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How to Survive Divorce: What You Can Do to Manage Difficult Emotions and Truly Move On

life ring for survive divorce postDivorce is one of the most difficult transitions you’ll ever experience. It’s the big earthquake toppling every major pillar of your life: your primary relationship, finances, home, family, friendships, and your role as a parent.

People are often surprised by how much loss and confusion they experience even when they leave the marriage. If you’ve been left, add to this mix the devastation of rejection.

While you’re working overtime to clean up the rubble and rebuild on the practical front, something deeper is also happening. The emotional ground underneath your feet is full of rifts and is still shaking.

You’ve lost the very structure your life has been built on and your purpose in it. Your vision of a shared future together, the way you thought your life would go, is over. Your identity in the world as a married person is suddenly gone.

At the time I knew nothing about the impact of this deeper process. My divorce was a crisis on a scale that I had never known before. Although the practical arrangements happened fairly quickly, I was left to figure out how to navigate whatever was happening to me emotionally.

Honestly, it scared me and at times nearly overwhelmed me. I went from a person who “kept it together” to a person who couldn’t help not keeping it together. In the end it humbled me, taught me a ton about myself, and eventually led to a new sense of purpose for my life and my work.

It was worth it, but man, it was hard.

As a therapist, I now help folks navigate this passage in a way that nurtures growth. Because I believe in sharing parts of my own experience, clients sometimes ask me what I did to survive it. What I share is that I learned tools to navigate difficult feelings without letting them overwhelm me, and I learned how to be vulnerable – a lot.

The truth is that, like me, you are going to survive it and even come out the other side a happier, wiser person. And, before you get there it’s just going to feel bad for a while.

You may feel lost, stuck, angry, miserable, alone, afraid (or all these in one hour). You may feel like you’re flailing, like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, or like you’re going a little crazy. It’s normal.

Yes, some people manage to run from these feelings but they usually pay the price at some point by repeating the same patterns, or worse.

To really do the work of healing it’s important to go through what I call, “the fertile void,” the period of time between the death of your old identity and the formation of another. It’s a kind of no man’s land that’s always uncomfortable but contains the seeds that will eventually germinate into the new you. Unfortunately it can’t be forced; it has its own life cycle.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.

We humans are creatures that like a certain level of safety but no matter what we do, eventually, loss happens. Rather than pursue the impossible task of making hard feelings disappear, I’d like to help you develop the inner resilience to weather life’s storms so that you can feel confident surfing big emotional waves. I’d like you to have the tools that allow you to make truth based decisions rather than fear based ones, even if that means feeling like crap for a while.

In the hope that you may learn from my story, here are some of the tools that helped me not only to survive but to grow.

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Learn to recognize the difference between emotions and emotional spirals.

I’ll never forget the moment I learned that emotions are like waves. During a personal growth workshop I was attending, the teacher asked a woman who was deep in grief over her breakup to come to the front of the room. That brave woman went up in front of the group and cried her heart out on the teacher’s knee. After a few minutes her tears slowed and stopped, the wave had come through. I feel better, she said.

This rocked my world, why didn’t anyone ever tell me this before?

Despite the training most of us get to move on or stay positive, if you actually let yourself go towards an emotion it will crest and subside. You’ll feel better for the moment and you’ll be healing it rather than burying it. Although it may be odd at first, learning to let feelings come is our natural and often more effective process of truly getting over it.

When my divorce happened a few years after this experience, I was able to give myself permission to feel my emotions. I allowed time in my life to feel and tried not to beat myself up when feelings came uninvited at inappropriate moments, like at work or at dinner parties. I spent many five minute bathroom breaks in tears, and then it would pass.

But don’t confuse emotions with emotional spirals. Emotions need to be felt a little at a time, while emotional spirals are never healing and need to be managed at all times.

Emotional spirals are stuck, they don’t move. They often start with a memory or trigger that brings an emotion like sadness or anger, but very quickly they start dragging you down into the muck. Negative thoughts about yourself, your future, all men or all women, or the world in general really get a hold of you. These thoughts feel completely true to you and you’d swear to anyone that they are. Evidence to support them starts popping up all over the place. Overwhelm, panic, doubt, or depression are often in the mix.

Beware! Although these spirals are probably going to pop up, work with them as soon as you become aware you’re in one. The first step to this is becoming aware enough of what your mind is doing to recognize the type of thoughts that spark your particular spirals. Working with a therapist or starting a mindfulness practice can be helpful in developing this skill.

For me a feeling of panic and the thought “I’m always going to be alone” could take me down into days of misery. Eventually I noticed that certain thoughts, people, or activities seemed to have the power snap me out of it. Bringing to mind a couple I knew who had been through a divorce and were happily remarried helped to shift my inner focus. For one client of mine, it’s recalling the words of a friend saying to her, “you’re never going to figure out his mind!” I called these my “anchors,” and carried a list with me for a while just in case.

Get fierce about honoring your needs.

You’re going through a major life crisis and you deserve to take extra care of yourself. During my divorce I got fearless about loving myself and honoring my needs. For some reason, hitting bottom like this made it possible like never before. I got very clear inside in my thinking, for example, what’s more important right now, that someone may get their feelings hurt if I leave this engagement party abruptly, or that I protect myself from getting caught in a fear spiral that might distract me at work for days? They may not get it, but it didn’t matter.

