The breakdown of a marriage is one of the most traumatic things that can happen in your life. Divorce can cause profound feelings of loss, failure, regret, abandonment, emptiness, fear of the future, and/or powerlessness — especially if you didn’t initiate the split.
There’s no quick fix to your anger and grief, but there is a journey toward a more satisfying and fulfilling life that you can start right now. The transition from despair to satisfaction starts with your determination not to be a victim of your circumstances; happiness doesn’t depend so much on what happens to you, but on how you deal with what happens to you. Change your way of thinking: decide that you’re not going to let divorce take control of your life and you’ll be taking the first step towards recovery. If you are determined to wallow in defeat and sorrow, then the divorce has already won.
Feel the pain, then let it go
“Allow yourself to grieve,” advises Chet Mirman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who co-directs The Center for Divorce Recovery in Northbrook, IL. “You need to recognize that divorce is a loss. In the case of a death, society has rituals to encourage people to grieve; we have no such rituals with divorce. Many people don’t realize that the end of a marriage is a psychological equivalent to death.”
And denying that you’re in pain won’t work, either. “Suppose I have a wall in my house that’s all scarred with paint peeling,” says Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in California. “If I want to redo it and paint it over, do I just slop the paint over the cracks? Of course not: I have to strip the wall down and sand the old paint off before painting with a new coat. In order to participate in life fully, you have to strip down the damaged wall — regardless of whose fault the damage is — down to the heart of the matter. Covering up your pain never has a positive conclusion; unresolved grief makes you make bad decisions.”
“You have to allow the hurt to run its course,” says relationship expert, workshop leader, and best-selling author Bill Ferguson. “The more you allow yourself to feel the pain, the more it comes and the more it goes.”
Divorce-recovery is a process, and it takes time. How long you will take to heal depends on many factors, including the length of your marriage, whether you were abused, and the support you receive from family and friends. “You must take the process of recovery seriously,” urges Micki McWade, who has developed a 12-step divorce-recovery program in her book Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On. “People have high expectations of themselves; they think they should be getting over it quickly and immediately. But for every five years married, it takes about one year to get over it. Don’t suppress your feelings or act as if it never happened, but give the process respect. If you bypass the process, it sets you up for a fall.”
Erase revenge, blame, and guilt
Even when the divorce is over, anger, blame, and/or guilt may be dominating your thoughts. If you want to feel better, you have to work through and release them. It’s unlikely that either you or your spouse is 100% responsible for the end of your marriage; perhaps both of you should have put more effort into it, or perhaps you were simply not a compatible couple. Whatever your situation, you have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by lashing out at yourself or at your ex-spouse. “Beware of getting stuck in anger, fighting, or blame,” Dr. Mirman points out. “Even if the anger or blame is justified, it tends to keep you from feeling your sadness.” It also prevents you from moving forward toward better times.
“When you’re depressed and angry, you really don’t feel you have anything to give,” says Barbara Sher, the best-selling author of such motivational books as Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want, Live the Life You Love, and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. “Often you can’t see why you should give at all, since you’re the one who has been robbed and mistreated. Doing anything at all is hard when you’re in the dumps.” But once you let go of thoughts that depress and anger you, and prepare to start giving of yourself again, “the energy inside you rises to meet the challenge.”
Most definitely do not resort to revenge. It’s a dish best not served at all, even if your ex has hurt you without shame. Vengeance doesn’t make the hurt go away; it sets a horrible example of social behavior for your children, and it stalls you from moving on. Revenge never fulfills its intended purpose: it doesn’t “teach a lesson” to the person that hurt you, but rather provokes that person to get back at you in turn — starting a cycle of tit-for-tat vengeance that causes unnecessary anguish on both sides. Revenge is extremely harmful at its worst and a waste of time at its best.
After all you’ve gone through, it may be tempting to see yourself as the eternal victim of your former spouse. But adopting this role prevents you from embracing responsibility for your own actions, whether or not you really have been a victim. On the other hand, it’s no more constructive to blame yourself for everything. Immersing yourself in guilt — or playing the “if only” game — will keep you stuck in the past and afraid to make a decision in case it’s the wrong one.
“You need to let go of the non-empowering emotions,” says Mike Lipkin, a Toronto-based motivational speaker and the author of Your Personal Best. “Anytime you stay angry at someone, you are letting them live rent-free inside your head.”
Look for the hidden gift
“Problems are just opportunities in their work clothes,” said the late Henry J. Kaiser, an American industrialist, entrepreneur, and the father of modern shipbuilding. In the long run, dealing with problems can open up unexpected opportunities — or at least make you stronger. Sometimes, good can come from bad — although your current upset, anger, or fear may prevent you from seeing it. If you change your way of thinking to consciously look for the positive effects in any negative event, you may experience a radical change in your emotions and your outlook on life.
