Divorce is hard.
It just is. Even an amicable divorce is a traumatic experience – and where conflict exists, that trauma is magnified. What “was” no longer “is”, and what tomorrow brings is uncertain and frightening – for both parties.
So, then, what do you do?
Well, keeping in mind that no divorce is easy, there are a few tips than can help you move from a difficult past and present to a less difficult and frightening tomorrow.
With that in mind, in 32 years of divorce work, and having gone through a divorce myself, I offer the following tips to help you move from where you are, to where you want to be – the “New Normal.”
1. Abnormal is “Normal”
First realization: the chaos, and uncertainty and fear that you are experiencing is completely normal.
You are not crazy, are not different, and while perusing Instagram and Facebook might make it seem that everyone in the world are leading awesome, joyful lives except for you – the reality is that those portrayals are “masks” people put on otherwise difficult lives. Over 40% of people will experience divorce, and every one of them has experienced the same fears and anxieties that you feel right now.
So, you’re not alone, and your “abnormal” feelings, are, in fact, completely normal.
Allow yourself to feel them. Accept them. And work towards reducing them.
2. Get Counseling, Talk to Healthy Friends and Family
Divorce can be a very isolating and solitary experience. Even close friends and family may give off vibes after the initial break-up that they just don’t want to hear anymore about your problems, and that you should just “get over it.”
Or, under the guise of being “helpful” they may do one of two things – neither of which are actually “helpful”:
a) They may pile on the invective and criticism of your former spouse. Increasing anger and frustration is not helpful to you. You might feel like it is – but in fact, the goal I try to encourage my clients to work towards is “indifference”. Easier said than done, I know. But increasing your anger and frustration is actually counter-productive to helping you move forward to a life where your past pain is, well, “in the past.” Try to avoid these people – even if they are well-meaning. You don’t need more reasons to be angry and frustrated;
b) They may explain to you why YOU are wrong – you know, “helpful honesty”. Now, while a degree of introspection and self-analysis is helpful, more often than not, these people have a sort of “schadenfreude” – namely, they get pleasure from your pain and inadequacy. If you are “worse” that makes them “better”. Avoid these people too.
What you want are people that allow you to express yourself, who offer little judgment, good or bad, and simply allow you to feel what you feel. These people are hard to come by (especially for men). If you don’t have one of these people – or even if you do (because they have lives too) you would be very well advised to seek out counseling as soon as is possible.
In order to make the difficult decisions that need to be made – in order to most effectively work with your lawyer – you need to be your “best self”. Counselling will help you work through your feelings, and help you orient yourself towards a positive future, instead of dwelling in a painful past.
3. Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
There is, without question, a clear connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Whether dealing with stress and anxiety, or even mild depression, a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle is very helpful to reducing those stresses.
Which isn’t to say that you need to enter a marathon tomorrow. Or become a vegan.
There is a tendency in a relationship breakdown to seek out “comfort” in ways that are not actually comforting in the long run. Sleeping in later. Eating unhealthy food. Becoming a couch-potato. Avoiding social interactions requiring you to, well, shower.
While eating healthy and getting some exercise do require some effort – and while going through a relationship breakdown while trying to maintain other responsibilities can feel over-whelming at times, in my experience and my own research, reducing unhealthy eating and getting some exercise – even just a short morning walk – are very helpful to reducing stress and depression and can help you feel better about your today and tomorrow.
4. Be “Good to Yourself”
See the above regarding healthy eating and exercise.
Beyond that – ask yourself what gives you joy. A while back I had a conversation with a highly stressed and anxious client about their file, and I could see he was struggling. I asked him, “what do you like to do when you’re not hanging out with your lawyer.” He responded that he used to love fishing. I asked him when the last time he went fishing was, and he expressed it had been years. My “legal advice” that day was, “get out fishing”.
A few weeks later he was functioning better, our meetings were more productive – and he expressed his gratitude for me prodding him to be good to himself. To push him to do something that he enjoyed – reducing his stress and his loneliness post separation.
It’s very typical to dwell on your sadness and disappointment of what “could have been” and to lament your loss. That’s so completely normal. But sometimes, that wallowing can be very unhealthy and unhelpful to moving forward.
