Divorce sucks. There are no two ways around it. The unraveling and separating of lives is painful and messy, no matter how mature or well-intentioned the parties. My own divorce is now three-plus years in the rearview mirror, but I have several friends who are at various stages in the process right now, and it’s got me ruminating on what I learned, and what I wish I could share with people in the midst.
My situation is well-documented in the Dandelion archives. While I never overtly spelled out things that should remain private, I cracked the window and let the pain seep out. One of my goals through the whole process, besides documenting something I never, ever anticipated experiencing (who does?), was to not allow myself to become bitter. Now, with the luxury of hindsight, I think I can claim that goal as miraculously met.
Last year, I wrote an essay about my ex-husband. You can read it here. Go on, go read it. It will give context and gravity to my experience. I know that of which I speak.
In my case, it would be so seductively easy to assign the blame- blame every single thing- at my ex-husband’s feet. The narrative is acceptable, and I could easily wrap the mantle of “Wronged One” around my shoulders. Only it would be a cop out. It would be dishonest, and it would stunt any hope I had to grow from what was the single most painful experience of my life. I knew— knew— that I could not shortchange myself or my kids that way. And so I resolved to learn, and to do as I believed my faith demanded of me- to show compassion and love.
I spent nearly 20 years with my ex-husband. We met when I was barely more than a girl, and divorced when I was on the dark side of my 30’s and holding three children afloat. He was my friend before he was my husband, and that friendship and genuine respect for his humanity is what I hold dear now. With that in mind, here is what I learned, and what I wish I could share with my friends and with anyone going through a divorce…
Grieve. Acknowledge the loss of something that once held great promise and hope. The temptation to burry feelings, to mask sorrow with anger and rage is strong- it’s easier to be mad than it is to hurt. Give yourself permission to feel sorrow, and allow it to roll over you. Like the waves of the ocean, it won’t be forever, and what feels like overwhelming crushing weight will crash around you, and then it will ebb. It will probably happen over and over, but the more you allow the process to take place, the more certain you will be of your ability to withstand the pain, and not shrink from it, and the more confident and sure you will be of the flux and flow being part of the healing.
Be Honest. Taking a long hard look at ourselves can be frightening. In a divorce, no matter how it may seem at one point or another, the truth is, it took two people. A relationship is built on thousands of days, and millions of moments, where each partner is present, and contributes. It’s a dangerous fallacy to wrap oneself as a victim and it disallows the opportunity to grow and learn. The lessons we need in life will repeat until we understand, and figuring out my own character flaws and acknowledging them and the part they played in my divorce was integral to any hope for a healthy future relationship. Pride, the need for control and the desire to be right in a marriage can be just as corrosive as any addiction.
Rise Above Pettiness and Cruelty. No one knows where to strike to inflict the most harm like a spouse. If you’re being honest with yourself, you will be able to see where you might be contributing to a poisonous environment- it’s possible to tell yourself that you are justified, because s/he did this or that, but the truth is, you’re the one you have to live with. There is more than enough hurt in the separating without either partner manufacturing more. This isn’t junior high, and gathering folks for “your side” is petty and cruel. If you need people to be unkind to your ex in order to feel good about yourself, about your social position or about your friends, that says more about your character than you’re probably aware. And it’s not flattering. Be a grown up.
Don’t be Afraid. Life changes. Yes, change can be really hard- especially if you didn’t want it. But if you’re open to learning about yourself, there are things that might be in store for you that you never imagined. The shape and matrix of your life is changing, but who you are still belongs to you. This is part of why not allowing bitterness and cruelty to define you is so important. When you are no longer part of a pair, you have the sudden ability to figure out again who you want to be, what matters to you. That’s a powerful choice, and one that can take you in directions you hadn’t previously imagined. Not being afraid requires you to dust yourself off and find your place on the horizon.
Be Kind to Yourself. It takes time to heal- don’t walk faster than you are able. Some days, the best you can do is just make it through. Each step you take toward healing is a success. Have good friends who you can confide in, and who help you deal with your emotions in a healthy way- or who can occasionally just let you vent. Take time for yourself. Use the time your kids are with the other parent to do small things you may have neglected when you had less time alone.
