If you consider it in the most basic of terms, it’s clear that divorce is, in essence, about change and transformation, and although that change may be traumatic, this truth remains the same: living is about change. From the most devastating to the most uplifting experiences we may have in the course of a lifetime – war, peace, death, birth, success, failure, partnership, breakup – positive and negative events are inexorably linked in a never-ending cycle.
The forces of destruction usually carry within them the seeds of rebirth. Whether or not you realized it, your recovery began from the moment that your partnership ended, from the moment when your great expectations of the marriage went up in flames, even if it seemed that your will and the strength to begin again had been buried beneath the ashes.
When the partnership ends, the structure that defined your life is, in effect, razed to the ground. How can that possibly be a good thing? How can the loss of your partnership, with the emptiness and sadness that follow, ever be viewed in a positive light? Here’s a statement that may surprise you: “There is a flower that blooms out of destruction, loss, and pain of breakdown. It is called Freedom.”
Once you’ve cleared away the negative emotions and once you’ve come to terms with the stigma imposed by the outside world, you have the total freedom to begin again without constraint and to do with your life what you want to do with it. You now have the opportunity and freedom to become who you wish to become, and you should use this opportunity, no matter how negative its origins, to resurrect your identity and exercise freedom of choice. Seize the chance to create and learn, and use your experiences as a means of building something new and the pain to develop wisdom.
No matter how glorious, and perhaps unrealistic, these words may sound, it can be done. It has been done by many others who have been through a breakup they thought they might never survive and have gone on to achieve great things. The only limitations we have are the ones we set ourselves. If we concentrate too hard and too long on looking back over the road we have traveled, we often forget that there is a way ahead leading to the future. Before we can fully commit ourselves to that journey into the future, there is one task left to be done: to accept that we have changed and that we aren’t the same as we were before the breakup and never will be again.
Accepting Change Within Yourself
When we’re children, fairytales teach us that sad stories have happy endings. Children’s books are peopled by good people who are rewarded, and by evil people who are punished. In an ideal world this would be true, too, and there would always be happy endings. Marriages would last for ever and ever, and husbands and wives would live in peace, contentment, and fidelity.
This is not an ideal world, however. The healing and energizing power of a deeply loving and committed relationship knows no bounds, but similarly the agony that two humans, who once shared their lives in partnership, are able to inflict on one another defies description. For when we bond and share ourselves intimately with another, the pain we feel when the partnership comes to an end is harrowing. The destruction of the partnership involves the destruction of part of ourselves, and this is one of the reasons we resist separation: we know that it means losing
something forever and facing the unknown by ourselves, and this is true whether we are the one who is left or whether we are the one who does the leaving.
A few years after leaving his wife, Robert recognized the loss of this part of himself. He realized that he had lost forever the time and expectations he had invested in the partnership. “I had gone through a trauma as far as I was concerned. I knew that people got divorced, but I never, never thought it would happen to me. It happened to me and I couldn’t believe it. You don’t go through a marriage and end it and come out without scars.”
So much of your time, of your energy, and of yourself went into the building of the partnership that when the partnership is destroyed, you are forever changed. And before you can be truly free to move on, you must learn to accept the transformation in your identity and in your way of life that has been brought about by the breakdown of your relationship. That acceptance is the final stage in your recovery. Full recovery is about incorporating the experience into your being, so that it becomes part of what you are rather than being something that happened to you in the past.
If you can synthesize the breakdown experience into your consciousness and make it part of your identity, you’ll release new sources of energy that were not available to you in a partnership because they were either drained or repressed by the structure of the relationship. Four years after her divorce, Emma’s life has changed completely. After 18 years of feeling controlled, demoralized, and worthless, she’s gone on to make a brilliant success of her life, but she’s still in the process of accepting change. “It’s getting much better. But there are times when I do feel lonely. And days when I feel really downright miserable, but those days are getting fewer and fewer. It’s good and getting better. I feel I’m getting control and I’m happier. I’m laughing more. People who have known me for a long time have suddenly said, ‘I didn’t know you were like this!'”
