As most anyone can tell you, navigating the end of a relationship is difficult- and this most certainly applies to separation and divorce. Divorce exerts a tremendous emotional and psychological toll for those who are experiencing it. In many cases, women have come to me in the midst of learning that their spouses no longer wish to remain married, as they are left holding the remnants of what they believed was once a relatively solid relational foundation.
Here are 5 pieces of advice from easiest to hardest in terms of what I have seen people struggle with the most over the years of my work as a clinician, not just in divorce situations, but in terms of life in general.
1. Learn to pick your battles- and not everything needs to be a battle.
2. Learn to move forward- while learning from the past and living in the present.
3. Learn to practice compassion- for others and mostly for yourself.
4. Learn to forgive- (for) yourself.
5. Learn to accept- that things will be outside of your control and not go as planned.
Learn to pick your battles.
In my work with clients experiencing divorce, I have heard stories about spouses not coming to an agreement because one small or insignificant item has yet to be agreed upon in the divorce decree. The divorce will drag on for weeks to months because of hundreds to thousands of dollars, or at least, that is what is argued on the surface, when, in my opinion, there is usually some incentive to “winning” the final battle that is being fought between these two parties almost like a tug of war. I understand that this is a highly emotional experience, and that in many instances, financial difficulties are being incurred for one or both parties; but, I have to begin to wonder at the incurring costs of remaining in the divorce process over an item or set of items that has a total value less than a few thousand dollars when I hear about the cost of retaining an attorney and have witnessed the emotional costs of watching these battles drag on past a necessary timeframe. My advice around this issue for anyone experiencing a divorce is to be the one to let go of the rope if you find yourself in this kind of emotional tug of war. Learn that this is not the battle to pick, because not everything needs to be a battle. Things are replaceable. Time is not.
Learn to move forward.
Another difficult part of experiencing the loss of a relationship to divorce involves moving on from the marriage. I believe that the best and most effective way for this to take place involves looking backwards to fully process the past as well as to begin engaging in the present moment and the emotions that are surfacing. Many times, my clients arrive feeling unable to reconcile the fact that something they were a part of for so many years (in some cases) is ending, and we have to identify a way to deal with the shock that accompanies this realization while also making space for the need to begin a new chapter of life, because that’s what life represents; a series of new starts and new chapters. Each ending is going to be difficult, with some being much more difficult and traumatic than others, and when an ending is planned or expected, you tend to be better at starting the next chapter because there was already a space holder for it. My advice to anyone dealing with the end of a marriage is to learn to move forward by reflecting on the past and living in the present and by remembering that you have done this very thing a million times before.
Learn to practice compassion.
I am always tracking on this work, no matter what a client is presenting with in session. I have yet to find a person (and I recognize this could change, but I remain skeptical that it will) who has found an optimal balance at holding an equal amount of compassion for themselves and for those around them. In working with women and divorce, the shame and the grief that has awaited these individuals upon learning of the end of their marriage has culminated in a tsunami of emotions, and the most challenging aspect of this journey is knowing that the waves are going to continue but not knowing exactly when the next one will hit, or how hard, or when the healing will be done. I find myself repeating a phrase like, “This process takes time, and there is no exact timeline for your healing. So be gentle and compassionate with yourself”. And I recognize that my clients may grow tired of this phrase, but it’s the truth, and it’s my job to be truthful. I believe wholeheartedly that growth happens when we slow down and practice self-compassion; some people refer to this as inner-child work, and it simply involves asking yourself, “What do I need right now? What are my emotions telling me I need? What is my body telling me I need?” and then meeting that need. The basic idea behind this work is that many of us did not have some of our basis needs met when we were children: need for safety/security, need for love, need for emotional validation, need for belongingness, etc. But the great news is, you can learn to meet your own needs now as an adult; you can create a safe space in your home environment; you can learn to validate your emotions and your experiences; you can be compassionate and listen to your needs. And this is what I am in many ways encouraging my clients to do, in some cases, for the first time in their lives. So, for anyone going through a divorce, I would encourage you to slow down, treat yourself gently, be compassionate, and in doing so, learn to listen to your needs and meet those needs.
Learn to forgive.
