Interview: Wendy Paris.
I met Wendy Paris because we're in a non-fiction writers' group together. This group, by the way, has the best name of all time: the Invisible Institute.
Wendy writes about all sorts of interesting subjects in all sorts of impressive places, and her new book, Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well, is just about to hit the shelves. It's a fascinating book that's a memoir of her own divorce experience, an analysis of divorce in society, and a consideration of how the divorce process could be made more amicable.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to ask her about habits and happiness.
Q: (Gretchen) You’ve done fascinating research about divorce. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?
A: (Wendy) We’re so worried about divorce—that it will damage our children forever, or destroy our lives. But what I’ve seen again and again during these past three years of research is that our actions and attitudes have a huge influence on how well our children do, how quickly we recuperate and the kind of relationship with our ex, our friends, and others, on the other side. We have far more control over our lives than we may think. We can have a great life filled with love, thriving children, and even a decent relationship with the person we married, after divorce. It’s not marriage or divorce that matters so much, but how we attend to our relationships and ourselves.
For so many people, divorce is like a tsunami, it enters their lives and turns everything upside down, unbidden. So we have this idea that divorce is necessarily devastating. And it can be. But it can also be a difficult but ultimately beneficial transition into a much better life. This is one way in which I think my work and yours really touch on some of the same things, in this realm of paying attention to our daily actions and how they affect us, and taking charge of our habits. In divorce this can be habits of communication, habits of self-talk, habits of relating to our children.
When we’re divorcing, we can choose behaviors that absolutely improve our sense of self and our interactions—such as NOT sending that aggressive text to our almost-ex when we’re angry. We can adopt an attitude of, “How can this new challenge benefit me?” I write about this mindset shift in my Seven Principles of Parting. Divorce can also be a great time to start new habits since it upends many of the routines we have in place. [Yes! This is the Strategy of the Clean Slate.]
This is true even with the legal process, which can sound terrifying and like an objectively awful thing. But new legal processes such as mediation and collaborative divorce can actually help people learn to communicate and cooperate better, and arrange a shared parenting plan, if they have kids, that actually works for both people. I get along a lot better with my once-husband, now that we’re divorced, and I feel far better about my behavior toward him. My ability to be nice, and calm, and respond a bit more objectively, rather than getting triggered, feels like a personal strength.
Q: What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
A: I’m much better at trying to form habits that are in-line with my personality and physiology. I’m less likely to be mad at myself for not doing something, like cleaning the house at night, when I have the time, ostensibly, but really low energy.
Q: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
A: Having a regular writing time is really critical to me, and the best way for me to get writing done. When I’m working on a book or articles, I like to have a regular time and place to do it five days a week. Saturdays, I’m with my son. And then Sundays, I try to catch up on things at home, and to apply for things—to look up from the work immediately in front of me and investigate longer-range projects or fellowships or programs I might be interested in down the line. Whenever people tell me that they wish they could write more, I always advise them to find a specific time of day, a specific place to sit, and a consistent routine. Don’t beat yourself up about not writing, or decide it’s a psychological block. I truly believe this about writing: get your body there regularly, and your mind will follow.
I’m also a happier parent when I set up little routines or habits with my son. It’s hard for me to think of things to do on the spur of the moment, and it seems really reassuring and “homey” to both of us to have things we always do. We always go to synagogue on Saturday morning, for example, and usually stay through lunch. It’s so nice to have that standard routine. I have a very clear and consistent co-parenting schedule with his dad. I tried an eating/good-mood-in-the-morning routine, making Mondays Pancake Monday, followed by Terrific Tuesday (biscuits and eggs), followed by Wonderful Wednesday (yogurt and fruit and granola). This habit didn’t totally stick.
Q: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
A: I am currently going to an hour-long, sweat-drenching, athletic yoga class five mornings a week, every single week, at a place called YogaHop. I always list in and out of feeling fit and like I’m moving around enough to feel good. But now, I just go to this class, and then I feel basically good all day. Why can I do this? It’s on my corner, so I can leave at 10:28 and walk there in time for a 10:30 class, and the ease of that makes a huge difference to me. I don’t have to put on tennis shoes, which is another easy thing. The guy who runs the class always comes over and puts his hand on my back and says encouraging things, like, “It’s so great to see you here,” or “You’re really making great progress!” He does this with everyone, but still, it feels totally personal, and it’s uplifting, and I really think that little moment of positive interaction motivates me to get to class. I feel like he should teach that to all fitness instructors. He also plays super high energy music, or super soulful music, so it gives me a bit of the feeling of being in a dance class. It’s only an hour; I sometimes balk at the 90-minute commitment of more traditional yoga classes. And also, I like to write in the morning, but the 10:30 time slot is a good break for me.
Also, I needed a new routine. I think this is important in terms of adopting the positive mindset of, “How can this challenge benefit me?” I used to spend every single morning working on my book at a restaurant on my street that opened in the mornings for people in the community to drink coffee and eat scones and write or chat. I had a habit of going to this place, R+D, every single day after dropping off my son at school, and writing from 8:40 – 11:30, when the restaurant crowd arrived, and not ever taking phone calls or making appointments or doing errands at that time. I could always rely on the coffee, and the music and the mood of the place to get me into a writing zone. I did this for almost two years.
Right around the time that I turned in the absolute last edit on my book, the restaurant stopped their morning coffee service. They just stopped being open in the morning. There are other coffee shops, but they’re too loud or crowded or not as ideal. I felt like my working life had ended; where was I going to write now?! Should I just give up and try to get a job? I really relied on that routine!
But what happened is that now I go to this yoga class at 10:30. The late morning is a good time for me to work out. Because I don’t have that three-hour, inviolate window of writing, I now can go to this yoga class every morning without feeling like I’m cutting into my writing time. I usually work before the class, and then after.
Q: Do you embrace habits or resist them?
A: I think I embrace habits that I set, but resist habits others want to force upon me!