot with courtesy and consideration, it’s the adults, not the kids, who can reap the most rewards.
“In the last five years, it has suddenly become clear to couples that it’s better to make up than to leave scorched earth behind them,” says Stacy Morrison, author of 2010’s Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce. “It’s not only good for the kids, but good for the couple. Divorce is very traumatic even if it’s amicable. Now couples go into it trying to hold on to respect and dignity, words not commonly associated with divorce in the past.”
In Westchester, it seems more and more couples are taking the high road to Splitsville, spending more on mediators, less on attorneys, and learning how to turn failed marriages into successful, rewarding friendships. On the following pages, you’ll meet five ex-couples whose lives are still very intertwined. Here, they candidly reveal how they peacefully parted ways, dealt with the challenges of maintaining family ties, and discovered the surprising benefits that come from staying connected to their exes. No, their lives may not be the “happily ever after” they envisioned when they first got together, but they’re happy nonetheless.
For Jake’s Sake
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
Amy Drucker and Sean Harkins still get together for family Thanksgiving dinners.
Amy Drucker and Sean Harkins, Katonah
September 11, 2001, was a pivotal day in the lives of many Westchester residents, but, for Amy Drucker and her then-husband, Sean Harkins, it was a personal wake-up call. Married for four years with a three-year-old son they adored, they knew something wasn’t right in their marriage. “We were never a great team as a married couple,” Amy says. “We didn’t share a lot of the same interests.” They had tried marriage counseling, which, says Amy, was “a first step in helping us realize that we were unhappy in a fundamental way.”
So, just one week after the 9/11 attacks reminded so many that life is fleetingly short, Sean asked Amy for a divorce. “Looking back, I realize he did me a favor,” Amy says. “I give him a lot of credit for doing what was right for both of us.”
Fast-forward to 2012. Amy and Sean have been divorced for a decade, but given that they’re exes, they’re unusually close. They talk or text every day, and, along with their current partners—Amy married Niall Washburn six years ago, and Sean is engaged to Laurie DiBenedetto—they get together on Thanksgiving and for various family functions. The whole crew even rallies for frequent Sunday-night dinners. And how’s this for a modern family? All four parents attend weekly counseling sessions to discuss parenting Amy and Sean’s 13-year-old son, Jake, who straddles both households. Sean is “Uncle Sean” to Amy and Niall’s four-year-old son, Quinn, and he also serves as Amy’s go-to overnight babysitter for both children. “If I trust him with our son, why wouldn’t I trust him with my other?” she says.
What motivates two people to get past the hurt and anger that so often accompanies divorce? For Amy and Sean, the answer is Jake. “We have a child who deserves both of his parents, so we spend time together and do things together because we both want to be there for him.”
While Jake may have provided the incentive for a smooth separation, it’s Amy and Sean—and their partners—who are doing the work. Indeed, Amy will be the first to tell you it is work. “I put so much more effort into this divorce than we ever did into our marriage,” she says.
That effort began at the get-go with a decision to use a mediator instead of a lawyer to work through custody and financial issues. “A lawyer’s job is to get you at each other,” Amy says. “A mediator’s job is to get you to work together.” In the end, she and Sean agreed to share custody of Jake, with Amy as the custodial parent. If there’s a parenting issue that Amy and Sean can’t agree on, legally Amy has the final say. “But in the ten years we’ve been apart, that’s never come into play,” she says.
Of course, having a close relationship with your ex has its challenges. When one family is under stress, the other family feels that stress, too, says Amy, referring to a recent financial rough patch. Then, there are boundary issues. “We used to spend a lot of time with each other’s families, but we had to dial it back a bit this summer because there was too much crossover.” Communication takes a special kind of patience, too. “It’s hard enough to communicate with one husband,” quips Amy. “We have a Google calendar to keep track of all of this stuff.”
As for Jake, “I consider myself very lucky,” he says, “because it’d be much harder if my parents didn’t get along the way they do.” Ask him if he feels loved and his response is immediate. “Yeah, definitely.” And why shouldn’t he? He’s got two active parents in his life. “Actually,” he corrects, “I have four active parents in my life.”
