One of the first words that came to mind when I used to think about divorce was ‘trapped.’ I was trapped in a difficult situation and would be similarly trapped if we divorced. Since starting my business and working with clients, the word trapped has resurfaced on several occasions. While some see divorce as an exit strategy to freedom, others find themselves suffocated by the terms of a marital settlement agreement and/or parenting plan. Here are a few examples of how this can show up:
- Feeling robbed by the legal obligation to pay someone for a set amount of time or, in some cases, indefinitely.
- Obligated to cover up the truth so that children do not find out about your or your ex-spouse’s adultery. addictions, abuse, etc.
- Unable to change cities or states.
- Having to co-parent and interact with a difficult person for the rest of your life.
- A significant downgrade in lifestyle and/or having to reenter the workforce after years at home.
How to Come Up with an Exit Strategy When You Feel Trapped by Divorce
When clients complain about how divorce has robbed them, I validate their feelings and reassure them that they are not alone. Their eyes widen as I tell them my story; indeed, I am in the exact same situation, landlocked in the middle of the country, unable to relocate. I moved to Chicago less than two years before our divorce. No family, no friends, only promises of opportunities that the move and my then-spouse’s new job could provide. And yet here I sit, a divorced mom of three with a strong support network of loving family, a more affordable lifestyle, and better weather for my children, across the country. But, like many who have walked in my shoes, I share custody with my children’s father who will not agree to my taking the children out of state. Even more bitter a pill to swallow, the few benefits of living in Chicago are no longer mine for the taking, given the terms of our settlement.
Most of us that have lived through a divorce share a similar tale of woe. Circumstances may differ but the tendency to harbor bitterness and resentment remain the same. So what’s the exit strategy? Cliched advice such as “count your blessings” or “think of the ways divorce has set you free” worked intermittently for me but never quite satisfied my need for redemption. Recognizing that I needed more, I identified a three-pronged approach and exit strategy to getting the freedom I so crave:
Step 1: Actively decide to not feel trapped
How many years do you anticipate being at the mercy of this situation? Chances are we are talking about a good chunk of life, especially when you consider the time it takes to raise young children. Case in point: my youngest daughter is four, so I have at least 14 years left where my residency will be partly dictated by an ex-spouse.
It is a safe bet that this is one third of my remaining life. Once my sentence is over, how do I want to reflect on this period of my life? Do I really want to give any more power to this situation, this person, this court document? I have lost enough already, thank you very much. I consciously choose to collect no regrets during these precious years with my children. You have a choice, too. Play the hand that you are dealt, or be the victim. Step one: think about the day your financial obligation ends; the day the truth is revealed; the day you are free to move and decide how you want to look back on this part of your life.
Step 2: Identify and heal the parts of you that played a role
You played a role, no matter how small. My ex-husband may hold the key to my freedom, but I knowingly flew into my cage. Furthermore, if I am being completely honest, my ex has every right to not want his children living across the country. He loves them as much as I do and wants to be a part of their life. This is something to be celebrated and, candidly, whether I see much upside to it or not, I don’t have a choice.
Our legal system will always favor children maintaining a relationship with both parents. I knew this outcome would be a possibility when our marriage turned south really early on, yet I continued to stay and have not one, not two, but three children. Time and again I buried my head in the sand, ignored red flags, crossed my fingers, and hoped he (and I) would eventually change. I’m a smart woman; how did I succumb to these codependent patterns? Step two, identify and understand your contribution and get to work making sure it never happens again.
Step 3: Do something radically different
How does life look from your new vantage point? As I sit perched in my cage, I recognize that captivity is offering something I would never have had otherwise. You see, I am taking my career in a wildly different, somewhat risky, and unexpected direction. Investing resources and time into a second education and building a business is no small feat and, in many respects, it would be easier to go out and get a “real job.” The old me would have followed convention but the trapped me is awakened to the possibilities of my new surroundings.
Thanks to the many opportunities that have come my way as I tackle this pursuit, I am starting to see myself as not so much trapped but more living in a gilded cage. My venture into mental health and personal development has become such a part of my identity that I am not sure who I was without it. Step three: seek out something completely different. Something you could only do as a result of your divorce.
Your exact circumstances may differ, but every divorced person I have encountered has a story with underlying tones of feeling fleeced, cheated, or trapped. I fall into the latter category, and have dug deep for peace using the steps outlined above. My formula ignores the obvious, which is the fact that, for many, divorce can bring profound freedom. Emotional freedom, or perhaps even freedom from abuse, addiction, or adultery. Don’t give any more energy to what you cannot change or control. Be open to the possibility that this situation could actually give you wings to fly.