I don’t always encourage people to forgive others. This is a conversation I will have with a potential client and it will be based on the nature of the relationship in question, and the client will direct me around their decision to forgive another person or not. I do not buy into the belief that everyone must be forgiven for their actions, because I do not believe that every act is forgivable, and I do not view myself as the judge or jury when it comes to such matters. My clients have free will and are capable of determining these matters for themselves. My only exception to this involves the matter of forgiving oneself, and I understand where this may begin to appear contradictory, so please, hear me out. I believe that anyone coming to me for support and personal growth who is carrying around shame will remain stuck and unable to make progress unless they learn to forgive themselves. The typical things I have encountered people holding blame against themselves for include relatively minor mistakes made years ago, perceived flaws and shortcomings (imperfections), hurting others via disappointments or by making certain decisions in life, and blaming themselves for the mistakes, shortcomings, disappointments, and decisions as well as emotional fallout of others. This last one is big for me, because it is not theirs to own. In the case of divorce, I see a combination of guilt and shame coming from multiple angles, where a wife feels like a failure as a spouse and has come up with a narrative of not living up to the standards set forth by her spouse, but when we sit down to unpack everything we begin to recognize she has taken on her partner’s mistakes, shortcomings, disappointments, decisions, and emotions alongside her own and some disentangling needs to take place first because not everything she is feeling is her baggage or burden to carry. In order to fully heal, she will need to at least learn to forgive herself, and recognize that in some cases, she very well may have contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, but also that she may have been in a relationship that was built on a foundation with cracks and fault lines and ruptures that never should have been built in the first place. My advice to anyone experiencing a divorce is to learn to forgive yourself, because relationships take a lot of hard work, even when they are working, and especially when they begin to fall apart.
Learn to accept.
This is one of the hardest things I believe I will ever ask of my clients, and yet one of the most important tasks to accomplish in terms of healing and moving forward. For those who have been told by the person that they loved, admired, and decided to put their utmost trust in, that their marriage is over (keeping in mind that this message can come in direct and indirect ways), this ending is one of the most difficult and heartbreaking that a person will encounter in their lifetime excepting the loss of a child or spouse to death or some other tragedy. How do you accept that your partner of 5, 10, 20, or even 30 years no longer feels the desire to be your partner? No longer loves you or wants to love you? No longer feels the way you may still feel? It’s almost unimaginable, and yet, you have to learn to accept this decision and this ending, just like any other ending in life- because you cannot change or control the way another person feels no matter how badly it might hurt to hear you have lost your spouse’s love. Sometimes people will be open to trying to work things out or to have a trial separation period, but it seems that by the time a person is throwing around the term, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, a distance or rupture has already been present in the relationship for some time and the person may not be open to trying to work things out. You will be shocked, upset, in denial, depressed, angry, confused, lost, vacillating between blaming yourself and blaming your spouse. You will feel all of these ways and more for what feels like a hundred times over and, as I mentioned before, the waves will keep coming. I believe that the healing will finally begin taking place and a breathing point will be reached, when you begin to accept that this was not what you wanted nor was it what you had planned for your life, but that you are powerless to change it or to control the situation. Now don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean this in a defeated, passive sort of way when I say acceptance. There is an active, intentional, empowering force that comes with recognizing you are not in control of many things that are happening, have happened, and will continue to happen throughout your life but that you are very much in charge of what you decide to do and how you decide to move forward from the challenges, losses, and traumas that life throws at you. Because the truth is, life is going to continue to challenge you with obstacles and mountains, and you can stop and feel overwhelmed and convince yourself that there is no way for you to overcome it, or you can stop and feel whatever it is you are feeling, and take some time to figure out how to move forward despite the mountain- or drill a damn hole straight through it if you have to, because I’m all for creativity and efficiency and not everyone’s a decent climber. I believe that accepting our lack of control is what frees us up to make the changes we need to make to keep moving forward, and that living in denial and lying to ourselves about always being in control of life’s situations only burdens us further with shame, guilt, and regret that isn’t ours to carry because things are going to go haywire at times and that’s not always our fault or anyone else’s. Shit happens. But so does greatness. So learn to accept all of it, all at once because that’s what this life is about; learning to be open to the good and the bad and the gains and the losses, and everything that comes in between. And that, to me, represents true openness and acceptance.