Dating Advice from the Ex
Nancy and Bob Geller, Croton-on-Hudson
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
Nancy and Bob Geller meet up several times a week—sometimes without their kids.
A long marriage puts any couple to the test. Nobody knows that better than Croton’s Nancy and Bob Geller. Together 19 years, the two weathered tough financial times, pressures from their extended families, and a high-stress, dual-career household. They also rode the usual exhausting ups and downs that come with raising two girls.
Over time, these everyday stresses took their toll on the Gellers’ marriage. “We fought, fought, fought,” Nancy says. The couple sought counseling together—and Nancy tried therapy on her own—but, in the end, going their separate ways seemed to be the best thing for both of them. “People thought we were happy,” Nancy says, “but we had stayed together for the kids.”
The Gellers separated two years ago, and they’re currently working through the details of their divorce. While Nancy cites lack of communication as a key problem in her marriage, ironically, these days, she and Bob seem to have little trouble communicating—in fact, they’re close friends. “We argue, but, funnily enough, not as much as when we were married,” Bob says. “We try to be kind and fair. We try to work on things together.”
As friends, they get together several times a week for casual dinners at The Tavern at Croton Landing—sometimes with the kids, sometimes without. They attend their daughters’ soccer games, as well as family barbecues and birthdays, and even get together for holidays. This year, they drove to Boston, where one daughter attends school, for Parents’ Day. “I don’t see why we should cut all ties,” Bob says.
And, of course, there are the kids. Says Nancy, “Why make it more difficult? We may not have the relationship that we once did, but we’re still the parents of our kids. We just have a different relationship now.”
It’s different, all right. They’ll go to dinner and talk about the girls, as when they were married, but now they’ll also talk about what’s new in the world of online courtship. “I’ll ask him about dating,” Nancy says. “I can make light of everything now. I might say to him, ‘You’ll never believe what happened to me on Match.com today.’”
Still, there are limitations. “Bob has a habit of using his key to get into my house,” Nancy says. “He walked in one day and had to meet the guy I was dating. It was very, very awkward. I don’t have a desire to meet his girlfriend.” And when you know someone so well, it’s easy to fall back into old habits. “There are times when we still argue,” Bob says. “When we went to our daughter’s Parents’ Day at school, it reminded us of things that we used to argue about—my driving, for example. Maybe we won’t do that one together next year.”
Christmas at the Exes’
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
Debra O’Donnell often joins John Castellano and his new wife, Theresa, for family birthday parties.
Debra O’Donnell, Ardsley, and
John Castellano, Greenburgh
“A good divorce” is how Debra O’Donnell describes her split from her husband of 14 years, John Castellano. Given that the mother of three had a nine-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year-old at the time of their separation, that might seem generous. But, while Debra may still have sadness about the divorce, she has no complaints. “We did the best we could,” she says.
The couple dated and lived together before tying the knot in 1985, then separated three times before finally ending the marriage in 1999. Somehow, though, they kept each other’s feelings at the forefront. “There was a friendship there from the beginning,” Debra says. “We really cared for each other.” John agrees: “If you care about the other person and have a concern for their welfare, that goes a long way in establishing a good relationship.”
They used a mediator, not a lawyer, to help settle the legal issues amicably, and they shared custody of the children. In fact, when John moved out, he set up a second home for the kids. “They had two places with their own bedrooms,” Debra says.
Their team spirit prevails; Debra and John talk every day. They do Christmas morning together—and, last year, Debra went to John and his current wife Theresa’s house for Christmas dinner. Plus, they join forces for their kids’ birthday parties and school functions. And Debra pays John a visit every year on his birthday. “I always give him a gift,” she says.
But even a friendly divorce isn’t always easy. “There was some hurt because he had initiated it,” Debra says. “I had to get over the hurt.”
