There are many reasons why divorce recovery can be a slow and painful process: there’s the plummet in your self-confidence after being rejected by a longtime partner; there’s the loneliness, the feeling of not being whole without somebody to share your life; and there’s the disillusionment in marriage as the great happily-ever-after, or at least in your own marriage as “the real thing.” You’ll grieve the loss of what you thought was marital bliss, and this is a normal and necessary stage.
What could be more painful than the loss, however, is the fear of being single. How will I cope? you wonder. It’s scary to start over by yourself after depending on your marriage for so long. You may have merged your identity so closely with your spouse’s – defining yourself as half of a couple, not as an individual – that you can’t imagine continuing on your own. Perhaps you don’t know if you’re strong enough to take care of yourself without a spouse’s help. Or you’re ashamed of singlehood in a society defined by relationships. Will I survive? Will I be of use? Can I still find happiness?
The answer to these questions, hard to believe as it may be, is a resounding YES! More than you know, in fact, and in ways you can’t foresee while in the early stages of divorce recovery. But it will take time and effort on your part. Reinventing yourself as a single person will be challenging, but through patience and positive thinking, you’ll do it, and the rewards will be more than worth it.
Therapists Robert Alberti and Bruce Fisher, in their book, Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends, claim that “singleness has become an acceptable alternative in our society. A generation or two ago, a single person was looked upon in the community as somewhat weird, one who just did not quite make it to the altar.” As popular beliefs have changed with society’s transitions, so you must make changes when you move from being in a couple to being on your own. The most important change is in your mind. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Singleness can be a productive and happy experience if you consciously choose to think of it that way.
Some people discover to their surprise that the single life following divorce is full of new advantages. In such cases, their marriages were barriers to the lives they wanted; now they’re free to live to the fullest. This is not to suggest that marriage is a bad thing, or that single people are always happier than married people. But not all relationships are completely beneficial: one that involves physical or psychological abuse, or a power imbalance, or even boredom and monotonous routine, is repressive and unhealthy for both people. Renewed singlehood is often a major turning point in lives like this.
There are three basic stages toward personal fulfillment during this time:
- Finding and being yourself
- Making use of your extra time
- Reinventing your life through personal interests and/or a new career.
To Thine Own Self Be True
In your marriage, you thought you’d found your place in the world; when that place is suddenly gone, you may feel disowned and lost, wondering who you are and what your purpose is. What’s important to realize is that your relationship was made for you, and not vice-versa: you exist as an individual regardless of whomever you have attached yourself to. “The day you wind up single through divorce or separation is the day you get to test who you really are,” writes Ernie Zelinski in his bestseller The Joy of Not Being Married. “Learning to enjoy being single involves the ability to experience everything through your own essence, instead of living vicariously through a spouse or partner.”
This is the first step: learning to stand on your own. This doesn’t only mean taking care of yourself: it means understanding your own personality. Only on your own, without connecting your life to somebody else’s, can you fully explore your needs, wants, likes, dislikes, and goals.
Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., a leading expert on relationships and communication, believes that all people are meant to be coupled, and that a permanent single lifestyle will never satisfy the necessity for growth and love through relationships. However, he does see singleness in a positive vein — as a growing stage between adolescence and marriage. In an ideal society, “singleness would be recognized as a vital stage of the journey to maturation, a time to learn about who we are, to learn responsibility and self-sufficiency, to identify our true desires, and to confront our inner strengths and demons,” Dr. Hendrix writes in Keeping the Love You Find. “It would be sorely needed relationship training.”
Unfortunately, many people miss out on this important training. They were taught by tradition to get married as soon as they could and to establish themselves in a nuclear family setting. As Fisher and Alberti point out, these people “never learned to be single persons before they married. They went from parental homes to marriage homes, never even considered that one could be happy living as a single person.”
Most people have a lot of living to do before they’re truly ready to settle down into responsible family lives. Marrying before you’ve sown your wild oats may have caused you to bring a lot of unnecessary baggage into the relationship. After divorce, it may be necessary to make up for lost time in terms of self-discovery. “Many divorced or widowed people,” Dr. Hendrix observes, “do with their singleness what they should have done before they married for the first time: live alone, find their own rhythms, date a variety of people, go into therapy, develop new friends and interests, learn how to live with and care for themselves.” These are the ways young people learn who they are and what makes them unique. But if you’re newly divorced, it’s not too late to follow the same path.
