Going through a divorce is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. Your dream of marital bliss is now a nightmare. Tough decisions have to be made about who gets what. Friends and family members expect an explanation of what went wrong. You may need to hire a lawyer, and there is tedious paperwork to fill out. Most importantly, you have to get through each day without imploding under the weight of your emotions.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to magically erase your hurt, stress, loneliness, and confusion. But there are strategies that can help you cope, adjust, and even grow during this difficult time.
Trust me, I know. I have been divorced three times, not because I wanted to, but because circumstances forced me to make painful choices. My divorces left me brokenhearted, but each time I was determined to manage my pain, maintain my confidence, and remain open to love.
Here are 8 tips for surviving divorce.
• Accept that the marriage is ending. Nobody gets married with the intention or expectation of getting divorced, so when it happens it’s unbelievable! In order to accept that your marriage is ending, you must first be honest about why the marriage is dissolving. Usually, this means making sure that you are not fixating on your ex’s positive qualities and downplaying his or her hurtful or unhealthy behaviors—or your own. If you continue fixating on a selective version of reality, you will never be able to accept that the marriage is over.
Allow yourself to grieve because your heart is broken. It’s inevitable that the loss of your marriage (as well as the dissolution of the hopes and dreams you had for your future) will cause you pain. You’ll need to take time to grieve and heal. So whenever you feel angry, sad, in despair, confused, betrayed, or a myriad of negative emotions, allow yourself to experience those feelings.
• Stop looking back. Eliminate “what if” and “if only” from your vocabulary. The truth is, you can keep looking back and wondering “what if” forever—but as long as you keep looking back, you will never move forward. You will be stuck in the past, mentally rehashing what can never be changed.
Of course we would all do things differently if we’d known then what we know now—but unless you have a time machine, that’s impossible. Accept that you did the best you could with the resources you had at the time. Try to forgive yourself and your ex, which will help you to feel more at peace and break the unhealthy mental loop of ‘what if’ and ‘if only.’ You may find it helpful to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re condoning your ex’s or your own bad behavior—it means that you’re choosing to let go of resentment, blame, and anger.
• Start moving forward and make the hard decisions. Ignoring a bad situation or a less-than-ideal reality won’t make it go away. If you’re going through a divorce (and even if you are already divorced), you may still be in contact with your ex, his or her family, and mutual friends, especially if you have children together. Maybe you still have some of your ex’s belongings or find yourself visiting places you went together. If these activities are causing you pain and preventing you from moving forward, you have some tough choices to make: Should I cut off contact? Do I need to return or donate items that remind me of my ex? etc. These decisions may be difficult, but remember, the short-term pain you are experiencing is worth it because you are doing what is necessary to move forward.
• Use a journal to process your emotions and map out where you want to go. I started writing in a journal after my first marriage ended and found it to be a great survival tool. I wanted to understand why I felt the way I did and I wanted to feel better. As I started making entries, I discovered that I felt relief when I wrote. It became a source of strength that allowed me to open up to myself and be honest with myself about my emotions. And as time passed, I could look back at my prior journal entries to remind myself that I was making progress, even when it didn’t feel that way.
View your journal as a map that leads you from the past to the future. To start, try writing about how you feel about the relationship. Putting pen to paper will help you to get in touch with what you need to move forward. You can write about what you learned from your marriage and divorce.
Creating a journal is also a great means to finding your new destiny because you can record your evolving dreams and hopes for the future. It doesn’t matter if you journal every day or occasionally—this habit will help you when you need to process your emotions and organize your thoughts.
• Build a routine that makes you feel good. Even if living as a hermit feels safer (and it might!), try to fill your days with activities you enjoy and that keep your mind occupied: walks around the neighborhood, worship services, trips to the dog park, drinks with friends, etc. This serves three purposes: Enjoyable activities lift your mood, keep you busy so you aren’t wallowing, and get you out of the house and into situations where you’ll interact with others. If you want to reclaim your life after divorce, you must learn to be confident and comfortable in the world on your own.
• Set a new goal, or get back into an old hobby. It’s possible that you “lost” some parts of yourself in your former marriage, allowing your ex’s interests, desires, and activities to come before your own. That’s why it’s helpful to start pursuing a personal goal now—something to keep you focused on your own priorities and interests and something that does not remind you of your marriage. Before immersing yourself in your relationship, what did you do for fun? Where did you find fulfillment? Return to those activities. Or start pursuing a new goal that’s been on the back burner.
• Show yourself some TLC (emphasis on the L!). You may have had a relationship that ended badly, but you don’t (and you shouldn’t!) have to live without love. For the sake of your present and your future, you need to learn to love yourself. First, work on seeing yourself as a whole and complete person, not as one-half of a relationship. You also need to treat yourself as kindly and with as much compassion as you would a friend or loved one (i.e., stop beating yourself up relentlessly!). And while all of us can and should strive for self-improvement, you need to recognize and value all of the wonderful aspects of yourself that have been there all along.
• Help someone else. It’s important to concentrate on your own needs and desires after going through a divorce—but don’t become too self-focused and isolated. Serving others is one of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness while making connections with others and regaining personal purpose.
Avalon S. Brandt, Esq., is the author of Still I Love: Loving after Three Divorces. She grew up in Baltimore and graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1994. She is currently employed with the law offices of Saul E. Kerpelman, which represents children for injuries resulting from childhood lead exposure. Her book is available at www.stillilove.com or Amazon.