Fear of change breeds resistance to it, which prevents movement and hinders healing and growth. Letting go is painful, but until you do, your emotional wounds cannot heal. Here’s some help.
Divorce is difficult: it is hard on our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our souls. We lose sleep, weight, strength, concentration, judgment, faith, and peace. It can numb our consciousness and blacken our mood. And it can reveal a darker side of us, our mates, our friends, and our lives than we might have ever imagined.
At its best, divorce is one of those things that we consider bad even when it leads to a better life. This attitude results partly from our fear of endings and loss, and partly because, for a long while, our suffering seems to outweigh any benefits we might gain.
I know that people who divorce are not failures, and that divorce is not the senseless loss it is made out to be, but I also know that just saying so will not eliminate the gnawing suspicion, especially among those who are struggling with a divorce right now. But if we can keep from being defeated by our bad feelings, we have a chance to find a healing perspective, a belief that, like other natural changes, divorce is a prelude to growth and an important opportunity for gain.
More than most experiences, divorce can open a world of discovery about our selves and our place in life that being forever married can conceal. This statement is not a therapist’s balm to reassure those who have failed: it is a fact. Separation and divorce provide a wealth of learning that is impossible when we are continuously in long-term relationships — even good ones.
The healing perspective is based on an observation that might seem simplistic and overly optimistic, yet upon deep consideration is a source of understanding and hope. This observation is that everything in life — including separation and divorce — is meant to advance our growth, and that not only do we have the potential to advance, it is our obligation to take every opportunity to do so.
I would not be surprised that anyone’s first response to this would be skepticism. It is too easy to cite the apparent destructiveness of divorce to counter this idea and to write it off as another New Ageism that hardly reflects the reality of ending a marriage.
But the divorce experiences of many people I have known, including my own, actually prove the point. What is required is the willingness to allow for the possibility that there may be something positive behind the constant high rate of marital endings, regardless of our personal fear and the doomsday attitude of our society.
The common theme in all of our journeys is the development of faith. We are provided with built-in motivation for accomplishing this goal, which is our constant struggle with and our desire to master fear.
As a psychologist, I deal with people’s fear every day; it is one of the chief reasons they seek my help. Until my separation, though, it was not my style to address fear with faith. But with the end of my marriage, when having to face the demise of my image of the happy life and the violation of my values and standards, and having to be on my own, the fear-faith connection became something I could not ignore.
Fear is opposed to faith. It is associated with feeling isolated, abandoned, vulnerable, and helpless, where faith helps us feel enfolded, protected, and supported. The more we are guided by fear, the weaker our faith; the stronger our faith, the less we fear.
The faith I discovered when I was at my lowest emotional point has transformed the way I look at life. It has also changed how I serve people who come to me for therapy. When I found a sense of connection with something much larger than me and was able to see how what occurred in my life was meant to happen, I learned not to fear for myself, and I no longer fear for my clients, either.
Therapy has become a matter of helping clients embrace or strengthen their own sense of the spiritual nature of the journey, if and when they are ready. This assures finding meaning in the divorce experience and it also encourages them to challenge their fear regarding other personal limitations, and thereby to risk growth in unpredictable ways.
Psychologists have long wondered what allows some people to take growthful risks that others avoid. We have generally agreed that there is some sort of readiness factor involved, but no one knows for sure where it comes from. I think one of the best explanations is faith.
The more we are inclined to believe that our lives are about something, that things happen for a reason, and that we are meant to benefit from the experience of our journey, the more courageous we are when confronted with difficult situations, like separation and divorce.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from the life of the most courageous person I have known. “Rachel” was a client whose divorce meant a colossal change in her lifestyle. Of all the divorcing people I have met, she had the most to fear — but she also had the strongest faith.
Middle-aged by the time of her separation, Rachel had been a lifelong member of the socially insular Amish community; family and religion had circumscribed her life, and her chronic marital unhappiness was something she would ordinarily just have had to bear.
Once she decided that marital therapy would not significantly change her relationship with her mate, we began to meet individually and had many remarkable conversations about the path she believed she had to follow if she were to grow and not stagnate.
Without any encouragement from me, Rachel began to behave more in line with her independent nature and to follow her calling. For example, she began to appear in public without her traditional bonnet; she added a telephone to the home, which was unheard of; she looked for work outside of the home; and she spoke openly about her feelings.
At stake were the respect and support of her family and friends and the approval of her God as understood by her religion. Along with losing these, she faced having to make a life in a foreign culture, for which her eighth-grade Amish education, pre-modern life on the farm, and domestic work history were no preparation.