It’s important to learn as much as possible about somebody before you marry or live with that person. To live with yourself successfully, you’ll have to go through the same process. You could even ask yourself the questions you might ask a prospective date, to get to know him or her. “What do I like to do for fun?” “What are my dreams and goals?” “What’s a nice person like me doing in a place like this?” And when you answer, be honest with yourself. Your own answers may surprise you, if you look inside and ignore outside influences. Many of us have been so influenced early on — by our family, friends, teachers, employers and social norms — in our habits and opinions that we deny the truths about our own personalities to ourselves. Is that what led you to marrying unsuccessfully the first time?
As La Rochefoucaud put it, “Being alone is a markedly different experience from being lonely.” You might find yourself a fascinating companion.
Time is on Your Side
“We are always getting ready to live,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “but never living.” How true: we spend so much of our lives working — both professionally and in domestic ways — and seldom have time to fully enjoy the fruits of our labor, or even life’s free pleasures. Our family responsibilities can become a 24-hour job and get in the way of all the things we’d love to do. As a result, even when we do find some free time, we don’t have the energy left over to do much else besides rest.
The next step in turning the lemon of sudden singleness into lemonade is using the extra time you never had during the marriage. “Many have spent their free, recreational time in the past doing what the spouse wanted or what they had learned to do with their parents,” write Fisher and Alberti. “Your assignment now is simply to take the time to develop a new interest.” It helps when you know yourself well enough to decide what new interest suits you the best.
You may have dreamed about what you’d love to do with your life — big, ambitious projects or small, private pleasures — but dismissed them as hopeless fantasies, while assuming that time with your spouse, or catering to your spouse’s needs or wants, was more important. Now that the barrier of your marriage is gone, your dreams and desires may be obtainable. If your breakup has left you with too much time on your hands, seize that excess time and make it work for you.
“Making the most out of being single,” says Zelinski, “means taking advantage of the freedom to create a lifestyle that is adventurous, exciting, and rewarding for you.” And you can live this lifestyle without any worry that a significant other might not approve.
Suppose that you’ve always wanted to travel abroad, but couldn’t because your partner was afraid of flying, or couldn’t take time off from his/her career, or just didn’t want to. Well, now’s your chance. Have you had a book inside you for years that has been dying to get written? Nobody’s stopping you. If you have children, you’re free to spend your time building on your relationships with them — without a spouse around to judge or limit your influence upon them.
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and determination. You can finish that college degree, go to the neighborhood bar anytime, do charity work, join a night class, stay out all night, flirt with anybody you please. With the freedom of time comes the freedom of action. You don’t have to share the bathroom or the remote control; you can watch TV or read or eat in bed without disturbing someone else; you can choose which furniture, food, and clothes to buy based on your own tastes. Even if your divorce has left you with far less money than you had coming in as a couple, at least you get to choose how to spend it.
“It’s a great time in your life to explore your internal self and get grounded,” explains Lloyd MacNeil, a brand director with Telepersonals/Webpersonals in Toronto. “When you’re in a couple, you tend to get caught up in the day-to-day of life; you ignore yourself and your own needs. It’s also a great time for bonding with other singles and other friends, and meeting new people through that.”
Yet while it’s a brave step to make your own schedule, make sure your actions and plans are grounded in reality. Take practical issues — your financial resources, your parental and career responsibilities, your health — into vital consideration; you don’t want to make any foolish sacrifices or mistakes. Also be sure to plan carefully: don’t act too quickly without thinking of a safety net.
After his divorce was finalized, Peter, a dentist in Chicago, decided to fulfill his dream of travelling across the USA in a sportscar. Responding to an ad for a 1969 MG convertible, he hopped on a plane to San Francisco. The car was being sold by an elderly widow, who told Peter that the MG hadn’t been out of its garage in 15 years. Undaunted, he bought the car, paid a local mechanic to give it a basic tune-up and new tires, and set off on his cross-country adventure.
