Nick and Robert have known each other for about 18 years now, and like any old friends, they've been through a lot of changes together. They don't get together very often these days, now that Robert has moved from Orange County to Sacramento, but they do keep in touch. And a couple of years ago when Nick and his wife, Karen, were vacationing in Northern California's gold country, Robert insisted that they stay at his house.
"It was really kind of pleasant," says Nick, who lives in Yorba Linda. "We had dinner, spent the night, and the next morning he and I went fishing. We talked about the usual kinds of things: golf, work, health, you know." Meanwhile, Karen spent the day with Robert's wife.
"It wasn't awkward at all," Nick says. But it might well have been. Nick has been married to Karen for 17 years. Before that--with only a three-day gap between divorce and wedding--Karen was married for nine years to Robert. Karen and Robert had two children together; Nick and Karen saw them through to adulthood.
Karen may not love Robert anymore, but she still likes him. "Sure," she says. "He's a likable enough person. For me, I guess, it was like losing a brother. But we're very comfortable with him and his family. We have our children in common. That makes a difference."
When we asked Family Life readers to tell us how they get along with their ex-spouses, we planned to keep the focus on the present, not the past. But in Nick and Karen's case, it helps to backtrack a bit to put it all in perspective.
They were all friends back in 1970: Karen and Robert, Nick and his wife, Carol. They had known each other about a year when Nick and Karen noticed "a feeling. We had never spent a moment together alone," Karen recalls. "But we both felt we had a lot more in common with each other than we did with our partners."
One evening Nick and Karen found time to talk about their mutual feeling--they insist all they did was talk--and that was the turning point. "Once everything started coming out in the open, it forced me to realize my marriage was at a dead end," Nick says.
"We both did," Karen says.
Without bothering to have an affair or even spend much time talking it over, both Karen and Nick decided to divorce their spouses. By the time the decrees were final, they were ready to marry each other.
"Robert was shocked at first," Karen recalls. "But he adjusted to it real quickly. He's just a realistic person. There were no hard feelings. I'm sure he still cared for me, but he got on with his life."
Nick's wife, Carol, didn't take it so calmly. "She was screaming, hollering; it was a hysterical-type reaction," Nick says.
"And it's been the same for the last 17 years," Carol adds.
"I don't know that she's ever gotten over the fact that this occurred," Nick says. "She could never accept the fact that the marriage went bad."
For a short time, the foursome resembled Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, the partner-swapping movie couples from the height of the sexual revolution. "They (Robert and Carol) seemed more attracted to each other than we were," Karen said. "They even had a little fling together, but it didn't work out."
Nick and Karen are reluctant to take credit for the good relationship they have with her ex, lest they also have to shoulder the blame for their not-so-good relationship with his.
"Initially, we tried and tried and tried to get along with Carol," Nick says. "We were doing it with the ex-husband. We bent over backward. But all we got was it pushed back in our faces."
Carol and Nick had three children together, but after the divorce she wouldn't cooperate with visitation, even though he went back to court several times. Then she moved, taking the children with her, and from then on "there was always a reason or excuse they couldn't visit," Nick says. "It was like we were going to be punished one way or the other."
"She would throw away our Christmas presents to the kids," Karen says. "But the worst thing was that she kept telling them he didn't love them."
"It backfired on her," Nick says. Eventually, all three of Nick's children moved in with their father and stepmother.
"She just didn't realize that there can be room in their lives for everybody," Nick says. "It doesn't have to be a contest; you don't have to hate one parent to love the other."
All five of the children are grown now, so Nick and Karen have no contact with Carol. But their relationship with Robert is still going strong.
"His wife is on a first-name basis with my parents," Karen says. "We went to their wedding. When we see each other, there are hugs. It may seem weird, but it's not weird. It's nice."
But isn't there a twinge of jealousy at times, when Nick remembers the kind of relationship Karen once had with Robert?
"We both know what we had with our former partners," Nick says, laughing. "That's not a problem."