Blame is a Waste of Time. Period. If you’re devoting time and energy to blame-placing, you are not healing and you are not moving forward. Blame is toxic, and it turns one into a victim. It’s also quite a narcotic, and is very seductive— it’s a hard pit to avoid, but avoiding it is necessary. You are responsible for you, and the only actions that are under your control are yours. Blame is giving yourself away. Own up to what you can about your own role, and allow other people to do that in their own time and their own way. Avoiding blame allows you to respect yourself and allows other people the room to do the same.
That brings me to children. I have a powerful cadre of feelings about children.
Bite Your Tongue. This seems like a no-brainer, but so many people screw this one up. No matter how much you want to, no matter how justified you might feel, no matter how strong the urge- never. ever. speak ill of your children’s other parent. I mean it. NEVER. Whether you like it or not, the children are half of your ex. They know it. When you malign the other parent, you are maligning half of your children. If you have to literally chomp on your tongue, do it. If the best you can do is to say nothing, then do that. You needn’t offer praise if you feel none is deserved, but let your silence be your comment. No matter how you feel, the children will love their other parent, and honestly… they should. Fracturing them, placing blame, teaching them to harbor anger are damaging and unfitting a mature parent.
Let Your Children Be Children. If you need your children “on your side”, you need to sit down and have a long, hard look at yourself. Allowing children room to continue to have a loving relationship with both parents is one of the best things you can do during a divorce. If you need to vent about what s/he did, do so to a private confident, out of hearing of the children. Give the kids room to express themselves without having to be careful about hurting your feelings- children are not equipped to be the emotional support of their parents during a divorce, but they can and do feel this responsibility if parents are behaving immaturely. It’s the job of the parent to be the parent. Use your support structure, not your kids.
Divorce is Survivable. I’m in the camp of belief that divorce doesn’t have to be crippling to children. If we give our children the ability to write their own narrative, to express themselves, give them the freedom to continue to love both parents without emotional guilt or manipulation, and the support they need, they can grow up happy and healthy, even if the ideal family didn’t work.
Encourage Interaction. Make it easy for your children to interact with their other parent. Provide guilt-free ways for your kids to speak of, interact with, and include their other parent in their daily lives. Don’t mope or let the children see resentment in you when they enjoy time with their other parent. You are the parent, and your happiness and emotional well-being is not (and should not be) contingent on your children.
Finally, I would add:
It will get better. This will not always be a gaping wound. Time will move forward, and if you keep the bitterness from your heart, you will heal, and you will be happy again.
My own parents are divorced. They divorced when my brothers and I were 17, 10 and 5. I have to give huge credit to my parents- my step-father included. Neither I nor my brothers were ever made responsible for the feelings of the adults. Looking back, I am certain there were complicated emotions and difficulties, however, we were never, ever put in the middle. Both my mother, father and my step-father set aside whatever difference and hard feelings there might have been, and they put our needs first. I have never heard a bad word from any of them about the others. My dad and step-dad even coached my both my brother’s little league teams. Together. To this day, I sense no resentment, no anger. It made an environment where we were safe being kids, and we trusted our parents to be adults. I’m even more grateful for this example now, and it’s part of why I chose the path I did with my ex-husband. I know it can be done. It just requires we rise above, at a time when we are possibly feeling our most low. But it can be done. Thanks, Mom, Mike and Dad.
I also have gratitude for David. Because of his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and his humility in the hard work of recovery, he has positively helped in the process of my healing, and that of our children.
12 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Divorce”
Loved this post, and agreed with every point. In my own divorce, I really had to look at myself and accept that while my ex had many of the same struggles as yours, I too had flaws that contributed to the demise of our marriage. Thank you for articulating that realization properly.
The only point I would add is this: in divorce, friendships change. I had friends who chose sides, some purposefully, others inadvertently. And whenever someone seemed to take my ex husband’s “side”, I was completely filled with betrayal and anger. And I felt incredibly justified in my rage. But what it’s taken me the last 10 years since my divorce to figure out is: divorces change friendships.
Some friends feel torn between two people who they cared about. Some feel torn between two equally important sides. Some people feel overwhelmed by the drama of it all, and pull away completely. Some people try to help, & wind up making things better/worse/more confusing, etc. People feel confused, betrayed, defensive, and irritated–and relationships shift.
