‘We’re divorced TO, not FROM each other’: Couples who have separated… but stayed best friends

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More than 20 years after she married Nik, Cathy Robinson still looks forward to seeing him. 

They share ‘in’ jokes and frequently text to swap a bit of banter and catch up on family news. He’s one of her favourite people.

You would think they have the perfect marriage — except Cathy and Nik divorced in 2010. 

Their ‘turbulent’ 14-year relationship was beset by rows and break-ups, yet, incredibly, they’ve emerged from it without any resentment or acrimony. 

In fact, they see themselves as being divorced to, rather than from, one another, such is the fondness between them.

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, and Prince Andrew (pictured together in 2015 at Royal Ascot), famously still enjoy one another’s company

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, and Prince Andrew (pictured together in 2015 at Royal Ascot), famously still enjoy one another’s company

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, and Prince Andrew (pictured together in 2015 at Royal Ascot), famously still enjoy one another’s company

It’s an endearing term that was also used by the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, in a recent interview, when describing the warm relationship she shares with Prince Andrew, 22 years after their divorce in 1996. 

Famously, they still enjoy one another’s company — even holidaying together with their daughters, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice — and were the picture of a happy family at Eugenie’s wedding in October.

It’s a curious arrangement that has fascinated and baffled the British public for years. But Cathy and Nik say they totally understand. Some couples, they say, simply work so much better as friends.

‘We took our vows very seriously and never imagined it would end in divorce — in fact, we tried really hard to make it work,’ says Cathy. 

Their problems, she says, stemmed from Nik being away for up to nine months at a time with the Navy.

‘I was a typical military wife, left at home with our daughter, Rachel, and my three older daughters from my first marriage,’ reflects Cathy, 52, who is remarried and lives in Hampshire, where she owns a pre-school. 

‘He was even away when Rachel was born and, without Skype or FaceTime, the only way we could communicate was with letters.

‘I had to be independent when he was away, but he would come home and expect to be my priority, whereas I’d be exhausted from single-parenting and be desperate for some time to myself.

It’s a curious arrangement that has fascinated and baffled the British public for the 22 years of their divorce (pictured together at their wedding in 1986)

It’s a curious arrangement that has fascinated and baffled the British public for the 22 years of their divorce (pictured together at their wedding in 1986)

It’s a curious arrangement that has fascinated and baffled the British public for the 22 years of their divorce (pictured together at their wedding in 1986)

‘There were times when we couldn’t stand being in the same room as each other and he’d just storm off and sleep on the ship instead of sitting down and talking about it.’

Nik, 49, who lives in Buckinghamshire with his second wife, agrees marriage for him and Cathy was difficult: ‘I was jealous that the girls got all of Cathy’s attention and I also expected to be able to bark out orders at home the way I did when I was at work,’ he says. He left the forces in 2012 and is now a butcher.

‘Our rows could be explosive. I remember one argument at a dinner party which ended with me flipping the table in anger and the food going all over the floor.’ 

Things finally came to a head in 2009, when Nik came home for Christmas.

‘I had joined a gym, and Nik’s mother had become suspicious and told Nik she thought I was having an affair, which was categorically untrue,’ says Cathy. 

‘It caused a massive row. On New Year’s Eve, we finally admitted defeat and our marriage imploded.’

In those early days, as they communicated through lawyers, they couldn’t have imagined ever being friends. 

But the white flag was waved not long after their divorce in 2010, when Nik was promoted and he invited Cathy to accompany him to a Navy ball.

Pictured: Nik from High Wycombe, Buckinghamhsire

Pictured: Nik from High Wycombe, Buckinghamhsire

More than 20 years after she married Nik (R), Cathy Robinson (L) still looks forward to seeing him. You would think they have the perfect marriage — except Cathy and Nik divorced in 2010

‘One of my main objectives in striving for promotion while we were still married was that I’d be able to take Cathy to the senior ranks’ ball, and just because we’d divorced I saw no reason why I couldn’t do that,’ Nik says.

‘We had a really good time as friends — nothing happened. It was a reminder that deep down there was a friendship worth hanging on to.’

