There are many losses associated with divorce: you’re losing a partner, a relationship, maybe a home, or even children. One of the most devastating losses is less obvious, though. Divorce can also kill trust — in relationships, and in life. How can you learn to trust again in the face of this betrayal?
When I first held Divorce Magazine in my hands, I thought to myself: “When I’m finished writing my book on grief, I’d love to write a piece for this magazine on the death of love.” Well, one year later, I’m no longer convinced that divorce always kills love — although the first sensation might feel like the death of love. What really begins to die is our trust in love, our trust in life. Simply put, we feel betrayed by the breakdown of our marriage.
Every divorce is different: I’ve been divorced twice, and each was as different from the other as apples and monkey wrenches! But all divorces represent the death of a relationship, and death smacks us all in the face with loss, grief, and mourning. Something is gone from our lives — good, bad, or indifferent.
The most potent message our culture puts out about grief and loss is not to think about it until you absolutely have to! Not only is it one of the first messages we hear but it is one of the loudest and most persistent. Not allowing ourselves to think about the possible losses in our lives makes a monster out of grief. We haven’t tried it on; we haven’t developed any flexibility or resourcefulness about it. We have buried it in our unconscious minds with a heavy top-soil that screams “Danger — Toxic Material!” And what usually accompanies such a sign? A skull-and-crossbones — a symbol of death!
This perspective not only inspires a number of unhealthy attitudes towards loss, but also keeps loss associated with death. Sex, birth, divorce, death, and money have all come out of the closet; topics that had been taboo in “polite” society have now become, if not easy, at least accessible topics of conversation. Yet loss and its attendant, grief, continue to be taboo, shameful and hidden. Like sex, birth, divorce, death, and money, loss is a part of our daily lives. Yes, daily lives. Is there a day that goes by where we don’t experience a loss of some kind or another? Perhaps we need to exercise the “muscles” that are used in grieving just as we need to exercise the muscles in our physical bodies. There are levels of fitness and wellness we need to achieve in our attitudes and in our beliefs about this experience called life that can’t be postponed.
Our capacity to let go, to lose, with grace and awareness and honor comes from having developed certain skills. Each day presents us with the opportunities to hone those skills. Perhaps it is in the face of a thought that randomly crosses our minds or a story that comes to our attention. Perhaps we are reading a newspaper and come across an account of an accident in which a young man or woman has been killed in a carjacking. Our thoughts immediately seize on this story and transpose it into our own lives. And, just as quickly, we shut it off. No! We won’t allow ourselves to think about it! Why not? Are we afraid of becoming morbidly obsessed with “bad” things happening? Do “bad” things not happen because we won’t allow ourselves to think about them?
A popular contemporary self-help book is entitled When Bad Things Happen To Good People. My second reaction to that title was: who should they happen to? Can we all agree on a group of people we will call on to carry all the tragedies? My first reaction was: these are not “bad” things that happen to us. They are events that happen in the course of life itself. As a popular bumper sticker puts it: “Shit happens.” How we deal with it is a manifestation of our relative wellness. Loss happens. Lift those light weights of loss that life brings you regularly so that you can see where your strengths and weaknesses lie — where you’re perhaps injured and need healing — before you’re asked to lift the heavier and heavier weights.
Tone Your “Grief Muscles”
When I sit with someone who asks, “Why me?” I always want to ask, “Why not you?” And if it’s not you right now, it will eventually be you. And if it’s not this loss it will be some other loss. Is it possible to strengthen those muscles that support us in the face of loss? Absolutely. Strength comes by practicing with each loss that life brings to us. Daily practice occurs by noticing how we deal with a lost earring, a broken leg, or a broken date; by examining our fears and resistances as they arise; by paying attention to the little voices in our minds that say: “I would never be able to deal with ____________ (fill in the blank).” “I couldn’t go on living without ____________ (fill in the blank).”