This is admittedly not an easy thing to do, especially during periods when life seems to be throwing your disappointments and crises without mercy. It takes patience, clarity, and objectivity to spot the gift in an unhappy event. For example, your divorce may turn out to be a blessing in disguise: you’ve been released from a marriage that wasn’t working; you’re now free to make your own decisions about your future; and eventually, you may find a much more compatible partner to share your life. You’re losing the benefits of a committed relationship, but you’ll also be losing the trials and unhappy compromises it required as well as regaining some of the perks of singlehood.
Sometimes, the most beneficial thing to come out of bad times is what you’ve learned from them — and you should acknowledge that to yourself. You need to look at the situation and say, “What’s the lesson here? What have I learned from this experience?” The benefits of doing this include a sense of empowerment from having used your experience to grow wiser and using your new-found wisdom to avoid the same pitfall if it comes up again. Experience is a hard way to learn how to get through life, but it’s a very effective teacher.
The “gift” that comes out of suffering isn’t always immediately apparent. This is where you need to develop the ability to “turn a lemon into lemonade,” as the old saying goes. It takes courage, character, imagination, and perspective to accept the inevitable and even use it as the basis to create something positive. Great artists through the ages have channeled their suffering into classic novels, paintings, and music; poverty, disease, and social ostracism have fueled the eventual achievements of many great people — from Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln to Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking.
If you’re having trouble seeing the gift in your situation, just think of it this way: it could be worse. Things frequently are not as bad as they seem. Your divorce may have caused you extreme grief, ruined you financially, filled you with massive stress, and turned your life upside-down — but would you rather be starving in a desert, stranded alone on an island, or on death row? Sometimes, your life itself is the gift; there are probably millions of people in the world who would love to have what you have right now, even in the worst of times.
According to the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “We seldom think of what we have but always of what we lack.” This tendency to focus on the negative causes of unnecessary upset. Look for the gift: the silver lining. With practice, you’ll get faster at finding it — and happier for having done so.
The power of choice
Now that you’ve grieved, let go of your hurt, and look for positive aspects of your situation, it’s time to start exploring your options as to where life can take you next — or, rather, where you will take it. If fulfillment is your aim, you have to pro-actively make choices about where to go instead of waiting for things to happen to you.
“In divorce, it’s important to heal your hurt, and it’s also important to get on with your life,” Ferguson points out. “The main thing is to be active. Life is like being in water: as long as you’re swimming, you stay above water, but if stop moving, you sink. During divorce, some people get caught in upset and then withdraw from life, eventually sinking into depression. You need to move forward and start creating dreams. Find things that you love to do.”
Weigh the pros and cons, then take action. If you’re dissatisfied with your job or your financial situation, take the initiative to update your resume and look for something more fulfilling, or at least to work toward promotion to a higher position or ask for a raise. If you’re feeling courageous, you might even switch career paths completely and start over — although you have to balance this desire with the need to put food on the table and maintain a roof over your head. If you want to improve your education or technical skills — or if you just have an unsatisfied hunger for learning — go back to school in the evenings. It’s not too late to start or finish a college/university degree. You have the power to choose your next step in life.
“Between anything happening to us and our response is the power to choose our response,” says Stephen R. Covey, renowned motivational expert and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Through the power of choice, Covey has helped numerous people overcome setbacks in their lives and go on to achieve valuable contributions to their community. “Use the power of choice to bring yourself new meaning and new relationships. It will transcend a difficult past and help you learn from it. The only real failure is a mistake not learned from,” he says.
The power to learn from your past and choose where to go next is the opposite of seeing yourself as a victim with no control over your life. “If we get obsessed with the past, we lose a sense of the future and its possibilities,” Covey continues. “So we continue to feel embittered and take the road of least resilience. The upward motion is acting on one’s conscience and refusing to let the negative energy consume you. If you move from the outside-in, you build a frame of reference in which only the outside will take care of you. You need to rise out of it by taking initiative and using your willpower. Moving from the outside-in, in which you’re victimized by circumstances, leads to misery; it’s the lower path. But the higher path — inside-out — leads to optimism and success.” And working from the inside-out gives you the confidence to actively pinpoint and solve problems instead of letting them continue to worry you.
Covey points out the four “basic human endowments” that go into the power of choice:
- Self-awareness. We can observe our own past and see how it has developed our own strengths and weaknesses;
- Imagination. We can picture ourselves in a new way and reinvent ourselves. “Our memory is limited and self-limiting,” says Covey, “but our imagination is unlimited and expansive, and it feeds on optimism and hope.”