Nowadays, with both of them remarried, they spend Christmases and birthdays together as one big family, and get on fantastically — much better than they ever did as a married couple.

It sounds ideal — and so easy — yet friendly divorces remain the exception, not the rule, as psychotherapist and former family lawyer Charlotte Friedman attests.

‘When people first separate, there are such a lot of unresolved feelings that it feels difficult to be friends,’ says Charlotte, author of Breaking Upwards: How To Manage The Emotional Impact Of Separation.

‘But the idea of being divorced to someone is rather nice. It means you’re not entirely separate from someone, you’re still connected in some way. 

If people have to stay in touch with each other as parents, sometimes they can find a way of managing a friendship that can endure.’

It’s a similar story for Judy and Dave Broadbent, who this week shared a hug and friendly banter over coffee and bacon sandwiches at the home Dave, 55, shares with his second wife, Vikki, a few miles from Judy in East Yorkshire.

Though they divorced in 2007 after 20 years of marriage, they are still ‘great friends’. 

They met and married in 1987, several months after Judy’s first husband died in a car crash, leaving her with two young children: Tim, now 34, and Kim, 32. Dave, a retired sales director who now owns a payroll company, adopted her two children and they went on to have two more together, Liz, 31, and Jack, 20.

To the outside world, they seemed like a happy family of six with a large detached home and a lovely lifestyle, courtesy of Dave’s earnings, while Judy, 60, a book editor, took a ten-year career break to raise the children.

It’s a similar story for Judy and Dave Broadbent (pictured together). Though they divorced in 2007 after 20 years of marriage, they are still ‘great friends’

It’s a similar story for Judy and Dave Broadbent (pictured together). Though they divorced in 2007 after 20 years of marriage, they are still ‘great friends’

It’s a similar story for Judy and Dave Broadbent (pictured together). Though they divorced in 2007 after 20 years of marriage, they are still ‘great friends’

So, what went wrong?

‘Dave was busy with his career and I was at home with the children, fitting in part-time work when I could,’ says Judy. ‘I had a growing sense of not wanting to be with him.’

Dave concurs that the marriage had become ‘stale’. ‘It was a mutual decision to split and it was sad, but there was nobody else involved and thankfully it wasn’t a messy divorce. 

‘We split everything 50/50 and shared custody of Jack, who was only nine at the time.’

They moved out of the marital home and into new houses at opposite ends of the same town. 

‘Very quickly, Dave and I would find ourselves sitting and chatting about our lives when we were picking up Jack or dropping him off at each other’s houses — and still do,’ says Judy.

‘During the early part of our marriage, he always made me laugh, and once we divorced and the pressure was off, he made me laugh again as friends.

‘I love him dearly — just not as a husband.’

Dave’s friendship with Judy has never been an issue for his second wife, Vikki, 40, who doesn’t have children of her own.

They all went on a family holiday to Florida two years ago to celebrate Jack’s 18th birthday, and Judy will spend Christmas Day at Dave and Vikki’s with all of their children and grandchildren, just as she has done many times before.

Beautician Tracey Eskowitz, 44, and trading director Stephen, 46, have had a similar experience. 

Eight years after their divorce, they are now the best of friends and Tracey has even grown close to Stephen’s second wife, Naomi, 36, with whom he has two children, aged four and one.

Tracey met Stephen in February 2003 on a blind date, and they married eight months later in a hotel in West Yorkshire.

‘He was fun and self-assured and, after our first date, we spent every weekend together,’ says Tracey, who is single and lives in Leeds with their two sons Sammie, 14, and Louie, 11.

‘He proposed pretty quickly and we planned to marry in August 2004, but brought it forward when I found out I was pregnant.’

For a while, life was rosy. But then, as happens to so many couples after having children, the fault lines began to appear.

While Stephen’s job took him all over Europe and America, Tracey was at home with Sammie. 

‘Stephen was exhausted at weekends, while I was fed up with being on my own with our son, and it disintegrated from there,’ says Tracey.

Four years into their marriage, the resentment between them peaked and they separated briefly — but then reunited and had Louie.

