All the success in the world won’t help you cope with the breakup of a marriage. Cindy was married for 18 years and had three wonderful children when her world imploded after discovering her husband’s infidelity.
Cynthia (Cindy) L. Copeland is a best-selling, award-winning author/illustrator with over 25 adult and children’s books to her credit. She has sold over three-quarters of a million books in seven languages. Cindy’s books have been recommended by Oprah, Regis Philbin, Ann Landers, and the hosts of Good Morning America.
Cindy described her life in bucolic New Hampshire as a “Norman Rockwell painting”. That illusion was shattered, but Cindy did what creative people do. She took her pain and she turned it into art.
The result was Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce. The graphic novel was published in May, 2013 by Abrams ComicArts.
Cindy writes with a delicate wit and a great deal of insight. Her illustrations are the perfect complement to a story that could easily deteriorate into a bitter rant in the hands of a less talented writer.
Like many of us, Cindy was balancing a family and a career. She had faith in her husband. Cindy brings us into her home and shows us the moment that we all dread. We are her wing women on her dates with duds. We celebrate her new love and we hope that we will be able to handle our situation with the same grace.
Cindy has a new husband, a blended family and a wonderful outlook on life that is apparent in all of her work. We’re not going to give away the wonderful stories in the book, you’ll have to get your own copy.
First Wives World had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy about revisiting her heartbreak during the writing and illustrating of Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce and building a wonderful life after divorce.
You’ve written a wonderful graphic novel, Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce, which resonates with many women who have been through a divorce. Did the process of creating this book help you to deal with any residual pain, even though you have made a new life for yourself?
Cindy: Thank you for your kind words about Good Riddance. It truly was a cathartic experience to write the book – and especially to illustrate it. There were days when I wept over my art desk-- like when I drew my little boy leaving for the first weekend visit with his father and a new girlfriend. It’s somehow more powerful to draw an image and have it look back at you than to simply write down the words describing the event. Some days it felt as if it were happening all over again. But the process forced me to confront some issues I had suppressed, and to impose a kind of order and organization onto a chaotic and confusing time. It helped me to process the experience and – while it’s not possible to tack on a period and declare “The End” of a divorce -- it did provide a measure of closure to the most traumatic part.
The timing was right for me to re-examine that part of my life. All three of my kids are happy, healthy, and successful adults. When my youngest left for college, I could finally take a breath, look back at everything that had happened, and try to understand more about why it had happened. I had been so focused on making sure that the kids were all on the right track that I hadn’t allowed myself to look back. I’d been using all of my energy to move forward in a positive way.
As I wrote toward the end of the book, “You don’t really get over divorce, you just absorb it….” Things get easier as time goes by, but now and then, we all have to allow ourselves a sad moment or two of reflection. I packed a lot of those moments into the three years it took me to create the book, and I feel as if I took a giant step forward in the healing process.
Image Courtesy of Cynthia Copeland
Even women who are independent and strong falter when faced with something like infidelity. It’s easy to descend into bitterness, rage and bankrupting sorrow when you have been betrayed. Your book shows such a wonderful sense of humor, which I am sure helped you to cope. How did you manage to get through that difficult time and where did you take your strength from?
Cindy: I was fortunate to have supportive family members and friends, and a great faith community. But the driving force that kept me moving ahead in as positive a way as I could was my kids: I knew that they were going to take their cues from me, that they were watching everything I said and did. No matter how devastated I was, I just had to stay as upbeat as possible for them. I couldn’t let my anger at their dad show because it would have been too hard for them to process, and would have made them feel guilty for still loving him and caring about him. As all moms know, you can do just about anything when your kids are depending on you.
Moving forward in an affirmative way felt victorious; to stay mired in anger and bitterness would have been to let my ex win. What is it they say? Staying angry at someone is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill the other guy! Even in those first days, when I was still in shock at my ex-husband’s betrayal, I just knew that eventually I would be OK, but he would always have tremendous regrets about what he’d done. Part of surviving divorce is moving past the negative energy to a positive place where you can focus on gratitude and good memories. That can certainly take some time, but I think it’s important to try to stay focused on that goal.
