Within the last couple of weeks, there have been a couple of women in my life that are looking at divorce. One of them asked me to write this for her. I hope others can benefit from my experience.
- Isolation sucks. I know for me, I wasn’t really ever alone while in the midst of my divorce. I had friends, family, and I always had Eva. The physical presence and even emotional support of those I love didn’t do anything to lessen my feeling of isolation, though. I felt like I was on an island, all by myself, experiencing something that I couldn’t explain and they couldn’t understand. This may sound very self-focused, knowing that something like 50% of marriages end in divorce so surely there are others that feel this way, but this is a feeling that can’t be reasoned away. I let others in on what I was feeling as much as I could, but there was always a point that was like a secret passage, and unless they are you at that moment in time they cannot enter to experience the same things.
- Independence sucks. As modern women, most of us never become completely dependent on a partner financially speaking. There is always a factor of financial reconfiguration after a separation or divorce, sometimes minor or sometimes extreme. Most of us are fully capable of being completely independent financially, physically and emotionally without much effort. Compared to 1950’s women…well, I can’t even really compare myself to the 1950’s woman. It is like apples to oranges. The expectations for a woman in the 1950’s to a woman today just aren’t comparable. I have said all of this to say that as women, we are expected to be independent and yes, we are quite capable. But, it doesn’t mean that that independence doesn’t suck. It’s nice to have a partner to share your struggles with, whether they be emotional, financial, or physical. It is okay to mourn the loss of this partnership. It doesn’t make you less of a feminist.
- You can’t change anything. You cannot change him, his heart, his mind, or his will. You can’t change you in such a way that suddenly means you won’t have to go through this experience. You can’t change the past in any way, shape, or form. I will repeat–you can’t change anything. This part definitely sucked the most for me, I think. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, I couldn’t change a single, damn thing. I had never felt more out-of-control before in my life. This brings me to my next point.
- You can’t control everything. I know, this one sounds so obvious. We all know this, right? Well, knowing something intellectually and putting it in to practice are two different things. The greatest lesson I got from my divorce is having a much better sense of when to let go of a situation, emotion, or person. If there are children involved, this need to control seems to be so much stronger. It certainly was for me. I finally came up with something to help me stop for a moment to examine my motives. I would ask myself (and still do before every conversation I have with my ex concerning Eva), what do I want to gain from this conversation, action, etc.? The follow-up question to that was always, is that a realistic expectation? If the answer to the first question ever had anything to do with my emotions, like I felt he needed to know how I felt, or I felt like I would get some peace if I could say such and such, then I would stop in my tracks. It was not realistic for my situation to think that any conversation with him would gain me anything emotionally. His complete disregard for all things concerning my emotional well-being was well-established before the initial divorce paperwork was ever filed. My focus shifted from what I needed from him to what Eva needed from him. Even that required a careful examination of my motives and expectations, though. Here is my next point:
- (For women with children involved) You can’t make him be a good father! It will never happen. The more you push, generally, the worse it becomes. Of course your child deserves a good father, but chances are if he was a bad father when you were married, he will be a bad father after you are divorced, too. I have focused my time and energy on helping my child to understand that the situation is not ideal, and that his actions are HIS actions and not a result of his feelings for her. I have taught her to speak her mind, to speak up when something hurts her feelings or makes her angry. When he asks me something about her, I usually tell him to ask her. I try to take myself out of the middle of their relationship as much as possible. He is a bad father, not an abuser. I can’t excise him from her life no matter how great that sounds. I can’t change my choice in procreating with him (not that I want to because I wouldn’t have Eva exactly as she is otherwise), which is my emotional burden as I watch her struggle with her relationship with him, but I can help her have a relationship with him on her own terms in a way that is most meaningful to her given the situation. He responds better when he hears her say no versus hearing me say no. With me, it is a fight. With her, he takes it as a fact. When she expresses herself, he understands that is how she feels. When I express how she feels, he thinks I’m planted that emotion on her, coached her, and that I am just trying to control his relationship with her.
- It is okay to go on a date when YOU are ready, not when a piece of paper or anything else says you are ready! I didn’t realize it would be an issue with my family that I was open and ready to go on a date before my divorce was final. It took a year and a half for our divorce to be finalized. He had a girlfriend before he left, and he had bought a house with her around the six-month mark. None of that mattered to my family, who thought that by going on a date, I was jeopardizing my bid for joint custody. I realize that this scenario is based on my family’s ignorance, but I was surprised how many people in my life had the same point of view. My aunt, my godparents, and even coworkers thought that I couldn’t be seen going out with a man until my divorce was final without possible consequences. I know for me, I desperately needed someone to take me out and tell me I am fantastic, even if he only said it to get in my pants. I needed to know that being married, giving birth and then being rejected as a spouse had not somehow changed my desirability. My self-esteem had taken a nose dive like never before. Only so much of that can be restored in therapy and self-help.