Of course, being vulnerable about it helped. Rather than make excuses I would try to share that I was struggling with a loss and needed to go. Just that much information was enough.

And I have to share with you that as far as I know (and of course, I don’t know what people were thinking) my fear that someone would be hurt or offended never happened. Surprisingly, not only did people not judge me, but my being vulnerable actually helped them feel closer to me.

I made some of the deepest friendships I have today during this time. Have you ever experienced telling a friend a secret, something you feel pretty embarrassed about and then, instead of judging you, they tell you something vulnerable right back? That’s how it tends to work. Vulnerability invites people closer to you.

Support is out there when you’re brave enough to ask.

It may seem obvious that when you’re going through a separation or divorce you need support. But keep in mind that many well meaning friends who haven’t gone through this may not be able to get just how much. Or they may feel uncomfortable about bringing it up, thinking it will make you sad (as if you could forget about it!) If you’re ready to practice being vulnerable, be specific and direct about what support you need.

Sometimes on those weekends when I felt like I’d go crazy being alone in my apartment, I would call a friend and let her know I was struggling. I’d ask if I could come over and just be in her company, watch a movie, or do laundry with her, anything. I joined a divorce support group to meet people who were rebuilding and had lots of time for friends.

Almost always people were glad to support me, some even told me they felt honored that I had asked them.

Divorce can really devastate your social network, so if you are left friendless or can’t trust your friends with your vulnerability, consider joining a therapist led divorce support group or attending a Meetup to start connecting with people who get it.

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Give yourself permission for this to be a process.

When you are in a process it’s really hard to see it. Some days I felt like I was okay, even beginning to move on, and then the next day I was back in the pit of despair, barely able to get myself to work.

This process is a real rollercoaster. You’ll have lots of ups and downs and that doesn’t mean you’re taking steps backwards. Allow yourself coping mechanisms without judging them.

Some coping mechanisms that helped me were working more (often the only part of your life that’s not changed), going out a lot and definitely drinking more, exercise, keeping life way more busy, my support group, therapy, and journaling.

Let yourself have it! This is not the time to work on your goal of getting in shape or finding a new career. Unless you struggle with addiction or your coping mechanisms will get you into serious trouble, just go for it. During a crisis your main job is to survive.

Don’t beat yourself up over the idea that you shouldn’t date too soon.

Every situation is different. As I tell my clients, life is messy. Rather than following (or not following and then feeling bad about it) the advice that you need to wait a certain amount of time before dating again, give yourself permission to do what feels right to you.

Healthy, long term relationships do occur after a divorce. Here’s the important part though, pay close attention to whether dating helps or hurts you. Likely your heart is raw. The risk of dating “too soon” is that another rejection, however small, can sometimes plunge you back into the initial shattering phase.

If you notice a pattern of falling into emotional spirals or feeling more needy after dates, consider waiting.

Another thing to be aware of is how much of your emotional self is available to invest in another person. It’s normal after a divorce to want to focus on yourself and rebuilding your life without having to consider the needs of another person. If companionship feels good, but not getting serious, just be honest. There are plenty of people out there who may want to take it slow also. It’s often a time to truly just date, a practice that many of us bypass by quickly for the security of a committed relationship.

Try not to make hasty big changes.

As painful as divorce usually is, it can also be exciting to find yourself suddenly less tethered to parts of your life you may not like or compromises you made for your partner.

If don’t have kids, suddenly that cross country move or year-long backpacking trip may start to look very appealing. Even if you do, selling your house, getting a new job, redecorating, or getting a new hairstyle may seem like good ways to start fresh. The urge to get far away from the familiar in an effort to feel better is common.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with change or doing things to begin your new life. Divorce often sets us on a new course in life. But be cautious about doing these things within the first six months after your divorce. When your motivation is to run from the pain rather than towards a new purpose change can leave you feeling more untethered, alone, and overwhelmed than before.

At a time of already shaky ground, you’ve now just shaken the ground a little more. It’s easy to overlook the ease in the familiar too. Try to bring your awareness to the thoughts and feelings underlying the urge to change. Ask yourself what the challenges of your plan may be and whether you have the emotional and physical energy for them now. Ask yourself what you might miss.

When the urge for change comes from the completion of a healing process it tends to feel energizing and purposeful. If asked you’ll be able to tell someone what your goals are. If you feel like you are about to jump because you’ve got nothing to stay for, chances are you’d be wise to slow down.

Divorce is extremely difficult to go through. Depending on how long you’ve been married and the circumstances of the ending, the time it takes to heal will vary. Despite a lot of unknowns, the one thing that definitely will happen is that your emotional ground will stabilize again and you will begin to feel better. Like me, you may grow into more of the person you truly are. Until that time, I’ll be thinking of you.

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein, MFT is a San Francisco based therapist who helps women in transition to be fierce about loving themselves. She sees women navigating relationships, separation/divorce, becoming married, or learning to follow their own rules. She believes that you have the choice to create an authentic life that you love and brings her unique blend of heart, humor, warmth and challenge to help you get there.

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