Divorce: Expectations vs. Reality
Was your divorce anything like you would have expected divorce to be like?
I know mine wasn’t.
Not. Even. Close.
Movies, books, billboards, magazine articles and my own parent’s divorce created certain expectations in my mind about what I could anticipate from divorce.
But the reality?
Something entirely different.
We think we know about divorce. We’ve watched untold examples of what happens after the end of a marriage unfold on film. Perhaps we’ve survived the separation of our parents or watched our friends’ marriages dissolve from the sidelines. We’ve read articles and listened to interviews about what causes divorce and how to navigate it if it appears at our doorstep.
We think we know about divorce.
Until it happens to us. And then we’re forced to accept that our expectations are often misguided and that the reality of divorce is something altogether different.
Expectation: Divorce won’t happen to me; my spouse and I will always be able to work things out.
Reality: Divorce is always a possibility. You may end up with a spouse that leaves or one that refuses to put in the effort. Or, you may find that you have changed and the marriage no longer makes sense for you. While there are plenty of not-so-good marriages that go the distance, no good marriage ends in divorce. If it’s over, something wasn’t working, even if you can’t identify the cracks yet.
Expectation: I wanted this divorce, so it won’t impact me that much emotionally.
Reality: Divorce is hard on everyone, whether you’re the one who initiated the split or not. Often, the one who started the ball rolling wrestles with the decision for some time and may even feel guilty about “giving up.” They may have wanted desperately for the marriage to work, but their partner isn’t willing to meet their efforts. Additionally, the partner who leaves the marriage is often blamed for the split and may not receive the same sympathy from friends and family.
Expectation: This divorce blindsided me and I won’t be able to get past it.
Reality: The shock is immense and the blast wave levels everything in sight. Your breath has stopped and it feels as though your world has too. At first, you feel completely powerless and utterly destroyed. However, in time, you’ll begin to regain your senses and your sense of autonomy over your life. You may not have asked for this change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to move through it.
Expectation: The courts will see how poorly my ex behaved and they will respond appropriately.
Reality: The courts don’t care about your feelings or about how much of a jerk your ex is. Don’t go in expecting sympathy or outrage; they’ve heard it all (and they also have learned to doubt one-sided stories). Additionally, the system is not designed to “punish” spouses who behaved badly; the court’s focus is simply on dissolving the legal ties of matrimony.
Expectation: Our situation is relatively straightforward, so the legal divorce should happen quickly.
Reality: Some states place a mandatory waiting period between the legal separation and divorce. Others have no such mandate, but the constant delays and rescheduling that plagues the court system effectively acts as a brake on the process. Sometimes, the divorce can be completed within a matter of weeks. But more often, it drags out for closer to a year.
Expectation: Both my ex and I are generally reasonable people, so we won’t let this divorce turn ugly.
Reality: You don’t really know a person until you divorce them. Divorce has a way of making even the most rational people act crazy, with its unfamiliar situations and very high stakes. It’s easy to become involved in a tit-for-tat war or to allow your emotions to drive your decisions. Furthermore, there is often a slippery slope of poor decisions, where the unthinkable slowly begins to feel perfectly normal.
Expectation: I’ve seen those billboards that advertise divorces for $200, so the expense can’t be that bad.
Reality: If you stick with mediation and generally agree with your ex on the terms of your divorce, you can make it through with minimal expense. However, as soon as the lawyers get involved, the financial impact can skyrocket quickly to the average of $15,000-$20,000 per person. And that’s not taking into account any major custody or property battles. In order to manage your expenses, be very clear about your long-term goals and make sure you don’t waste money on details that don’t align with these objectives.
Expectation: Once I have the decree in hand, everything will be okay.
Reality: In addition to legally dissolving your marriage, your decree may also spell out certain expectations for finances, custody or dividing property. It’s easy to believe that these mandates printed on an official, notarized document, will all be carried out according to the decree. However, your ex may refuse to follow the judge’s directions and, if that happens, it is up to you to take them back to court.
Expectation: After the divorce, I won’t have to deal with my ex again.
Reality: If you and your ex have children together, they will always be in your life to some extent (even once the children are adults). In addition to parenting demands, you may also have to deal with your ex about financial situations or when untangling other accounts. Regardless of their actual presence, you will probably find that they still have a strong emotional existence for you for some time.
