Navigating Each Hard Turn of Divorce
by Steve Wright, LPC
Divorce is one of the most painful of human experiences. It has been compared with the grief and pain of the death of a spouse. Indeed, the death of the relationship to the person one intended to spend the rest of life with is something that really must be grieved.
So, how does one navigate through the pain and hurt of divorce to come out the other end as a survivor? How can life be good again?
Life can be good after divorce, but it takes a lot of work, self-reflection and insight in order to get there. The key is to adopt a perspective that the experiences of divorce can be personally beneficial. As impossible as that sounds, people have the ability to redefine bad experiences into something that helps them gain insight into themselves, into their own relationship issues, and to allow the pain and grief to temper (make stronger) instead of consume.
In this way, bitterness can be transformed into acceptance, unforgiveness can be changed into freedom, pain and weakness can become healing and strength. The road to that place is difficult to navigate; but it is possible.
Here are some “turn-by-turn” directions that may be beneficial.
The First Turn:
The first turn is inward. Divorce can cause intense feelings of rejection. That rejection takes time to overcome. It takes a lot of emotional energy to deal with it and the subsequent pain and wounds. Just like surgery, there has to be a healing time. Psychologically, that means taking time for oneself (even when the demands on one’s time increases such as being the sole caregiver for children, taking care of a home alone, etc.). One must find time to look inside and develop moments of rest. Here is a list of suggestions:
- Sit in the dark and breathe
- Start a journal to record your thoughts and feelings
- Take the train instead of drive
- Walk at lunch
- Listen to soothing music
- Read something delightful
- Go out to eat
- Take a drive in the country
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath
- Watch a movie (not animated!)
- Have coffee with a friend
- Have coffee by yourself
- Go to the woods, beach, mountains
Some of these are more time-intensive, others take just a moment. The point is that taking time for oneself helps create balance in an unstable and unbalanced situation.
The Second Turn:
Just as it is beneficial to take a short view of oneself, it is good to take a long view of one’s former spouse/partner. Even when it is impossible to become distant physically, it is possible to become distant emotionally.
In a marriage, people often receive some level of self-definition from a spouse. His or her opinion matters, otherwise the hurtful words and actions wouldn’t be as painful. This is natural. People want to be well thought of by their husband or wife. When that husband or wife thinks badly of the other it is easy for one to accept his/her opinion as truth. What must be remembered is that any negative opinions are generally fueled by a long history of negative interactions.
A person’s opinion of another is just that, an opinion. It is not necessarily fact and does not need to define one. Realizing this truth is the first step in becoming more emotionally detached from an ex. It is accepting that one’s ex-spouse has an opinion that is influenced and colored by his or her own inner turmoil and pain. Asking some reflective questions may help:
- Does anyone else close to me hold the same opinion?
- If a total stranger said some of the things my ex-spouse says, how would I respond?
- Do I think of myself the same way my ex-spouse does? Why?
- Is my negative reaction to some of the things my ex-spouse says driven by my own negative thoughts about myself or a belief that he/she is right?
The answer to some of these questions can be very revealing and give insight to the thoughts that can keep one stuck in depression, anger and bitterness. Releasing the anger and bitterness should be a major goal for someone moving on and growing through the divorce process. But how?
When speaking of “letting go,” the word “forgiveness” must be considered. This author has spoken to many, many individuals going through divorce and one of the universal questions is “how does one forgive?”
Forgiveness is not approving of the behaviors or opinions of someone who has caused pain.
A more accurate definition is:
Releasing the right to restitution and the desire for revenge.
There is nothing in the above definition about forgetting. One does not forget acts or words that are painful. But, through forgiveness, those painful experiences can stop hurting. The power they have over one can be alleviated.
The key is in acceptance. One must accept that that former partner is who he or she is. Disappointment and bitterness most often arise from unmet expectations. One expects something and gets something entirely different and this creates pain. Letting go of those expectations and accepting that other person for who he or she is can help free one from constant disappointment and hurt. It can also have a strong impact on that other person for the following reason.
When one has expectations of another that go unmet, one generally responds in negative ways toward that person. Arguments, nagging, hurtful words, stonewalling, just to name a few, are ways used to try and make that other person meet one’s expectations. The result is generally a negative response coming from him or her perpetuating and creating more pain.
Letting go of expectations and detaching emotionally gives that other person nothing to react to. If one accepts that one’s ex-spouse is a flawed human being and that there is really nothing one can do to change him or her, one can step back and stop trying to cause change in him or her, and begin to focus on one’s own personal growth and change. When that former partner no longer feels those expectations the need in him or her to “push back” is no longer there and the opportunity to see himself or herself differently arises.
Caution: Road Work Ahead:
Many divorcing individuals tend to find it too difficult to cope with the intense loneliness and look for someone to fill that emptiness. Entering into a relationship before one has had time to properly heal is like driving a car over a bridge that is not complete. Disaster often looms ahead.
The attention and excitement created by a new relationship can be deeply satisfying. However, that satisfaction tends to be only momentary. This is because one enters into these types of relationships for the wrong reasons. A healthy and satisfying relationship is one in which both partners care for each other and are focused on giving to each other. The basis of a rebound relationship is built on the need for one to take from the other person.
Initially, that may make the other person feel important and see themselves as a “rescuer.” However, a couple of things can, and usually does, go wrong.
First, one eventually heals from the pain and no longer needs rescuing. Since the relationship was begun as a rescue operation, the other person no longer fits into that role and the foundation of the relationship is no longer there. Feelings of resentment over the “rescuing” behaviors of that other person may build up or, patters of relating to that other person as a perpetual victim may create a co-dependent relationship.
It is the problem of pain and the desire to avoid it that drives the desire to enter into a replacement relationship or throw oneself into work or become consumed with other activities or even develop addictions. A better solution is to “embrace” the pain realizing that, in doing so, healing will come. It is OK to hurt. Hurt leads to a deeper understanding of self and can foster growth.
You Have Arrived At Your Destination:
Does one actually “arrive” anywhere? In the end, isn’t it all part of a journey? Many live their lives waiting for the next “thing” and not allowing themselves to appreciate the moment. Divorce is one of those parts of life’s journey that is like driving through an intense snow storm. It can be blinding at times. There is the fear of spinning out of control. The real possibility of being stranded looms ahead.
Just remember, the storm does not last forever. It will pass. If one follows the map and stays on the road, one can get through to brighter days and a better place in life.