Contemplating divorce is hard. Going through divorce is hard. Starting a new life post-divorce is hard. In fact, there’s nothing easy about this tremendously destabilizing life event. It can shake people to their core and it can take years to recover from.
The old adage is that “it takes half the length of the marriage to get over your ex.” That means that if you were married for 40 years, it would take you 20 years to get on the other side; if you were married for 5, it would take you 2.5. This is actually not the way it is anymore (not sure it ever was).
How well and how quickly you recover from divorce depends primarily on these 10 factors:
1. How long you were married (yes, it does matter but not because that alone determines your healing time). Two married people are like two trees that are growing side by side. The longer they grow next to each other, the more entwined the root systems become and the harder it is to extricate one from the other.
2. Whether you saw the divorce coming. Without question, if you thought everything was fine and your mate announced one day that he or she wanted out, that is much harder to recover from than if you both wanted to dissolve your nuptials.
3. Whether you initiated the break up. Although it’s still tough on the person who asks for the split (the leaver), the recipient (leavee) will take a bit longer to heal generally speaking. It’s just how it is.
4. Whether or not you were cheated on. Nothing hits the rejection button like being left for someone. It adds a terribly painful layer of feeling replaceable, undesired and like a loser. Of course, there are variations on this that add extra pain too such as whether your spouse was unfaithful once or many times, whether he or she is moving on to be with someone else, who that other person is (i.e. an unknown, an ex that you always felt threatened by, your hairdresser, your best friend, your brother- or sister-in-law, your sister/brother, or your daughter/son). You get the point. The closer you are and the more unexpected being left for this other person is, the harder it will be to recover from.
5. Whether you have kids or not. Both having and not having kids in divorce is extra painful. The obvious reason divorcing with kids is harder is because it adds complications and the kids can sometimes be put in the middle of your arguments. Surprisingly, however, not having kids can be equally devastating because when you divorce your mate, you lose your entire family. The stark contrast of the emptiness can be profound.
6. How much money you have. This one doesn’t need much explanation. The more money you have, the more choices you have and the less fear you will likely experience. That said, it’s interesting how subjective the numbers can be. I heard one woman complain, “you mean I’m only going to have a million dollars at the end of this?” I suppose it’s all relative but divorce kicks almost everyone down into fear of safety and survival.
7. Whether you have a career, or even just job skills. For those who are working, there is a greater sense of security (unless, of course, your job is in danger) because you know you can support yourself.
If you have to pay alimony or child support, that will add a stressor and make it harder to be financially confident, but it sure beats not having worked in years, not having any marketable job skills and not having a clue how you’re going to make ends meet.
8. What kind of divorce process you have. This can’t be highlighted enough. If you choose to go the litigation route, there’s no question but that you will have a more draining and difficult experience than someone doing mediation. I understand that some people really don’t have a choice but to litigate because their spouse is mentally ill, abusive in some way, or just plain mean, for example. These days, there are much better, kinder ways to dissolve your marriage that are worth looking into.
A client of mine recently told me about how his wife chose a bulldog of an attorney. This attorney had him served at work (a terribly humiliating tactic), subpoenaed all kinds of financial records, and even filed a temporary restraining order alleging physical abuse when there hadn’t been any. Before she hired this attorney, he started out telling me he wanted to make sure his wife and the kids would be taken care of. By the time they were 1/4 of the way through, he was $80,000 into attorney fees, and had significantly changed his tune about wanting to help his wife. Soon after starting the divorce process, this client was researching what the minimum payment would be and he was fighting to keep his assets.
9. How resilient you are. If you’re the kind of person who has good inner resources, or who generally has a positive attitude, you’ll do better during the process and you’ll also bounce back faster than someone who isn’t resilient. The good news is that you can improve your resilience.
10. Whether you have adequate support. Although it can be tempting to isolate during your divorce, it’s the worst thing you can do. I always recommend joining a divorce group because you get a chance to be with others who, because they are going through their own divorce, will be able to help see you through.
Along with companions, having a good therapist who is knowledgeable about the divorce can make a huge difference.
Finally, surround yourself with supportive family and friends. You can’t afford to be around the negativity of a critical person who doesn’t think you’re doing the right thing, or a person who tries to outdo your pain with their own tales of woe.
True friendship is a give and take but when you are going through a divorce, you will likely need to take more than usual. Your best friends will understand and will be there for you.
Are you STUCK in your divorce grief?
The following quiz can help you see if (and how) you may be stuck in your divorce recovery. The good news is that there are many ways to get unstuck.
1. Do you find yourself sharing snipey, sarcastic comments about your ex (or soon-to-be-ex) with anyone and everyone who will listen (friends, neighbors, UPS driver, grocery checkout people…)?
2. Do you find yourself replaying events with your ex over and over and over again in your mind?
3. Are you finding it hard to move into the next chapter of your life?
4. Do you sometimes wonder if you’re going crazy as a result of all the intense emotions you are experiencing?
5. Are friends and relatives and professionals telling you they think you need more support?
6. Are you isolating or feeling depressed and not doing anything to get to a better place?
7. Has your world gotten really small?
8. Has your legal divorce been over for a while* but your emotional divorce is dragging on?
9. Have people stopped calling you back?
10. Do your kids roll their eyes when you talk about their other parent?
If you said yes to three or more of the above questions, you might be stuck…
3 Tips for Getting Unstuck
Read helpful books or literature. There are some wonderful resources out there. I’m happy to share a reading list with you.
Be willing to ask for help and let it in. Let your sister make dinner for you and the kids every Wednesday evening; allow the neighbor to pick up the boys from soccer practice, graciously accept the $100 gift from your favorite uncle. These niceties will add up and can make a huge difference in your overall well-being.
Consider joining a local divorce support group. Support groups are ideal for helping people come out of their social isolation. Even an on-line forum can be wonderful and supportive. If you join a divorce support group, (I recommend one that is facilitated by a professional—either clergy, therapist or someone trained in divorce—over an informal group because you are dealing with intense emotions.)