Now, go back and see what it would take to survive that. No judgments. Don’t diminish your particular struggle. Use it as a way into your mind and the many thoughts that create your belief systems. How good are you at surrender? At letting go? Notice how you respond when plans change. When people change. When the weather gets in your way. When you make a mistake. When you break something. When you’re disappointed. Or when you do the disappointing.
How can we trust our inner wisdom if we have not spent time struggling with it, listening to it, being taught by it? The time to seek our inner teacher is not in the face of disaster; it is in the everyday practice of life and loss. As one of the Hasidic masters reminds us: “While a tree with strong roots can withstand a harsh storm, it can hardly hope to grow them once the storm is on the horizon.”
Loss wears many masks. For some of us, the first mask of loss we see is that of betrayal. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Not only was this loss not in our plans but it is inconceivable to us. Most losses come at us suddenly, unexpectedly, and even if we have had time to “prepare” ourselves, as during a lengthy illness or through a drawn-out process of divorce or relocation, we still often find the reality paralyzing. We look for someone to blame: a doctor, a bus driver, a lunatic, God, our spouses, ourselves. Each is a pitfall since to place blame means that someone could have done something differently so that there would have been a different outcome. Our minds scream, “It wasn’t meant to happen like this!” According to whom? The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.”
Our thoughts — what we are thinking — not only affect how we feel but also keep us open or closed to the possibilities inherent in any situation. Thoughts are physical energy that have been formed by consciousness. The challenge is to be conscious of those thoughts so that we are in charge of them rather than having our thoughts in charge of us. For instance, if someone betrays me, and all I can think is that she is a bad person and I am a poor victimized soul, not only will I be blind to all the factors leading up to the betrayal but I will also be blind to many of the roads leading away from the betrayal. I will be locked inside a prison of my own making! Whatever the circumstances or the degree of the betrayal, every situation is like an onion skin with many, many layers, and our task is to stay present as long as it takes to peel away as many of those layers as possible. In this process there’s always a teaching. It’s rarely the one we thought we signed up for and seldom one we would have chosen. If we can hold onto the idea that every moment in our lives is potentially teaching us something, and that we always have some choices in the matter, we can hold ourselves open instead of collapsing around our pain, suffering, and sense of betrayal.
One morning I received, in rapid succession, two letters and a phone call from three friends whom I had always felt to be trusted allies and advisors. For twenty years I had held each of them, with their trials and tribulations, in my heart and mind, available at any hour of the day or night should they need me. Now I was in need. Struggling and vulnerable, I had turned to them for help. Each, for their own reasons, turned away from me. A sense of grief and betrayal threatened to overwhelm me in my already fragile state. The loss of 20 years of faith and trust that these friends would be there for me was devastating. Knowing that 60 years of relationship were crumbling beneath my feet, all I could think was, who could I trust? What is there left to trust?
The phone rang again. I picked it up. It was a wise woman friend who received my pain and loss, and said quietly to me: trust includes betrayal. In the moment she uttered those words, I knew they were true. I couldn’t explain it, even to myself, but I could feel the wisdom, the truth, of the teaching. Over time I have struggled to learn about the trust that includes betrayal. To trust completely is to hold our faith so firmly that even what appears to be and feels like a betrayal can be included as part of the wholeness of that faith. What is such a faith? Faith that life is not arbitrarily singling us out to harass and punish us, to wound us, to torment us; faith that somewhere along the line the wisdom of this moment of loss will be revealed to us. Faith that this is part of the plan. Is betrayal revealed wisdom concealed?
Abraham Heschel wrote, “To have faith is not to capitulate but to rise to a higher plane of thinking. To have faith is not to defy human reason but rather to share divine wisdom.”
Life in its very nature is unpredictable. There are no guarantees of what will happen next. The Tibetans say: “Tomorrow or the next life, which comes first we cannot know.” That very unpredictability holds loss at its center. What we need and have today might no longer be ours tomorrow. This gives rise to the question of whether it was even “ours” to begin with.
