Just as a heart surgeon can only repair the physical aspects of a heart ailment, the court is only a means for two individuals to finalize their divorce. The doctor, the court, or the lawyer cannot be responsible for healing emotional wounds. This kind of healing can only be done by the person suffering the wound. Others may come along and assist the healing process, but ultimately, the responsibility for healing the wound rests with the individual.
For that to happen, you need to be open to the various possibilities for healing, which may take place in the form of therapy, spiritual assistance, support groups, friends, or books. Whatever you do, it is most important that you open yourself up to the necessary process for healing your heart.
Remember: other divorced people have not only “gotten through it,” but many have also used the opportunity to take significant steps in their emotional and spiritual growth. That same opportunity awaits you.
Care for yourself
Divorce is demanding. To be able to cope with the stress created by this major life transition, you need to take care of yourself.
As you travel through the challenging phases of divorce, you need to know that your feelings and thoughts are normal and that although it won’t be easy, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
As a therapist, I am concerned that people who are in the process of divorcing take care of themselves. The following suggestions may help you do so.
Feel the Pain: Realize, then Release It
The ways in which marriages end vary greatly. However, almost all marital endings have one thing in common — feelings of disappointment, anger, and resentment towards the person who did not fulfill your dreams. Denial causes you to bury those feelings temporarily. But unless the pain is felt, it cannot be released. Denying your feelings can be compared to getting a sliver under your skin. You can cover it, ignore it, or pretend that it doesn’t bother you. The reality is that the sliver hurts and the longer you let it stay embedded inside you, the more of an irritant it becomes. After a time, it can become a festering sore. Unacknowledged frustration and anger over your divorce will fester and infect your attitude in other unrelated situations.
Divorce is challenging enough without the added turbulence of buried feelings. It is important to acknowledge your pain.
Allow Yourself to Grieve the Losses Associated with Divorce
There are five stages of grief that most people go through when suffering a significant loss: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness/depression, and acceptance. Divorce involves loss for everyone. Become familiar with the stages as a reminder that your emotions and thoughts are not abnormal, but are, in fact, healthy and normal. Even cycling back in the progression is to be expected. As one of my clients observed, “I noticed that it was possible to go through the entire process in one day, and then start over again the next day. I would start out each morning in ‘denial,’ the first stage, and by the end of the day, I would have reached ‘acceptance’ again.”
To review these stages, I offer entries from my journal that illustrate the different phases of feeling and thought.
Stage One: Denial
This is only a mid-life crisis. He’s going to come to his senses soon. I just need to be supportive and allow him freedom to go through this phase. After all, this is outlined in books. It’s a predictable life stage! Give him space.
Stage Two: Anger
How could he be so cruel? I have been patient and supportive, only to be rejected. He doesn’t deserve to be happy after what he did to me. And I will make sure he is never happy again.
Stage Three: Bargaining
Okay, maybe I haven’t been compromising enough or attentive to his interests and needs. He always wanted more companionship and I was always too busy with my projects. I’ll take up fly-fishing and plan some romantic times together. That will get things back on track.
Stage Four: Sadness/Depression
I called to tell him I had made some special plans for us. He is not interested. “I’m sorry. It’s too late,” he says. I feel so sad, so alone. Stage Five: Acceptance
It hasn’t been easy, but I do understand that things were not great between us for a long time. He seems more at peace with himself now, and my heart still loves his heart. He’s a good person and I want him to be happy. I can’t make him feel happy with me. I don’t want him to be with me unless he means it. And the truth is, he doesn’t mean it. He might stay for Aimee’s sake, but where does that leave me? Not secure… At this point I feel a sense of relief that he initiated the changes that are going to move us both ahead. I have faith in the future, and I am actually excited to see what may be in store for me.
Resist the Desire for Revenge
Going through a divorce floods you with some of the most intense emotions you may ever feel. The intensity of these emotions can cause you to react in ways that you never considered yourself capable of — and which you may later regret. During the times of greatest stress, you will find it difficult to sort out choices in your best interest for future happiness from those motivated by a strong natural impulse for revenge.
In the interest of healing your heart, talk to yourself about how you are feeling. The more aware you are of your emotions, the clearer you become about your motives. It is much easier to make wise choices when you are clear about your feelings and motives.
At one point near the end of my marriage, I was filled with a strong rage at my husband. I had several almost irresistible opportunities to exact revenge and hurt him back. I understood the phrase “sweet revenge” as never before.
