When you’re facing an unwanted divorce, it’s natural to be mired in the unfairness and tragedy of it all. Goodness knows, I spent a significant amount time cursing what was done to me and focusing on what was taken from me against my will.
Healing came in slowly, with plenty of missteps and false starts. From my vantage point now, almost ten years since life as I knew it ended, these are the powerful “aha moments” that eventually propelled me forward. Some of these realizations were like a sweet offering, immediately bringing me peace. Others were like a bitter pill, unpleasant at first but promised relief once consumed.
Taken together, these are the understandings that allowed me to move beyond the trauma and devastation of an unwanted divorce. Perhaps they can help you too.
1 – It wasn’t about me.
Of course this was about me, I assumed. My husband lied to me. Cheated on me. Stole from me. Obviously, he was somehow motivated by a desire to destroy me, right?
I was taking it personally. In reality, he was not thinking of my well-being any more than I considered his during the divorce. Once I realized that his decisions and actions were about him, not me, I could stop reacting defensively and start seeing more rationally. He was hurting too.
This was one of those bitter pills. After all, the pictures of my husband and his other wife cavorting with monkeys in Africa (while I was still keening through the nights) certainly didn’t make it look like he was hurting. But by looking at the more subtle clues, I could see otherwise.
Understanding that he was acting to alleviate his own pain didn’t erase mine and it certainly didn’t excuse his selfish and callous actions. Yet the realization that I was more collateral damage than an intended target made the truth just a little easier to accept.
The awareness that this was bigger than me continued to evolve.
From You’re Not Special:
I would read or listen about the depths of pain others experienced through divorce and silently believe that my pain had to be different.
And I had plenty of evidence to back up my belief. After all, how many 16 year relationships end with a text, fraud and bigamy?
It was a great excuse to delay the real work of healing for a time; by focusing on the sordid details, I gave myself a reason to ignore the collective wisdom from the universal experience of love and loss. On the surface, I would graciously accept guidance and advice while tacitly believing that it didn’t apply to me.
Because I thought that my situation, my experience, my pain was special.
I focused on what set me apart rather than what bound me to the common.
In reading fiction, I learned to let down my stubborn insistence that my pain, my experience was unique. I realized that when it comes to pain, the details don’t matter.
I empathized with characters facing illness, losing loved ones in myriad ways, dealing with natural and manmade disasters and even with those experiencing what would be classified by most as a minor loss. I related to the antagonists and protagonists, men and women, children and elderly and even the occasional non-human. In almost every story, I found elements shared with my own.
My focus blurred, editing out the details and seeing instead the ever-present themes of love and loss, of fear and shame and of hope and persistence.
I wasn’t special.
And I welcomed that realization.
We often stubbornly hold onto our pain, allow it to become part of our identity. Therefore, the realization that it isn’t ours to carry alone is a gift of freedom. Yet it’s a gift that we have to out into action…
2 – Healing was my responsibility.
This truth was the most difficult for me to accept. In fact, I railed against it. He was the one who made these choices, caused this damage. How could I be the one to mend it?
For much of that first year, I would play this little mind game with myself, “It will all be okay if…” The sentence would then be completed with a variety of actions that others (my ex, the courts) would take. I promised myself that I would be able to let go and get on with it just as soon as this thing happened.
I played out certain scenarios in my mind and found that each time, the relief would be temporary and greatly lacking.
I finally had to accept the conclusion that there was nothing that could make it all okay.
Nothing that is, except myself.
Okay wasn’t going to come from the courts. Okay wasn’t going to be linked to a bank transfer or prison sentence. Okay wasn’t even going to come from him.
I had to figure out how to create okay on my own.
At some point, I realized the absurdity of wanting some words or actions from him before I could heal. This was a man of questionable character and limited integrity. Why would I ever entrust my well-being to him?
The problem with, “It’s not my fault,” is that it so easily slides into “And therefore there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And the two declarations are vastly different.
Replace “It’s not my fault” with “It is my responsibility.”
Nobody else is going to do it for you.
Your future is your responsibility.
Your well-being is your responsibility.
Your happiness is your responsibility.
And if you don’t accept that responsibility, that IS your fault.
It is my responsibility to …
Shift my attention from what happened to me to what I am going to make happen.
Focus on what I can do.
See my limitations as my starting point, not as excuses to never start.
Be realistic with my goals.
Set a limit to the amount of energy I expend on placing blame. That energy can be put to better use.
Surround myself with people who believe I can.
Ask for (and accept) help when I need it.
To refuse to allow somebody else to define me.
Communicate my needs clearly and calmly.
Manage my emotions so that they do not control me.
