After Divorce: It DOES Get Better
Just the other day, somebody contacted me who is in the early months of an unwanted divorce.
After responding to the specifics of their situation, I ended with, “It DOES get better.”
They responded, “Everybody keeps telling me that.”
This is one of those phrases that can seem like a pat response in the moment, akin to “Everything happens for a reason” or “You aren’t given more than you can handle.” It can feel like a hollow promise, words that skip like rocks on a pond right over the depths of the pain you feel today only to sink deep into your gut.
I can’t speak for the others that offer up this hope. But I can explain where I come from. When I hear about somebody’s suffering after divorce, betrayal or abandonment, I travel back to my own experience with it. I don’t simply read or listen to the words, I feel them. I embody that place again. And that space, that pitch-black room, that was once so familiar, now lives so far away from my day-to-day experience.
Because with time, effort, and patience. it DID get better.
It’s important to understand (and accept) that getting better doesn’t mean it’s like it never happened. Instead, it’s more like the pearl formed around a grain of sand. The irritant remains, but you learn how to live around it. Getting better is a combination of many factors, some within your control and others that simply are.
Here are some of the factors that contribute to it getting better –
The Rawness Fades
Think back to a time when you abruptly lost a tooth in childhood. At first, the newly exposed nerves were raw and shocky. The gap that once housed a tooth felt alien and your tongue kept worrying over the wound. Yet by the next day, the gums had begun to heal and the nerves were no longer so sensitive. Before long, the hole simply became part of the normal topography of your mouth.
It’s much the same with betrayal or unwanted divorce. At first, you’re raw. Exposed. Shocky. But that state doesn’t last. The wound is still there, but the pain is no longer quite so sharp and unsettling.
You Adapt to the New Reality
On a cold, blustery day, the last thing you want to do is leave the known warmth of the house to head out into the frigid air for a walk. And sure enough, those first few blocks are brutal as the wind steals your breath and you feel the warmth being pulled from your bones. But stay with it and the air no longer feels quite so cold as your body begins to acclimate to its new surroundings.
It’s amazing how much pain and discomfort is caused by change. We fight against it and desperately grip onto what was. Yet once we settle in and take a deep breath, we begin to adapt to the new reality. As with the winter’s day, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hospitable (at least not yet), but at least it’s a known entity.
Time Softens and Blurs
When a sharp and pointed stone first finds its way into a stream, it maintains its jagged and cutting edges. Over time, the relentless passing of the water begins to smooth the surface, softening the edges.
Time does not erase, but it does blur. Those memories that right now play against your mind as clearly as a movie on the big screen will eventually be like the flickering image of an old Star Wars hologram. More importantly, time allows for opportunity to process what has happened and to layer new memories on top of the old.
You Fill in the Voids
I was enjoying a bath the other day. The hot water filling the tub to the brim, my body submerged except for my hands holding a book and my face peeking out from the suds. I was relaxed. Content.
I heard Tiger begin to dance on the wood floors below as the garage door rumbled open.
That was soon followed by Brock’s voice, “Where’s mama?” he asked Tiger as both man and dog bounded up the steps.
“That looks good,” he said, slipping off his clothes and sliding behind me in the tub. For the next few minutes, we talked about our days with the sound of the water draining through the overflow in the background. Eventually, the sound of the escaping water stopped as equilibrium was reached once again. The volume of the water replaced with an equal volume of Brock.
We stayed that way for some time, enjoying the company and the warm water.
He exited the tub before me, stepping out while simultaneously grabbing a towel.
The change in the bath was shocking. The water that had once covered my entire body now didn’t even make it around my hips. The once-full bath had been reduced to a few inches of tepid water.
In the beginning, your life is like that empty tub, cold and barren. What is lost is painfully apparent because it leaves a void behind. But then you make a new friend. Take on a new project at work. Help your child tackle a new challenge or take one on yourself. And slowly, those voids are filled in.
Other Things Happen
Two years ago, we suffered the sudden and traumatic loss of our beloved dog, Tiger. And yesterday, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of Emma’s “gotcha day.” Even as we still mourn the loss of Tiger, we love and enjoy the two pups that now share our lives.
Because that’s how life works – no matter how great the losses, it goes on. And as it does, those losses become part of the mosaic.
You Weave a Narrative Around the Situation
Early humans watched the sun and moon march across the sky. As they had no way to gather any factual understanding of what was happening, they created a story, believing that the daily lives of the gods were involved in this routine.
