Building Tolerance for Uncertainty During Divorce

Fear of the unknown during a divorce is like being in a cave of inky darkness. Here’s how to get through it.

perfect life after divorce: man reading a book while dealing with the uncertainty of divorce

Are you experiencing uncertainty during divorce? Lately it has been touch and go as to whether my children have school the next day; if one of them does not have COVID then someone in their class does, and back to home they are sent to quarantine. But such are the times we are living in, and for some of us this new normal is further complicated by a pending or recent divorce. So it comes as no surprise to me that fear of the unknown is something several of my clients are really struggling with lately. Feeling out of control and unsure where your life is headed can be extremely disorienting; the brain does not like uncertainty and our fear response goes into overdrive. This worked back in caveman days where we did not know what beast was around the next hillock, but is considerably less effective nowadays where the goal is less about survival and more about making sound decisions and optimal functioning.     Having experienced the breathtaking fear of not knowing where I will be living, how I will make a living, and where my children will be on which night of the week, I am able to validate and relate to anyone dealing with this. I recently put together some pointers based on my personal and professional experience, as well as knowledge of how the brain works, that will hopefully provide some relief if you feel like you are trapped in a cave of darkness. 

How to Deal with Uncertainty During Divorce

Start with what you do know

What can you be certain of right now? List out everything that you do know as it relates to your particular situation. If, for example, you are unsure where you will be living, list out every realistic option and anything else that could factor into your decision. I knew I did not want to stay in a big house where I felt unsafe. My dream was to move closer to my family, but I knew I was unable to relocate since I share custody with my children’s father. A smart lawyer advised me to find a really nice townhome close to my children’s school, with something enticing to make it appealing for the kids. Bingo! While I didn’t know exactly where I would be living, I knew I would sadly not be knocking on my parent’s doorstep across the country, but I would be searching for condos within a mile from school, and ideally with a pool.    This process is not dissimilar to an episode of Criminal Minds where the detectives profile the “unsub” (unidentified subject). Although slightly more innocuous than catching a serial killer (fair enough, this may be up for debate if you are divorcing a narcissist or otherwise cruel person), you will be amazed at how much of your life you can profile once you start with what you do know. 

Connect to an end goal

A “why”, a North Star, or anything that gives your life purpose and transcends your existence as you are experiencing it right now is crucial. With a why in mind, the how often takes care of itself. Being able to clearly visualize the life you want after your divorce provides motivation, reminds you that there is more to life than your current problems, and reduces anxiety around the many unknowns. I have a very clear picture of the sort of person I dream of ending up with, the relationship I hope to have with my kids, and the line of work that will inspire and fulfill me. Accessing that goal has proven very effective in my lowest and scariest moments.   Visually organized people find it helpful to design vision boards or put post-it notes on their bathroom windows. Or, if you enjoy writing, try writing about waking up one day as if you have just had your best year ever. Even five minutes a day in a still or meditative state can help tap into your bigger purpose or connect to your spirituality. Whatever it looks like for you, being in the dark is much more palatable when there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  

Recognize when irrational fears are filling in the gaps

What stories are you making up to fill in the unknowns? This is where becoming keenly attuned to thoughts is so important. Remember the map your mind produces is not the real territory; in other words, your thoughts are not your reality. The bad news is everything is always in flux; the good news is everything is always in flux.  When I was in labor with my second daughter, my doula encouraged me by reminding me that the pain I was in was not going to stay that way forever: it would change during labor and it would go away after labor. Who would have thought a tip for childbirth would have got me through a difficult divorce?   Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroscientist, discovered that the chemical process in our body triggered by something in our environment lasts 90 seconds; any emotional response after that is purely due to the thoughts and beliefs that keep us in a loop (1). I find this quite amazing ,and the inference I take is that projecting the here and now onto the future is, for better or worse, pure fantasy.  

Breathe

Here is something that you can be certain of. For as long as you are walking on this planet, you will have your breath. When all else fails, harness the power of just focusing on your breath. There are so many benefits to breath work: an increase in oxygen can alleviate brain fog; deep breathing stimulates our body’s vagus relaxation response; an improvement in focus and just an overall “pause” and reset (2). You never know what clarity or "aha" moment could come to you when you take the time to just stop and breathe.    If you have children, you can really capitalize on breath work. By now you may have heard of mirror neurons, the brain cells that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform an action (3). So yes, what this essentially means is that your children will also calm when you calm. Not only that, but when you choose to breathe rather than panic or lose your cool, you are modeling emotional intelligence. Win-win all around and all you have to do is breathe!

Acknowledge that you are building tolerance 

Finally, and without sounding trite: uncertainty is simply a part of life, which is why uncertainty during divorce is perfectly normal. Your divorce is surely not the first time you have faced unknowns, nor will it be the last. What if learning to cope with uncertainty during divorce is all the certainty you actually need? You are building tolerance as you survive and thrive through your divorce. Have you ever tried a new workout only to wake up the next day and feel sore in places you didn't know existed? Just like flexing a muscle, becoming more comfortable with uncertainty is uncomfortable in the moment, but you are building and recruiting resilience and strength that you never knew you had. While we would hope that the dark you face now is the most daunting it will ever get, the confidence of knowing you can make it through will come in handy when tackling future instability.   Your blank slate feels like a cave of inky darkness; with each step you take, bring your light. Now is the time to truly be the creator of your own life by filling in question marks with all that you desire.  

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