We Are Family Podcast, Episode 9: A Happy Divorce

Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond of Our Happy Divorce talk about divorce, successful co-parenting, and, yes—how a breakup really can lead to a happy life.

Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond Family Portrait on Staircase
Photo: Courtesy of Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby...followed by a happy divorce? Yes, it really is possible, and Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond—authors of Our Happy Divorce: How Ending Our Marriage Brought Us Closer Together—chat with host Julia Dennison about how to successfully co-parent and make a happy life post-divorce a reality.

Nikki and Ben split up in 2007 when their son, Asher, was just a toddler. Heading down the road of the much-too-common ugly divorce complete with lawyers and mediation, Ben's aha moment completely shifted things.

"I got honest with myself and I said, if you go down this path, this is going to be repeating some of the same mistakes your parents made," he says. "Asher's going to end up getting hurt. You're going to be carrying this around forever. And the other part of it was that, you know what, it takes two to make a relationship and it takes two to ruin our relationship."

That's when the duo put egos aside, decided that 50-50 custody would be best for their son, and figured out a way to make it all work. Now, 13 years later—with two new spouses and two new siblings for Asher—Nikki and Ben use Our Happy Divorce to share their experience, inspire others, and ultimately help other kids along the way.

"As co-parents, we understand that title comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility and are extremely grateful for all the resources available—like Parents magazine and We Are Family Podcast—that share advice, tips, and insight on how to navigate parenthood," say Nikki and Ben. "There is no greater joy than seeing your children take all that they've learned from you and succeed in life."

Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:

  • Parenting with disabilities
  • Multicultural parenting
  • The family you didn't know you had

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to episode 9 right now: Parents.com/FamilyPod-Ep9

Plus, follow along here:

Ben Heldfond: You know, I think it was an OK divorce and then a good divorce. And then evolved into what we call now our happy divorce.

Nikki DeBartolo: It's nice to have a different set of motherly eyes sometimes when I need advice. Asher gets something different from all of us. He definitely gets a little bit of something from each one of us that the other one can't give him. So for there to be four of us, I think it's almost a blessing for him.

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Shaun: Hi, I'm Shaun T.

Julia: And I'm Julia Dennison

Shaun: And this is We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. In this show we celebrate all the different ways there are to build and be a family.

Julia: Today we're going to talk about something that's really common, but still all too often stigmatized: divorce. There's that old idea that you should stay together for the kids—that you're damaging them by getting a divorce, or that you've failed.

And even when you know in your gut that it's for the best, it can still be really hard to see all these smiling couples posing with their kids in magazines and on social media.

Shaun: Julia, I remember you talked about that in our first episode—feeling like you would be happier if you saw more families that looked like yours.

Julia: Yes! In the beginning, I worried about what my divorce was taking away from my daughter, without realizing what it was giving her—two loving parents who are committed to sharing our responsibilities 50-50, plus a big extended village to help her learn and grow.

So that's why I wanted to talk to Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond. They're the authors of a book called Our Happy Divorce: How Ending Our Marriage Brought Us Closer Together.

Shaun: A "happy divorce" isn't something you hear about too often. An "amicable" divorce, maybe, but not "happy."

Julia: I know. So I called Ben and Nikki a few months ago to talk about what that means to them, and how they got there. They split up when their son Asher was around 3 years old. He's now a teenager. Nikki and Ben both remarried, and Ben also has two younger children with his wife Nadia.

So I am here with Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond, authors of Our Happy Divorce: How Ending Our Marriage Brought Us Closer Together. I feel like people talk about couple goals. You guys are like uncoupled goals right here. You've been divorced now for over 13 years, is that right?

Nikki: Yes.

Julia: You live down the block from each other, right? And you guys all just seem to be the best of friends, or at least the best of friends that you could possibly be under the circumstances.

This is something that hits home for me because I have also tried to have a happy divorce with my ex.

