The Five Kinds of People You Need in Your Life During Divorce

I developed an unlikely friend during divorce. She was 22 to my 32. She was wildly single, never having even been in a single serious relationship, whereas I had been partnered half of my life. She was carefree, while I was burdened. Naive in contrast to my tendency to somehow attract too much life experience.

Yet even though we were polar opposite in many ways, she became not only a friend, but even a type of mentor for me.

Because divorce is a strange time. You lose some friends, yet you gain a greater appreciation for those who stay. You cut some people off while you extend an invitation to others. You may find yourself drawn to different kinds of people and more receptive to the gifts that they have to offer.

Through hindsight and the unique perspective of hearing about the divorce recovery process from so many others, here are the five (very different) kinds of people that can help you through divorce. 

 

 

 

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My Lesson From the Blue Zone

This morning, as I was dicing fresh ginger and tumeric for a chickpea curry, I was transported back to a semi-cultivated garden I toured a couple weeks ago in Costa Rica. As we trekked through the plot on our way to a waterfall, the guides would point out interesting plants and invite us to taste the fruits and roots of what we encountered. It seemed that each description included the healing properties of the plants and it was this I was fondly remembering as I compared my small, rinsed tubers this morning with the muddy and generous roots from Costa Rica that seemed to grow with such wild abandon.   Maybe by ingesting these roots I could summon up a little of that pura vida that I feel like I left back in the jungle.

The region of Costa Rica that I visited, the Nicola Peninsula, is one of five so-called Blue Zones in the world, regions that are characterized by widespread well-being and prolonged lifespans. Research has identified the commonalities of these five, very different, zones: plant-based diets, plentiful movement, strong social connections, and moderate alcohol intake are shared traits of these happy and long-lived cultures.

Based on my experience in Costa Rica, I think there is another, less tangible, characteristic.

Acceptance.

A major storm devastated the area mere days before our scheduled arrival. Even after we were assured that the roads were passable and the resort was open for business, I feared the worst.

I needed have worried.

Although the destruction was evident in the flooded yards, potholed roads and washed-away concrete along bridges, the atmosphere was one of lighthearted determination, as people rallied to rebuild the infrastructure before the start of the official high season for tourism.

When asked, the people would speak about the enormity of this flood as compared to the usual deluges of the rainy season. They would describe what was lost and recount some of the more tragic stories. Yet in every retelling, I noticed that something was absent – there was no attachment to the story, no woe-is-me coming through in the tone. The destruction just was. It was a fact, something to be quickly accepted so that the work could begin.

The inhabitants of this peninsula have frequent training in the power of acceptance. Every year, the torrential rains wash away and the dry season scorches. Seismic activity reconfigures waterways and roadways and even reduces concrete to rubble. The wildlife frequently reminds the people that they are merely visitors, as evidenced by a matter-of-fact recounting from a woman about her dog being snatched off its leash by a crocodile.

Our resort had an amazing coffee and juice bar that seemed to be the local equivalent of a Starbucks, where people would bring their laptops and textbooks to work in a communal environment. Only in this coffee shop, the Wi-Fi was anything but a given, as the internet seemed as tempermental as a teenager. And when service was disconnected, the locals seemed to take that as a sign to simply relax for a few minutes or even an entire afternoon.

This attitude of acceptance permeated everything. The country is often described as “laid-back,” but that implies a sense of laziness that is certainly not evident. Instead, the people don’t waste their mental energy on “what ifs” and “why mes.” They reserve their energy and attention for appreciation of what they have and to shape those things they can change.

Pura vida, indeed, and a lesson we can all strive to be better at no matter where in world we reside.

 

The Problem With Always Being “The Strong One”

On Wednesday, I taught the wrong lesson to my 6th grade classes. And then on Thursday, I somehow lost the lesson I had previously prepared for my 8th grade classes. Friday was blessedly uneventful and then on Saturday, I walked into my yoga studio without any of my yoga gear.

None of this is like me. I’m always the Type A, super-planned and over-prepared type of person. My yoga bag, that I’ve never forgotten before, has two of everything. You know, just in case.  I’m the one that acted as a reminder and an alarm clock for friends and family before phones evolved to provide those services. My brain usually attends to details and dates without a problem. Both professionally and personally, I’m seen as the dependable, responsible and has-her-stuff together one.

But right now, that’s not the case.

Luckily, I’m not having trouble because of anything bad. I’m just struggling to handle too much. Yet in some ways, the results are similar. I’m having a hard time and, because I’m typecast as “the strong one,” I don’t always feel like I’m allowed to have a hard time.

