Learn step by step from Mark Goulston, M.D. on how to get on with your life after divorce. Humans have natural coping skills, but it is up to you to chose between using the negative or positive mechanisms to move on.
"When it's over, it's over. The sooner you can give up the control your divorce has had over you and your life, the sooner you will feel back in control and ready to move forward with both feet into your new and better life." - Stacy D. Phillips, Los Angeles based Family Lawyer with Phillips, Lerner, Lauzon and Jamra and author "Divorce: It's All About Control; How to Win the Emotional, Psychological And Legal Wars."
"Til death do you part." — Didn’t quite last that long, did it? Add to that the unrelenting incomprehension of how the person who made you feel the best about yourself and your life and now they’ve become the one who makes you feel the worst. It’s no wonder that divorce causes such upheaval. From affairs to bankruptcy to abuse to irresponsibility to mid-life crises to drug or alcohol addiction — isn’t it mind-bogging how nearly everyone going through it feels so unprepared?
Maybe it’s the shock of how adoration turned to repulsion, mutual respect to disdain and love to hate. It’s difficult to accept that what you thought was the right thing to do, has turned out to be wrong.
Or perhaps the thought of how a divorce adversely affects young children can be an enormous source of worry, stress and guilt. The maternal bond is the strongest attachment there is and when you are a part of something that causes your children so much hurt, it can be of the most upsetting experiences in your life.
Finally, the effect of losing all of your passion for the person you once loved can make you feel inadequate. Nothing kills off passion as much as feeling hurt, scared, disappointed, angered, or betrayed — all of which are not merely possible in a divorce, but are typical.
It is the combination of these factors that can have such a profound negative effect on your career, relationships, spirit and soul. You may think to yourself: "If I was wrong about my marriage, how many other things am I wrong about?" or "If I’m screwing up my children’s life, what kind of mother am I?" Then as if all of this weren’t enough, you start having sleep and concentration problems and become depressed and/or anxious. All told, it becomes extremely difficult to function on the job, in relationships, and to feel hope or optimism about your future.
Despite the nearly universal traumatic effects of divorce, some women do survive, move on, fall in love again, and live happily after. What distinguishes those who do well from those who don’t? Those who have positive coping behaviors do better than those with negative ones. Those that "heal" end up better off than those that remain wounded. And those who move on rather than stay bitter, depressed and feeling like a victim have a much better chance for a satisfying life.
Negative and Positive Coping — the choice is up to you
Women who leave their marriage are more likely to have an easier time coping, healing and eventually moving on. As a woman who was divorced by her husband told me: "It’s better to have loved and leave, than to have loved and be left."
Next to the sense of failure in a divorce the worst feeling is powerlessness. Women who leave feel as if they have more power than those who are left. This can even out, however, if the man who is left feels angry and becomes vindictive and makes the divorce as horrendous as possible. Alternatively, the man who does the leaving may feel some guilt and responsibility for taking care of his rejected wife to ensure that he ends up divorced and not a widower (if he thinks she might do something self-destructive).
Regardless of whether you left or were left, there are negative coping behaviors that you will want to avoid because they make matters worse. Negative coping behaviors include:
Just as there are negative coping behaviors, there are positive coping behaviors that can actually help improve your situation. These include: Be around people. Pain is pain; suffering is being alone with pain. If you push yourself to be with people in your misery, suffering that you can’t live with becomes pain that you can.
For example with regard to Children, you might write: I can rely on him to be caring when he’s with the children; I can’t rely on him to be on time and be consistent with his visitation; He can rely on me to be civil to him and not bad-mouth him to the kids; He can’t rely on me to be friendly when he tries to joke his way out of being unpredictable about picking up and dropping off the kids. After you fill out the chart send it to your ex with a blank one. Tell him you’d like him (if he’s willing) to make corrections on yours from his point of view and then to fill out the blank chart with regard to you. Then consider using this as vehicle to work toward having more constructive conversations with him (again if he’s willing).
Healing — why settle for being scarred or scared?
Dealing with your upset rationally is okay, but don’t intellectualize and try to convince yourself that you’re okay when you’re not. Like an abscess that can’t heal until it’s drained, awful feelings can’t be healed until you feel them.
The three steps to doing this are:
On the subject of choosing the right people to tell your feelings to, seek out different people at different stages of your divorce. Early on seek out sympathetic people who will let you vent and blame things on your ex. Then move on to empathic friends (or a therapist) who will offer you more understanding than sympathy and finally move on to wise friends whose opinion you respect and who will not enable you to remain stuck in self-pity.
Dealing with your feelings with the proper people will assist you if you are ever going to meet the greatest challenge to healing, namely forgiving and forgetting. You will never heal if you do not accomplish this. Instead the thread of bitterness toward your ex will contaminate the rest of your life.
You’ll forgive when you no longer need to blame. Initially you need to blame your ex for several reasons. Blaming him prevents you from realizing your own contribution to the failure of your marriage that can trigger guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy resulting in intense depression. Accepting your share of the responsibility for causing the divorce will lessen your need to blame. Why do this? Because blaming will eventually make you bitter. And bitterness is its own punishment. You’ll forget when you no longer need to remember. This occurs once you have learned all the right lessons from this relationship and made them a part of who you are and how you act. For instance one lesson you might take from your divorce is that you really don’t know someone until you have an argument and can totally resolve it, rather than sweeping it under the carpet unresolved only to build up and become worse.
Moving On — the fine art of building new memories
After you have healed to the best of your ability, it’s time to move on. This means stepping out into life. After you’ve learned what you would do differently if could do your marriage over, including knowing how and why you chose to marry him, it’s time to begin thinking about starting another relationship.
As I wrote in my book, GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, (published by Perigee Books), the best way to leave a loss such as divorce behind is to build new memories. You need to build new memories to dilute the hold that the terrible memories about your marriage and divorce have on you. You build new memories by actions taken not by thoughts thought or by good intentions.
Compare your life to the cross section cut trees that have hundreds of rings, each signifying a year. Some rings indicate when the tree flourished, some rings reveal years when it endured fire or drought. Taken together all the rings demonstrate the history and character of that tree. If you borrow from the tree analogy and build new memories, then the year of your divorce just becomes a single rotten year. But two years from now could be the year you started met and began dating a guy you respected and who loved you, and four years from now, the year you re-married and started to live happily after.
If you don’t take action and don’t build new memories to dilute the effect of the bad ones, the bad memories build and become overpowering and can also ooze into and spoil other parts of your life.
It will not be easy to do this and maintain it, but keep in mind it takes 30 days for a change in behavior to become a habit and a minimum of 6 months for a habit to become part of your personality.
Even if you have coped and healed you may feel you’ll be better off it you don’t try again. Maybe so, but maybe not if the old adage "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" or its newer version, "The only thing worse than being married is being single" holds true.
Mark Goulston, M.D. is a Los Angeles based psychiatrist, author of The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship: How to Fall in Love Again…and Stay There (Perigee) and co-founder of www.couplescompany.com. Contact Dr. Mark at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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