As most divorced couples will tell you, it can be bittersweet when a former spouse remarries, as John did six years ago. But John’s marriage didn’t change his friendship with Debra. However, when he and Theresa had a baby, Debra admits, “I was so jealous and threatened, I got a dog. I was afraid my children would want to spend more time at his house because they’d want to be with the baby.” In the end, there was nothing to worry about. In fact, Debra’s known as “Aunt Debbie” around John’s house. “It makes me feel great. The baby looks just like my kids.”
Because they’ve parted ways as friends, John’s child gets a loving aunt, and John gets a loving friend. “The benefits are that you have a friend who knows and understands you,” he says.
Best Friends Forever
Steven Zinner, Ossining, and Linda Zinner, New Mexico
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
Steven Zinner calls his ex-wife his “best friend.”
Ossining resident Steven Zinner and his ex-wife, Linda Zinner, divorced 38 years ago—and they’ve been best friends ever since. The pair was way ahead of their time. “We didn’t want our kids straddling parents who hated each other,” says Steven, whose children with Linda were 10 and 11 at the time of the separation. “It’s always the children who suffer.”
They negotiated their divorce without opposing attorneys. “A pleasant divorce is not in an attorney’s best interest,” Steven says. Without legal counsel, they negotiated visitation, alimony, and child support, and then Steven called one attorney simply to “make it legal.”
Linda Zinner lives in New Mexico, but still visits.
“We negotiated the terms of our own divorce. I gave her the house, because we bought it to raise the kids,” Steven says. “Just because we were getting divorced didn’t mean the house wasn’t good for the kids.”
Why did they divorce? “We didn’t live well together,” Steven says. “I spent too much time working and not enough time with family. I worked twelve, eighteen hours a day. Still, we always had good communication.” They still do. The former couple talks two or three times a week. “She’s my best friend,” Steven says.
They also continue to get together for holidays, their current spouses included, and every year they congregate in either New York or Portland, Oregon, where their daughter lives. “Whenever there’s an opportunity, we take it,” Steven says. “In fact, my current significant other and my ex are trying to plan some traveling.”
Were the remarriages awkward for the pair? No, Steven assures. “When you love somebody, you just want her to be happy.”
The Friendly Foursome
George Klein, Ossining, and Barbara Notarius,
Photo by Toshi Tasaki
(Above, from left to right): Steven Leston, Barbara Notarius, George Klein, and Joanna Cohlan. When Notarius remarried, ex-husband Klein walked her down the aisle.
There are definite perks to having a husband: you have someone to talk to at the holiday dinner table; someone to handle big, manly chores—say, painting the house or cementing the walk; and someone to take fabulous family vacations with. Plus, he cares about the kids just as much as you do.
Barbara Notarius, owner of The Alexander Hamilton House in Croton-on-Hudson knows these joys doubly well. She experiences them with her current husband, Steven Leston—and also with her ex-husband, George Klein. Though the pair divorced in the late 1980s, they’ve remained the closest of friends. They talk three or four times a week and have regular dinner parties that include Steven and George’s wife, Joanna Cohlan. They’ve even vacationed together in Maine with their daughter, Cydney—and without their respective mates. Speaking of mates, Barbara attended George’s marriage to Joanna. “I had a wonderful time,” she declares. And George gave Barbara away when she married Steven.
“We are friends, absolutely,” says Barbara, who divides her time between the Croton inn and another one she owns in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “We’ll go on vacations, have them up to the Cape, go sightseeing, make meals together. It’s great.” George helps Barbara with handyman jobs at the inn, and the foursome has a date every Thanksgiving. “We are the family we chose,” Barbara says.
While some couples set out to be friends from the get-go, for Barbara and George, friendship took time. The first few years after the divorce were hard, Barbara admits. “It was horrible. I dreaded any interchange.”
“Keeping the focus on our daughter was the key to making that whole thing work out,” George reports. Barbara agrees. “I didn’t want my daughter to be a pawn in an ugly situation.” Today Barbara says she’s got a confidante, not only in George but also in Joanna. The women are constantly trying to think up a word to describe their relationship, because they feel “friend” doesn’t cover it. “She calls me to commiserate,” Barbara says. “She’ll say, ‘I had to talk to you because I knew you’d understand.’”