Often the lessons we need most are the ones we are most resistant to. I never wanted to be divorced. In fact, losing my husband, through any means, was my greatest fear in life. So, when I found myself suddenly facing divorce at the age of 32 after being betrayed by my best friend and partner of 16 years, I was lost.
The best lessons can often be found when we are facing unanticipated change and loss. It is a window where we are lost and searching, broken and vulnerable, wanting and open. It is a time when the ego has been forcefully stripped away and we are able to face those challenging lessons that we may usually avoid. In those moments, we learn who we really are and what we are capable of.
The following are some of the lessons I learned on the heels of my divorce:
1) When Gratitude is Your Wrapping Paper, Everything is a Gift
You cannot always change your circumstances, but you can always change your attitude. I wasted time after the divorce being angry and playing victim. Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to soften and to look at the bigger picture. The divorce and its associated trauma happened; I could not alter that reality. I could, however, choose to change my reaction. I have begun to practice radical gratitude – being thankful for the man who deceived and abandoned me. I began by writing a list of ten reasons I am thankful for him and I continue to write a note of gratitude every time I make a payment on the debt he left behind. The situation hasn’t changed, but I now can view my divorce as a springboard for better things.
2) Happiness is Your Choice
I used to tell my husband, “You make me happy.” I meant those words as a compliment, an endearment. I wanted him to know how much he meant to me. When he left, I realized that if he truly made me happy, then he also took my potential well being out the door with him. I also began to see the unfair burden I placed on him by making him the keeper of my happiness. That was not fair to him or to me. I have learned to take responsibility for my own happiness. I can choose to be happy with or happy in spite of. Regardless, it is my responsibility.
3) The Past Doesn’t Stay Buried
My ex husband came from an alcoholic family. He denounced their dynamics and always said that his biggest fear was turning into his father. I took his word for it; I thought he was safe from their destructive patterns since he was aware of them and wanted to make different choices. I underestimated the power of the past. If there is one thing that alcoholic families excel at, it’s keeping secrets. Apparently those lessons of silence and secrets were too embedded for him to overcome. The skill set was just waiting in the wings until the right moment came along. When he began to struggle during our marriage (with money, alcohol, depression, employment…who knows?), his reflexes kicked in and he covered it up. The past is like a vampire – if you try to defeat it solely by burying it, it will come back to bite you.
4) “Knew” is Not the Same as “Know”
I met my husband when I was just 15. I knew his family. I knew everything from the name of his elementary school to his biggest fears and wishes in life. I thought I knew him. I could describe every little nuance of my husband with the utmost confidence. It was misplaced confidence. I didn’t realize that the man I knew was no longer the man in front of me. We are all fluid, changing with age and environment. Getting to know someone never ends.
5) Work Avoidance Goes Both Ways
I have always had a tendency to work. A lot. I always saw that as a positive trait, an asset. It was only more recently that I realized that my drive to work was often out of a fear of what I would see if I slowed down. The divorce acted like a highlighter in my life, illuminating areas that I used to avoid through work. I learned to slow down and to trust in my ability to face the present. I now breathe through discomfort rather than try to hide from it.
6) The Body Often Knows More Than the Mind
For the last couple years of my marriage, I seemed to catch every cold that came through the school where I worked. I had trouble sleeping, often waking in the middle of the night. I sensed a tension coursing through my body – a low level yet ever-present anxiety. Since there were no outward signs of discord in my marriage, I assumed the tension was due to a difficult time at work. I was shocked to realize, after I recovered from the initial trauma of the abandonment, that my body was more relaxed than it had been in years. I now listen to my body’s messages even when they seem unfounded.
7) Wellness is Not Measured in Hours at the Gym
I used to think I was well. I ate a healthy diet, exercised daily and even managed to do a little yoga once in a while. I used to think I was well, but I wasn’t. After the divorce, I had to rebuild my health and this time, I had a much more holistic and balanced approach. I became a math teacher after struggling with the material myself as a child. I was drawn to wellness coaching for a similar reason. It allows me to utilize my teaching skills along with what I have learned about wellness from a balanced standpoint after my own journey.
8) There is a Difference Between Trust and Complacency
My ex husband gained my trust over many years. He held his word and voiced his thoughts. I trusted him completely. I trusted him so much that I became complacent. I assumed the trust would remain and that he would continue to be honest and faithful. I assumed wrong. I have learned to trust again (through the help of my dog!) but I will never again become complacent. My eyes now remain wide open.
9) Life is Not a Waiting Room
I used to be an expert at delaying life. I would prioritize work and promise myself a break in some imagined future. I would squirrel away money, imaging it being saved for some mythical future. When the divorce washed away my life in one destructive wave, I realized that I was waiting rather than living. I still work hard and I’m still frugal natured, but I no longer put life off for the future.
10) Holding is Out of Love; Clinging is Out of Fear
I never would have described myself as clingy with my ex – I was independent (often too much so), not jealous, and was frequently apart from him for long periods while he traveled. It was only afterwards that I saw the tension inherent in clinging and the motivations behind it in a way that echoed familiar. With clinging, you are desperately attached to an outcome, grasping out of fear. Yeah, I get that one. I was clinging in a way and it was holding me still, static, unable to move. I now have healthy desires and passions which encourage investment in the now and the goal, but not in the outcomes that are out of my control. I realize that this describes my current relationship. I am so much more relaxed about the “outcome.” Facing my fears has had a way of diminishing them. I am no less committed to the current relationship, no less in love. But it feels different. I’m not grasping. I’m holding.
With some of these lessons, I am now doing master’s level work. With others, I am repeating the introductory course. Either way, it is okay. The point is not to make an “A,” rather the intention is to be open to new lessons and to persevere through even the most difficult tutorials. I just hope I don’t have to endure such a harsh teacher again!