Can you be friends with your ex? Can you ever truly, amicably co-parent with your ex? Ben Heldfond and Nikki DeBartolo, former spouses and authors of Our Happy Divorce, are a fantastic example of two people who have an amicable divorce and co-parent their son peacefully.
The Beginning of the End
Ben and Nikki were in love, or what they thought was love. They were together for 4 years and took that next step of marriage after deciding to move from California to Florida together for Nikki’s job. They ended up quickly realizing that they were not the love match they originally thought they were.
“We got the lines crossed of being in love and loving each other,” Nikki reflects. And with that, even though they thought they were doing the right thing by getting married, that marriage was their undoing.
There were definitely some warning signs beforehand. On their wedding day, Nikki got so sick to her stomach that she had to take her wedding dress off and call a doctor. Ben also had a visceral reaction on their wedding day. He had an “oh shit” moment; a moment where he thought he was getting cold feet, but he pushed it aside at the time. Turns out it wasn’t just cold feet. It was his gut telling him no.
It’s Not You, It’s Us
There wasn’t one specific incident that made Ben and Nikki decide to get divorced. It was more that they just really began to dislike each other.
“But I think it was, more or less, we didn’t like ourselves. And that, in turn, made us really hate each other,” Nikki observes. On top of that, on Ben’s end, resentment started to build up towards Nikki for them moving to Tampa. “Nikki was wanting me to be a different person. I was wanting her to be a different person. We were always sort of in love with the person that we wanted the other person to be, or what the person said they were going to be,” Ben reflects.
For a while, it was just this back and forth, constantly having the conversation of “let’s fix it, let’s break up, let’s get back together” – a vicious cycle, with no resolution, for the longest time.
But then: the breaking point. Before we share, let’s just put it out there, not exactly Ben’s finest moment. It was a tad dramatic, but hey, we’ve all had our moments.
Ben had been staying at a hotel when they decided once again to work on their marriage. While Nikki was out of town for work, he came back to the house to move back in. On his way in, her detailed calendar up on the fridge caught his eye. Skimming over it, he saw just how many days she had marked as being away for work. Her work travel had already been a huge issue in their marriage for a long time, and seeing it written in black and white was overwhelming. It just hit him. This wasn’t going to work out. Nothing was going to change.
Nikki came home a few days later, and when she walked into her bathroom, on the counter was a ripped-up photo of the two of them and their son, with his ring placed in the center of the shreds. Ouch.
“I was pointing the finger at Nikki, and I wanted to do things at that point to hurt her,” Ben admits. And for him, the best way to hurt her at that moment was by ripping up that picture and putting that ring right smack dab in the middle of it.
So yeah, that was kinda the end of that relationship. Dramatic for sure, but in the long run, it was the right call. They weren’t meant to be married. But they wouldn’t take it back for the world. They have their son, Asher, and a great relationship with each other now. And with their book, they’re helping others who might find themselves in a similar situation, wondering how to get back to a good relationship after a divorce.
Rocky Road Back to Friendship
Nikki’s goal during the divorce was to remain amicable. For Ben, not so much. Nikki’s parents are still together, so she never saw a divorce go down. But through friends, she had heard horror stories of the impact divorce had on kids and wanted to make sure she avoided that for Asher. However, Ben had been witness to his parent’s messy divorce, and when he made that decision for himself, he was angry, bitter, and hurt. “The two big F-U buttons in my life are romance and finance,” he laughs. To protect himself from all the hurt he was feeling, he turned to anger, and his first call was to the best divorce attorney in Tampa – a shark.
But once Ben got the 35-page attack plan from his attorney, the attorney’s plan to destroy Nikki, he realized that this wasn’t the right call. So he picked up the phone, called the attorney, and turned him down. “I made a call to the person that should have been my first call,” Ben says. “That was to a therapist.”
He also called Nikki. “Look,” he said, “I need some time.” And on top of that, he was also in recovery, so he needed time to work on that. Nikki said to him, “do what you need to do.” Then they could reconvene.
They weren’t in communication for a little while after that. Then one day, Ben called Nikki (out of the blue, so she was slightly alarmed), and asked her to meet for coffee. Nikki figured, no harm since he can’t kill her in public, so she said yes. She got there, saw he had already ordered for her, and thought, maybe this won’t be so bad.
And it wasn’t. He apologized. She apologized. “It’s really the only time in the 25 years or so that we’ve known each other that we’ve apologized to each other,” Ben notes.
And from there, they took matters into their own hands. They figured out their divorce themselves, then gave all that they decided on to the lawyer to finalize, and they began repairing their relationship. And from there, they faked it until they made it. They weren’t buddy-buddy right away, but for Asher’s sake, they stayed in each other’s lives. Then one day, Nikki realized, “All of a sudden, one day, it was almost like, oh, okay, it’s not so bad. I don’t really mind being around him.”
“And at some point, and we can’t pinpoint when it happened, we made it. It became natural and authentic. We came full circle of where we were in this friendship, of this loving each other at the beginning of our relationship, to not really liking each other, to hating each other, back into tolerating each other, and to loving each other again,” says Ben. They were finally at peace.
Our Happy Divorce
It was Ben’s idea to write their joint book. He figured there were others out there who were probably struggling as they once had. Yet somehow, Ben and Nikki had figured out the solution and were now at a level that many people would envy after divorce. People never believe that there could be an ex-couple out there living so amicably and co-parenting on their level, but they’re living proof that it’s possible.
When Ben first suggested the book to Nikki, she was not into it. And then the idea remained just an idea for a while. There were times she’d start to change her mind and agree to write it, but then they’d fight and she’d back out again. This went on for a while until they finally bit the bullet and put it onto paper. Having Nikki participate was crucial to Ben because he’d only be able to truly share this story with Nikki’s contribution. “That’s also the secret,” Ben says. “It took two of us to ruin the marriage, but it also took two of us to make our life in Our Happy Divorce and the life we have today. There was no way that I could do this book without Nikki.” And that was how their book was born. They also made sure they let each write their own takes on the relationship. They understood that they had each viewed things their own way, and made sure that that remained in the book as it was. Our Happy Divorce is the most authentic telling of the ups and downs of their relationship.
And this isn’t saying their relationship is perfect now, but they figured if they could help others, then it would show people that if they could get there, anyone can.
“The idea behind it was just to give people some hope in a very hopeless situation of going through a divorce,” Ben emphasizes. And that’s exactly what the book does. It’s helpful to see a situation turn around as theirs did, and the book can even give ideas for exes trying to navigate this situation for themselves. Divorce might be the end of a marital relationship, but it doesn’t always have to be the end of a friendly, loving relationship.
If you want to check out their book, Our Happy Divorce, check out the exRATED section of our site. There’s something in there for everyone to learn from.