Although statistics say that the average marriage today has a one-in-two chance of failing, you probably thought yours would last forever — divorce, like a serious accident or terminal disease, was something that only happened to other people. So in spite of the statistics, and in spite of the fact that you probably have seen friends or family divorce, you are still emotionally unprepared when it comes to your own breakup.
Aside from the death of a spouse or child, the end of a relationship is the most stressful and emotionally painful of life’s experiences. Divorce affects every single facet of your life: from finances to material possessions to accommodations. But during the initial stages, all these take a backseat to the emotional losses: of love, security, and the myth of “happily ever after.”
If your spouse initiated the divorce, you’ll be experiencing more intense emotions than him or her right now. Your spouse probably experienced some pretty strong emotions while he/she was considering whether to call it quits (months or even years earlier), but is now at a more advanced stage of recovery.
As you begin to realize that your marriage is really over, your emotions may become so overwhelming that rational thought becomes difficult, if not impossible. This is why it’s so important to postpone any major decisions about your future — whether to keep or sell the house, custody arrangements for the children, support issues — until you’re feeling more stable. Obviously, you’ll have to make some decisions right away (ask your attorney and/or a trusted friend who has successfully dealt with similar issues for some objective advice) but try to put off the ones that will seriously affect your future until you’re able to think clearly.
Emotional Rescue: Following the Path to Emotional Recovery
An emotional roller coaster
Many people who have gone through divorce say it’s like an emotional roller-coaster ride: one day, you feel depressed and guilty; the next, angry and vengeful; and the next, hopeful and calm. Sometimes, you experience all these emotions in a single day. Little things can trigger surprisingly intense emotions: hearing a song on the radio, finding an envelope of holiday pictures, mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. ——————–.”
If you feel like you’re spinning out of control right now, it’s important to realize that you won’t feel this way forever. Even if you do nothing to speed your emotional recovery, you will start to feel better someday. That’s the first piece of good news. The second is that your recovery will follow a relatively predictable pattern, and you can take comfort from knowing that wherever you are right now, it’s just a stage — not your final destination.
In his tremendously helpful book, Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends (Impact Publishers), Dr. Bruce Fisher identifies 19 stages that we must experience to completely heal from the loss of a love. These stages are: Denial, Fear, Adaptation, Loneliness, Friendship, Guilt/Rejection, Grief, Anger, Letting Go, Self-Worth, Transition, Openness, Love, Trust, Relatedness, Sexuality, Singleness, Purpose, and Freedom. Dr. Fisher uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain to symbolize this 19-step healing process. Although this process is terribly difficult, he notes, “The rewards at the end make the tough climb worthwhile.”
As you work through these stages, you may feel as though you are losing your mind, or that you’ll never be happy again. Understanding that you’re passing through a stage won’t make the pain go away, but at least you know what to expect — and that millions of others have lived through this transition and come out the other end able to find happiness and fulfillment.
So your burning question right now is likely this: “How long will this healing process take?” The answer, like so much else in life, is: “It depends.” Most experts agree that getting past the really painful, negative stages takes about a year, and perhaps as much as another year to be completely recovered. For some people, the process is shorter; for others, three to five years is a more realistic time-frame.
Your emotional divorce probably began months or even years before one of you decided to make it official, but your emotional divorce won’t be complete until you let go of the bitterness and the battles of your dead marriage. The bad news is that some people will never divorce themselves emotionally from their former spouses, keeping alive their anger and resentment from the past to the point where they can’t truly experience happiness in their present lives.
So how do you achieve your emotional divorce? Here are some suggestions from experts: professionals as well as ordinary people who have been through the process to emerge stronger and happier than before.
Feel the pain, then release it
Feelings such as fear, grief, anger, and even hatred are common, even “normal,” during a divorce process. Many therapists suggest that you allow yourself to fully experience these feelings, then let them go when they’ve served their purpose — which is to mourn the death of your relationship. Dr. Fisher recognizes that: “It’s tough to let go of the strong emotional ties which remain from the dissolved love union. Nevertheless, it’s important to stop investing emotionally in the dead relationship,”
He continues. If you’re in the “Denial” stage, you may want to bury or avoid these painful feelings. “But unless the pain is felt, it cannot be released,” notes Elizabeth Hickey, MSW, co-author of Healing Hearts: Helping Adults and Children Recover from Divorce (Gold Leaf Press, 1994). So you can either experience the pain then let it go, or hang onto the pain (by avoiding it or refusing to “own” or take responsibility for it) and continue to suffer — for years or forever. The important thing to get is that it really is your choice — you are responsible for your own recovery.
Denying or intellectualizing (thinking about) your feelings won’t help — you have to feel them. Once the initial shock wears off, you need to let yourself sob. Don’t be afraid that you will never stop: when your body reaches a natural state of exhaustion, which will “turn off” your feelings for a while, you will stop weeping. Having a friend hold and comfort you while you sob will help a lot. “I cried for six months after my wife left me,” says John, a 38-year-old marketing executive. “I don’t remember ever really crying before that, but suddenly, everything seemed to set me off. Then one day, I realized that I was feeling better — and that I’d actually been feeling better for some time. I had finally accepted that Sue wasn’t going to come back to me, but that we could develop a new relationship as co-parents and friends.”
