Divorce can careen into your life with all the force of a meteor, rupturing who you are into the realms of Before and After. While you can’t go back to who you were previously, you can go forward to the New You: a person who embodies cherished elements of your pre-divorce self intermingled with aspects of your deliberately chosen post-divorce persona.
The process of combining what you love about your past self with who you wish to be in your present self relies on integrating different parts of you in new ways. Healing the wounds that divorce inflicts requires specific decisions in creating your post-divorce identity. The challenge is to tease out desirable elements in your past self that will assist you in creating a new overall identity that feels connected, positive, and effective.
This begins by pulling your past selves into contact with your present self. The purpose here is to identify what elements of your past selves you want to have present in who you are today. This process has three phases: connecting to that past self or selves in ways that are gentle and declarative; borrowing qualities to exhibit in your daily life; and choosing to consciously employ these facets of your past self in your present self in the way you approach, perceive, and behave.
In their quest to develop one self with core control of their identity, many of my clients discover that the self they choose needs to develop additional skills before it is truly ready to take control. Kate’s story is a great example of what happens when you combine the power of your past and present selves.
Kate married her college sweetheart. Financially supporting them while her husband followed his dream to become a surgeon, Kate deferred her desire for a family until Hal was securely on the fast track to success. Eventually, they had twin daughters. This should have been a happy time for Kate, except for the fact that Hal had changed since their college romance. Success had made him demanding, controlling, ego-driven, and often mean. When she tried to speak to him about these things he derided and snarled at her, then slammed out of the house, often disappearing for several unaccountable hours. When Kate discovered Hal was cheating, she finally decided to leave. With that decision she entered a battle for her freedom. Hal’s financial and social power in the community massively overshadowed any resources Kate had been able to develop. Twenty years later the wounds of her divorce were still fresh.
“I didn’t gain my freedom,” she says sadly. “I lived in a prison of Hal’s control. Because he could afford better lawyers than I could the terms of the divorce were in his favor. I had no job and two little girls to raise. Hal threatened me constantly with phone calls and letters and emails that claimed he was going to take the girls from me and leave me homeless and penniless. On a couple of occasions he got so angry he shoved me up against the wall and made his threats verbally. I lived in constant fear.”
Feeling helpless and powerless Kate developed a large distrust of men and her own ability to choose a man who could maintain a healthy relationship. By the time she reached her mid-fifties she’d been alone for over twenty years. She was a single woman desperately wanting to be in a loving relationship with a man but too traumatized by her divorce to imagine finding a partner. Reclusive, Kate rarely went out socially, preferring her animals (three dogs, a cat, and a parrot) to interacting with people. When our work together brought her to a sense of healing that allowed her to trust herself again and consider being more social, Kate decided it was time to open herself to finding love.
Her first forays into her community did not go well. Out of practice with just the basics of being social, Kate found herself at a loss for words, uncomfortable meeting new people, and lacking confidence that any man would want to speak with her. “I just don’t have that social ease I used to have,” Kate commented one day. “You should have seen me when I was twenty – I was a hellraiser!”
She continued to describe the free spirit she had been in college: dancing in bars, inviting other students to join her table of friends, and having a reputation as the most cheerful person on campus. When I asked Kate to describe to me the qualities of that twenty-year-old self – what made her the strong, vibrant woman Kate remembered – she readily listed many.
Healing from divorce requires focus, dedication, and commitment. To help support my clients in developing these traits, at the end of every meeting I give them an assignment for the upcoming week. On this day, my assignment for Kate was to identify three qualities that she most loved about her twenty-year-old self and find ways to embody them in her present-day life. The purpose was to connect Kate with a part of her identity that she valued and from which she could deliberately draw strength, inspiration, and action. She did this and returned the next week, breathlessly exclaiming, “That was fun!”
Having established a comfortable connection with this self, Kate expanded her work to include getting to know and then inhabit every aspect of who that twenty-year-old had been. She listened to her music, ate her favorite foods, adopted her hairstyle, dressed in her updated fashions, and even spoke with her energy. With constant connection to her younger self, Kate’s present self relearned how to enjoy, be bold, lean in, and stand out. She joined a new church, through which she developed a vast and active social network. She also joined a dating website, through which she is currently exploring group get-togethers and individual dates as she seeks The One.
Establishing your connection to and focusing on your past and present selves sets you up to create your vision and then a strategy for becoming the future self you most desire. As you construct your post-divorce identity, you’ll notice that one self naturally leads to another and another and another, with an authentic core connection that continues to strengthen. My grandmother collected elephant figurines with their trunks up for good luck. As a world traveler, she’d picked up different depictions of elephants from places as close to home as California (she lived in San Diego) and as far away as Spain, Portugal, and India. When I was a child, what I loved about her collection was how it spread around her apartment like several herds. Of all the individual figurines, my favorite part of the collection was the elephants walking in a line holding each other’s tails. I liked the connection of the many individuals through just one simple gesture. Your selves can create this same kind of connection, holding on to each other loosely to form one long line of traits, qualities, and characteristics that make up the overall you from past to present and on into your future.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015) by Michele Rosenthal. Like a therapist in your back pocket, this hands-on workbook can help you regain a sense of calm, confidence, and control on your road to recovery. Michele Rosenthal is