Expectation: We’ve worked out the co-parenting agreement, so now it will be smooth sailing.
Reality: No matter how smooth, the co-parenting relationship will always be evolving and will always require a certain amount of diplomacy and trust. As the kids grow and change and new partners for you and/or your ex enter the scene, alterations will have to be made. You also may find that your agreement didn’t address certain issues or that your ex doesn’t always adhere to the terms. The sailing will get smoother, but storms will still have to be navigated at times.
Expectation: My ex was never really present, so I know what it’s like to be a single parent.
Reality: There’s a difference between having a partner that travels or one that doesn’t take an active role in the kid’s lives and being the only adult in the house at 2:00 a.m. when your toddler’s fever is well into the triple digits. The sense of responsibility is magnified and the potential for isolation grows. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Expectation: Divorce is so common now, so there really isn’t a stigma about it.
Reality: The divorced are no longer viewed as heathens, but you may still find that some people conclude that you give up too easily or that you fail to put in the effort required. More often, you may find that people are afraid to accept that divorce could happen to them, so they try to find a way that you’re somehow at fault so that they can believe that they are safe from it’s touch.
Expectation: Other than being single, not much else in my life will change.
Reality: Divorce has a way of impacting pretty much everything. Your friendships will change as some people exit your inner circle and you move others in. Work may be impacted by your need to free up more time for your children or your motivation to bring in more money. Time which used to be dedicated by default to family is now more amorphous, needing your direction. Some of these changes will be difficult and others will be welcomed, but it’s largely a given that widespread change will occur.
Expectation: I’ll take a few months to get my life sorted out and then I’ll be over the divorce.
Reality: The average person requires between one and two years to feel “moved on” from divorce. And that’s just the average. Many people, either because of the particular factors of their split or their backgrounds, require longer. You can expect improvement within the first few months, but you will most likely not yet be “over it.” And that’s okay.
Expectation: Healing will progress in a steady manner.
Reality: When emotional setbacks occur, it’s easy to become frustrated and disheartened, discounting the months of progress. This climb forward, slide backward pattern is extremely common and it not a sign that there is anything wrong with you or that you will never heal. There will be triggers that pull you back after several good weeks and anniversaries that welcome you like a sucker punch to the gut. You’ll get through them and, each time you do, they get a little easier.
Expectation: If I don’t give attention to my emotions, they will eventually fade.
Reality: It’s tempting to try to shove all of that divorce sadness, rejection and anger under the rug in an attempt to make it disappear. And for a time, it may seem to be an effective strategy. However, by ignoring those feelings, you are only giving them more power over you. The only way to allow the negative emotions to lose their grip over you is to confront them and become comfortable with their presence. Only then will they begin to fade.
Expectation: All of these issues are because of my ex and the marriage, so they’re all behind me now.
Reality: Surprisingly enough, some of the issues you had in your marriage probably stem from your childhood. Were you mirroring your parent’s relationship, looking for the parental approval you never had or replaying your script of rejection? This is an amazing opportunity to begin to delve into those childhood wounds so that you can heal those early – and internalized – pains.
Expectation: I’m SO over my ex. I don’t care what they do anymore.
Reality: Maybe it’s been months. Or even years. The early pining or animosity towards your ex has faded and has been replaced with a general sense of ambivalence. And then you receive the news – they are seeing someone else or even getting married again. You’re shocked. Hurt. Jealous and also sad. It’s very normal to have this reaction when you first learn of your ex moving on. Don’t worry, it’s not permanent nor is it fatal.
Expectation: I’m NEVER dating or getting married again!
Reality: The end of a relationship hurts and it’s natural to be inclined to avoid relationships – and the potential of pain – in its aftermath. Yet, in time, that early resolve may fade and you may decide that love (even with its inherent risks) is more valuable than the safe position of being alone. Luckily, it’s a decision that you can revisit whenever you wish. Remain open to possibility that you may change your mind.
Expectation: I’ll never get over the divorce.
Reality: You WILL make it through the divorce and its aftermath. In fact, upon reflection after some time has passed, many people are able to see their divorce as a turning point for the better in their lives.