He lives about 10 minutes walk away. I have a 3-year-old daughter and we share time 50-50, and reading your book, just like everything about it hit home. I love that you are equal partners even in writing this book, you've got your chapters divided between first-person accounts on both your sides. Talk me through what a happy divorce looks like.

Nikki: I just wanted to make sure Asher's life was as normal as it possibly could be with divorced parents. So my parents are still married 52 years later. So for me, I grew up only knowing that, and I wanted Asher's life to resemble mine as much as it possibly could. So that for me was my driving force from day one. I think Ben's was slightly different.

Ben: Well, from day one, yes, it was different 'cause I was on a path towards a not so happy divorce, just like my parents, quite frankly. But through some miracle, I came to a spot where I realized where that ended and the only person getting hurt was Asher. And so I wanted to find a different way. And so, you know, our happy divorce looks like if there's one word that does sum it up, it's ego-less, right? We chose to get married. We chose to be parents. We chose to get divorced. Asher had no choice in any of those decisions. And so we did not want to burden him with being responsible to pay the emotional bill of those choices. And so we've always put him first. We've always made decisions on what's best for Asher.

Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond New Family Portrait Standing on Front Door Steps
Courtesy of Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond

Nikki: He didn't ask for it.

Ben: Right. We could not have this life we had today if we had ego involved in our decisions.

Julia: But as Ben admits, it took time to get to that place. When he and Nikki first separated, he called up an expensive divorce attorney and was ready for an ugly legal battle.

Ben: I was gonna I was going to go for the jugular, if you will, and through that process I was able to learn, one, that I understood that my parents didn't sit down at the table, and premeditate how they were going to screw up our lives or how they were going to have a bad divorce.

It was just because they were so angry, so bitter, so resentful at each other that they had tunnel vision. They didn't care.

Nikki: In the beginning I was just petrified. I mean, there weren't really that many people in my family that were divorced. So I really didn't know anything about it other than the fact that divorce ruins kids' lives,

Ben: Right.

Nikki: So I was petrified and I was petrified to be a single mom. I was petrified to, you know, ruin my son's life. So I had it in my head that I was like, what am I going to do? How am I going to do this where I am not ruining this child's life?

Ben: And failure. I mean that was a big one for you.

Nikki: Right. I mean, having parents who are both Catholic and had been married for 52 years. That was the last thing I wanted to do was be the daughter that was getting a divorce.

Julia: Right. No, I can totally relate. There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of feeling guilty, like you did something wrong as a human being. We just tend to see divorce as a negative thing. And I mean, it does suck. You can't deny that divorce does suck and it sucks for kids. But like, it doesn't have to be terrible is basically the big takeaway I took from reading your book.

Ben: It's important to understand that this was a process. You know, if you asked either one of us 13 years ago what we wanted for our divorce, I think it was just so we could be in the same room together and not have that tension.

Nikki: Or for it to be awkward.

Ben: Right.

Julia: And Ben you talk about in the book, you talk about a real aha moment you had when you were on a plane, you'd been ready to kind of fight to the death, but then something changed your mind. What happened?

Ben: Yeah, when I have a resentment I point the finger at everybody else but myself to begin with. It's everybody else's fault. You know, this was Nikki's fault. I had no role in it. And this is how ridiculous this sounds, but this is literally the way I was thinking in order to save my son, I had to show him what a fraud his mom was. I had this resentment towards Nikki built up. Anger over, you know, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole for so many years. And I went and I got this lawyer, I paid him a huge retainer and I told him what I wanted. So he wrote up literally a game plan—I called it the war and peace attack plan—how we were going to achieve that. And I didn't read it for some reason, but I was on a plane back from LA, and I pulled it out and I opened it up. And literally, I don't think I got past page three. And I had that, as you said, that aha moment. I got honest with myself and I said, if you go down this path, this is going to be repeating some of the same mistakes your parents made. Asher's going to end up getting hurt. You're going to be carrying this around forever. And the other part of it was that, you know what, it takes two to make a relationship and it takes two to ruin our relationship.

So that aha moment-

Nikki: He grew up.