A year after breaking up, Caroline too is learning to accept change and to absorb the transformation in herself and the world around her. “I’ve come a long way, but then I’ve still got a long way to go. People give you the impression that after a couple of months you should be feeling better. Once they see you going out, they think you’re OK, but it goes a lot deeper than that. I don’t know when I’ll be fully OK. But I am a lot more OK than I was a year ago. I wouldn’t have believed I’d feel as reasonably happy as I do. There are things in my life which give me a lot of pleasure, and I can see I’m getting it together.”
Transforming Pain into Self-Knowledge
Undergoing pain is of no value if we don’t learn something from it. In fact, the pain will continue until we have learned. It acts as a dam, a barrier, in whatever area of life it is being experienced. It’s not unusual for pain to last for many years – unless we make the effort to discover the lesson that is lurking beneath it. When a loved one dies, mourning will naturally follow because we have lost a source of fulfillment in our lives that will never return and that can never be replaced. As long as we hang on to that thought, we can never let go of the person who has died. The same is true of the loss of a partnership, because a partnership is, in many ways, a living entity in its own right. It’s possible even to regard the partnership as a child of the shared energy, growth, and symbiosis of two people, and when the “child” has gone, we grieve its loss.
Enlightenment is about understanding at the innermost level that the partnership was a significant period of growth in our lives. But only when we have comprehended that life was not confined within the partnership but that the partnership was a portion of life can we separate ourselves from it. When we gave a commitment to the relationship, we summarily handed over the most important possession any one person can have – the meaning and purpose of living – and when the partnership has ended, we must reclaim that most valuable jewel of our existence. When you do reclaim the purpose of living into your own hands, you’ll come to terms with the fact that the partnership fulfilled a need in your life but that it did not provide the only, or even the main, purpose in your life. When you accept this, you’ll be free to move on.
The key to transforming pain into self-knowledge is to learn to accept that the purpose of life was not generated by the partnership but that the partnership played a role in life’s purpose. The next step is to find out what you can mine from the experience in order to reveal the valuable assets that are hidden within.
Vicky, who hung on for four years hoping that her husband would return, learned this essential truth when her divorce finally came through. She stated it so simply that its importance could almost be missed: “In the early days when he had left me, I used to wish that I had married somebody else. But when the divorce came through, I was a person again. Now, I look on the marriage as a period in my life that came to an end.”
Her words reveal her complete inner acceptance and the knowledge that her life has another purpose. For more than 30 years, she fulfilled the role of housewife and mother. That role provided both the definition and limitations of her existence. It was her purpose in life to be housewife and mother. It was only after her husband left, and she had learned the essential lessons to be gained from the end of the partnership, that she embarked on the last stage of recovery. She realized that her marriage was only one part of a greater journey.
Robert had tried to commit suicide during his marriage. For him, there was no life outside of it and no purpose to his existence beyond the success of the marriage. Given that there was no other purpose, it would seem that the battle for the partnership was worth fighting, even to death. He could not move forwards in the relationship but could visualize no life outside it. Nevertheless, he valued life enough not to try suicide again and he valued it enough to go out into the world, with no obvious purpose, and begin again. And that was when something wonderful happened. Robert and his closest friend, who had also been through a divorce, had an idea that is now a reality. They set up a registered charity to provide support and help for others going through divorce. His pain was transformed into knowledge, and the knowledge was transmuted into a healing force. If anyone had told him, on the night on which he was swallowing pills, that this was his future, he would not have believed them because his reason for being was trapped within the entity of marriage and he believed there was no world beyond the confines of the relationship.
The more time we invest in a partnership, the more difficult it is to accept that freedom is a viable option. It’s hard to imagine that there is purpose in life after breakup. If you live enough of your life within a partnership, the door leading to the outside world will begin to shimmer and eventually become invisible. Ultimately, the knowledge that there is life outside is buried so deeply beneath the structure of the partnership that it becomes a distant memory or a lost resource, lingering at the periphery of consciousness.
For Robert, the creative and purposeful act of setting up a charity brought with it the by-products of greater self-knowledge and inner strength. “I now have an ability to look at situations and be much more open-minded. Since becoming involved in charity work, I have realized that nothing is black and white. There are always many sides to any story.”