Take a moment to consider the things you enjoy doing, or you think you would enjoy doing – and do them.
Some people say, “I can’t afford it, I’m paying too much to my lawyer to go skiing.”
Well, fair enough.
But I recall, in my own life, struggling to manage finances post separation – and starting a regimen of “sunrise walks”. I went camping. Low cost, high return – and the pleasure of doing something just for me, helped me feel “valuable” to myself. Which can sometimes be difficult in divorce – particularly if you are at all self-critical.
So – be good to yourself. Take up cooking, playing a musical instrument, join a club. Do something to help make yourself happy.
5. Give Your Children Permission to Love Both of Their Parents
If you have children, allow them to be free to love both of their parents. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is worse than submitting your children to high conflict between their parents and sending them a message that they are not free to love both of their parents equally.
This can be difficult.
It can be tempting to want to “hold on to” your children, and fear separation from them – even for brief periods of time. However, if you would like your children to engage in addictive behavior, to find themselves experiencing a teen pregnancy, to be charged with a crime, or to have a much higher likelihood of future failed relationships, then by all means, be selfish and bitter and put their other parent down in their presence and belittle or criticize their other parent at every opportunity.
Yes, you are entitled to feel angry and betrayed and disappointed in their father or mother. Your child has no need to share those feelings with you – and if you have difficulty in knowing how to handle those feelings, again, see a counselor.
Be your child’s hero. Deal with your angst or anger on your own, with supportive friends, or a counselor out of the children’s presence. If they experience joy with the other parent, encourage those feelings and congratulate yourself on allowing them that opportunity – because not every child gets that chance.
6. Avoid Finding the “Next One” Right Away
Avoid registering with eHarmony.com immediately following your separation.
It is temping to fill a void by immediately moving from an unhappy relationship to one where you appear to be valued and attractive. Insecurity in your sense of “self” is so completely normal, as is the sense of loneliness arising when you are suddenly coming home to an empty home.
However, new relationships are most likely to fail where commenced within two years of the last one.
Why is that? Well, after feeling unloved or unneeded by your past partner, any positive attention will, obviously make you feel good. However, those “good feelings” most often are accompanied by a very thick pair of rose-colored glasses.
It takes time to debrief yourself regarding why the last relationship didn’t work out. Questions like, “what did I do that I could have done better” take time… and even in an abusive relationship, at a minimum, it takes some time to ask, “how could I make better choices in the future.”
Moving quickly into a new romantic relationship, like eating tubs of ice cream every night, might fill a void, but it’s most likely to create yet a “new” problem before you’ve finished resolving the last one.
Now – from a “business promotion” perspective, re-bound marriages are great for divorce lawyers. But, for you? Not so much.
7. Be Social
While filing a void with a new romantic relationship is probably a bad idea soon after a separation, filling a void with “people” is not.
Join a club, go to Church, take up a social hobby, maybe a cooking class (see healthy eating)!
This social aspect is very helpful to allow you to regain a sense of “self”. You are not someone’s mother or partner – you are “you” and joining new people in new social settings allows you to more clearly engage your sense of “self” which, in turn, puts you in a better position to be a healthy “self” in the future.
8. Visualize a Positive Tomorrow
It is easy to focus on the problem post-separation. Too few resources for too many needs, legal fees, parenting disagreements, past conflict can consume our thoughts if we allow them to.
But life is a sort of story book.
And right now, you might be in that chapter where Snow White is lost and afraid in the woods.
Try to accept, however, that this chapter will pass. That you can create the next chapter, which will be new and different, and exciting in ways that you might not foresee today. When you are reading a book and are in a painful or uncomfortable chapter you don’t likely go back and read that chapter over and over again.
You keep reading. And in most books, like Snow White, the likelihood is that following the trauma a chapter will lead to resolution and a more positive tomorrow for the hero or heroine.
So too is your life. Don’t spend all your time re-reading the sad chapter. Look forward and work to creating the next positive chapter. You have one life – so, roll up your sleeves and work to make the next chapter a happier one.
Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Top of Form
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
So too is it for you. Look forward to the new door opening.
August 30, 2018
Robert G. Harvie, Q.C.
Lawyer, Mediator, Arbitrator… and Divorce Survivor