Rollercoasters are my idea of self-inflicted torture. The very idea of signing up for an experience that could possibly leave one with vertigo and nausea is not worth the temporary adrenaline rush.
So it comes as no surprise that the emotional turmoil of divorce, characterized by depths of despair one day and euphoric highs the next, can aptly be compared to a rollercoaster.
The Emotional Rollercoaster of Divorce
While some may enjoy living on the edge, I certainly did not appreciate the unpredictable twists and turns that came at breakneck speed during my own divorce. As I stood in line waiting with sweaty palms and a racing heart, I prepared myself for an unforgettable ride, but not in the way I would like. Here are the stages I encountered and the lessons I learned along the way.
Denial, at its core, is a coping mechanism. The unwelcome yet imminent rollercoaster may be too much to bear, so our tendency is to pretend we don’t see it approaching. Denial most likely has an adaptive benefit of buying time as we mentally prepare for the inevitable, in this case, divorce. It’s a balancing act, however, too little time, and you step on the rollercoaster unprepared, too much, and you remain at the back of the line, always waiting, never arriving at the life you deserve.
In case you have any doubt, here is what pulling the wool over your eyes may sound like: “He/she just needs time,” “I’m sure the verbal/emotional/physical abuse will stop,” “It is just another one of his/her threats.” If this sounds familiar, here are some ways to push through and buckle up with your metaphorical seatbelt on.
Start off by identifying whether your core values are being reflected in your life right now. Not knowing what your core values are can be likened to moving through life as a ship without a rudder. For example, if you are a person that values kindness, yet your spouse speaks to you like discarded trash, there is an incongruence between your inner and outer world. An unwillingness to see this is, by definition, denial. Then there is your gut.
Sometimes I think God misplaced the brain, which would be more appropriate for operating out of our gut. If you had to ask yourself, “What am I choosing not to see?” it is a safe bet that your intuition would have the answers. It takes courage, and the journey toward self-awareness and acceptance is a rollercoaster in and of itself, but once you take that first step, the path toward emotional liberation has begun.
What’s a rollercoaster without dizzying heights that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? You may get past one particularly torturous point only to encounter another before catching your breath. Anger is arguably the most salient emotion during divorce, serving as a smorgasbord of shame, fear, regret, resentment, confusion, stress, jealousy, etc.
The problem with anger is that, when not dealt with constructively, it can come out in ways that derail your train while aghast spectators such as attorneys, your children, and your spouse or soon-to-be ex watch you lose it. Statements such as “I’ll see him in court!, ”I’m going to get the best lawyer money can buy, ”She deserves nothing after what she did” only serve to jeopardize your case, as well as your mental health.
Find the anger management and emotional regulation strategies that work for you. Anything backed by science and empirically supported gets my attention, which is how I stumbled across the “90-second rule.” The “90-second rule” described by Harvard neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, is simply a formula for keeping your cool. Taylor discovered that when something in our environment triggers an emotion, there is a 90-second chemical reaction involving an influx of norepinephrine into our bloodstream. After 90 seconds, the hormones are flushed from our system, and any remaining emotional response is due to thoughts that retrigger the circuitry.
I found this piece of neuroscience pretty fantastic, I can’t change my biological response, but I can change my thoughts. Next time the divorce, your lawyer or your ex threatens to derail your train, set a timer for 90 seconds and choose your response wisely after.
At some point, the wild ride may become too much to handle, and, against your better judgment, you start thinking of ways to jump ship, or in this case, train. This precarious cycle stage takes the form of bargaining with yourself, your spouse, your lawyer, or any stakeholder with power. This can happen during any stage of divorce.
For example, you may come dangerously close to compromising your self-respect and staying in toxicity as you contemplate divorce or settling for less than you deserve in the negotiations phase. If you are the spouse that has decided to leave, guilt factors heavily here as well, as you begin to doubt whether you did all you can to keep your family together.
Phrases like “Am I making the right choice by leaving?” “Could have, should have, would have…,” “I’ll do anything if he will just come back” indicates that you are in this phase. Surround yourself with friends and family that love you and can objectively validate your reality.
While it is important to listen to your own intuition, even the most steadfast of us are prone to foibles in the face of something as monumental as divorce. Think of your future self and life five years from now and ask, “What will my future self thank me for?” For a list of questions to keep you moving forward during each stage of divorce, click here.
The roller coaster is peppered by seemingly endless tunnels of blackness. These points are defined by hopelessness and uncertainty as to whether an abrupt drop or a steep climb is up ahead. Don’t expect to have many positive feelings or see any silver linings here. You may be thinking, “I feel hopeless, I’ve lost everything,” “Everything feels so out of control,” I’m exhausted,” etc. Of course, if your feelings of hopelessness persist or impact your day-to-day functioning, it is critical to see a mental health provider that can formally assess and treat you.
Divorce, a type of loss, can activate cognitive distortions and faulty beliefs that we adopted early on or absorbed through our culture and environment. As a result, a dark triad of negative beliefs about yourself, your world, and your future can be turned on. Accept and see these feelings for what they are, and then begin to examine what is behind them.
If you are committed to helping yourself, start questioning any black-and-white or absolute thinking that leads to these negative biases. To use a very cliche example, after divorce, one may think, “I am a complete failure.” Questions such as “What else can be true?” or “What evidence do I have” while not a perfect fix, help shift our thoughts to those rooted in reality. This is where working with a coach or therapist is essential in facilitating your ability to move through the feelings and begin to disprove the stories you tell yourself.
Every so often, you may catch a break and even find yourself enjoying the breeze that comes with a lull in the velocity of divorce. Glimpses of hope, forgiveness, and possibly even euphoria set in. For some, this may only come when the ink is dried; for others, little glimpses of hope punctuate the entire ordeal. The practice of radical acceptance can get you there more expediently, perhaps even bypassing or allaying less inviting parts of the rollercoaster.
Choosing to radically accept a situation does not mean we approve of it, it means we fully accept that the problem will not change. With this comes the opportunity to recalibrate, take stock and begin to make the best of our final destination in the rollercoaster of divorce.
I suffer from terrible motion sickness. Cars, trains, boats, and rollercoasters all wreak havoc on my inner ear, leaving me disoriented, retching, and dizzy. The advice I am always given is to look ahead, look at the horizon. The emotional turmoil of divorce is not linear, it is disorganized and unpredictable. Have a North Star, a “why,” or a vision of your future, and beat the queasiness by looking ahead when divorce wears you down.
Envisioning your life as you want it programs the subconscious to make decisions and choose actions that get us closer to that vision. Even if you are someone that enjoys the thrill of living on the edge, divorce is one wild ride you need to be prepared for. Knowing what to expect, being patient with yourself, and having faith in your future self, will all serve to even out the bumps and settle your stomach along the way.