If we devise a structure within our lives that accommodates change and exploration, we can move forwards without being crippled by feelings of vulnerability. This can be done by understanding where we have come from and where we are going, by taking a more aerial view of the “recovery map.”
Years ago, William depended entirely on his partnerships to give meaning to his life and to provide himself with an identity: he was a father, a provider and a “good guy.” When the first marriage crumbled, he went straight out and found a replacement. When the second partnership ended, he sought out yet another. But this time, the new relationship failed to have the desired effect because, as long as he depended on something outside himself – a relationship – to give his life meaning and himself a value, he was going to be let down. It was only when he faced
this and decided to learn from it that he recognized that the attainment of meaning, value, purpose, expectations, and dreams must be the stuff of our own making. No other person can give these things to us, and no other person can ever fulfill all of our requirements, all the time, every day, for life. We must take the primary responsibility for our own self-worth and our own expectations, and being able to live by this understanding is to know real freedom.
When he stopped looking to partnership to meet all these needs, William’s life changed dramatically. He went from being a routine family man with only a few important friendships to being widely known and well loved. These days, life for William is an adventure: “The most important thing I’ve learned is the key to everything else: to learn to love yourself. I believe it’s what has made a difference in my life.”
Self-knowledge and acceptance bring yet more changes into our lives. The way we view relationships and potential relationships is changed, as is our perception of partnership and what we expect from it. Indeed, we may wonder if we really want or need partnership at all, and at last, there is something we thought we would never have: freedom of choice.
Openness to New Relationships
Your attitude and openness to new relationships will change, and you should be prepared for it. If you’ve dealt with feelings of dependence and the belief that you cannot live without the security of a partnership, how you view potential future relationships must change. It’s essential for every individual to know that they can live alone and that they can get fulfillment from their own life.
Experiencing freedom and independence does not mean you’ll never be in a partnership again, and it does not mean you can never enjoy a partnership again. Self-knowledge and versatility will give greater freedom of choice and allow you to make a more balanced judgment based on a better understanding of your personal needs. You’ll gain a deeper insight into the mechanics of relationships and how you contribute to generating an entity of partnership within which you can live. If you’ve expanded your self-knowledge and if you have a more creative and flexible style of living, you’ll bring these attributes to any new relationship. A new partnership would also become creative and flexible, and would generate a more comprehensive understanding of self for both partners. The new relationship will offer more potential for a growing, giving, and knowledgeable partnership.
Living independently doesn’t mean that you’ll lose your capacity for having other relationships. It’s not like pushing off from a shore and turning your back on the land in order to swim into the distance, fearing that you’ll never return. The act of exercising your independence empowers you to reach more exotic, complex, and distant shores. You’re giving yourself choices.
The world of relationships is no longer black and white. If you aren’t ready for a committed, live-in partnership, you don’t have to leap into one simply because you miss emotional and physical intimacy. More loosely defined, flexible relationships aren’t accompanied by a rule book, but there are some questions you should be asking: Are both of you getting genuine pleasure out of it? Is anybody feeling hurt or wanting more commitment? Does it leave you feeling warm, positive, and guilt-free? Above all, does it feel comfortable? If it fulfills needs on both sides and there is no discomfort, this kind of relationship can add to your quality of life.
Other changes have to do with judgment and what you expect from future relationships. Clearly, when you’ve gone through such a traumatic experience as the breakdown of your marriage, your whole perspective of future partnerships is going to change. If you’ve done your emotional house-cleaning and if you’re free of the dry-rot of bitterness, the alteration in your judgment will be an effective tool in guiding your future choices. The pain of the loss won’t have been wasted, for the true gold of experience will have evolved into personal knowledge.
Caroline learned that she and Tom had never communicated clearly, honestly or openly. When she found out about his first affair, the marriage was patched up and the issue was never raised again. They never discussed why Tom had had an affair, and the warning light – which is how the affair should have been regarded – was ignored. Caroline was so relieved, and so grateful to have avoided disaster, that she felt it was best left behind. But the same problems surfaced again 12 years later when Tom had a second affair, which was the affair that ended the marriage. The nightmare she most feared had come true, and Caroline has learned from the experience.
