Among life’s most stressful events, divorce is second only to the death of a spouse, according to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory. Let’s be honest: divorce takes a toll on everyone involved.
Not unlike the death of a spouse, the death of a marriage entails stages of loss and grief that can be excruciatingly painful and difficult to move through, regardless of which side of the courtroom you’re sitting on or how you got there. If you’re able to survive the process just know that there are ways to stay sane during a divorce.
Here are five tips to stay sane during a divorce.
1. Try to leave your emotions at the door in any divorce “business” dealings. Once divorce papers have been served, the time for the “I-said-you-said” game is over. From here on out, there will be a lot of necessary “business” to tackle as part of the divorce process (dividing assets, making custody decisions, figuring out what happens to the house, who gets the dog, etc.).
Naturally, many of these decisions may trigger intense emotions that run the gamut – sadness, shame, resentment, outrage, guilt, and so on – but try to process and attend to these emotions separately from the business that’s in front of you. After all, when you’re talking about what to do with the house, you need to be as clear-headed, rational, and sensible as possible. This isn’t the time to be tearfully asking for closure about the time your ex caught you kissing Santa Claus.
You may also need to stop expecting your spouse to meet your emotional needs (if you haven’t let go of this expectation already). At the same time, getting emotional support will be more critical than ever. This may mean seeing a counselor, regularly talking to a close friend, exercising, or joining a divorce support group. Use these safe and healthy outlets to process the hard emotions, rather than letting these emotions bleed into the divorce proceedings with your soon-to-be-ex.
2. Be honest and fair. It may be easy to blame the other person and see only their worst traits, but efforts to demonize your ex are not going to make things better. Rather than be adversarial, be smart. Recognize there is fault on both sides: no one is perfect. Stay in the moment and keep the focus on what needs addressing now rather than what has happened and is now in the past. Ask for what you need: be upfront; don’t be scared; be honest and face what you must. At this juncture, the so-called Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a good principle to follow. When you take the high ground – even if your ex does not – you’ll be able to walk away without regrets, knowing that you acted with integrity during the divorce process.
3. Get support from a few people you can trust, starting with a good attorney. While an amicable separation is possible, with most divorces there will be a tug-of-war going on with something. Get a good attorney who can help you navigate the process with more clarity about how to handle key questions.
Rely on sound advice from one or two people in your life who really care about you and who also have experience with divorce. Do not talk about this with everyone in your life. The adage, “too many cooks spoil the stew” is true. If you run around telling everyone all your business, all of that free advice may only add to your confusion and paralysis regarding critical decisions. Keep your cards close, but seek out trusted support from a few sources. That will help to keep things cleaner and more simple in the process.
4. Move on. I have had patients come to see me after their wedding feeling depressed after getting married. Why? Because they were waiting all their life for a fairy tale wedding ceremony – only to wake up the next day when real life sets in. They had gotten stuck because they had mistaken marriage to be an event rather than a relational process with ups and downs.
Similarly, divorce and the proceedings around it are a process, not an event. There will be scars and painful feelings that linger long after you have signed your last divorce paper. In that process, you will have choices to make. Among them: whether to keep feeding your temptations to be sad, bitter, and angry, or whether to give these emotions a backseat by getting moving and embarking on your new life. Starting the next chapter of your life, then, may literally mean getting off the couch, drying your tears, and doing just one thing that used to give you joy.
Remind yourself that while divorce signifies an ending, it can also be a fresh start: the beginning of a new you and a new life. Start getting active, meeting people, engaging in activities (new or old), and have something to do that keeps you busy. More than one friend has told me that the way they stayed sane and healthy during their divorce was to stay constantly occupied with things to do. Start filling up your calendar today.
5. Be compassionate. By that I mean, don’t beat up on yourself or others – take care of yourself and others. Forgiveness, compassion, care, and laughter are all hallmarks of a happy person. Start to reconnect with joy and happiness by making a commitment to be a person who loves life and others. Be the person you want to find some day. Reframe this divorce as an opportunity to build a better reality for yourself and those around you. Have faith that things can get better. Believe in yourself.
Ask for what you need. Be able to ask for support. Admit your mistakes and try to learn from them, but don’t obsess about them either. Give yourself a chance – more than ever – to be your best self and do what you can to make things better for yourself and for those around you. You can stay sane during a divorce – you just have to give yourself the chance.
Dr. Beau Nelson heads the Clinical Services department at FHE Health, a nationally recognized behavioral health provider treating addiction and mental health conditions. www.fherehab.com