I see this dynamic so often in single parents as they appear to balance it all during the day, only to collapse in tears behind the privacy of the closed bedroom door at night. They have no choice but to be strong – to keep it together for their children, even as they feel like they’re falling apart.

On the one hand, it feels good to be deemed strong, it means you’re independent, determined and resourceful. On the other hand, the moniker often brings with it an additional burden.

Because when you’re always the “strong one,”

You don’t feel like you’re allowed to break down.

When you’re always told that you’re strong or that you have it together, you don’t feel like you’re given permission to be any other way. You may be  told that you put this pressure on yourself, but the labels also promote this pressure. The expectations are there, you can uphold them or dash them.

You help others even when you need help.

When you’re the strong one, others depend upon you. Your own hardships get sublimated or postponed in your efforts to support others. Sometimes, this can be a blessing, because you’re not able to wallow when you’re busy lending a helping hand. Yet other times, you push yourself to exhaustion because you don’t give yourself permission to take a break.

You feel like you have to maintain the image.

When you’re the strong one, others look to you to learn how to push through. And you don’t want to let them down. Once you’ve assumed that role, it’s hard to take a break from its demands. And if you’re modeling fortitude for your children, it’s even harder to admit that sometimes you simply can’t do it.

People minimize your struggles.

“Oh, you’ve got this,” your friend breezily says as you try to confide your growing panic. When others perceive you as indomitable, they have a hard time believing that you are really fighting to keep it together. Your complaints are brushed aside or excused with a pat response, leaving you feeling like you have to do this alone.

You don’t know how to ask for help. 

You’re not accustomed to asking for help, so you ask quietly, or obtusely. Since you’re the one others turn to, you don’t know where to go now that you need support. You know that it’s okay to ask for help, but you still grapple with truly believing it.

 

All of us have time when we are the strong ones and time when we need to rely on the strengths of others. There is no need to be typecast in one role or the other, we can all move fluidly between the two positions.

One of the gifts I received from my divorce was the shattering of my lifelong “strong one” title and the need to learn to accept help. Even in my weakened state, I learned that people didn’t think less of me because I couldn’t do it all. In fact, I think, if anything, my increased vulnerability made me even closer with others.

Because all of us have times of strength and times of need.

It’s okay to embrace your role as the strong one.

And it’s also okay to let it go.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Back the Clocks

My social media feeds this morning have been filled with various iterations of the following:

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The meme made me think. If I could turn back the clock to twenty, would I want to?

My immediate (and powerful) reaction was hell, no.

I had a specific image of twenty come to mind. I was in the living room of the apartment that I shared with my now-ex. The generous space was only furnished with a cheap couch from Montgomery Ward and a large, black, hand-me-down trunk that was serving as a television stand. It was shabby and yet I had such pride in the space because it was mine.

It was a Sunday, and so I was home just after 6:00 pm from my job as the manager of a tanning salon. I was grabbing a quick bite to eat before tackling an assignment for one of my classes (which was always frustrating because this professor used an online platform for submission and our dial-up internet often wasn’t up to the task).

While eating, my then-boyfriend came through the door. As always when he returned from his work at Sea World, our pug pressed her nose into every inch of his uniform, inhaling the delicious (to her) smells of sweat, oil and fish. He soon stripped off his uniform and headed to the shower while I headed to the home office to begin my assignment.

We were in limbo that year. His job offered no opportunity for advanced, he found the work un-stimulating and the wages were not sufficient to provide for any real future. He didn’t have much direction, but knew that we would most likely have to leave San Antonio in order for him to secure something better in his field.

Meanwhile, I had already given up on my first degree choice and was weighing options for a second choice while I completed the basic requirements. I hesitated to make any firm decisions, waiting instead to see where his job would take us.

Yes, in some ways life was easier then. Having little in terms of income or possessions meant there was little to lose. I had the certainty only found in the young that my boyfriend would always be by my side. I was drifting, but also not too worried about it because time seemed to stretch out in front of me like an endless Texas highway.

But I still wouldn’t want to go back.

Because I am grateful for every experience I’ve since then, either because I enjoyed it in the moment or because that event imbued me with wisdom and perspective. And even though I would love to have the smooth skin of twenty again or the ability to recover easily from a late night, I would much rather have the more wrinkled and tired version of myself that I am now. Because this is the person that my twenty-year-old self was waiting to find.

How about you? Would you want to turn back the clock? If so, to what age?

