5 Tips for Navigating Divorce

July 2014

 Divorce is hard. It’s messy. It is earth shattering. In the past year I’ve witnessed friends, family and clients do thier best to cope with this confusing and emotional experience. Most people will be affected by a divorce in some way, whether it be their own, their parents’ or that of close friends/family. Whether the divorce was agreed upon or not, ambivalence and grief are almost always inevitable.

When navigating this major life transition, there are a few bits of knowledge that help make the process slightly less earth shattering.

1) Recognize the magnitude and legitimacy of your losses.Do not criticize yourself for being emotional or less productive, EVEN IF you chose to end the marriage! Grief is an emotion we typically use to describe the intense sorrow resulting from a death. Like a death, divorce involves significant feelings of loss. It is the loss of the remaining idealized image of the person with whom you fell in love, the loss of your envisioned future and the loss of (at least in part) your current identity.

As humans we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, our partners and our lives. This helps us make sense of the world. These stories are shattered during even the most amicable divorce. The previous partner is seen in a new light. Additionally, pain sometimes plays tricks, creating the most painful possible story of your partner, no matter its accuracy. Perhaps this is to allow you to let go of a partner despite the horrible grief.

It is also human nature to plan and envision the future. We become invested in our envisioned future which typically revolves around our family and significant other.

Lastly, as a married person, you identify yourself as a husband or a wife. You are likely to adapt to the significant other in your life; depending on them for things you previously did yourself, doing things for them that you did not do before, making changes to the way you spend your free time, spending time with other couples, at the very least spending time thinking about/considering your partner. And then, one day, all this is supposed to suddenly stop!? This is a major adjustment which can leave the most strong and secure individual feeling alone, confused, empty and anxious.

2)Understand the stages of grief that you will inevitably go through. Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Acceptance. These emotional states are experienced as if on a roller coaster, more than neat orderly stages. The order is irrelevant and it is likely that you will cycle through the stages multiple times. You may begin to feel acceptance one day, then go back to anger and then to bargaining and to depression and back to anger…jumping around continuously. Just know that the intensity of each stage will eventually lessen and feel more like a kiddie ride than a roller coaster. Eventually, if you are able to process these feelings, you will step off the ride and settle into acceptance.

3) Talk about your inevitable ambivalence.  Even those who know 100% that they are better off ending a marriage have unresolved feelings about themselves and their partner.

4) Identify a neutral person with whom to talk about your ambivalence and grief. A neutral person is someone who will help you organize and explore all of your thoughts and feelings, not insert their personal feelings or opinions. Your thoughts and feelings are likely to shift gears multiple times in an hour so you may feel judged or unheard when expressing all of your thoughts and feelings to an overprotective friend/family member. Same goes for the friend/family member who is sympathetic to your partner.

5) Recognize that this is a new beginning, an exciting time to rediscover yourself. This can be difficult to hear, but it is true. Certainly parts of that story you are losing are a cause for relief. It may be helpful to make a list of those things you will not miss about your marriage/partner as well as a list of the new possibilities/activities ahead. Maybe you have neglected your desire to paint, write or travel with friends. Maybe you will reconnect more intimately with family.

 For fun, something a little bit different, I leave you with a collage created by art therapist Jodie Gonzalez as a symbol of the many facets of divorce.  [divorce pic] It contains symbols of rediscovery and opportunity (multiple reflections/dimensions of young woman, other woman looking outward & unopened letters) as well as emotional turmoil and freedom (lightening and birds in flight, women dancing & horse galloping).  The lotus flower always a symbol of resiliency due to its ability to bloom in muddy water.  The curtain indicates it’s time for the next act and butterflies represent that a metamorphosis has occurred and a new life begins…