“I think the breakdown has made me a lot more sensitive to what goes on inside other people. A lot more sensitive to their needs. I don’t think I would ever be attracted to the same sort of person again. I would be a lot more selfish in respect of not putting up with problems which are never dealt with. Now I would see a person who had a problem with communication coming a mile off. I would put faith in my own judgment. I would work towards an open, communicative relationship.”
As Robert said, you don’t come out of a marriage without scars. No one suffers the trauma of breakup without being permanently marked by it. This is an absolute and unavoidable truth. But the scars are emblems of learning. If we were encased in glass from birth and never had any contact with the outside world, never experienced any form of relationship, we would be empty, barren beings. Only through the cycle of loss and growth, pain and pleasure, do we learn. Entering into relationships with others is how we learn about ourselves and learn who we really are.
A Positive Single Identity
During the first throes of breakup, it seems impossible to believe that we will survive and that living will ever entail anything but pain and emptiness. We feel that there will always be sorrow for the dream that once was. The relationship that has crumbled and broken crushed us as it fell, at the same time crushing our hopes, beliefs, and faith in the future. The energy, commitment,and time we invested have been utterly destroyed in the destruction of the partnership itself. Like the survivor of any tragedy, we wonder if there is ever going to be a time
when we’ll walk and laugh again and if, indeed, life is worth living at all.
But life has changed and will continue to do so. You have yet to discover all that you are and all that you will be. And one truth will accompany you: you’ve learned that you have the strength and the power within you to survive one of the most painful experiences anyone will ever have. That strength will remain with you always, and it will give you the means to launch yourself into a new life, with a new meaning. In time, it will also give you a strong sense of self and of personal freedom.
For 23 years of married life, June’s husband had fed her sense of inadequacy by telling her she was stupid and incapable of running a household. At the time, she believed him. Today, June thinks differently. Among many other activities, she is now taking a university degree in the history of art. “I believe in myself now. I believe that I’m OK. That I have a good personality. I believe I’m intelligent. I know I’m a very capable person. And I feel very proud of the fact that I’m managing on my own. Really proud. I’m running a house, a huge garden, a job, a university degree, and giving support to the children while they go to university. And I’m able to do all of this on my own.”
For 18 years of married life, Emma had never had her own bank account and she had never managed household finances. From the day she married, she had never even seen her own paycheck. The marriage ended in 1992, and four years later she was running a thriving business. For a woman who once had to ask her husband for lunch money, it was a formidable achievement. She has discovered who she is and what she is capable of. She has discovered that there are no limitations on what she can achieve. “It’s done a lot for me. It’s given me back my self-esteem. And
it’s given me something to do. Something to do for myself. And every day I just feel that I would never have done this if I had still been married. Never.”
William recently had his fiftieth birthday. A party was held in his honor, and there were a few surprise visitors. His first wife, Lynn, attended with her husband. Jacqueline, his second wife, arrived with her boyfriend. William was nearly speechless when, during the party, both of his ex-wives, together, joined him on the dance floor. He remembered: “It made me realize that I wasn’t losing anyone. My family just keeps getting bigger. I know that not everyone can have it that way because it takes two to tango – or three in my case. But it does show what is
possible with a little forgiveness and understanding.”
William used to think he couldn’t live without being in a partnership and that he had no inner value if he wasn’t a “family” man, a father and provider. Today he is all of those things, but he is still more. Of his own expectations of himself, he says: “I want to be everything that I can be and everything I was supposed to be. And I want to share it with as many people as I can.”
This is not an impossible dream. Everyone who experiences the breakup of a partnership suffers the same depths of pain and endures the same devastating emotions. Yet, as we recover and create new lives out of the ashes, we generate new identities that are truly unique, truly our own. New life is always waiting for us, and it will come when we realize that the breakup is not an end but a beginning – the beginning of a journey during which we experience a resurrection of self and the profound pleasure of reaching beyond the limits of our own expectations.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Relationship Breakdown: A Survival Guide. This book offers valuable advice to help you cope with the difficult times and move towards rebuilding a new life.; Angel La Liberte is a writer, broadcaster, and relationship counselor who founded “Single Again,” a U.K. organization and publication for individuals who had lost a partner to separation, divorce, or death.