Ben: -was just me. Yeah. I grew up it was me being honest and getting honest and not, you know, buying my own BS.

Julia: Right. And you talk a lot about how the divorce industry is set up in a way to fight these divorces, like they're legal battles and maybe it doesn't always have the best interest of the kids at heart.

Nikki: I definitely think that, I mean it, well, case in point, if he would have gone down that road.

Ben: We might still be fighting today.

Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond New Family Portrait Sitting on Couch
Courtesy of Nikki DeBartolo and Ben Heldfond

Nikki: Our life as we know it would have been completely different. I mean, I'm not one to sit back. If someone's going to pick an argument with me to say the least, but our child's life would have been completely different. And I think lawyers sometimes provoke arguments and they don't want to settle arguments because it is a big payday. Parents don't understand in this process that they're just ruining their kids' lives. As much as Asher's life is as perfect as we could possibly make it, he still has points in time where he'll look at us and go, you know, divorce is really hard.

Ben: When I was on the plane and I got honest with myself, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend of mine who was a divorce lawyer years prior to it. We were sitting having coffee and he was like 10 minutes late and he came and he apologized, but he was in a mediation with this couple that was divorcing and they sat there for three hours and argued over an espresso machine.

Julia: Hmm.

Ben: Right now you add up both lawyers time, the mediator's time. And they probably spent thousands of dollars arguing over a couple hundred dollars espresso machine. But it was because the espresso machine had a meaning. It was meaningful to the husband, and the wife knew it.

Julia: After Ben realized he didn't want to go down that road, he started the process of negotiating custody and co-parenting with Nikki. More on that after a quick break.

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Julia: Welcome back to We Are Family. We're talking to Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond, co-authors of the book Our Happy Divorce. When they separated 13 years ago, Ben was ready to bring out the big legal guns—but then he realized that would only hurt their son, Asher.

Ben: I called Nikki, we went to coffee. I apologized. I said I was sorry for my part in the ending of the marriage. She didn't apologize to me, but after that, you know, we had sort of cleaned up the wreckage of the past as much as possible.

Right now we can move forward. But the one thing that I had asked her. Does she have any problem with joint custody, joint 50-50, everything with Asher? And her answer to me was absolutely not. You're his father, you know, I want you to have him as much as possible because it's what's best for him.

Julia: Ben and Nikki started to figure out a schedule. OK, let's be real: Nikki figured out the schedule.

Ben: This is the schedule maker.

Nikki: They make fun of me. They make fun of me because I like-

Ben: Her schedules have schedules.

Nikki: I love to know where everybody is, where everybody's going, what everybody's doing. So we have a joint schedule on our phones. It's Asher's calendar and all four of us can see, all four parents plus Asher can see the schedule.

Julia: By all four parents here, Nikki means her and her husband Chad, and Ben and his wife, Nadia.

Nikki: But it's usually about five days on and five days off. And when we travel, we just sort of work around the schedule. And everybody knows it's on everybody's calendars.

Ben: There've been times where, you know, either because of travel or because of something that, that I've been gone more than 15, 16 days out of the month, or it didn't have Asher for 15, 16, 50-50. Right? But we make it up. Nikki will make it up on the next month or whatever. So if you look at the whole picture of the year, it is completely equitable.

I think it's also a sign of the evolution of our happy divorce is in the beginning we would sit, we would meet for coffee. And Nikki would bring two or three months of printed out schedules. This is, it's-

Nikki: Little pencils.

Ben: Right? We would look, we had iPhones and calendars, but Nikki liked to do the old school way and we would go through the calendar for three months with travel dates and we would do the calendar that way.

Julia: Obviously, family is very important to both of you. And I always think of a story for myself when my daughter had her dance recital, and for a long time I kind of find myself sometimes being envious of the nuclear families when they, when they pick their kids up from dance.

And I think, "Oh, I kind of wish I had that." But then when she had a recital, I looked over and we were taking up an entire row, with extended family in the village and, you know, my ex's girlfriend, and I realized that every other kid had two parents and we had like a row and a half, and you guys talk about that, too.

