“When it’s over, it’s over. The sooner you can give up the control your divorce has had over you and your life, the sooner you will feel back in control and ready to move forward with both feet into your new and better life.” – Stacy D. Phillips, Los Angeles based Family Lawyer with Phillips, Lerner, Lauzon and Jamra and author “Divorce: It’s All About Control; How to Win the Emotional, Psychological And Legal Wars.”
“Til death do you part.” — Didn’t quite last that long, did it? Add to that the unrelenting incomprehension of how the person who made you feel the best about yourself and your life and now they’ve become the one who makes you feel the worst. It’s no wonder that divorce causes such upheaval. From affairs to bankruptcy to abuse to irresponsibility to mid-life crises to drug or alcohol addiction — isn’t it mind-bogging how nearly everyone going through it feels so unprepared?
Maybe it’s the shock of how adoration turned to repulsion, mutual respect to disdain and love to hate. It’s difficult to accept that what you thought was the right thing to do, has turned out to be wrong.
Or perhaps the thought of how a divorce adversely affects young children can be an enormous source of worry, stress and guilt. The maternal bond is the strongest attachment there is and when you are a part of something that causes your children so much hurt, it can be of the most upsetting experiences in your life.
Finally, the effect of losing all of your passion for the person you once loved can make you feel inadequate. Nothing kills off passion as much as feeling hurt, scared, disappointed, angered, or betrayed — all of which are not merely possible in a divorce, but are typical.
It is the combination of these factors that can have such a profound negative effect on your career, relationships, spirit and soul. You may think to yourself: “If I was wrong about my marriage, how many other things am I wrong about?” or “If I’m screwing up my children’s life, what kind of mother am I?” Then as if all of this weren’t enough, you start having sleep and concentration problems and become depressed and/or anxious. All told, it becomes extremely difficult to function on the job, in relationships, and to feel hope or optimism about your future.
Despite the nearly universal traumatic effects of divorce, some women do survive, move on, fall in love again, and live happily after. What distinguishes those who do well from those who don’t? Those who have positive coping behaviors do better than those with negative ones. Those that “heal” end up better off than those that remain wounded. And those who move on rather than stay bitter, depressed and feeling like a victim have a much better chance for a satisfying life.
Negative and Positive Coping — the choice is up to you
Women who leave their marriage are more likely to have an easier time coping, healing and eventually moving on. As a woman who was divorced by her husband told me: “It’s better to have loved and leave, than to have loved and be left.”
Next to the sense of failure in a divorce the worst feeling is powerlessness. Women who leave feel as if they have more power than those who are left. This can even out, however, if the man who is left feels angry and becomes vindictive and makes the divorce as horrendous as possible. Alternatively, the man who does the leaving may feel some guilt and responsibility for taking care of his rejected wife to ensure that he ends up divorced and not a widower (if he thinks she might do something self-destructive).
Regardless of whether you left or were left, there are negative coping behaviors that you will want to avoid because they make matters worse. Negative coping behaviors include:
- Isolating. Pulling away from other people like a deer on the side of the road to lick your wounds. Isolating leaves you prey to your imagination. It makes it difficult to keep perspective.
- Obsessing. Often accompanies isolating. The more you obsess the less you are able to function, care for your children, and the longer it will take for you to get through the divorce.
- Compulsive activities. Frustration, anger with no one to take it out on and fear often trigger increased eating, drinking, and spending to try to relieve upset. However, what makes you feel better for the moment often causes you to lose self-respect and experience shame later on, two things you don’t need to feel any more of.
- Getting even. You will be very tempted to get even with your ex and you’ll find more than enough reasons to justify it. But when you focus on retaliating it makes the divorce more costly and more painful. The children are also hurt more by this reaction, as they feel thrust into the middle of this mess.
- Wearing out your friends and family. This is the opposite extreme from isolating. This is when you lean on and on top of your friends instead of leaning into them for support. Even good friends can become exhausted when you keep saying and doing the same things and “Yes, butting” all their suggestions. When you come off as too needy you will burn out people out and they’ll start to avoid you.
- Feeling sorry for yourself. When you think of yourself as a victim and wait for the world to fix your problems and life, you’re in for a very long wait.
Just as there are negative coping behaviors, there are positive coping behaviors that can actually help improve your situation. These include: Be around people. Pain is pain; suffering is being alone with pain. If you push yourself to be with people in your misery, suffering that you can’t live with becomes pain that you can.
- Do things that give you back some sense of power and control over your life These include keeping your divorce papers in order (with the originals in a safety deposit box and copies in a file at home), changing your assets that are listed in both you and your ex’s names to yours, letting creditors know of your divorce and having them notify you as soon as your ex stops making payments to protect your credit rating, keeping good records of your ex’s payments so you don’t let it build up to a larger amount, keeping records of children’s expenses, and sitting down with financial advisors to review your investments.