- Conscience. Our inner sense tells us what is right and wrong;
A synergy results from using all four of these. “It will enable you to take a higher path to a new consciousness and a new peace of mind,” explains Covey. “The main barrier, however, is when people don’t use these endowments. Environmental, social, or economic factors overwhelm them, and they literally withdraw from the use of imagination. They surround themselves with people who make them feel validated and justified in their beliefs. Sometimes, we look for evidence of support for our views, such as people who tell us how right we are and how wrong others are.”
The power of navigating your own life can awaken powers within you that you may have forgotten you had, or of which you were unaware. It will at least revitalize your confidence and control — and this has to come from within. “You need a sense of autonomy and independence, a celebration of the self,” says Lipkin. “Many of us have a strong tendency to underestimate ourselves, and we credit others for what we have. You need to have an acceptance of what happened and then move forward and see yourself as an extraordinary being with gifts that others can appreciate.” If your partner defined much of your self-image, you need to take a fresh look at yourself and decide who you are now — as well as who you want to be in the future.
Find new love and friendship
When you choose to try new things, you’ll meet new people as well. And one of the best ways to take your mind off your own problems is to get interested in other people. New friends may, in turn, provide a sympathetic ear and a fresh outlook, particularly if they’ve also experienced relationship breakdown. “It helps to be with other divorcing people,” confirms McWade. “They aren’t tired of hearing you talk about it, and they understand what the process is like.”
“Get involved with some kind of project that involves other people,” says Sher. “The best kind is a rescue effort, like the Red Cross or a similar cause. This kind of activity has important benefits. Firstly, your concern for others will take you out of yourself. Secondly, the affectionate and generous side of you — often the first casualty of a bad relationship — will emerge again. You may think you have nothing to give, but you’ll find that giving will heal you more than any amount of taking right now. Thirdly, you’ll be reminded of what a decent person you really are. One’s self-esteem is usually battered by the time a divorce happens, and this is the best way to rebuild it. And lastly, you’ll meet a great class of people. The people who go out to help others are usually empathetic and concerned, the kind you need right now.”
Eventually, you may consider beginning a new relationship. Beware, however, of leaping into a relationship before you’re ready. “When people are hurt from a broken relationship, they often jump into a rebound relationship to find relief,” notes Ferguson. “But this is dangerous, because when you break up, all the hurt is still in you. If you rush into a relationship, the pain may subside, but it’s still there. The more hurt that you suppress, the more you sabotage the new relationship. So heal the hurt first.”
Another problem with jumping in too quickly is that you may not yet have had a chance to think through what kind of partner you really need at this point in your life. “Until you work through your emotional issues, you won’t make very good choices in subsequent partners,” says McWade. “You need to reassess your needs as of today. The ideals you had before you were married often do not apply 15 years or more down the road. Hopefully, you’ve learned from the past. But unless you do a personal assessment, you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over. The patterns repeat, as what intimacy means to you was mostly set up in your childhood.” You need to recognize the pattern before you can change it.
Make sure that your new partner has also recovered from past relationships and destructive patterns. Ferguson says, “Look for the other person’s willingness to feel their hurt. That’s the biggest factor in a successful relationship. The more unwilling people are to feel hurt, the more walls they put up and the more they protect themselves and get upset easily. But the more willing they are to feel, the more they flow with life. The dangerous ones are the those who can’t access their pain. Look for people with open hearts.”
If you have worked through your issues and regained control of your life — and found a partner who’s willing to do the same — then you should be set for a satisfying new relationship, hopefully one that will complement (though not be the sole cause of) a happy future.
Getting better all the time
“Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us on a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.” At this point in your life, during or after divorce, “happiness” may seem like too much to ask of yourself. But if you can at least “follow some other object” that isn’t moving you back into misery, you’re making progress. Let go of grief and anger, find some way to profit (or at least learn) from your losses, and start making choices that will create a life you’ll love.
You probably won’t feel wonderful tomorrow, but every positive action you take to recover from divorce takes you one step closer to a satisfying life. “Grief-recovery is action-based, not time-based,” adds Friedman. “Time is never a function; the result of the action is what’s beneficial. Time doesn’t do anything but go by.” With perseverance and patience, you will start feeling better about yourself and about the world in general. Happiness awaits down the road, so start walking!
Improve your outlook
Although it may take a while to completely recover from your divorce, there are many little things you could do to boost your spirits in the meantime. For example:
- Have a guys’/girls’ night out with your friends.
- Do a good deed without expecting a reward.
- Join a club, sports team, arts group, support group, or any other special-interest organization.
- Play with a puppy or kitten.
- Take a night class in some subject you’ve always wanted to learn about.
- Surprise an old friend you haven’t spoken to in months or years with a phone call or e-mail.
- Volunteer at a charity or cause.
- Buy yourself a treat. Stay within your budget, however, or this one will rebound on you.