What are the kinds of benefits to tapping into that village and the extended family that comes out of divorce that you might not experience so much if you're just in a traditional get married nuclear family?

Nikki: I think for me as a mom, I actually welcome having another mom so close to the situation to bounce things off of. And we're, I mean, she and I are best friends, which we really are. We have become best friends. We talk on the phone all the time. We are like, I dunno, what do we call each other? I call her my wife.

Ben: Wife.

Julia: I love that.

Nikki: But I think for me it's nice to have a different set of motherly eyes sometimes when I need advice. And I think that helps. and I think Asher gets something different from all of us. Definitely. I mean, he definitely gets a little bit of something from each one of us that the other one can't give him. So for there to be four of us, I think it's almost a blessing for him.

Ben: And for me, Nikki's dad, who I look up to so much has given me so much in my life. It was rocky in the beginning, but he called my mom and he said, I will always take care of Ben like he's my son. And he's done that to this day. And so when we talk about, you know, the nuclear family and the extended family is Nikki's parents, you know, not only took me in and still, you know, will do whatever it takes for me.

You know, invite me to Easter dinners. And, you know, this was before I was married, and included me in things. And now they include my family in it. And it means so much, and it just, you know, from, not having our parents, my parents here to support me and to, you know, to be that, be able to spend the holidays and such. There's many benefits to this whole deal. Right. But, but that's, you know, that's up there with, in the top of them.

Julia: That's great. Do you think, and just from a personal point of view, so my ex has a girlfriend he lives with, and I'm currently dating. Do you find it was easier once you both had spouses to balance it out or did it not really make a difference?

Nikki: I just as a mom kind of said to him one day, hey, can you just do me a favor? Can you not introduce anybody to our son unless your heart is into it. And at first I think he looked at me like, you have no right to-

Ben: That's what I thought.

Nikki: No, you never said that to me, but I, I knew that that could have been the reaction I was going to get from him, but I was just pleading with him as a mom because I thought it was important for Asher not to see a revolving door.

Ben: And that is the perfect example of something where I had a choice when she said that to go off of ego and say to her, who the hell are you to tell me who I can and cannot date or bring around my son?

Nikki: How about the telling you who not to date?

Ben: Right. So the other side of it is if I looked at it and took a breath and looked at it from what was through the lens of what was best for Asher, she was absolutely right. When you bring that new person into the fold, it can cause things to go sideways.

You know, we use the analogy that Nikki and I were a bicycle going along and moving around and get along pretty pretty well. And then we turned into a tricycle cause Nikki started dating Chad. And then we turned into a car with all four wheels and needed to work in order for that car to move.

And so, bringing somebody else into the equation speaks to ego. Nikki, started dating Chad, who we knew, I knew him.

He was around us as a married couple and from an ego standpoint, I was crushed. You know, I looked at this guy who he didn't even wait for the body to be cold before he moved in there. But Chad called me one day, and he asked me to coffee and ironically, we went to the same coffee shop that Nikki and I had done, our amends and working out our settlement.

He apologized to me, you know, and he said, I just want to let you know, I wasn't looking for this. This sort of just happened 'cause Nick and I were talking after the divorce and, you know, it just sort of evolved. And then he said, he asked me for permission to marry Nikki. And you know, despite my hardest and most vigorous efforts to tell him why that was a bad choice, I said, absolutely. Now, if I had said no, obviously he was going to do it anyway, but to me it was an understanding of what Nikki and I were trying to accomplish and he was going to be a part of that. And I had, from that point on, I've had nothing but respect for him.

Julia: That's awesome. I feel like a lot of what people weigh up when they're considering getting divorced is the idea of do you stay together for the kids? And I think, what I really took away from reading your book and what I feel in my heart is that kids really do learn about relationships from their parents. We all do. How important do you think it is when you're weighing that up to think about what you're modeling for your child when you show them what your relationship is as a couple?