Why the Hard Work After a Breakup Is Worth It

“It’s not fair,” I remember thinking. He’s the one that had the affair, led a secret life and committed crimes and yet I was left having to manage the recovery from his actions. Part of me railed against putting in the emotional work to right myself again. After all, if he made the mess, shouldn’t he have to clean it up?

In the beginning, I did place the responsibility in his lap (and in the hands of the courts). I was convinced that I needed an apology. I was certain that I needed him to hear my victim impact statement. I was determined that I needed for him to return the swindled funds in order for me to move on.

Yet those things never happened. And so I could wait. Or I could try to navigate the road back to “okay” again on my own.

I chose the latter.

At times, I was angry when it seemed as though he was escaping consequence as easily as a cat navigates through a fence. I felt despair when the reality of where I was mentally  crashed rudely into my reality and getting better seemed like more mirage than realistic goal. I became frustrated when certain strategies or passed milestones failed to bring immediate relief, worried that my efforts were being wasted. And throughout, I was exhausted. Emotional work may not break a sweat, but it sure feels harder than any workout at the gym.

But then, as I kept slogging through the emotional wasteland, some strange things started to happen. Because although the work may be hard, the efforts are worth it.

 

Opportunities to Heal Earlier Traumas

While I wrestled with the pain and consequences of abandonment, the early childhood pain of my parent’s divorce and my dad’s subsequent move across the country resurfaced. I had long ago buried this sense of abandonment, convinced that it wasn’t worth the attention. Yet when my ex-husband left, I became acutely aware at how strong of a presence this fear was in my life.

The pros call it “trauma reenactment.” Others refer to it as baggage. No matter its label, the stuff that has happened to us tends to stay with us unless we do the work of processing it – absorbing the lessons and dispelling the waste. We often fail to do this work because it’s not fun and we can usually convince ourselves that it’s not necessary.

A breakup will often trigger earlier trauma that has not been resolved. It’s a spotlight on your past, pointing out areas that need attention. And if you do the work to resolve those early pains, it will help you find and create better relationships going forward.

 

Acceptance of Personal Power

I felt powerless after my marriage ended. I had no say in (or even knowledge of) of its eminent demise. I felt like I had few choices in how I handled the immediate aftermath and my basic needs. And no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make him talk to me, much less offer an explanation or apology.

I started small. I pledged to finish an entire waffle for dinner. Or to walk twice a week. I accepted the offer of medications to calm the body and allow it to rest.

Then, I began to cook instead of just eat. My walks turned into runs, which led to crossing a finish line of a half marathon. The medications allowed me to experiment with other ways to calm my body, leading me to solid yoga and meditation practices.

Maybe I didn’t have a say in my marriage or my divorce, but I realized just how much of a say I still had in my life.

When you undertake the emotional work of recovering from a breakup, you’re learning to identify those things you can control. And even though your agency is limited to your sphere, it’s amazing how much of a difference just changing your attitude and perspective can make.

 

An Opening to Build Authentic Confidence

Breakups have a way of destroying our self-confidence. We feel rejected. Unloved. Unwanted. Even while smearing our ex’s character, we silently question if we are somehow broken and not worth loving.

Emotional recovery is a long and often arduous process, two steps forward followed by a long slide backward. It can difficult to see the progress along the way, because it is often nonlinear and even nonsensical.

Yet at some point, you’ll encounter a memory, or a bit of writing, or a picture that highlights just how far you’ve come. And you’ll shake your head in wonder even as you feel a little sense of pride blossoming within you – “I made it through that. Damn, I’m a badass!”

That newfound confidence, along with the insight and skills you have learned, will serve you well going forward as you approach subsequent life challenges.

 

An Invitation to Overcome Inertia

Okay, so maybe “invitation” isn’t quite the right word. It’s way more like being shoved out of a plane with a tangled parachute and having only part of the instructions for its use.

It certainly is a wake-up call.

In my former life, I had certain elements that I was discontent with and I had allowed myself to become content with that discontent. I rationalized my reasons for avoiding the efforts of change, but really it came down to being more comfortable with the status quo than uncomfortable with my life.

When my ex left, I no longer had the option to remain as I was. My life had been pulled out from under me and I was either going to have to make some changes or crash spectacularly into the ground. Those options certainly make the efforts required to do the emotional work a lot more compelling.

This is a magical moment. A break in the routine. A chance to try something different. You’re not settled, not anchored, not stuck. You can move, you can shift. You can even dance.

 

A Gift

So the wrapping is ugly. And at first glance, the contents seem rotten. Yet inside that mess are the seeds that you can plant and nurture and grow. And once you see the verdant and magnificent results, you realize that all the efforts were worth it.