In the initial stages of divorce, it’s hard to be patient while the world is going about its everyday business as if nothing has happened. Don’t they know you’re aching inside? How dare they show those romantic movies on HBO! Can’t those people hold hands and nuzzle each other somewhere else?
The adjustment period after divorce trauma (whether you are the “leaver” or the “leavee”) is between two and five years, depending somewhat on the amount of pre-grieving you’ve experienced. Some people begin the emotional journey when they realize the marriage is dead — sometimes well before they mention the word “divorce” to their spouse.
If you’re in the early stages, you’re probably wondering what to expect — and how to accelerate (or even bypass) the painful stages to reach the place where you feel whole and happy again. Unfortunately, recovery from divorce is not an express elevator from the basement of grief to the penthouse of joy. It’s more like a maze: you go forward a bit, become confused, find the way forward again, hit a wall, retrace your steps, find a new way forward, realize you took the wrong turn and back-track again, etc., etc. Like wandering through a hall of mirrors, you confront yourself — or what looks like yourself — around every corner.
The first year is characterized by numbness, denial, relief, acute periods of pain, and back to numbness again. This is the divorce roller coaster, which includes periods of euphoria (“how nice to be rid of that louse!”) followed by deep lows (“oh my God: she’s really gone!”). During the first year, you may sometimes feel like a robot going through the motions of living without really participating in your own life, or like an unwilling passenger on a wild roller coaster ride.
Of course, the first year is characterized by the ever-present reality of dealing with the legal work. To get through it successfully, you really need a split personality: one part of you is grieving and the other is calmly filling out financial disclosure forms. If you have children, they are grieving and adjusting to their new situation, too. You must devote some time to helping them through this painful transition every day — but don’t neglect your own emotional and physical well-being in favor of theirs! You can’t help your children if you’re teetering on the brink of a breakdown yourself.
After the initial shock wears off, the next stages of recovery are characterized by reorganizing and reexamining your life. You’re searching for answers to questions both large and small. Where do I want to live? How will I support myself? Will I be able to make the support payments? Should I buy a new car? Should I go back to school? Who will care for my children if I go back to work? It’s a busy time — one that affords little opportunity for grief when you may still be reeling.
By the second or third year, your life is probably moving along a more predictable path. You may cry or feel sad once a week — which will gradually become once a month — instead of once a day. Complete divorce recovery usually requires about three years; some people require less time, and some people never get over it. I have had participants at my workshops who had been divorced for more than a decade without achieving resolution or understanding.
Will you ever “get over it”? With time, the pain and confusion lessens, but expect to be ambushed by grief or readjustment anxieties from time to time. You may be ambushed by grief or anger on your wedding anniversary ten years after your divorce; when your son graduates high school and you and your spouse are sitting on opposite sides of the auditorium; when you see your ex meandering through the park with his new love; on occasion, even after you are happily remarried. But by this time, you’ll have learned to move on and leave the past behind.
— Share your story — struggles and successes — with a support group. No one knows better how you feel than those who have been there.
— Create some kind of divorce ceremony for yourself. For example, try writing a eulogy for your marriage. Place the written document in a box with other symbolic mementos of the marriage, then bury it in the woods.
— In addition to psycho-spiritual exercises, intense physical exercises (like Tae-Bo) can offer immense release of anger and frustration (and you get in shape in the process!).
— After you have honored your anger, try writing a “thank you” note (one that you will not mail). This will help you consider all you have learned from the relationship, retain what was valuable from the experience, and let go of the rest.
— There are many herbal, holistic preparations that have proven helpful in aiding stress and sadness. A few examples are St. John’s Wort and SAM-e for depression, Siberian ginseng if you’re feeling depleted, or even a homeopathic Bach flower remedy such as Hyssop for guilt. Check with your doctor first.
— After a while, try helping others in a similar situation. For example, babysitting for a friend who’s going through divorce so she can meet with her attorney, or taking your friend out to dinner so he can talk about his divorce and not have to eat alone.
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D., is a therapist, spiritual counselor, and life coach. She is the author of I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing after the Sudden Death of a Loved One. She has lived through two divorces, and is now happily married. Dr. Blair is the Director of the Divorce Resource Network and maintains a private practice in Hawthorne, NY.