Nikki: I think if Ben and I would have stayed together, he definitely would not be watching two people who were in love and who were supposed to be married. I always say we were together to have this child—like Asher was supposed to be on this Earth. So whatever relationship Ben and I had was to make sure this child was here.

Ben: Yeah.

Nikki: And I think if he looks at both of our relationships that we're in now, he sees something that is supposed to be, I mean, you know, you, everyone bickers like married couples, but he sees love. Like he actually can see you know four, well, two people and two people who are in love and meant to be together. I mean, Ben always says that. Ben's like he always says that about Chad and I, he always says, Nikki found the person she was supposed to be with.

Ben: Yeah. There's no question. Even before, when we first got divorced, I would see Nikki and I would see Chad and I would see the way that Nikki looked at Chad. And look, I had experience with Nikki. I was married to her. She never looked at me like that. She never, you know, if we were sitting at Asher's event would grab my hand. It is clear those two love each other. They are in love. They're meant to be together. You know, Nikki and I were in love with the person we wanted the other person to be, or we hoped the other person to be, or the person that the other person said they were going to be. Not the person they were. I'm a flawed human being. I know that I have many shortcomings. My wife loves those shortcomings.

Nikki: She does.

Ben: As much as she loves the good things about me. Nikki, not so much.

Nikki: Not so much.

Ben: Not so much. So I think that, you know, from a parent's standpoint, we had to ask ourselves, would we rather be two happy people apart for Asher, as parents, or two miserable people together. And because the other thing about kids, I think, through our experience, is we don't give them enough credit. And for anybody, you know, listening and going through a divorce, your kids are smarter than we give them credit for. They pick up on so much more than we give them credit for, and they're resilient, but to use that as a justification for your behavior. I don't know if you've come across this, but you know, "Oh, they're resilient. They'll get through this." That is nonsense. Especially around divorce.

Nikki: Right.

Julia: Yup. Yeah. And I think how important is it to be transparent with your kids going through divorce? Cause I always think about the story earlier in the book before you separated, before you divorced, Ben, where you were still pretending that you lived with Nikki and were kind of staying at a hotel, but arriving, popping up magically in the morning so that you could give Asher breakfast. Tell us a little bit about that and just in general how important it is. What should you be talking to your kids about when you talked to them about your relationship going through divorce?

Nikki: Well, we learned very quickly that wasn't working because one morning, same thing happened. Ben came over before school to get Asher ready for school and have breakfast with them. Asher toddles into my bedroom and he looks at the bed. He looks at me and he says, Hey mom, where did daddy sleep last night? I looked at him, I looked at the bed, which I thought I did a good job messing up, and I said, right here, and he just looked at me, didn't say a word, and toddled off. I was like, you know what? This isn't working

Ben: As a 4-year-old by the way.

Nikki: I think looking back now, maybe we would have dealt with it a little differently.

Ben: Yeah. I mean, I don't think there's a right or wrong way. Well, I know there's a wrong way.

Nikki: I think we were trying to get our footing-

Ben: Right. And figure out. Because for anybody going through divorce there's so much shame. There's so much guilt. It's just a fruit salad of negative emotion. And for us, at least for me, one of those major guilts was Asher. And because I was so afraid of repeating my parents' mistakes, that there's no real handbook on how to tell your kids or, you know, different ages. It's going to be hard no matter how you do it. And I think what we did, instead of peeling off the Band-Aid quickly, we decided to slowly do it. So acting like nothing was wrong when everything was wrong. And so, you know, I don't know if we handled it wrong cause it is what it is. And it happened the way it happened, but I think we could have probably done it. If we had understood that kids are more observant, only saw he was more observant than we gave them credit for.

Julia: Totally. And I just love how you ended the book with a chapter from Asher. And that just like made me tear up because I feel like reading Asher's words—because my daughter is not even 4 yet, and so there's a lot of questions in my mind as to how she's going to take all this. And because my situation is so similar to you, reading Asher's chapter, it felt almost like a little peek into the future and it was really reassuring.