As for the humor piece, I think that most break-ups inevitably involve an unexpected mix of humor and heartbreak, and it was much easier to see the humor after 12 years had gone by. The passage of time muted much of the anguish I felt then and allowed the more playful moments to move to the front pages of my mental scrapbook.
I wanted mine to be a hopeful book, one that celebrates forgiveness and optimism rather than bitterness. I’d like readers to come away with the message that the scars we accumulate as we make our way in the world don’t prevent us from living full, gratifying, and genuinely happy lives.
People always assume that there are signs when a spouse is stepping out. Looking back, did you see things that you ignored, or was mothering three children and having a successful career as a writer and illustrator keeping you so busy that you didn’t notice the telltale signals?
Cindy: I remember feeling upset with myself for being oblivious to any signs of what was happening. I questioned my intelligence: How could I not have known? But these things are rarely simple and straightforward. Maybe I overlooked things because the possibility that something was happening was just too overwhelming to consider. Maybe I just couldn’t entertain the possibility that my ex was cheating because I trusted him so completely. I’m honestly not sure why some subtle signs escaped me.
I was also the family peacekeeper; I was the one who kept everything on an even keel. Three months before I saw the emails, “Emma” mentioned a “strange lady” that she had met in T.J.’s office on a couple of occasions; she thought I should ask him about it. When I did, he became very upset and accused me of not trusting him. So of course I backed down right away and apologized. Now, of course, I know that I had every right to push him harder for information, but at the time, I made the decision to believe what he was telling me.
Like many cheating spouses, T.J. did a good job of compartmentalizing his life– that is, when he was home, he almost overdid as far as family fun and affection; then he would make up a lie about where he was going and slip off to meet “Liza.” I think that his ability to move between two worlds so easily and so convincingly was one of the big reasons I didn’t want to stay married to him. I found that a very disturbing character trait.
Many of your books focus on family life. As you mention in Good Riddance, you thought you lived a Norman Rockwell existence. Our children are the ones who really suffer when that perfect family picture is torn apart. Do you have any advice for women who don’t know how to talk to their children about such a delicate subject?
Cindy: As moms know, you give your kids age-appropriate information about any delicate subject, without unnecessary details that might confuse them. When I uncovered my ex-husband’s affair, I told my kids that their dad had broken a very important promise to me, one that we made when we got married, and that he was going to move out of the house while we considered how we were going to handle it. Over the coming years, my daughters and I talked in more detail, but I was surprised when my 19-year old son (who was in first grade when his dad left) asked me just before the book came out, “So Mom, why did you and Dad get divorced?” I was glad that I had managed to protect him from many of the details of his dad’s behavior until he was old enough to process them.
I found that by working hard not to criticize their dad (which was hard at times!), my kids would open up to me about things that were upsetting them at his house. (When I did share my frustrations about him, they defended him.) So in order to allow them to speak freely to me so that we could problem-solve together, I needed to refrain from saying anything negative. I also needed to remember that being a husband and father are two different things, and they had a right to have a relationship with him that had nothing to do with how he had acted in his marriage to me. I didn’t defend him when he acted badly, but I did come up with three complimentary things I could say about him that were true – he is smart, he works hard, and he loves them more than anything in the world – and the kids liked hearing those things about him, even as they understood that he has some serious character flaws.
One of the worst things about divorce is getting back into the dating scene. Some of the men out there make the most miserable ex-husbands look like saints. What is your worst dating story?
Cindy: Sadly, I have a few “worst” dating stories! When I started dating, I was adamant that I did not want a “project,” nor did I want to be someone else’s project. I wanted to find someone who would accept me as is, and who didn’t need to be tweaked in order to be a good partner! One time, a lovely, intelligent man picked me up for a date in the dirtiest car I had ever seen. My standards aren’t all that high, but I couldn’t even see my feet because they’d sunk into the pile of fast food bags and wrappers and soda cans that littered the floor. We stopped by his condo so that he could grab a coat and guess what – it was worse than the car. Dirty dishes and dirty clothes were piled everywhere, old food was sitting out on TV trays, garbage covered the sofa. As sweet as he was, the relationship was over before it began. I thought, I’m just too old to nag a guy to clean up, or even worse – clean up after him myself. And he’s too old to change. I felt a little guilty that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him why I didn’t want to see him again!