Establish and maintain appropriate boundaries.
Speak and act with kindness. Towards others and also towards myself.
Believe in myself and act in accordance with that belief.
Yet still, this felt wrong. It was an emotional hit and run. Surely he should pay. Which leads me to the next realization…
3 – Fairness is Bullshit.
I thought I needed him to pay. It didn’t seem right that he could act so callously and get away with it. When the court system failed to produce any real consequences for his unethical and even illegal actions, I turned to karma, convinced she wouldn’t let me down.
But apparently, at least when it comes to my situation, karma works only on her own terms. Because while my world was reduced to rubble, my ex’s life seemed to be running along just fine.
“It’s not fair!” I wailed when I learned of yet another debt he had incurred that I had to pay. “It’s not fair,” I muttered to myself as his other wife’s blog spoke of intimacy while I spent my nights alone. “It’s not fair,” I chanted, looking for some sort of cosmic balance that would create some sense out of all this chaos.
Fairness, in a quid pro quo sense, doesn’t exist outside of movies. No matter how equitable the circumstances appear to be, the reality is that each person often feels as though their share is lacking (as anyone who has tried to give equal gifts to siblings can attest). No matter what consequences he faced, it would never be enough to balance the scales I had erected in my mind.
Eventually I released that this plea for fairness wasn’t really about a need for justice (even though I still wanted him to feel the pain he inflicted upon me). What I really wanted was a reassurance that I would be okay, that all of this bad would be counterbalanced by good. I didn’t really want revenge; I wanted hope.
Fairness is a mirage. An illusion. You can insist it’s real and chase it all you want, but it’s impossible to catch. Because fairness is bullshit, which also means…
4 – Energy directed towards him was wasted.
As soon as my ex husband sent me the text that ended our marriage, my life was no longer entwined with his.
Unfortunately, I didn’t receive that message until much later.
While the divorce was ongoing, I Googled him endlessly, convincing myself that I needed to know what he was doing in order to finalize the divorce. I entertained the “what ifs,” proclaiming that if only he had acted differently, that the outcome would be altered.
In the beginning, I made it all about him.
It was an escape of a sort. A distraction. If I stayed focused on him, I didn’t have to think about me.
What I was going to do now that my life was washed away.
How I was going to survive and rebuild.
Where I was going to live.
And who I was without him.
I turned my energy towards him because it was easy. Blame is easy. And since energy is a finite resource, as long as I directed it towards things I could not change, I had a handy excuse to not make any changes within my own life.
Eventually, it sunk in that all of this energy I expended on him was wasted. It poured out of me, left me drained and offered nothing in return. If I was going to be exhausted, I decided that I might as well get something out of it.
So I vowed to focus that energy on myself, which allowed this next truth to become apparent…
5 – My happiness wasn’t tied to his.
From What Happens to the Ones Who Leave:
For a long time (longer than I like to admit), I needed my ex to be in pain. It was almost as though I saw it as some sort of tug-of-war with only a limited amount of happiness to share between us. And so I had to pull his away to ensure that there was enough for me.
When I heard that he was doing poorly, I felt a little better. When he seemed to be thriving, I felt even worse about my own situation.
After so many years together, it was simply unimaginable that our lives – and our happiness – was no longer intertwined.
This realization came from some boundaries set by my now-husband when we first started dating. He saw the anger in me, validated its existence and also stated that it was not compatible with our relationship in the long run.
I was faced with the harsh truth that I was hesitant to release this anger because in many ways, it was last tie that bound me to my ex husband. Over the next few years, I worked to find a place of detached compassion for my ex. To the point where now, I even wish him happiness.
Another insight from this realization was that the less satisfied I was with my own life, the more I reacted to any thought of him doing well. It was a clear sign that I needed to work on building my life…
6 – A bad day does not signify a bad life.
I posted several goals for myself in those early months, everything from learn to cook a gluten free meal to secure a new job. My goals kept me busy. I ran my first race, started writing a book and eventually began dating again (which was also a goal of mine).
My life existed in two separate spheres – I had the realm where I was broke, facing the unknown legal battles and reeling from the betrayal. On the other hand, I had my amazing friends and family, a steady income and a growing social life. For the most part, I was doing okay, in part thanks to the honeymoon period after divorce.
Until those moments when I wasn’t.
In those terrible moments when reality slammed me to my knees, I easily believed that my life was over. I just couldn’t fathom how I would ever trust again. Deciding I was broken, I worried I would remain alone and unloved. It felt like I could never climb back out again.
But that was fear talking.