About 200 miles into his journey, the engine seized, stranding him in the middle of nowhere. When he finally got the car towed to a garage, he found that it would need a new engine — not to mention brakes, clutch, exhaust, and radiator — to become roadworthy. Peter now has to pay to store the car at the garage until he can afford the massive repair bill. “I should have had the car checked out more thoroughly before I bought it,” he admits ruefully. “I’m no mechanic: a new car would have been a better choice for me.”
You may be tempted to try to circumvent the grieving stage by plunging yourself into non-stop adventures or new relationships. This is a mistake that will come back to haunt you: you must feel the pain of the death of your marriage, then release it in order to be truly free.
If you weren’t the motivating or decision-making spouse in your marriage, sudden singlehood may leave you unsure of what to do with yourself; you don’t know how to make your own plans. The good news is that you can learn — and the more you practice, the better you’ll get at making decisions. If your judgment is a little shaky right now, bounce your ideas and plans off a friend with good judgment.
The bottom line is that you don’t want to use this time to do things you’ll regret later, or fail to do things you’ll regret missing out on. It’s a bad idea to try to make up for your loss by overspending, or overeating, or bedhopping with everyone you meet. That can be just as fatal as getting too caught up in your grief and putting your life on pause. Always think of the consequences of your actions: the saddest words you could end up uttering are, “I made a terrible mistake.”
Once you learn who you are as an individual, you’ll find that there are many options open that you had no idea existed. You can renew yourself by devoting your single life to stimulating new interests and goals.
This may be a good time to examine your career path. Do you like your job? If not, consider the services of a career counselor or a “head hunter” to find a new, fulfilling job for you. Your local employment center might be able to help you find what kind of work would best suit your personality and give you the most inner satisfaction. But unless you’re independently wealthy, you shouldn’t quit your present job without having accepted a new position first. This is especially true if you have support obligations or custody of children; the extra freedom of singlehood doesn’t exempt you from your financial or parental responsibilities, which may limit your options.
A person who makes enough money to live on and support dependants at a job that he or she genuinely likes will be far happier than someone making a lot more money doing something he or she dislikes. Some people choose specific career paths not because their hearts are in them, but to earn enough to provide for a marriage and/or family, plus the material perks that accompany them (suburban house, two cars, etc.), either present or planned. Suppose that when your marriage is dissolved, you don’t have (or need) that big house or additional car anymore. What’s the use of winning the extra bread if it doesn’t satisfy your need for personal accomplishment?
Marie, a former sales clerk, took a job as a tour operator in Mexico after her divorce. She’d yearned to travel and see other cultures all her life, but her ex-husband had disliked going anywhere and she had sacrificed her desires for the sake of her marriage. Her post-divorce career gave her the chance not only to find herself through a job that she enjoyed more, but also to see Mexico and other places. Obviously, she’d found a solution that brought her a much happier life.
Then again, you may be happy with your present job regardless of how modestly you live. In fact, it may also be a good idea —if it doesn’t interfere with your relationships with your children — to focus your energy on your career to move up in the world. If you have kids, ask your friends and family to pitch in as babysitters to enable you to take night classes to upgrade your skills.
But you may not necessarily be satisfied with your life accomplishments outside of your career — especially if your marriage and family consumed all of your non-work time. That’s where you have to find new passions, or rekindle old ones — both to make use of your mental and/or physical skills in a constructive way, and also to meet new friends. It’s up to you, once you’ve gotten to know yourself and what activities you enjoy, to decide what’s right for you. Do you want to join a local sports league? Build model ships? Start a side business in another field that interests you?
One popular choice for a post-divorce pursuit is learning to dance. It’s not only a great way to keep yourself fit and active, it also boosts your self-confidence. “It isn’t unusual for dancers to meet a future life partner on the dance floor,” says Craig Marcott, the author of Three Minutes of Intimacy: Dance Your Way to a Sensational Social Life, who credits the currently huge turnover in the singles market to “a constant influx of new people resulting from divorce.” Marcott encourages people to try dance lessons as a way of diverting their attention from grief, having fun, and getting exercise again. “You don’t have to be a Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers to enjoy dance,” he says.