As humans, we crave understanding and feel a sense of discomfort and unease when we don’t see how something fits in to our larger worldview. We worry at it, obsess over it. At first, betrayal or unwanted divorce is a huge foreign object that plummeted from the sky, crushing your white picket fence. It makes no sense. Until you do the internal work of crafting a narrative and creating some sense. Once that happens, it no longer requires our attention and so we can begin to relax.
Some Memories Are Filed Away
I have a box in my attic that is filled with all the legal and emotional detritus from my first marriage. I feel like I have to keep it “just in case,” but I don’t need need it front and center. Instead, it’s sealed and tucked away in a safe place.
At first, your memories feel out of your control, slamming you at random moments and flooding your system with emotion. At some point, you may find that there are some memories that are simply too painful (and pointless) to keep handy. And so you tuck them away.
All of the “Firsts” Are Experienced
Watch any family with a new baby and you will appreciate the power of “firsts.” The first step. The first tooth. The first word. Do you when the second word was spoken? How about the tenth? Or the hundredth?
After divorce, you will several years of “firsts.” The first night alone. The first anniversary of your wedding day. The first holiday without your spouse. The first major purchase without your former partner. The first family event. And those firsts are powerful. The seconds or thirds? Not so much.
You Return to Your Happiness Set Point
Take a cup of water. Put it in the microwave for three minutes. The water responds with an increase in energy, coming to a boil. Leave the cup on the counter for a minute and soon the water will return to its standard state.
We are no different when it comes to our emotional states. Research has shown that we all have a happiness set point. And that major life events (either positive or negative) certainly disrupt our happiness for a time, but that we eventually settle back into our standard state.
The Emotional Response Lessens
Several years ago, my car fishtailed on the interstate after encountering a patch of black ice. By the time I made it home, I was a trembling and sobbing mess. For months, every time I drove that patch of road, I would feel an echo of that earlier panic deep in my chest. I practiced saying, “You’re okay. You’re safe.” with each new passing. Finally, with enough repetitions, my brain decided to believe me.
Our brains are malleable. We can learn to uncouple the emotional response from the memory. You can get to a point where you simply just don’t care as much. You remember, but you no longer have the physical response to those thoughts.
Gratitude is Uncovered
Have you ever fallen ill and been secretly thankful for the bug that forced you to slow down and take a few days to rest?
If you look hard enough and with an open mind, you can find something to be grateful for in every situation. It does’t sugarcoat the pain, but it helps to remind you that life is more than pain if we’re willing to see it.
Purpose is Created
This is the ultimate. If you can find this, a way to see your rock bottom as a foundation, life will be better. You cannot alter the past, but you CAN decide what you’re going to do with it. You can choose to see it as an impenetrable obstacle.
Or you can view it as opportunity.
In the beginning, I embodied the pain.
It was thick, viscous. Its foulness touching every part of my being until I no longer knew where I ended and the suffering began. I could no more escape its malevolent embrace than I could pull peanut butter from a child’s hair. We were one, the suffering and I. My anguish kept it fed and in return, it kept me company. I may not have had my marriage but I had the suffering that was left behind.
But slowly, ever so slowly, the anguish started to fade. The loss grew more distant and hope grew ever closer. Starved of its preferred sustenance, the suffering started to wither. Its suffocating heft grew to more manageable dimensions and its once viscous nature grew thinner. Weaker.
I felt the pain.
I would have moments, even days, where the suffering was unseen. But its absence was always short-lived and my brain had a trigger-finger that would herald its return at the slightest provocation. My body held the memories like the discs in a juke-box, ready to play with the touch of a button. As long as I didn’t approach, I was okay. But as soon as I recounted the tale, my voice would tremble and the pain would come rushing back as though it had been lying in wait.
And so I kept telling the story. And with each retelling, the heartache faded a little more. And the suffering grew weaker. My once constant companion became like a distant friend – we may keep in touch on Facebook, but we have no real need for face to face.
I remembered the pain.
And yet I kept living. I would revisit earlier writings or conversations and marvel at the emotions I carried. I would reflect back on those endless nights and my emaciated and shaking frame. I could speak of the suffering, but only in the past tense, for it no longer touched my soul.
Unencumbered, I learned how to trust again. How to love again. How to be vulnerable again. I learned to tell the story without emotion. Because it didn’t happen to the Lisa of today. It happened to the Lisa of yesterday. And I no longer recognize her.
I appreciated the pain.
Not for the suffering it provided, but for the lessons hidden within. It is a path I would have never chosen, yet it has led to more glorious pastures than I could have ever envisioned.
If you carry it too long, suffering will weigh you down and seek to asphyxiate you with its heft. But carry it long enough, and that weight makes you stronger. Lighter. Better for the experience.
It DOES get better. Stay with it.