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Life After Divorce – Advice on How to Cope and Move On

By Michael Lewis

divorcing coupleAccording to government statistics, there were more than 4.2 million divorces between the years of 2006 and 2011, about half the rate of marriages in the same period. Statistically, about 40% of first marriages end in divorce, while almost three-quarters of third marriages fail.

Divorce is often costly, and can be devastating for all parties involved – partners, children, parents, and grandparents. According to the Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale, only the death of a spouse is a more traumatic, stress-causing event; divorce is more stressful than separation, a jail term, the death of a close family member, or a personal injury or serious illness. Fortunately, time does heal all wounds, and understanding the healing process can help speed the path to recovery.

Going Through the Grief of Divorce

Many counselors believe that divorcees go through the five stages of grief that are also experienced after a loved one dies. The stages, first enumerated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying,” include:

  • Denial. This may start while your marriage is still intact. It’s a defense mechanism to cope with pain, usually because you can’t believe divorce is happening to you.
  • Anger. It’s natural to feel furious with yourself for being a fool, or your spouse for rejecting you, but uncontrolled anger can make a bad situation worse, especially if there are children involved. Unfortunately, many attorneys capitalize on this anger to extend divorce proceedings, or gain a negotiating advantage. While it’s natural to want to punish your spouse, it’s ultimately counter-productive to a satisfactory conclusion that allows you to move on and rebuild your life.
  • Bargaining. This is the stage where you try to “fix what happened,” to go back and try again without the prior mistakes. It’s rarely logical, and inevitably unsuccessful. Divorces are the culmination of dissatisfaction over many issues and many months, the likelihood of resolving them quickly or fixing what happened is not high.
  • Depression. The reality of divorce is that there are significant losses experienced by everyone involved: the presumed-happy future, financial security, affection, and love. As a consequence, it’s natural to feel sad and abandoned, to even withdraw from day-to-day life. When depression becomes significant, or begins to affect your children, it’s time to seek outside help.
  • Acceptance. The last stage of grief occurs when you finally accept that your marriage is over, and you put the hopes and dreams you shared with your former spouse behind you. While you may still feel anger, guilt, or depression from time to time, the episodes wane in intensity and frequency, signaling that you’re ready to pick up the pieces and move on. This is also when you recognize your own strength to set a new path to happiness. You gain a level of indifference about your former spouse, having separated your personal lives. Even when you have children together, you learn to co-parent without rehashing old hurts or using the children as a weapon against one another.

To progress through the stages of grief, eventually achieving acceptance and even forgiveness, you must reconcile certain feelings before moving forward and rebuilding your life. Dr. Phil McGraw, the widely respected psychiatrist who gained fame as Oprah Winfrey’s adviser, details the variety of emotions that most people feel during and after a divorce in his bestselling book “Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life.”

These emotions include:

  • Intense Anger. Often a psychological protective measure employed when we feel vulnerable, Dr. Robert Anthony says, “The angry people are those people who are the most afraid.” Hatred is the counter emotion to love, and is a natural emotional response to rejection or betrayal of trust.
  • Total Shock. While many people recognize that divorce is inevitable, the reality of the situation can be completely shocking and overwhelming.
  • Rejection and Despair. It’s human nature to blame yourself when you feel rejected by another, as if the breakup is wholly due to a personal shortcoming. And this type of self-blame can lead to feelings of despair and simultaneous rejection of your former spouse.
  • Fear. After divorce, you enter uncharted territory without knowledge of what to expect, or confidence that you have the tools to survive. The natural response is fear.
  • Bitterness. Regret and grief often combine to create a sense of unfairness, that the outcome of divorce is undeserved.
  • Selective Memory. Once separated or divorced, you may find yourself focusing on the good memories, forgetting the reasons for the breakup in the first place. As a consequence of rationalization, many divorcees return to former spouses, ultimately experiencing the same disappointing outcome. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that things could be different a second time around, unless you and your partner both make a true effort to change.

fighting parents

Moving On After Acceptance

As soon as possible, even during divorce proceedings, it’s important to take steps to rebuild a sense of confidence and restore the “old you,” even if your ego is battered and bruised. You should remember that you are a valuable, unique person with much to offer, and adventures yet to come. You deserve to experience happiness – and with effort and determination, you will. Humans are surprisingly resilient, and there’s truth in the adage that time heals all wounds.

Emotional Strength

Your first responsibility is to yourself, even if you’re a parent. If you’re not emotionally strong, you can’t deliver emotional strength to others, including your children. Achieving a positive state of mind – what some have termed “getting your head on straight” – is critical when moving on with your life.