But I chose not to react. For one thing, I didn’t want to be known as a vengeful person. For another, I reminded myself that this person is the father of my child. If I hurt him, I also hurt my child because whatever pain he carries will be present when he is with her. For her sake, I could not hurt him. But it was not easy. I had to remind myself of who I was and how I wanted to be remembered.
Remind yourself of who you are when you are in a vulnerable emotional state. Take steps so that you don’t compromise your future and live with regrets.
Be Open to the Chance to Fly Solo Again
Being in a marital relationship alters your identity, blending it with another’s. Both partners make compromises and assume new personality characteristics to balance the relationship. When that melded identity is dissolved, you need time to rediscover who you are now as an unalloyed, independent self. Give yourself a chance to grow accustomed to the new you that is different from what you were before you married and what you were within the marriage.
Beware of dragging old baggage with you into a new relationship. Now is your chance to sort it out. Decide what interaction patterns or personality traits may have impacted your last relationship. Change the things you don’t like, and avoid bouncing into a new relationship too soon. Above all, give yourself time to heal.
Equally important, treasure what’s good about yourself. Now is the time to identify strengths and traits that perhaps were not valued by your partner. Possibly you love to ski, or read novels, or hike, but always felt guilty because your partner considered that activity a waste of time and resources. What parts of yourself have remained dormant or self-censured for the sake of other goals? Let your next most important new relationship be with your Self.
Many social functions not only include couples but are also structured around couple activities. If you are not at ease in that setting yet, don’t accept well-intentioned invitations to couples’ functions. Take time to become comfortable hanging out with yourself. Get back into enjoying your own company.
I gathered from my clients a few suggestions for releasing pain, opening doors, and establishing a new center of balance:
- When your feelings are surfacing, write them down. Let them flow. If your feelings are conflicted, let the different parts of yourself argue it out with each other. Don’t worry about being consistent. Don’t worry about how you should feel. Find out what you do feel in all its contradictory richness. Scribble over each line or tear the paper to bits when you are finished. You want to release the feelings, not re-read and recycle them.
- Join a support group where you can talk freely about your emotions without feeling judged and without fear that the information will get back to your children and ex-spouse.
- Scream into a pillow.
- Escape into the movies and the relief of caring how someone else’s story will turn out.
- Sing songs matching your feelings. Read poetry.
- Attend sporting events.
- Learn to ask for what you need, and teach your children to do the same. Perhaps you need some time alone — or even time-out so you can calm down! Make your needs known.
- Renew your connection with the earth — desert, lake, mountain, ocean, even a city park. Spend some time alone, even if you go with friends.
- Apologize to your children about any pain you may feel you have caused them: “I’m sorry I’ve been so grouchy. It’s not your fault.”
- Practice deep and slow breathing. Use sighs and stretching to let go of stress.
- Daydream about being in your favorite place with your favorite people.
- Commit to an exercise program tailored to your lifestyle and needs. Brisk walking is as good as a run. Being physically fit helps you feel and be emotionally resilient. A good workout also helps you let go of anger and anxiety.
- Make a list of all your interests and a wish list of things you would like to do. Prioritize and begin.
- Walk, swim, kick or throw a ball. Run, dance, jump on a trampoline. Go to bed sweaty and exhausted instead of teary and sleepless.
To these, let me add two from my own list:
- Renew your spirit. Whatever spirituality means to you, explore it more. We sometimes limit our spiritual growth by thinking only in terms of our religious upbringing or church affiliation. These roots may still be strong and nourishing, but challenging times can be seasons of new growth. Seek your own personal connections to a higher power.
- Meditate, pray, listen, and connect. This can renew your faith in yourself when you most need it.
Give of yourself to someone else. Although you may feel reluctant to connect with someone else’s sorrow or difficult circumstances when you are hurting yourself, reaching out to others can provide healing benefits to you.
I’ll always remember the Christmas after my mother died. The previous four years I had gladly spearheaded a “Sub for Santa” project at an agency for abused children. But that year I felt bowed down by my own grief and loss. I forced myself to go forward anyway, although at times I did my share of the work with a numbed and distracted heart.
My efforts were repaid in a unexpected way on Christmas Eve. When I was delivering gifts to children that night, some of them accidentally saw me. I saw their faces light up with delight and surprise, and my heart revived. Their youthful joy brought me back to the moment and to life. What we give to others will return to us in abundance.