- Be mindful of the calendar. I didn’t anticipate feeling anything on days that had previously held some importance in my marriage. I didn’t think I would feel like crying or punching something. Surprise! I felt a lot of things on the first anniversary after our divorce. I felt a lot of things on my first birthday alone. I didn’t think Thanksgiving or Christmas would be hard because we never developed our own traditions as a family. I felt a lot of anger, mostly, because he seemed to make it a point to be in contact with me on those days. He announced his engagement to his girlfriend on my birthday. He didn’t announce it to Facebook, or his family, or even to our daughter–he announced it to me. After the involuntary laugh/snort left my mouth, I believe my next words were about the upcoming pick-up arrangement for our daughter. I was very committed to restraining myself from giving him any sort of reaction to all of the ridiculousness he made a point to tell me.
- Holidays suck. What else do I need to say? It doesn’t matter how Christmas-y you two were as a couple, it will still suck. I see nothing wrong with some wine on those holidays, but be careful.
- Alcohol will only serve to humiliate you. I say this to you, but I’m really speaking to myself. I would be holding it together quite well, the picture of calm, until I added a certain amount of alcohol. Then the tears were unstoppable. Just one glass too many would result in the unleashing of a dam of tears that definitely needed to come out, but it didn’t need to come out all at once.
- It is okay to cry! Cry a lot and cry often, otherwise look at #9 above. If I hadn’t been so determined to be so calm ALL the time, I doubt there would have been a reservoir of tears dammed up backed by emotions that rarely got to see the light of day. I was determined to be fine, immediately. I wasn’t fine! I wasn’t anywhere near fine! I don’t think I was fooling anyone, either.
- Accept the sympathy and well-wishes and empathy. Sometimes, friends and family need to grieve, too. Sometimes, they feel betrayed, too. Since they don’t have contact with the ex anymore (in most cases, that is), the only way for them to find closure is through you. I was not open and honest about my feelings with anyone except for a couple of close friends. Everyone else around me did not receive from me a gracious acceptance of their well-wishes. Instead, I would usually make a joke about it and change the subject. What better way to show I was fine than to make jokes? Ha!
- You are the only person inside your head. You are the only person who can give you good advice. You know what you want, what you need, and what you should do. No one else can validate these things for you. You have to trust yourself, scary as that may be. Everyone always says not to make big decisions after a divorce/breakup, death, or job loss. That sounds great in theory, as in that would only work if the world suddenly came to a stand-still. The world doesn’t, though. Life goes on. You can’t stop life. You can’t avoid important decisions or try to get someone else to make those decisions because you don’t trust your grief-addled brain. Be a big girl, listen to yourself, cry about it, and then make the decision. Take a cue from Nike, just do it!
- Be easy on yourself. This has to be the single-most important thing I learned the hard way. I am not to blame for every problem in my life. Yes, I may be the common denominator to each failure in my life. But, that’s because it is MY life. Of course I am the common denominator! It can be so tempting to fall into this pit of self-pity, this view that everything you do is wrong, that every choice you make leads to failure and misery, and on and on and on. There may be plausible evidence to back up this theory, even. The thing is this, though–you weren’t married to yourself. For it to be a marriage that requires a divorce in a court, as in the real world, you couldn’t have possibly married yourself. There is another party to this marriage, and that party is just as much to blame for the marriage failure. Quit trying to place blame on anyone. It doesn’t fill any holes or satisfy any needs. See #3 for further clarification on why blaming yourself or him or anyone else is an absolutely pointless endeavor.
- It really does get easier, time heals all wounds, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you can’t know good without bad–I could think of a million cliches that were thrown at me when I was in the midst of my divorce. Most of them were true, but I hated hearing every last one of them. Quit trying to get over it. Now, I know, that sounds counter-productive, but just listen for a minute. What you feel while you are right smack-dab in the middle of all of this emotional catastrophe is something that will change you and shape your future. No matter how much you want to hide or run from all of these overwhelming emotions, they will find you, usually when it is most inconvenient. In the middle of nutrition mid-term exam, for example, would be a bad place to suddenly begin crying. Or, in the middle of a game of patty-cake with a one and a half year-old would be another inconvenient time to have all of those emotions catch up with you. Trust me. Quit trying to just move on, get over it, or whatever other cliche you are using to try to sound sane and embrace it. Cry it out. Scream it out (preferably not if you are my neighbor, though). Dance it out. Run it out. Break things. Listen to angry music. Watch that movie about that couple that makes you feel like your heart is going to break all over again.
Human life is all about our experiences. We gain knowledge with every new experience. How we deal with each experience usually sets us up to use this knowledge and experience to deal with the next crisis or tough event. If you spend your time and emotional energy running from this experience and challenge, you will have missed out on some very valuable lessons. I spent a year and a half waiting for my divorce to be finalized, and a good portion of that time was spent running. I was avoiding all of those emotions as much as I could. Some days, it really was necessary to avoid my feelings just so I could do things like go to work, or go to college, or care for my daughter. Mostly, though, in the moments that I could be still and just be, I avoided my emotions then, too. Eventually, I dealt with my feelings and I found myself becoming a little happier each time I actually let myself feel. I came out of it all with a much different perspective on life. I am stronger, healthier, happier and much wiser than I ever could have been before the divorce, before that season of struggle. I greatly empathize with anyone in the midst of divorce, especially the spouse that didn’t see it coming because that was me. Life is not the sum of one major life event like a marriage or a divorce or a birth or a death, but life is definitely the sum of what we do with all of those events.