Experts recommend three strategies to facilitate healing after a divorce:

  1. Seek Out a Support Network. Develop a group of friends you can turn to as you adjust to single life. Consider friends or family members whose relationships existed prior to and during your marriage – people who know you as an individual separate from your spouse. Don’t be surprised if some friends, especially those who were “couple” friends, seem distant during this time. It’s okay to let these relationships end without blame or anger. You may consider those who have been through divorce and seem to be doing well, or the support of church and community groups. While you may assume that others now see you differently, the reality is that they are involved in their own lives, and may need a friend as much as you.
  2. Redefine Yourself. Many divorcees, particularly women, have a hard time reclaiming their own identities following a divorce. This is particularly if they have been stay-at-home mothers and housewives. “Take up new hobbies, activities, interests – expand yourself. Stay busy in a constructive way,” says Dr. Patricia Covalt, a Denver-based licensed marriage therapist. Recognize that you have the freedom to explore yourself and what makes you happy, perhaps for the first time in years. Live in the present, lighten up, and learn to enjoy being you.
  3. Don’t Be Afraid of Transitional Relationships. Your relationships don’t have to be about dating or finding someone to replace your spouse. Rather, focus on making new friends without the pressure of a long-term commitment. These relationships can help you get back in the game without the expectation of moving forward. They can help you boost your self-esteem and provide a safe harbor while you decide what’s best for you.

Parental Responsibilities

If you have children, it’s important to minimize the impact of divorce as much as possible. Even though you and your spouse may not get along, your ex-partner is the mother or father of your children, and the relationship you have with your spouse may not reflect the relationship your ex-spouse has with your children. Avoid demonizing your ex, or forcing your children to take sides.

Heed the advice of Jennipher Cole, a marriage and family therapist with the DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston: “You’re dealing with a lot of grief and personal feelings. But always avoid criticizing the other parent in front of the children.” While it might make you feel good now, it can have long-term consequences for your children.

Family and divorce expert M. Gary Numan advises that divorced spouses manage their behavior to avoid emotionally destroying their kids. In particular, divorced parents should not communicate through their kids, try to make kids their therapist or ally by sharing divorce details or accusations against the ex, or force children to compartmentalize their lives when with each spouse. Fortunately, most children of divorced parents, given the proper nurturing, rebound quickly to resume a happy childhood.

Financial Security

Unfortunately, divorce often leads to financial hardships of both divorced parties, especially women who have been non-working housewives or mothers. Experts suggest that the loss of income following a divorce can reduce standard of living by 30% to 40%. Assets that have been acquired together must be divided, and are often sold to raise cash, including shared property. Women are disproportionately disadvantaged, with one in five falling below poverty-level income after divorce.

“There’s usually a spouse who is afraid they’re going to be bled dry and another who is afraid they’re going to be homeless,” says Nathan Cobert of the Cobert Financial Group in San Francisco regarding the difficulty of financial settlements during divorce. “It’s always a financial problem for both.”

Jeff Landers, president of Bedrock Divorce Advisors in New York City concurs: “It’s a lot more expensive to maintain two separate households and you’re having to do it on the same income.”

There is not an easy solution to meeting the financial needs of both parties after a divorce. While child support is mandated in every state, and alimony in some states, it’s rarely at a level where the spouses can maintain their previous standards of living after paying or receiving support. As a consequence, there’s added pressure on the spouse with custody of children to remarry as soon as possible to replace lost income, or the services provided by a non-working partner.

Statistically, however, second and third marriages are at greater risk of divorce than the initial marriage. For this reason, extra care should be taken during the initial divorce negotiations and proceedings to ensure that adequate funds are allocated to the support of children.

Family support is usually essential for the divorced parent who has child custody. This support might come through babysitting, the sharing of a home, or the supplementation of family income when necessary or possible. At the same time, the divorced parent should take steps to distinguish between necessities and luxuries – the items essential to a secure and happy life – rather than assets and expenses of temporary pleasures.

starting a new life

Social Relationships

Most divorcees eventually decide to test the relationship waters again. There is no perfect time or set moment when such feelings should resurface, but bonding with other people, especially on an intimate level, is a human need.

In the the beginning, dating may feel scary. After all, it’s probably been a while since you worried about your dress, appearance, or behavior. It’s also natural to believe that morals have changed since your last dating experience, and that you’ll be expected to participate in intimate behavior on a first or second date. Don’t worry about it – this time is about you, not your date. You have the freedom, as long as you are civil and respectful, to behave as you want, not as someone else expects.

If you have children, you need to consider their feelings about seeing mom or dad go out on a date. Explain that adults, like children, have a variety of friends they need to socialize with. It’s not necessary for your children to be part of a relationship unless it develops into something serious. By the same token, intimate details of your relationship are best kept private.

Final Word

In an ideal world, everyone would find his or her Prince Charming or Sleeping Beauty and live happily ever after. In the real world, people make mistakes, they change with time, and the stresses and strains of everyday life causes some marriages to fail. These occasions, while painful, don’t have to be disastrous, and can actually be opportunities for growth and new experience. For some, it’s a “do-over,” a chance to reflect, learn, grow, and move on. As Voltaire said, “Friendship is the marriage of the soul, and this marriage is liable to divorce.”

Have you been through a divorce? How did you make it through?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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