Is My Reaction to Divorce Normal?
The following was shared on my Facebook page recently-
“Some days I feel like I got the grief period beat and then something will happen and I catch myself crying.”
I responded in part, “That up and down is completely normal. The hurt will fade in time. Just keep your focus on where you want to be.”
“Thank you!!! It helps to hear the up and down is normal because I didn’t know what was going on.”
It’s amazing how much added pain comes from questioning our reaction to a situation and how reassuring it can be to discover that what we feared was “crazy” is instead completely normal and expected.
The reality is that for most of us, divorce is something we only experience once. So most people navigating the end of a marriage are crossing a scary and unfamiliar terrain. And because the experience of divorce is so much more intense and complex than you ever imagined, those held in its grasp always want to know that their experience falls within the range of “normal.”
The following reactions to divorce are completely normal:
I often hear people reference the five stages of grief in their divorce and they’ll announce what stage they currently occupy. But it’s not that simple. This construct is a helpful tool for understanding a reaction to a loss, but reality is much messier than five clearly defined stages. I like to refer to the state after divorce as emotional soup – a mix of every emotion you can imagine. And on some days, the anger will be the prominent flavor whereas the next day may be seasoned with despair. The emotions can be surprisingly intense and may stay for awhile or may suddenly appear and disappear just as quickly.
Ups and Downs
Healing after divorce is a nonlinear process. It’s not even two steps forward and one back. It’s more one step forward, a detour around to the right followed by entrapment in quicksand and a wrong turn that leads you back to where you started. Only now you know how to avoid the quicksand.
It’s completely normal to have a series of good days, where you’re feeling optimistic and confident, only to be followed by a day when it all seems impossible and you feel like the most worthless person on the planet. Instead of attempting to measure your progress by the day, take a broader view to map how far you’ve come.
Post-divorce mania is characterized by an increase in energy accompanied by an intensity of focus. It’s a compelling drive, a sense of being propelled by an internal motor that refuses to idle. It often has an obsessive quality, focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else. It can attach itself to something related to divorce (like with an overwhelming interest in discovering everything possible about the affair partner) or it can take the form of some other passion (I can’t even count how many people I met running a marathon that were experiencing post-divorce mania!).
Post-divorce mania is initiated by a fear of slowing down and feeling too much. It’s maintained because its compulsive nature feeds our dopamine receptors, keeping us coming back for more. It’s a side effect of the need for action, the gas pedal to the floor and the steering misaligned.
Over Reactions and Triggers
I once had a breakdown in front of the sparkling water display in a Publix. Not my proudest moment, but one that I now embrace as completely ordinary after divorce. The brain has a way of tucking certain memories away for later consumption, smartly realizing that an emotional binge can have devastating results. Then these feelings can be released in a sudden torrent of tears triggered by the most mundane of things.
Memory and Cognition Issues
Your brain won’t function correctly for a time. You’ll forget things, have trouble making basic connections and struggle to form new memories. You may feel slow and sluggish in areas where you once excelled.
Your previous levels of functioning will return. In the meantime, Google, sticky notes and a calculator are your best friends.
Extreme Reactions to Dating
I will never forget the day after my divorce when I looked around the gym and suddenly realized there were men. Everywhere. And I was free to pursue any of them that were unclaimed. I was like a kid in a candy store for a time (yes, part of that post-divorce mania here!).
Others find they have the opposite response to dating – the very thought makes their stomach turn and they can’t imagine ever seeing someone new.
Both responses are normal and, in time, tend to move towards a more balanced approach.
Strong Response to the Ex Getting Married
Whether this news comes years down the road or, as in my case, before your divorce even occurs, the announcement of your ex’s nuptials will probably hit you much harder than you anticipated. It can make early feelings of rejection and loss resurface and it often triggers a sense of, “That should have been me.” It’s not easy to witness their apparent happiness when you’re still aching from the loss.
Although this reaction is intense, it tends to be brief. The last of the bubbles of your marriage floating to the surface before they dissipate in your growing new life.
Taking “Too Long” to Move On
Comparison is your enemy here. You see social media posts of your recently friends seemingly “over it” while you still cry yourself to sleep. You discover that your neighbor remarried after two years and you can’t even imagine going on a coffee date. You worry that you’re doing this divorce thing wrong since it seems like everyone else has a much easier time of it.
First, realize that you only see what others choose to show you. Fun Facebook photos and late-night crying jags are not mutually exclusive. They may appear to have moved on, but their reality could be much more complicated.
And then there is the very real fact that every person is different, every divorce unique. Here are twenty factors that strongly influence your personal divorce experience. Read them and remember that healing does not speak calendar.
A Final Note…
All of these reactions are normal. Yet, normal can become pathological if it persists for a protracted period of time or swells to a point where it severely impacts your ability to function. It’s also completely normal to need help during divorce. Ask for it when you need it.