Alone again: adjusting to divorce

D-I-V-O-R-C-E, as Tammy Wynette sang about it, was “pure H-E-double L” for her.

And indeed, the words usually associated with divorce are dire: depression, desolation, disappointment, disillusionment, devastation. And that’s just the Ds.

Eventually, though, acute anguish gives way to accommodation. As one divorced person put it, “There’s no choice, except suicide if you can count that. You have to keep getting up in the morning, and time goes on, and it does get easier.”

True, not everyone experiences divorce with anguish. But most people would be delighted if they could make adjusting to divorce a little quicker, and maybe less painful—and maybe experience something better than mere accommodation. This story is about what happens after you’ve worked out a system to handle children and money, set up separate households, gotten used to living with the slight stigma that still attaches to divorce, finalized the legal proceedings, and are ready to stop thinking about yourself as part of a couple or one side in a war. It’s about the moment when you’re ready to say, “What must I undertake to be the person I want to be now?” without any reference to the ex-spouse as a scumbag, a humbug, or even an object of fruitless yearning.

In short, it’s about “when it’s time to go on a solo journey,” in the words of Nina Hart. Hart and her late husband, Dr. Bruce Fisher, co-authored Loving Choices: An Experience in Growing Relationships (Impact Publishers, 2006), and have been internationally recognized relationship and divorce experts for decades.

She takes to heart the Chinese proverb, “Crisis is another word for opportunity.” In the aftermath of divorce, there is an opportunity to change and grow. Not only do people want to shed the negativity that often lingers after divorce, they also can use this time to seek out the best in themselves—perhaps flexibility, tolerance, forgiveness, creativity or spiritual growth.

While everyone benefits from such growth, it’s especially essential for parents to figure out how to heal and recreate their lives; it can be a huge gift to the children for the adults to do their emotional “work.” Step one may be to recognize the fact that you will always have some kind of relationship with the other parent. Thinking of the day that your child will produce offspring and make you both grandparents can inspire you to react to short-term issues with less bile. One Colorado woman takes this approach to heart by sending a blessing to the father of her child every day.

Your relationship with your ex, however, is secondary to your relationship with yourself. If you’ve changed into a vindictive, nasty person, then it’s time to change again. If grief, resentment, anger, loneliness, guilt, failure and a sense of unworthiness are flourishing, it’s time to take action. That action could be reading books, seeking others to share your experiences with, participating in educational seminars or working with a private counselor who can help shed light on the situation. Or some of each.

A good starting point? Make a conscious decision to mend. It’s easy to be bitter, especially if you were on the receiving end of a raw deal—and something like 90 percent of divorced people will tell you they were on that end. One newly-divorced woman said her wake-up call came the day a co-worker described her mother, who had remained bitter to the end of her days after her husband left her. After that, this woman decided that she “had to find a better way.”

One divorced man says that he spent eight years punishing his wife after the divorce—making her look bad and feel bad, and boxing her into no-win situations with the children. Finally he looked at himself and said, “This is bad. I’m not being the person I’d like to be. I need to do something different.” He apologized to her for his awful post-divorce behavior, and that was, finally, the beginning of a new deal for him—and for her.

It might help to “Make a conscious effort to be grateful for the things you do have,” suggests yet another divorced woman. This is the sensible, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, “Dear Abby” approach. It might work—especially if you can make a ritual of counting your blessings. (Taping a list on the bathroom mirror is a very basic beginning.)

Most people, however, need more structure and assistance than willpower alone. Books may help. In the memoir category, try Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001). Swallow describes the slow and painful process she went through on her way to an ultimately successful divorce from the point of view of the children. It’s well-written and makes no pretense of telling the reader “how to” anything. It could be a support book for others trying to avoid collateral damage.

Self-help divorce books are more the norm. One Colorado man said he used self-help books almost exclusively to work his way through his divorce and the aftermath. He read widely—divorce literature is a growth industry—and finally hit on the book that described his situation: he was in a verbally abusive relationship. In his case, while his ex-wife looked like the “bad guy,” the book helped him realize that he—not she—was responsible for his continuation in the marriage for so long.
Books, while useful, are a lonely approach. Thus, the existence of divorce support groups. Some therapists joke that “The best way to kill a good idea is to label it a ‘support group,’” perhaps because the term sounds dated. Call it what you like, talking with others who are going through similar experiences can be a boon, or at least a relief (while avoiding a “woe is me” wallow). Contact local social service agencies, such as YWCAs or churches, to see what is available locally. Or, call a hospice and ask for suggestions; the grieving process around death can be very similar to that for divorce.

Most people seek a counselor as they navigate divorce. Has this professional experienced divorce? It’s up to you to decide if that’s a prerequisite. More important, probably, is determining if that someone has the ability to ask the right questions so you can begin to build your life anew—without repeating old patterns, and with compassion and hard-won wisdom.
Or, you might look for educational seminars, such as the Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends seminars pioneered by the late Dr. Bruce Fisher. This is a Colorado-created but internationally practiced educational program for people who want to get the best out of a divorce. His widow, Hart, continues the work, as do other licensed professionals throughout the state and world. Start your investigation of Rebuilding by taking the internet-based Fisher Divorce Adjustment Scale, an internationally-recognized tool that measures, of course, one’s adjustment to the end of a loving relationship. While it was designed to gather data for research, it is useful for individuals as well. It’s free and can be found on a variety of websites.
Rebuilding workshops meet weekly for 10 weeks. The ground rules include confidentiality and no dating within the group. Instead, expect to find a new set of personal supporters among the other participants, and the opportunity to socialize as a group. But, most of all, expect to do exercises in and outside of class that require you to dig deeply into your past. One exercise: write a letter that will never get mailed to your ex-spouse.

Fisher used to say, “Divorce simply gets you through the door. Once you’re here, it’s about transformation.” According to Hart, “What I’ve discovered is how important it is to understand where things malfunctioned in a divorce. So many divorces happen when people marry young and they carry patterning from their birth family.”

The seminars will help you engage in an “autopsy” of the relationship as a way to avoid repeating it the next time.
Transformation via seminars doesn’t happen overnight; adjusting to divorce takes time. Answers to how long it takes vary from “It’s never over” to “Ten weeks and you’re on the road to recovery.” The truest answer, though, may be the one given by a man who divorced after 20 years: “More time than I ever could have imagined.”


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