Instead of spending all his leisure time missing his ex-wife and kids, he rediscovered some old hobbies and started new ones. “I took some cooking classes because I got tired of eating the same three meals over and over, and I also enrolled in dance class. My parents were really great dancers, and I remembered how happy they looked waltzing around the dance floor — or the kitchen floor — in each other’s arms.” After a few months at the studio, he met Cathy, who became his dance partner and friend. “We started dating a few months ago, and it’s going really well,” says John. “We’re taking it slow, because I want my kids to accept and love her too, but I definitely see us together long-term.”
Some of the other early stages of the grief process include depression, craziness, and panic. To repeat: don’t make any momentous decisions about your future while you’re feeling this way. If you’re panicking, the flight-or-fight response may kick in. This is the time to sit down and do some deep breathing exercises. Breathe deeply, feel your stomach expanding and contracting with every breath. Count your breaths — one in, one out; two in, two out — up to ten, then start again at one. The counting helps to clear and focus your mind, and you’ll find you’re feeling much better in minutes.
Guilt and anger will follow on the heels of these earlier feelings, and this is where your ability — or inability — to forgive shows up most powerfully.
Try to cultivate forgiveness — it will set you free. Start with yourself: forgive yourself for your contributions to the breakdown of your marriage, or for not realizing that your spouse was unhappy enough to leave you. “If your situation is such that you can cultivate kinder feelings, forgiveness is the most freeing option,” says Elizabeth Hickey. “Hatred binds us to its object as mercilessly as does love.” (For help with this, see “The Power of Forgiveness”.) Forgiving yourself and your ex for the breakdown of the marriage may not be enough — you may actually have to seek your ex’s forgiveness as well.
If you’ve made a mess, clean it up “Healthy guilt is appropriate,” writes Matthew McKay, Ph.D., in The Divorce Book: A Practical and Compassionate Guide (New Harbinger Publications, 1999). “It is a signal that you have violated an important value. As a signal, it’s useful because it’s painful enough to help you stop or atone for destructive behavior. Healthy guilt derives from healthy values,” he continues. “Healthy values are flexible (they make room for exceptions and let you have your quota of mistakes) and life enhancing (they have at their root the intention that you and others be happy).”
If leaving your marriage was the right thing to do — because it was abusive, destructive, or had gone too far down the road of betrayal, disrespect, or contempt to be rescued — but you’re still feeling guilty, you may need to reframe the situation. “Reframing is a psychological technique that allows you to see things in a new and more productive light,” says Dr. McKay. So if you’re feeling guilty about breaking the “till death do us part” vow, you need to take a fresh look at this inflexible rule. McKay suggests you reframe the situation like this: “These days, the ‘death’ of mutual love, respect, and caring is adequate and justifiable grounds for the dissolution of a disastrous marriage.”
However, if you’re feeling healthy guilt over something you’ve said or done — unfortunately, behaving in a spiteful, vindictive manner is all too common in divorce — then it’s not enough to simply feel embarrassed about your behavior. If you want to salvage the possibility of parting on civil terms (which is vital if you’re going to be co-parents) as well as your self-respect, you need to apologize.
Sometimes, a true, unconditional apology is enough: “I’m really sorry I called you a fat pig. It was childish, untrue, and I’m deeply ashamed of myself for saying it.” But sometimes, you need to go a step or two further to make amends for your behavior: “I’m really sorry that you gave up your dreams of becoming a veterinarian to put me through med school. I will pay enough rehabilitative maintenance to enable you to go to vet school and support you for the first two years after you graduate.” A word of warning: deciding what you need to do to “clean up the mess” you made is actually the easy part — the act of cleaning it up is a lot harder.
Look for the silver lining
In his book Count Your Blessings: The Healing Power of Gratitude and Love (Element Books, 1997), Dr. John Demartini discusses the positive benefits that can come along with pain. “Experiences of emotional pain are opportunities to learn love,” he says. “Even the deepest darkest sorrows have an equal amount of joy — the sooner we find it, the sooner we experience the blessings.”
Look for the silver lining in your cloud of divorce. Start simple: now that your ex has moved out, you can play your favorite music/golf every morning/get a dog/take dancing lessons — whatever you used to love (or always wanted) that your ex blocked. Later, you can move on to more complex benefits: what did you learn from the relationship and its breakdown that will have you make different choices in the future? What did it teach you about love — specifically, about your own ability to love? How did you contribute to the breakdown of the relationship? Where were you emotionally stingy in the relationship? Why? Writing down the answers to these questions is more powerful than simply thinking about them, so make the effort to put it in writing.