I mean, obviously Asher still talks about the fact that, you know, moving back and forth between the two houses is challenging and there are the challenges. But to hear him speak so kind of, you know, just be such a great kid was really reassuring. So I loved that.

Ben: Yeah. I mean, look, I won't call it sacrifices because, you know, it is so normal for us. I mean Nikki, you know, is my best friend. She just happens also be the mother of my son. And those two in my life are equal and because of that he's grown up in a healthy environment—as healthy as it can be with his parents. Obviously not when you just need to always say that. Obviously if he had his choice, we'd be together, despite, you know, what that might mean for him as far as what relationships mean and the other stuff we had talked about earlier. But he is such a well adjusted kid. He is such a sweet kid. He understands, you know, so much more than when he wrote that chapter. I don't want to say we pat ourselves on the back, but it was just like, at least I felt like we did this right. Like he, he wrote an essay to get into school as part of—it's in the book—to get into high school. And the question was, who do you admire most? What person? Who the most? And we didn't hold him down and you know, with a gun to his head and say write this about your mom and dad. He did it on his own and he said his mom and dad because what they've accomplished through their divorce and how much it's meant to me. So again, your kids are so much more aware of what's going on. Good and bad.

Julia: So true. Yes. I love that. OK, so then just wrapping it up, I would love to hear the big takeaways. The big advice you would give to both newly separated or people contemplating separation or divorce, and also those who might already be separated or divorced on how they can improve their co-parenting relationships. What are your kind of like big tips?

Nikki: Ego. Do whatever you possibly can to check your ego at the door during all conversations you have with your ex, because it does nothing but muster up ill feelings.

Ben: You have to clean up the wreckage of the past. And, you know, Nikki and I were able to do that through amends and through taking a look at our part in the relationship.

Nikki: Can't point fingers.

Ben: You can't point fingers. There's no villain. In our book, if you're looking for, you know, Hollywood, you know, war stories about what happened in the marriage, keep it moving 'cause you won't. We purposely kept that out of the book because it does not matter. 'Cause we can sit here and say we both had an equal part of ending the relationship no matter what the other person did.

So that is the main piece of advice that I would give people. In order to be happy in life in general, but especially around divorce, is that you cannot live your life in the past.

Julia: I love that. Great. Well, thank you so much. Nikki DeBartolo, Ben Heldfond, authors of Our Happy Divorce. Definitely pick up the book. They can follow you on Instagram, right? And you've got a blog as well. Where can people find you?

Nikki: It's pretty simple. Everything @OurHappyDivorce on social media, and then ourhappydivorce.com.

Ben: You know, if you're listening to this and you want to read our book, but you know, for whatever reason, you can't afford it, just DM us on our social media, and we'll be happy to send you a book. This isn't a moneymaking thing for Nikki and I, it truly is an altruistic endeavor for us that we just want to share our experience to hopefully inspire others.

Because if Nikki and I can do it, we are convinced that anybody can do it with our two hard-headed, class A, alpha personalities. We are convinced that anybody can do it.

Julia: I love that. Changing what divorce looks like in America for the better and ultimately helping the kids as we do it. So that's great. Thanks both.

Nikki: Thank you

Ben: Thank you so much for sharing your platform with us.

Julia: Thank you.

Shaun: Julia, I have a lot of admiration for Ben and Nikki because I know divorce is not easy.

Julia:Totally. I like the way Ben put it—it's like a fruit salad of negative emotions. It's so true, but it also doesn't have to stay that way. It can actually be the start of something beautiful.

Shaun: And that's all for this episode. You can find Ben and Nikki online at ourhappydivorce.com. Thanks for listening, and we'll catch you next time on We Are Family.

Julia: Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Susie Armitage, and Lene Bech Sillisen. This show was recorded in New York and Arizona, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more at parents.com/podcast. You can find Parents on Instagram at @Parents. And you can follow Shaun at @ShaunT, and Julia at @juliadennison.

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