If your situation is such that you can cultivate kinder feelings, forgiveness is the most freeing option. Hatred binds us to its object as mercilessly as does love. Forgive and move on, or stay angry and remain stuck.
As time went on, I realized that I still loved my former husband for the person he is. Even though I no longer want our marriage, I can appreciate his kindness, his love for nature, his sense of humour. He is a person with character flaws like the rest of us. I can focus on his goodness, which will benefit my daughter, him, and myself; or I can focus on his faults, which will only hurt us all. Harboring bitterness and anger at others or yourself catches you up in the double-stranded nets of guilt and blaming.
Start by forgiving yourself — for not seeing it coming, if nothing else. Then extend the circle as you can. You will regain your balance and forward momentum as you stop berating yourself for the past. Your new task is to be open to the future and the possibilities it holds for you.
Own Your Pain
Every emotional wound will continue to influence your life through the choices you make. In order to gain control over your life and your reactionary behaviors, you must heal your heart. There are no shortcuts. One of the most important things you can do as you adjust to your divorce is to take responsibility for resolving your heartache.
We often see the heartache of wounded partners channeled into hurtful behaviors long after the divorce is legally settled. If hearts were truly healed, the motivation to hurt and exact revenge would not be there. At times, these acts of retaliation are taken out not only on former partners, but also on other innocent people who have become involved in current relationships with the ex-spouse.
Jealousy often flares up when an ex-spouse begins sharing private intimacies with a new person. At this point the pain really intensifies. As we look back, the very act of getting married implies the turning over of your most private self to another. Simply by doing this, you communicate an unspoken trust within this monogamous commitment that gradually becomes taken for granted. It is probably in this area that a certain feeling of ownership or entitlement develops. Once a person becomes your spouse, his or her identity also becomes a part of your identity through the marital relationship. Consider the introductions we use: “This is my husband John.” At a subconscious level, there is an assumption being made that your partner is now a part of you.
All of this is important because it often gets played out when the couple is trying to separate. In reality, we all know that we don’t own another person, and never will. However, subconsciously the marital identity takes time to undo. For the years you were married, there was a joint identity and two individual identities.
If the breakup of the marital identity has not had sufficient time to heal before a third person is introduced, the emotions and jealousies can be intense. Simply put, it can feel like another person is intruding on your turf without your permission and consent. These are the situations where we often hear about “crimes of passion” being committed. When you feel like your “space” is being taken away by another person, especially when you are still in love with your former spouse, the desire to put an end to the pain often results in hurting one or both of the participating parties.
The “reactionary emotions” to this type of situation can be prevented by recognizing inner emotions about your former partner and doing a lot of self-talk. Affirmations can help you recognize that you are a whole person regardless of the structure of your family. The type of messages you need to be telling yourself during these times is expressed in the following statements.
“Every person in this world has the freedom of choice. I can’t make another person want to be with me simply because I want to be with him/her. I recognize that I can’t control the choices of my former spouse.”
“I might be able to influence another person’s perception, but I can never control it, and trying to do so will make me so frustrated that I could end up doing things I will regret. It is in my best interest to let go, and release trying to control others, especially my former spouse.”
“Although my spouse and I shared a certain “marital identity,” I now have to release that identity and continue to progress with my own individual identity.”
“I don’t need to compare myself to another by wondering why a different person can please my former spouse. People change, and in doing so, their needs and desires change. This situation is not a statement about my self-worth or my ability to love and be loved. It is a reflection of the changes that have taken place over time.”
“Becoming overly self-absorbed in my own pain can magnify and distort the situation. I choose to focus my energy and thoughts on things that I can influence and change, and not on things that are beyond my control.”
“Although I may want to strike out and hurt the person who hurts me, it is not in my best interest or my children’s best interest to do so. I recognize that putting out negative energy will return negative energy to me in some way. Therefore, I choose to send out positive energy — even when I don’t feel like it.”
This article has been edited and excerpted from Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce, by Elizabeth Hickey, M.S.W., and Elizabeth Dalton, J.D. (Gold Leaf Press). A divorced mother who shares custody of her daughter with her former husband, Ms. Hickey has produced two award-winning videos on divorce that are being used by courts throughout the United States, and I Love You More Than…, a children’s book. Written by a counselor and an attorney who have recovered from the trauma of divorce themselves, this guidebook will help parents regain their emotional balance while developing a new way of relating to each other — as co-parents who have their children’s best interests at heart.