‘We moved house for a fresh start, but nothing changed and we argued more. Neither of us was happy and I suggested we should split for good.’ Stephen agreed. 

‘We didn’t want the kids seeing us constantly at loggerheads because they would suffer, so we did the right thing.’

Anyone who observes Rebecca Starr (pictured), 42, and her ex-husband Jackie Smit, 38, laughing together would assume they’re a happily married couple

Anyone who observes Rebecca Starr (pictured), 42, and her ex-husband Jackie Smit, 38, laughing together would assume they’re a happily married couple

Anyone who observes Rebecca Starr (pictured), 42, and her ex-husband Jackie Smit, 38, laughing together would assume they’re a happily married couple

Still, Stephen admits he and Tracey only settled into a happy, post-divorce friendship in 2012, a year after he met Naomi. The couple married in 2013 and now the two Eskowitz families’ lives are harmoniously intertwined.

They spend Christmases and birthdays together, and have holidayed in Menorca — albeit in separate apartments — for the past two summers.

‘Friends think it’s weird that we go on holiday together, but Stephen and I are co-parents and the best of friends, plus Naomi and I get along brilliantly,’ adds Tracey.

‘We go to parents’ evenings and the school Christmas shows together. Stephen and Naomi’s children call me Auntie Tracey and often come for sleepovers.’

Charlotte Friedman says that, handled properly, a friendly relationship is beneficial for everyone. ‘If the children see their parents are happy living separately and that they’ve managed to keep them all together as a family, it’s very good for them,’ she says.

‘It shows them that grown-ups can manage their differences and divorce without it being acrimonious. The children don’t feel split between Mum and Dad and can integrate both parents in their minds, which is healthier.’

Anyone who observes Rebecca Starr, 42, and her ex-husband Jackie Smit, 38, laughing together as they play in the park with their four-year-old daughter, Meadow, would assume they’re a happily married couple. But they, too, are divorced ‘best friends’.

They met at a martial arts class in London in 2011, and married in June 2014, six weeks after Meadow was born. ‘We were both really happy and thought that having a baby would top it all off,’ says Rebecca, a database developer.

Instead, unprepared for the impact a child would have on their relationship, the marriage began to unravel. ‘I was resentful that I’d been left with this child who didn’t want to sleep, and even when I went back to work part-time I was still the one doing the childcare and the housework,’ she adds.

‘Inevitably, our sex-life dwindled, too, and we only did it once in about six months. It didn’t matter so much to me as I was shattered from being up at night with our daughter, but it was a big deal to him.’

They met at a martial arts class in London in 2011, and married in June 2014, six weeks after Meadow was born (pictured Jackie)

They met at a martial arts class in London in 2011, and married in June 2014, six weeks after Meadow was born (pictured Jackie)

They met at a martial arts class in London in 2011, and married in June 2014, six weeks after Meadow was born (pictured Jackie)

Shortly after their first wedding anniversary in June 2015, Jackie, an account director, suggested they should part and Rebecca agreed. They divorced in 2016 and she moved to Shropshire to be closer to her parents, while Jackie bought a house in Surrey.

Only then did the bitterness between them start to dissipate. ‘Because of the distance, Jackie had to stay at my house when he came to visit Meadow, and once she was in bed, we’d talk about what had gone wrong and began to accept our faults,’ says Rebecca.

‘He understood the resentment I’d felt and I acknowledged that he’d taken a lot of flak from me.’

Two years on, they speak every day and revel in weekends together as a family. ‘I knew we’d always be in each other’s lives because of Meadow, but Jackie really is my best friend now,’ adds Rebecca.

‘We spend Christmases together and his sister’s getting married in South Africa next February, so I’m hoping to go with him.

‘Friends often ask if there’s still a spark, but Jackie and I have talked about it and all the romantic inclination has gone.’

Though neither of them is with a new partner, they are adamant that when they are, their friendship will endure. ‘I’ve been on a few dates since we separated and always make quick mention of the fact that I’m close friends with my daughter’s mother and that that’s not going to change,’ says Jackie.

‘We’ve promised each other that when either of us does meet someone special, they will have to accept and understand our friendship — it’s too precious to compromise.’

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