Another guy took me to breakfast at a very inexpensive restaurant, which wasn’t a problem until the check came – which was less than $10 – and he proceeded to take out a little calculator and figure out how much we each owed. Again, first and last date rolled into one.
And then there was a date that I didn’t REALIZE was a date… An elderly man in my church lost his wife of nearly 60 years and was distraught, so I invited him to lunch JUST TO BE NICE. When he sat down across from me, he told me that he’d left his walker and his handicapped parking placard at home to impress me with his vitality. Longest. Lunch. Ever.
I read a wonderful article you wrote for Psychology Today about the challenges of dealing with your second husband, Will’s ex-wife. You handled that situation with such grace. It’s probably the most difficult thing a mother has to do, to let another woman be a part of her children’s lives. It was all fun and games on the Brady Bunch, but reality is much harder. Do you have any tips for helping the blended family achieve harmony?
Cindy: The biggest surprise of getting married for a second time was discovering that second marriages follow a completely different road map than first marriages do. First marriages usually start off as happy as they will ever be, and over time, many partners become increasingly discontent. Second marriages tend to start off with many challenges, including divided loyalties and mixed feelings on the part of other family members, and improve over time. So from the start, I felt unprepared, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of my new family dynamic was tremendous.
I’ve learned a lot since I became a stepmom – many of the lessons came as a result of things I initially did wrong. Other lessons I learned as I watched my children interacting with their stepmothers (my ex is married for the third time). They were candid as to what they liked and didn’t like about the things each one did, and I paid attention and used the lessons they taught me to inform the way I parented my stepchildren.
I learned that it’s important to respect and honor the relationships that came before you. I saw a number of women come in and out of my ex-husband’s life, and many of them wanted to wipe out his history to that point – they didn’t want to have even a cordial relationship with me, they didn’t want any photos of my kids displayed in the house, they didn’t want to acknowledge my parents as the children’s grandparents. His second wife even asked my husband to get an annulment from me so that she could be his first wife! I think that the way to strengthen the relationship with a new husband and new stepchildren is to acknowledge and honor the past. My kids love the fact that their current stepmother has framed photos of them throughout the house from all stages of their lives.
I learned that my role with my stepchildren was more of an aunt than a mother. My stepsons already had a mother, and it was up to her and their dad to make major decisions for them. I was simply another caring adult in their lives who could listen and give support and advice, but I needed to defer to their mother and father for the biggies.
I learned never to “stand up” for my husband with his ex. That wasn’t my place, and would do more harm than good. I’ve seen this happen in other families, and it may seem gallant, but the end result is usually destructive to the relationship rather than helpful.
I learned to say positive things about their mom to my stepsons – just as I intentionally say positive things about my ex to my own kids – because it made them feel good about their mom, and also made them feel they could open up a bit because they weren’t on the defensive. When we moved, for instance, I had a running joke about how easy the process would have been if we’d let our exes take over: My husband’s ex is extremely organized (which I’m not) and my ex is a former weight lifter, and the two of them would have had that place packed and moved in no time!
I learned to let my stepchildren have alone time with their dad – and not feel hurt or left out. My own children have talked about how much they like it when their stepmother allows them time alone with their dad. They like her more because she knows when to step back. I just helped my husband arrange a fishing trip on Cape Cod with his three sons because I know that as much as they like spending time with me, their dad is the one they really want to see.
I learned to have a full and busy life outside of my family, so that when relationships within the family were particularly challenging, I had other outlets for my energy, friends to confide in who understood and didn’t need a backstory, and positive distractions.
Finally, I learned to be patient, because things do get better with time.
Are you working on a new book and can you tell us about it?
Cindy: I am working on two, actually! One is a graphic novel for younger readers, and the other is women’s fiction. Stay tuned!
Thank you, Cindy! We appreciate your wonderful words of wisdom.
Dear women, please read Cindy’s book when you are feeling hopeless about your situation. Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce offers some wonderful insight into life during and after divorce.