Psychologist Pat Hudson suggests escaping from divorce-related grief through creative endeavors. “Your mind is a potential playground,” Hudson writes in You Can Get Over Divorce. “As long as you know you are playing, you are developing the creative side of you, having fun, often indirectly dealing with your feelings, and healing at the same time.” Hudson gives writing or drawing as examples; you could also join a community theater. Tom, a New York based sales rep, discovered painting shortly after his divorce — and it has become one of his greatest passions. Now happily remarried, he continues to paint, and even decorates the walls of his home and office with his art.
You might even find that creative interests lead you to that more satisfying new career. Scottish author J.K. Rowling, known for the immensely popular Harry Potter children’s books, is one example of somebody who switched career tracks after her divorce — and succeeded phenomenally. This is not to imply that everybody has the talent to become a world-renowned artist or entertainer. But even if you have to keep your day job, finding a constructive creative outlet for your fantasies is one of the best ways of enjoying yourself while single. If your divorce-related emotions are too strong to escape through fantasy, use creativity as an outlet for your feelings, as a sort of primal therapy. Write about your anger and your pain. Make art out of your suffering. “Given the time, space, and urge, we all have the potential to be artists,” writes women’s activist Victoria Jaycox in Single Again: A Guide for Women Starting Over. “Most of it is trained out of us as we grow up and enter the serious worlds of learning and work.” Singleness can be the chance to rediscover the artist within you.
Divorce isn’t the end of your life. It can be a second beginning in which you plan everything differently: you take roads you haven’t traveled, explore new options, and perhaps transform yourself into something you couldn’t have imagined being.
Life is Beautiful
“Everyone who experiences the breakup of a partnership suffers the same depths of pain and endures the same devastating emotions,” writes relationship counselor Angel La Liberte (writing under the name Christina Basciano) in Relationship Breakdown: A Survival Guide. “Yet, as we recover and create new lives out of the ashes, we generate new identities that are truly unique, truly our own.” You achieve this by taking control of your life, rather than letting the pain continue to bring you down. You can do and be what you want. You can set free your inner longings that have been aching to materialize.
But the benefit that may surprise you most is the likelihood of your attracting a new partner and starting a relationship with far more lasting power than the first. Why? Because after you’ve made use of your new life to better define who you are, you’ll attract someone who loves the real, essential you that you’re no longer afraid of – or prevented from – revealing to the world. And even if you don’t find your true soulmate right away, you won’t be lonely. You’ll find new friendships: ones that will last because your new friends enjoy the “real” you that you’ve discovered.
Renewed singleness is the time to thrive and show the world your true colors by taking full advantage of your new freedom. The most satisfying life you can have is one that you can look back upon and say to yourself proudly, “I did it my way.”
Expert Tips for the Newly Single
- “Be conscious of what you tell yourself. Negative, dangerous thoughts like ‘I’m too old’ or ‘who’ll want me after what I’ve been through?’ keep us from moving forward. Cultivate an optimistic attitude, and more good things will happen.”
– Debra Burrell, CSW, New York therapist and “Mars and Venus” workshop instructor
- “Divorce produces a mixture of feelings, from relief that the fighting and struggling are over, to sadness that the hopes of a lifetime together have evaporated. Newly divorced people must not focus only on the short-term relief while ignoring the more long-term sadness. Renewing yourself as an individual must include learning how to complete what the divorce left emotionally unfinished, so you won’t be defined by the pain you carry forward and thereby sabotage future relationships.”
– Russell Friedman, executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute in California
- “You can go back and take a deeper look at who you are and how you relate to other people. It’s an exploration phase: you begin to re-evaluate how to form friendships, what gives you satisfaction at work and what doesn’t, and what gets you excited on the dating scene.”
– Jamie Weiner, Psy.D., co-creator of Associates for Life Challenges in Chicago
- “All human beings have the ‘right stuff’ to enable new possibilities to emerge. As the painful emotion associated with divorce subsides, it slowly opens the mind to the creative energy to imagine new scenes, new characters, and new scripts. Divorce is but one scene in an unfolding process of reproducing ourselves one moment at a time.”
– Dr. Ken Celiano, Chicago therapist and divorce coach
- “There’s the opportunity to finally be able to do things you previously felt inhibited doing. Many people find that as time goes by, once they’ve gotten over their grief, they take on major career changes, new hobbies and interests, personal growth.”
– David Whealey, M.Ed., founder of Separated Anonymous in Toronto