Eventually, Rachel decided to leave, which meant losing her family, the family farm, her friends and neighbors, her church, and her roots; in that culture, when you decide to leave, you are truly out. She was subsequently shunned, which meant there was no contact with or recognition by anyone from the Amish community, including a daughter and son she had to leave behind.
Rachel’s separation and divorce presented her with challenges beyond what most of us can imagine. She moved from a lifestyle literally unchanged from the previous century to finding a job, owning a house, and finally learning to drive.
Although apprehensive, at no time did she seriously doubt that her journey was right. Her reward has been immense. Having begun her path of separation and divorce with only faith to go on and visions of hardship awaiting her, she says that she has found more happiness, joy, and peace than she ever thought possible. What is best, she notes, is that her growth has affirmed her faith.
Most of our stories are not quite so dramatic, but in their own way, they are no less heroic. There are many instances of people taking on their divorce challenges with a trusting heart and little else to go on, and who benefit substantially as a result.
One story is that of a woman who, after more than 20 years of marriage, decided that she had to leave. “Sarah” didn’t know where she was going — or exactly why. She wasn’t happy at home, but things weren’t terrible, either. She remembers that while she was preparing to load a truck with her part of the household furnishings, the older of her two children, a college freshman, tearfully inquired if she thought that what she was doing was really necessary. My client could only answer that she believed it was.
Sarah hadn’t finished her own college education, had a job that paid little, and was leaving a materially comfortable life. She had been plagued for years with depression and agoraphobia, which she had just recently overcome, so susceptibility to be overwhelmed by pessimism and fear was still a possibility.
Still she moved on, never complaining, and continuing to profess her belief in the mysterious guidance that directed her. Sarah found a small house where she lived with her difficult adolescent son, completed college over the next two years, and improved her work circumstances and income to a more livable level. In the process, her fear diminished and her faith grew. When I later told her that I thought she had made a heroic journey, Sarah felt surprised. She said that she had not thought of it that way, but as something she knew she had to do if she were to grow.
There are other stories of people choosing the same paths of faith when it was their mates who left unexpectedly. None of the stories, however, is substantially different in terms of hardships faced. What they all have in common is that the people involved expressed the belief that the changes were guided and contributed to their growth.
Truly spiritual people always do better with change. Those newer to spiritual guidance may be fearful about separation, but they are still inclined to go with the flow. The more spiritually advanced are even eager to see what awaits them with change. And because from experience they have no question that they are being guided, those who are most intimately familiar with the spiritual nature of the journey tend to move with the most grace. To think, feel, and behave as if everything is meant to assist us in our spiritual development, and to be able to let go of our need for control, is the road to inner peace.
This infusion of a belief in meaning and purpose makes all of life more acceptable. We all have experienced apparently meaningless suffering, the kind that can cause feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, enough of which can lead to desperate acts. The suffering of separation and divorce is of this kind. Spiritual awareness will not take all suffering away, but believing that what we go through has meaning that we will understand at some time can reduce it.
With separation, for example, when from fear of failure and loss we try to hold onto what is no longer appropriate for us, faith in the journey and the inevitability of growth can overcome our grip on the status quo.
Fear of change breeds resistance to it, which prevents movement and in turn hinders healing and growth, forming a vicious cycle. Letting go is painful, but until we let go, our emotional wounds cannot heal.
Much of our suffering comes from our desire for security, order, and predictability in life, which a marriage provides. Faith provides a context for our suffering and a reason for letting go when a marriage ends and our desires are frustrated.
I worked with a client whose husband had been involved with a lover for two years, and who had been living on his own for several months. “Lisa” knew of the affair, and she knew the marriage was probably over. She liked the comfort of their lifestyle and feared being alone, and so was afraid of facing change. Because of this, she had not told even her closest kin, sensing that talking about it would add the weight of reality to the process and tip the scale in favor of separation for real.
Her husband had often traveled on his job, so Lisa allowed that to explain his absence. She was trying to forestall the inevitable even after it was actually well underway. She was afraid of letting go: of him, their lifestyle, her status, the house, and the sense of order, predictability and security they combined to provide.
When we first met, Lisa wanted nothing more than to be angry and to get back at him in some spiteful way. She really had the normal sense of entitlement we all tend to develop with a lengthy marriage. She was willing, however, to hear another approach to the matter.
With support and the understanding that she was avoiding the inevitable, she informed her family and then some others that her husband had left her. Once she had, the healing process began, and she did some excellent work. Ironically, because her husband had already removed himself from her life in a substantial way, Lisa had already begun managing daily life alone. She had not really held off change; she had tried to circumvent the fear of change through the illusion of order and control.