Trust in the ebb and flow of life is essential to our well-being. We trust that the tides will rise and fall, that the sun will come up each morning and the seasons will follow each other. Can we trust that there is meaning and wisdom in the ebb and flow, the gifts and losses, of our lives? And can we include betrayal in that trust? Loss brings us to our knees. Faith in our constantly changing fortunes — trust in our singular life force — raises us up again.
How big can we get in the face of divorce? How big can we open the lens of our minds and hearts as we look at the devastation that our lives appear to be? What would it take to keep our hearts and minds open? Betrayal is a powerful threat to our survival. In the face of betrayal we think we must bolt all the doors and windows. We close our hearts and minds at the very moment when we need more than anything to stay open to let in the love and wisdom that life also offers in the face of loss.
The seed of trust lies in knowing we didn’t lose everything we had; that nothing can be lost once it’s in our hearts and minds. The healing that the loss brings allows us to stay open in “good faith.” We stand in gale-force winds buffeted by the duality of betrayal and trust. At the center, our hearts stand open being held by the love which created us. With love, you begin to honor the life that moves through you and that will enable you to create a new and different relationship with your ex-spouse.
It won’t be easy. Life and love ask everything of us. Ultimately, they ask us to be willing to trust enough to continue loving in the face of the betrayal that loss brings.
Helpful Hints to move through anger and blame
Breathe. When you feel anger beginning to take over and control you, pay attention. Relax your shoulders back and down. Softly close the lips and begin to inhale through the nose. Take five deep breaths reaching into the belly. Now, ask yourself how the anger is “serving” you. Can the energy of the anger be used constructively? If it can’t, continue deepening the breath as you allow the anger to move through and out of you.
Imagine. During a crisis, we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness. We need to develop inner resources to keep us from collapsing under the weight of a crisis. Our imagination can be a powerful tool. Find an image — it could be the face of a dear friend, your child, a religious image, or even a sunset or a flower — that brings you peace, calm, and strength when you close your eyes and visualize it. Practice using this image to fortify yourself against pain.
Practice yoga. The ancient science of yoga teaches you to surrender: with each exhalation, with each position, with each admonition to focus the mind instead of letting it wander, you’re asked to surrender the tight hold you have on your body, your breath, and your mind. Yoga encourages you to let go of the need to be in charge, to hold on, to direct the show. The more you try to make things happen the way you want, the less likely you are to get your way. To ride the horse in the direction it’s going is sometimes the wisest thing to do.
Laugh. No matter how gloomy a situation, there is always humor. Some researchers suggest that you “fake it till you make it.” Recent studies conclude that if you act happier — smiling and laughing more, for instance — you can actually become happier.
Mother Nature. Native cultures have long understood the healing power of nature. Going for a walk in the park, at the beach, sitting in a garden, or enjoying an intimate time alone in some wooded area can be a powerful balm for a troubled soul. Consider going on a “retreat” in an area you love. Let nature embrace you and be your teacher. ¥ Music, Dance, Journal Writing, Art. These are all allies at different moments in our journey through loss. Use them as you remember your dis-membered self.
In most situations, we’re taught to hold on so tightly to what we have that any time we lose hold, we suffer — even if what we’ve lost was causing us pain. Suffering, grieving, and mourning in the face of divorce is as much a part of the process as it is in the face of death. But (and this is a big but) if pain is all that remains, we’ve lost more than a lover, a partner, a friend, and a marriage: we’ve lost our faith in life. If that feels like too big a leap — to go from suffering the loss of a love to losing our faith in life — let’s stop for a moment.
Take a deep breath. Let your chest open and expand and fill with air. Let it out. Take another breath as you think about the blame and anger that often accompany loss. As you breathe in, consider the idea that when we’re in pain, we need to find the source of that pain before we know what steps to take to heal. A simple pain in your side, for example, could signal a life-threatening rupturing appendix. We don’t usually get side-tracked by anger or blame during a physical crisis. For example, if you were to waste time and energy figuring out who to blame for your rupturing appendix before taking the actions necessary for healing — probably surgery and rest in this case — you’d be dead. Blame and anger are the pitfalls, the danger zones, of an emotional crisis as well as a physical crisis.