On those bad days, there is the temptation to crawl back under the covers and wait for the next sunrise to signal a do-over. Our minds feel pulled towards what’s not going right, thinking about it even past the point where thinking is needed. The plummet of our emotions seems as inevitable as a raft in whitewater poised at the top of a waterfall. We yearn to avoid the discomfort and so we try to distract with food, a drink or busyness. And the idea that things can be better is nothing but a distant possibility, so hazy that it seems like the false hope of a mirage.
Not every day is a good day.
Yet even if the chips are down and the tears are frequent, it is still YOUR day.
You can make the decision to show up anyway.
To proclaim, “Damn it. I am going to be present. I am going to persist. I am going to be positive.”
My husband likes to say that loyalty isn’t about being there when things are good; it is about being there when things are bad.
Be faithful to yourself.
Even on the bad days, show up.
And never confuse a bad day for a bad life.
Once I accepted the non-linear, Chutes and Ladders nature of healing, I found that I was much more patient with the inevitable setbacks. I was able to limit my fear and frustrations when bad days happened, which led to the awareness that…
7 – I can moderate my emotional responses.
It seemed impossible.
For the better part of a year, I avoided driving by my old home. Even turning down a neighboring street would cause my heart rate to skyrocket, my legs to tremble and the tears to well in the corner of my eyes.
I pretty much accepted that these sort of emotional overreactions were now to be expected and I might as well invest in extra Kleenex and maybe a car without a clutch that my trembling legs struggled with.
And then I met my now-husband and his amazing dog, Tiger. At first, it was scary learning to walk a hundred-pound enthusiastic pit bull. My anxiety would rise and with it, his tendency to misbehave. Slowly and with the help of others, I learned how to manage my emotional response.
The yoga class I attended this morning ended with a lovely meditation on loving detachment. We so easily identify with our feelings. “I’m scared, therefore this must be dangerous.” “I’m sad, so this loss must be catastrophic.” “I’m angry and you must have done something to provoke that.”
Yet even though we feel these things, we are not these things.
And just because we experience these feelings, it does not mean that they are true.
When we are too close with our emotions, we become perceptively impaired, listening to what is bubbling up from within rather than observing what is around.
Great peace can come from taking a step back, creating space between you and your feelings. Not to deny them or to judge them, but to notice them and accept them.
It’s the difference between standing out in the storm and watching the deluge through the window.
This wasn’t the most difficult realization to accept, but it has been the most challenging to fully implement. The emotional debris left behind by an unwanted divorce is not easy to sift through. Ultimately, I had to accept…
8 – I’ll never understand and that’s okay.
I was obsessed with finding a label. At first, it was sociopath. Then, it shifted to narcissist. I wanted a name to explain why he did what he did and a diagnosis to offer some sort of solace in pathology.
But no matter how hard I tried, understanding remained elusive. I knew much of the “what,” but little of the “why,” much like a student that simply memories material for the exam without fully comprehending any of it. I finally reached two realizations:
1 – I was attempting to apply rational thought to irrational actions. I simply wouldn’t be able to understand because there wasn’t a logical motivation or explanation for what had occurred. It is simply not possible to make sense of the senseless.
2 – Part of my struggle to understand originated from the fact that I couldn’t fathom, no matter the circumstances, making the same decisions he did. My brain couldn’t go there, even as a purely cognitive exercise. You cannot understand what you cannot even imagine and sometimes an inability to comprehend is a reflection of your character.
The drive for understanding partially came from a misunderstanding of closure. I thought that closure would come when I had all the answers.
What I eventually learned was that closure came when I no longer cared about the answers. I knew that I had moved on when trying to diagnose and analyze him became boring instead of obsessive. In fact, I eventually reached the point where I was grateful that this happened because…
9 – Different can be better.
“I want what I had,” I would tell people when they asked if I wanted to date and/or marry again.
Little did I know what else was out there. And that different can actually be better.
After an unwanted divorce, all you feel is the loss and all you know is what you had. There’s a tendency to smooth over the rough edges and idealize the person who left. The sense of deprivation causes a panicked grasping, an almost-obsessive need to try to hold on to whatever you can of your former partner. Every ounce of your being is focused on the void you feel and you naturally seek to want to stuff your ex back into that space to fill that hole.
Sometimes this manifests through repeated attempts to win the ex back or a more subtle yet persistent pining for the one who left. Other times it shows up by trying to sift through the single scene looking for a doppelgänger to replace what was lost.
You miss what you know and you don’t know what you haven’t had.
In my case, I did decide to marry again. But that’s not what made me heal or brought new happiness into my life. Those came from accepting my new reality while at the same time refusing to be limited by it.
Once I replaced, “Why me?” with “What now?” life began to open.