At first, Cynthia couldn’t imagine any good could ever come from her divorce. “I was raised to believe marriage was forever, and even though our relationship hadn’t been good for a long time, I never would have left Tom,” she says. “A couple of years after our divorce was complete, I met Jason. Even though it was love at first sight, we agreed to take it slowly because of my two children. We married two years after we met, and we’re gloriously happy together. And the truly good news is that the kids are happy, too — they love Jason, and he’s a great stepfather.”
Cynthia is also happy to be able to show her children what a healthy, loving relationship looks like. “I hope that when it comes time for them to choose a mate, they take the example of my second marriage rather than the first,” she says.
Create a ceremony
Rituals and ceremonies have always been the way humans mark important events and rites of passage. Your place of worship may now have a ritual for divorce, but if not, feel free to create your own.
Here’s an example of a private ritual — modify it to suit your own needs. When you have some quiet time, place a photo of your ex in front of you, and perhaps listen to some music that reminds you of him/her, and write a letter to your ex describing your feelings (you won’t be sending this letter, so feel free to say whatever you want). Do this as many times as you wish, until you feel you’ve said everything. Then gather these letters together with some mementos of your shared past, and burn them one piece at a time. As you watch each piece go up in smoke, say “Goodbye,” “I release you,” “It’s over, and I’m free,” or whatever feels right over and over. Your subconscious “hears” the things you and others say, and processes these statements. So make sure whatever you say is empowering, positive, and helps to complete the relationship.
If you’d like a public ceremony — perhaps witnessed by some of the friends and family who were there at your wedding — there’s a great one in Marianne Williamson’s book Illuminata (Random House, 1994). Designed to be held in the presence of the couple’s children (if any), this rite is meant to heal hearts “by forgiving the past and releasing the future.” It’s very beautiful, and very powerful — it can help to promote a happier present and future for everyone involved. For more on this topic, see “Divorce Ceremonies” in the Winter 98/99 (Vol. 3, No. 1) edition of this magazine.
Completing the past
In addition to a ceremony or ritual, there are other actions you can take to help you “complete” the past so that you can begin a new life relatively unencumbered by baggage.
Here’s a tip you can use to “lighten up” when you’re trying to make sense of a painful situation: start by listing the good side. If you start with the bad, you can sink so deep into the quicksand of negativity that you’ll never come up for air.
So take a piece of paper, and write “My Marriage” at the top of the page. Draw a vertical line down the center of the page, and subtitle the left half “Benefits” and the right half “Drawbacks.” Then start listing what was good about the relationship, and do not let yourself get sucked over onto the other side of the page until there’s really nothing more to say. Cast your mind back to the first months (or years) of your relationship to start finding the good stuff. After you’ve completed both lists (at least 20 items on each side), then ask yourself the following two questions about your marriage:
- Who do I need to forgive (and for what)?
- Who do I need to thank (and for what)? Don’t be surprised if the same people appear on both lists (for instance, both you and your ex will probably show up in both places). Then do the same exercise over again for the subject “My Divorce.”
Friends and family are the first place to look for support. If you don’t tell them what you’re going through, they can’t help you. Initially, choose a compassionate, non-judgmental person who cares for you and confide in him/her. This is especially important for men, who tend not to have much experience with sharing feelings with others.
Recognize that your friends and family will hardly be objective about your divorce, and some may want to cast you as the victim and your spouse as the villain. This may feel good at first, but allowing them to feed your anger and resentment will ultimately hinder your recovery. Own your responsibility for the break-up, and share this information with your confidante(s) — he/she will be in a better position to help you after being shown the whole picture.
Eventually, even the best friend will burn out, though: long before you’re ready to stop talking about your divorce, your friends will have tired of hearing about it. This is where a support group comes in.
The benefits of joining a support group — or going for individual therapy if you’re not ready for the group experience — cannot be overstated. A good support group is not “a bunch of whiners” or a forum for male or female bashing. Rather, this is a collection of people at various stages of the divorce-recovery process who can offer advice, assistance, and the reassurance that your negative thoughts and feelings are completely normal — and that they will pass. Members of a divorce-support group have stood in your shoes, and can demonstrate by example that a better future is just around the corner for those willing to take the steps to get there.
For more information or to find a group near you, see “Divorce Support Services.”
Start the climb
You now know that divorce recovery is a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Some people don’t have the strength and stamina to make this difficult journey; they stop off somewhere on the trail,” notes Dr. Bruce Fisher in Rebuilding. “Some of us become seduced into another important love relationship before learning all we can from the pain… Some of us withdraw into the shelter of a cave in our own little world and watch the procession go by. And sadly, there are a few who choose self-destruction, jumping off the first cliff that looms along the trail.
“Let me assure you that the climb is worth it!” he continues. Becoming a happy, whole person is worth the pain and effort it takes to get there.
Don’t get stuck in the morass of negative emotions: you and your children deserve better. Asking for help when you reach the tough spots is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. Help is out there — in the form of friends, family, therapists, spiritual counselors, or support groups. Choose and develop the support network that will best suit your need, and focus on your goal — a happy, fulfilled post-divorce future — and you’ll get there, one step at a time.