Healing After Divorce by Martha Pitman
“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else,
and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are many roads that lead to divorce, and many paths to recovery. However, one thing is certain, life will be forever changed. Although recovery can be long and painful for many, in time the day-to day returns. How we navigate the process depends on many factors, including a person’s resilience, coping skills, support systems, age and years married, reasons for the divorce, concurrent life stressors and past traumas. According to researcher Daniel Gilbert of Harvard, in responding to difficult and even devastating life events, people usually do better than they anticipate. This is due to what is known as the psychological immune system, which helps to mitigate emotional trauma, and re-establish our equilibrium and move forward.
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. When the numbness wears off in the early days after a divorce, a person can feel overwhelmed with intense and distressing emotions, and wonder if they will ever feel okay again. One of the most helpful tools in recovery is understanding that what you are going through is normal, and one can expect to feel awful for what seems like a long time. As psychologist Mary Pipher states, “we don’t heal without hurting. For a while, the cure for the pain IS the pain”. There is no right way to feel. Acknowledging and accepting your emotions – without judgment- is healthy. Denial and avoidance can delay recovery.
Recovery is not linear, but circular. Picture a circle, slowly moving forward. Emotions ebb and flow, and it can feel like two steps forward and one back. Over time, the good days get longer, and the bad days become less intense and less frequent. It’s helpful to know that our feelings aren’t permanent or static, and blow in and out like clouds. Feeling miserable today doesn’t mean that you will feel the same tomorrow or next week. If you realize that the only way out is through, it gives you hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Divorce can be an isolating and lonely experience, especially for older people who are also dealing with retirement and an empty home. Friendships and family support systems are very important. Connections nourish and sustain us. In the early days, you may only have enough energy for socializing with family and close friends – those who will listen to you, support and care for you. Alone time is also good, because it gives you the time and space to process all your thoughts and feelings about the marriage and the divorce. As you move through the recovery process, you will gradually expand your world and discover new passions and interests. You will know when you are ready to explore new horizons.
There is a great deal of mental processing that takes place following a divorce, especially if a couple has been married for decades. This is an important part of recovery. Some people find that journaling their thoughts and feelings is helpful, others find solace in reading about recovery. There are many threads of connection to your spouse and the life you had together, and each new step away from those connections can feel destabilizing. Even though you intellectually may know that the divorce was necessary, you may still miss and yearn for your previous life- the predictability and stability of what you had. We like what we know, which is why many people choose to stay, even when the marriage is no longer healthy.
Taking care of ourselves is always important, but is of extra significance during this process. Going through a divorce can be emotionally and physically exhausting, and you need to have strength and fortitude in order to cope. This means eating nutritionally and regularly, getting enough sleep, and exercising. In addition to helping us keep fit, regular aerobic exercise releases endorphins- the “feel good” chemicals, and can help relieve anxiety. Even a short walk each day in the beginning is good. Meditation, listening to relaxing music, getting massages, can all be helpful. Try to avoid negative thinking, and focus on what makes you feel healthy, happy, and calm.
Monitor your time so that you don’t get over-extended and feel even more overwhelmed. Avoid making big decisions that are not necessary. Listen to your body; if you’re tired, rest; if you’re over-taxed, simplify. Be kind to yourself – you’re healing!
To help you regain a sense of control in your life, when the unknown seems to loom large, it’s helpful to put some structure and routine into your day. At the beginning, these may be small steps, like getting up at the same time every morning, and organizing healthy meals. Set small goals at first, then as you recover, you can broaden your vision. Think of at least one activity a day that you can look forward to. Focus on your joys and your strengths.
Reach out to a professional. A counselor or therapist can be a huge support in helping you cope with the emotional impact of divorce. People often have a lot of fear and anxiety in the early stages of recovery, and depression is not uncommon if one is struggling through a difficult divorce. When one is trying to cope with overwhelming emotions, decisions, and change, being able to express yourself in a therapeutic environment can relieve distress and help in processing what you are going through.
Believe in your own resilience. Advancing through the recovery process requires attention and intention. Gradually, emotions will settle, and you will start to spend more time looking forward than backward. You will see a new life taking shape, as you start to reclaim old interests, and the part of yourself that perhaps got lost in the marriage. Divorce has forced you out of your comfort zone in a very big way, However, over time, the confusion, doubt and uncertainty will give way to optimism and new possibilities.
By Martha Pitman