Recently, I found myself thinking about a dear friend who continues to feel victimized and agitated by her divorce. Although her divorce became final almost a year ago, we had been struggling together for years to help her come to terms with her painful marriage. I picked up the phone and asked her to read with me the section on “Faith” in my book Good Grief. The next day, she called with a revelation: “If I let him off the hook by abandoning my anger and blame,” she said, “then I’ll be saying that what he did was OK.”
“But in order to get him and keep him on that hook,” I told her, “you have to stay attached to that hook with him.” The price of blame is staying stuck in pain and suffering.
I respect the position of anger and blame; they serve their purpose in the recovery process. But don’t stop here: this is not where you want to spend the rest of your life. Instead, pass through anger and blame — and even pain — on your way to someplace else. And where might that someplace else be?
Consider that we’re all students in this school of life. We’re all in the process of being taught. Instead of getting snagged on questions like: “Who is to blame?” “Where can I direct my anger?” or “What went wrong?” steer towards the question that asks: “What am I being taught?” To even ask that question, we must have faith that there is a teaching taking place, that life is not randomly destroying our happiness. In order to risk having a relationship again, you might need to keep your heart open and soft in the face of your loss.
But how can you remain soft in the face of pain — especially when everyone is telling you to be tough? How do you resist getting lost in your fear, anger, and betrayal? The first step is to pay attention to your thoughts. Scientists say that we have several thousand thoughts per day; how many can you remember? Those same scientists tell us that thought precedes action, which means that we’re constantly acting on thoughts of which we are barely aware!
Begin an awareness campaign — just notice the parade of thoughts going through your mind. Pick a few settings where you’re not doing anything else: stopped at a red light or caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic; waiting on the phone, in line at the bank or the supermarket or the movies. Step two is to “tag” certain thoughts that fill you with anger, pain, or fear. Don’t “do” anything with them — just become aware of which thoughts hurt.
When you’re ready, the next step is to breathe deeply when these painful thoughts arise. Don’t run away. Don’t tighten up, collapse, or start looking for someone to blame — just breathe. Feel the tightness in your heart loosen as the breath goes deeper. Just by breathing, the sharpness of the pain begins to recede. Once you’re comfortable with tagging the thoughts and breathing through them, go to the next step.
Begin a dialogue between those thoughts and your own “inner wisdom.” If you don’t hear the voice of that “inner wisdom,” find someone you trust and respect — it could be a parent, a friend, a therapist, or a spiritual counselor.
One of my teachers used to say that when we’re healing, we sometimes need to “change the channel.” While we’re caught up by the program on one network, we can forget that all the other stations are simultaneously broadcasting different shows. Imagine that your mind has several channels, and when you find yourself caught by the fear channel or the anger channel, remind yourself that there’s other programming available. What’s the channel in your part of the world for wisdom? Sometimes, all we need to do is to let the tuner search. Listen as the tuner in your heart and soul searches for the wisdom station. You’ll always recognize it, because it will be crystal clear.
When the heart breaks, it can break open. Breaking open allows us to include more than the loss, more than the pain and betrayal. It lets us go beyond the limits of who we believed we were. If you can keep yourself open in spite of the pain, then this loss, this death, this divorce will become something else. It will transform from a death to a birth: the birth of your inner wisdom or guide that you can trust to lead you back onto the playing fields of life where love and loss go hand in hand.
Deborah Morris Coryell has worked in the health field for more than 25 years. As co-founder of The Shiva Foundation — an organization dedicated to education and support for those dealing with loss — she lectures and leads programs throughout North America. Portions of this article have been excerpted from Coryell’s book, Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss. Written in short, manageable chapters, this wonderful book guides you through and beyond the suffering associated with the loss of a love — whether by divorce or death.