- Try what your close friends suggest. If you get to share your pain with your most caring friends, they get to have you try their helpful suggestions if you can’t think of any alternative solutions.
- Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Have a realistic attitude and approach to your ex. Don’t count on him to make it easy for you. If he does, considerate it gravy. A helpful tool to aid you in being realistic is called the Him/You Inventory.
For example with regard to Children, you might write: I can rely on him to be caring when he’s with the children; I can’t rely on him to be on time and be consistent with his visitation; He can rely on me to be civil to him and not bad-mouth him to the kids; He can’t rely on me to be friendly when he tries to joke his way out of being unpredictable about picking up and dropping off the kids. After you fill out the chart send it to your ex with a blank one. Tell him you’d like him (if he’s willing) to make corrections on yours from his point of view and then to fill out the blank chart with regard to you. Then consider using this as a vehicle to work toward having more constructive conversations with him (again if he’s willing).
Healing — why settle for being scarred or scared?
Dealing with your upset rationally is okay, but don’t intellectualize and try to convince yourself that you’re okay when you’re not. Like an abscess that can’t heal until it’s drained, awful feelings can’t be healed until you feel them.
The three steps to doing this are:
- Admit all your feelings to yourself (including anger, hurt, depression, fear, disappointment, etc).
- Feel your feelings by filling in:
“When and why I felt most depressed was ________.”
Then do the same with all your other feelings. Keep in mind that just because you think you won’t be able to endure them, doesn’t mean you can’t.
- Express your feelings to someone who is receptive to your pain. Start your conversation by imagining they have just said to you: “What is the worst part of this whole situation for you?” Then be specific vs. general. The more specific you are the easier to feel your feelings.
On the subject of choosing the right people to tell your feelings to, seek out different people at different stages of your divorce. Early on seek out sympathetic people who will let you vent and blame things on your ex. Then move on to empathic friends (or a therapist) who will offer you more understanding than sympathy and finally move on to wise friends whose opinion you respect and who will not enable you to remain stuck in self-pity.
Dealing with your feelings with the proper people will assist you if you are ever going to meet the greatest challenge to healing, namely forgiving and forgetting. You will never heal if you do not accomplish this. Instead, the thread of bitterness toward your ex will contaminate the rest of your life.
You’ll forgive when you no longer need to blame. Initially, you need to blame your ex for several reasons. Blaming him prevents you from realizing your own contribution to the failure of your marriage that can trigger guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy resulting in intense depression. Accepting your share of the responsibility for causing the divorce will lessen your need to blame. Why do this? Because blaming will eventually make you bitter. And bitterness is its own punishment. You’ll forget when you no longer need to remember. This occurs once you have learned all the right lessons from this relationship and made them a part of who you are and how you act. For instance, one lesson you might take from your divorce is that you really don’t know someone until you have an argument and can totally resolve it, rather than sweeping it under the carpet unresolved only to build up and become worse.
Moving On — the fine art of building new memories
After you have healed to the best of your ability, it’s time to move on. This means stepping out into life. After you’ve learned what you would do differently if could do your marriage over, including knowing how and why you chose to marry him, it’s time to begin thinking about starting another relationship.
As I wrote in my book, GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, (published by Perigee Books), the best way to leave a loss such as divorce behind is to build new memories. You need to build new memories to dilute the hold that the terrible memories about your marriage and divorce have on you. You build new memories by actions taken not by thoughts thought or by good intentions.
Compare your life to the cross-section cut trees that have hundreds of rings, each signifying a year. Some rings indicate when the tree flourished, some rings reveal years when it endured fire or drought. Taken together all the rings demonstrate the history and character of that tree. If you borrow from the tree analogy and build new memories, then the year of your divorce just becomes a single rotten year. But two years from now could be the year you started met and began dating a guy you respected and who loved you, and four years from now, the year you re-married and started to live happily after.
If you don’t take action and don’t build new memories to dilute the effect of the bad ones, the bad memories build and become overpowering and can also ooze into and spoil other parts of your life.
It will not be easy to do this and maintain it, but keep in mind it takes 30 days for a change in behavior to become a habit and a minimum of 6 months for a habit to become part of your personality.
Even if you have coped and healed you may feel you’ll be better off it you don’t try again. Maybe so, but maybe not if the old adage “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” or its newer version, “The only thing worse than being married is being single” holds true.
Mark Goulston, M.D. is a Los Angeles based psychiatrist, author of The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship: How to Fall in Love Again…and Stay There (Perigee) and co-founder of www.couplescompany.com.