When she released the energy she had invested in maintaining the status quo and faced life courageously as it presented itself to her, she was able to begin to discover security that was not dependent on the marriage. Lisa began to realize that she did not need him to feel secure after all. This discovery would have remained outside her grasp if she continued to struggle against the flow of her life. She had genuine sadness, but she steadily gained confidence in herself and trust in the path that her life was following. Had she remained stuck, this treasure could not have been hers.
Another client, whose divorce hearing was near, felt the tingling feeling of fear that often comes at the end. Her husband promised anything if “Karen” would reconsider. Her lawyer hinted that a temporary stay would help her financial position in the divorce. A new relationship she had enjoyed had abruptly ended. She felt tempted, but did not think it was right to agree to a postponement unless she really wanted to reconcile. In spite of this, the fear lingered.
Karen had a dream in which she was being pursued by a dark gray energy, like a wind that she could see. The image had multiple meanings, but we surmised an immediately relevant one had to do with the fear of change she had expressed. Just as the energy was about to collide with her, she intuited what to do: she ducked, and it flew right over and past her. In other words, her guidance was to resist the impulse to run or to turn and fight. She was not to try to have control over the force, but to get out of the way.
Karen now looks for the meaning in everything, and she feels more secure than ever. This has allowed her to do significant healing of wounds suffered at the hands of a father who had sexually abused her many times over many years, and the betrayal of a mother who did not try to stop him. Had she not followed her inner guidance to exit the financial security of her marriage, it is doubtful this healing would have taken place.
A third client seemed to have the longest road to healing of all. Having married a man she knew to be an alcoholic and drug abuser, “Sandy” should not have been surprised when his addictions worsened and became so intolerable that she had to ask him to leave.
During the entire first year of this separation, he remained completely out of contact with her, and Sandy finally filed for divorce to gain closure. She did well with her feelings during this time by using the same process of denial that she employed to convince herself that his substance abuse would not hinder their relationship in the first place.
When I first saw Sandy, just after her divorce was final, she was in an extreme state. All of the feelings of loss and abandonment she had denied were pouring forth. She was hurt, bitter, and angry to the point of having thoughts of shooting him for the pain he had caused and burning down the dream house they had built and now had to sell.
I talked with Sandy about a larger framework for viewing her situation: a spiritual framework from which she could begin to gain a sense that what she was going through might have some meaning. For her, this was like hearing a foreign language.
The reason Sandy wanted to kill her ex-husband is that she felt that her life had ended with his departure. As limited as life with him had been, it had supplied the only sense of connection she had. Her belief was that there was nothing for her in life beyond that paltry love experience and its material trappings.
Sandy’s healing work began with a discussion of the limits of her perspective on life, a non-judgmental observation of the darkness of her own feelings and motives, and an invitation to open herself to some new light as a palliative for her pain.
She began to understand that her rage and feelings of entitlement to satisfaction arose from her lack of a spiritual foundation regarding what her life was really about, and that his leaving had only brought this to the surface, not caused it.
Without a spiritual foundation, there could be no hope of finding meaning in her experiences, so Sandy teetered on the verge of annihilation. Could her life have been only about trying to fashion an intimacy with a drug-addicted mate? She was stuck with believing so.
Rather than continuing to rail against this man’s limitations and wallow in her sense of loss, Sandy began to seek a healing perspective, and soon her life began to change. She could appreciate her marital ending as a necessary conveyance to growth — not as the death sentence she had unconsciously concluded it was.
Sit quietly, breathe slowly, and relax your mind. Silently read the following phrases:
- My path has changed. I am entering a new phase of my journey. I am being led as part of a plan for me.
- The purpose of this change is growth. The growth I will experience from this change will be made clear to me in time.
- I will make the most of this growth experience. I will be a better person as a result.
- I have nothing to be ashamed of. Other good people have been through this experience, too. I am as worthy as anyone is.
- Everyone suffers in life. The suffering I am experiencing now will eventually pass, as other suffering in my life has passed.
- Each path in life is special. My path is special, too. I have complete faith in it.
Now repeat the phrases, paying close attention to the calmness that comes to you as you consider each one intently.
If you are in a place to do so, read each phrase aloud, and repeat it several times.
Think of people you know and like who have also been through this experience. Write their names and something about them that you admire.
Recall other difficult passages in your life and how you have changed and grown from them. Write briefly about these, too.
This article has been edited and excerpted from The Hidden Gift in Divorce by Mark C. Brown, Ph.D. (First Light Publishing, 2003). Designed for anyone touched by divorce, this book shows you how to achieve a happier, more meaningful and peaceful life during and after divorce. A psychologist with 30 years’ experience helping couples and families in crisis, Dr. Brown offers practical and spiritual guidance to help you grow through this life-changing event. Available at better bookstores and via the author’s website at www.markcbrown.com.