At the beginning of the divorce process it may seem like you are signing up for open heart surgery, under minimal anaesthetic, with seemingly no guarantee of a complete recovery. You may not have even been the person who “volunteered” for this procedure. Still many get through this troubling, and sometimes crazy time, and even go on to live better, happier, and healthier lives. It’s important to maximise those activities and processes that help you come out of the process with your heart and hopes intact.
I work with women, and men, individually and in therapy groups, to help them face the challenges of divorce and to co-parent cooperatively and with the health of their children in mind. Here is some advice from the trenches, what I see frequently, and how you might better strengthen yourself during the divorce process.
While much of the advice I offer here would also be helpful to men, it is written mainly with women in mind.
Recognising crazy time.
Individuals experiencing divorce are sometimes perplexed and surprized by the extent of disassociation they experience during the process – feeling detached from reality and floating between shock and vulnerability. I’ve had a number of clients who come to therapy and tell me how they would, ideally, like their divorce to proceed. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have the divorce we want – no conflict, no sadness, no fighting over kids or finances, everyone acting in a mature manner, with respect for each other? Unfortunately, it doesn’t normally happen that way.
One minute you may feel completely numb, the next filled with rage, worry, fear, then hurt and pain so great you feel your heart may actually break. At the same time, the person that you would normally have shared these intense feelings of vulnerability has become a stranger to you, perhaps even the enemy. You lose your sense of self, wonder who you are and what you are worth.
This time, feels insane, and typically lasts anywhere from two to five years. Don’t go into the shadows alone. Find yourself some good support and constantly remind yourself, it does not last.
You need support to survive, and even more to thrive.
This is not a time to hide away from the world. It is normally to feel embarrassed. Unfortunately, stories of divorce provide juicy gossip for bystanders and you may live in fear of informing friends (and foes) of your new circumstances.
Whilst this does happen, at the same time divorce also reveals champions to support you, if you let them. Friends, especially those who have experience of the divorce process, are essential support. You will need at least one “been there, done that” girlfriend that you can call when you feel completely lost.
Consider a support group. As a counsellor I run therapeutic support groups. I am constantly delighted as to how uplifting, supportive, and reaffirming these groups can be to individuals in time of divorce. If you can join a support group then do, if you can find a therapeutic group (ie run with some form of therapeutic agenda), even better. These groups allow for reflection and sadness, but also focus on the key skills that will build your brighter future.
Other members of your household also require support, especially your children. Children are harmed by divorce in a mirage of ways, particularly if there is a lot of parental conflict. My simply recommendation for this blog – give your child the opportunity to go to counselling, not just once. Like you, they will have good days and bad days, offer counselling again and again. If you can, work with a professional to build a personalised gold standard of co-parenting that will support your children. The question is never, “will this divorce effect our child”, but rather “how much will this divorce affect my child, and what can we do to minimise this?”
Have patience with yourself, you may grieve for a while.
Many women want recovery to be fast, and why wouldn’t you? The emotional journey does not end once final papers are signed, although this might bring some temporary relief. Many women report feeling deflated and sad when the divorce is all done.
You may feel tempted to run away from the feelings of discomfort until this is “over”. However, be wary of the pressure your feelings may create. Rushing sensitive negotiations just so they can end faster than you feel you can cope living in emotional discomfort, can be a mistake – take the time you need to get the terms you want.
Grieving can continue, even when the deal is done and you are shipping your kids from your home, to that of your ex, for their turn. Its difficult to repeatedly review the cost of a “broken family”, when the children are sometimes yours, and feel like they are sometimes, not. This is normal, it is sad, be kind to yourself, and your kids. It will get easier.
What becomes of the broken hearted?
While many people use another relationship to give them the strength to finally leave a marriage, statistically the odds of that relationship being successful after three years are not favourable. Divorce does come with the opportunity to be “newly single”, and for some is extremely tempting to test the single waters again. Be mindful not to miss some of the valuable self-development opportunities that divorce provides
Others feel they may never trust another again. We lament, “what becomes of the broken hearted?” Divorce provides a valuable opportunity to us to explore, how did I get here? Learning to know and trust yourself again, is an important recovery step to help you thrive.
Build your better tomorrow.
It might take two, three or, even ten years, but you will feel much better in time.
Divorce is unsettling for many because they don’t know how they will survive outside of their marriage. Finding a financial and personal future is important. Even if you have ample alimony to last the rest of your days (and I hope you do), you will still need to think about what you’ve learned about yourself, who you want to be and what do you want in the future. Women who start new careers during the divorce process often come out of divorce better than those who chose not to work again.
Build an new you. List the things you would like to try, that you felt you were not able to explore inside your marriage – perhaps travel to a new country, take up a hobby or class. Start on a journey to a new you.
Learn to like yourself: Make a list of the attributes that you like about yourself. Have your friends contribute. Pull out that list whenever you have moments of self-doubt.
If you lose your way, try something else: If you have trouble seeing beyond today, a counsellor or coach can help to determine and build your strengths and help you to see and realize a different tomorrow.
I hope you find these guidelines helpful. Divorce is hard, and it often gets harder before it gets easier. Be kind to yourself, and remember as the great Gloria Gaynor declared in song, “I will survive”.
Angela Watkins is a psychologist and counsellor at RED DOOR Counselling in Hong Kong Her current clinical work focuses on adults in the areas of, depression, the experience of divorce, anxiety, perfectionism, career change, loss of direction, burnout, relationship and family challenges, OCD, and parenting special needs children. Angela is also training as a child consultant to better support families during custody discussions during mediation. In therapy Angela uses a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in collaboration with the strengths model, positive psychology, systemic techniques and art therapy techniques. Every client is unique and so is their journey, hence techniques are adapted to enhance each person’s level of confidence in facing challenges in your life.
What is RED DOOR? A red door holds several life-enhancing connotations.
A red door is the traditional sign of welcome and sanctuary for weary (life) travellers. If you encounter a red door in your dreams it heralds the arrival of new opportunities. In traditional Chinese mythology the red door denotes power, energy and abundance of luck and happiness. In the area of mental health facilities, colour coded doors can denote greater or more restrictive access to the real world, the red door is typically the exit, symbolising completed healing and renewed mental strength.