But over time friendships heal, & people come around. Anger subsides, and as life moves on and hearts heal and new relationships form, resentment fades. Sometimes friendships repair themselves, other times they don’t. And that’s okay. It shouldn’t be expected for things to stay the same. Sometimes it takes years and years to be able to see what you were putting your friends through while going through your divorce. And sometimes it takes your friends years and years to understand why you left, why you did the things you did. Why you felt the way you felt,etc. I guess what’s important for someone going through a divorce to remember is that divorce changes everything, including friendships. And that’s normal.
Clearly, this is something I went through in my own divorce, as well as recently with a friend navigating her way through her own divorce. My prayer is that she someday seeks me out for friendship again, but if she doesn’t, I’m able to know in my heart that it’s okay and normal for our friendship to evolve, good or bad.
Very well said/written. As usual you are a total inspiration! We miss you tons out here in the ole west!
Thanks, Brooke- those are good observations as well. I think the guiding principle here is to exercise charity to one another. If everyone can do that (as you illustrate) and recognize that things change, we all can do better.
Some of these lessons, I firmly believe, are so very hard precisely because they are SO very important that we learn.
Lisa, I miss you too!
This goes for the wider family, too — grandmas, uncles, sisters. There’s a natural desire to circle the wagons around your own family and paint the spouse as fully to blame. But your son/brother/grandson knows that isn’t completely true and it doesn’t help to put him in the middle where he has to listen to you say things about his ex-wife that aren’t quite true — he either has to come to the defense of someone who is hurting him, or feel like a jerk for not defending her if you exaggerate her faults. And of course the grandkids/nephews can be almost as badly hurt when their extended family maligns their other parent as they are when one parent runs down the other.
It’s hard being hurt by a family member’s divorce and yet not having the right or power to make any of the decisions. You have to stand by with a listening ear and a strong shoulder when wanted, and grieve privately when you can’t make things better, and be the aunt or grandfather the kids need without adding to their burdens. Be a refuge, not the source of more anguish.
Very good and salient points, Ardis. In my divorce, and even still, I make a concerted effort to reach out to my former mother-in-law, and I will tolerate no ill-speaking of my ex by my family. It was hard- but this is where taking the high road is totally worth it down the road.
I would only add that I think it depends on the situation. In some cases maintaining contact with in-laws only leaves one claw in the situation providing one more mechanism for manipulation and control. Totally depends on the people involved. Sometimes cutting as many ties as possible is paramount to healing.
Also, while I think limiting ex-bashing is good eventually, we have to realize that our family ALSO had ties to our spouse, and they are similarly (though perhaps not as poignantly) grieving. Empathizing with them might involve listening to them speak ill of our spouse. Though I agree that eventually you have to move on from that.
…errr “speak ill of our *former* spouse.” Sorry about that.
Thanks, JMB. Yes. Here again is where finding the middle ground, and honestly looking at your situation is of utmost importance. But the honesty is the key. The goal is a happy and healthy outcome, and poisoning the well harms everyone. Discernment is vital.
Tracy – thanks so much for this timely post. I have been through it too and love your thoughts.
What a great post Tracy. I wish I had known you and received of your wisdom 2 years ago…of course maybe then you were still working on your own wisdom!
I would add a few things for me. I suppose everyone is a bit different in how they deal with this sort of trauma, but here’s what I would add:
1. I think we need to be clear about the timeline. For example, initially, grieving will be the order of the day…or many days rather, and during that time blaming your spouse and trashing them to a trusted friend might be the only form of survival for you. I’m not sure that’s a waste of time…it’s part of grieving initially. After divorce trauma your self-esteem is probably shit so examining the role you played in it is anything but helpful. That’s fine I think…in time it will change and ultimately Tracy’s right blame is a waste of time and a barrier to real healing. You must eventually make the realization that you played a role if you hope to heal and succeed in a different relationship.
2. In addition to what Tracy mentioned, rising above pettiness and cruelty will speed reconciliation, and benefit you in tangible ways in the long run, and maybe in the divorce itself.
3. Get a hobby as part of “be kind to yourself.” Find something you can pour energy and emotion into without it being harmful.
4. Follow your feelings and act (not react) with intentionality. When you’re angry let it out in a healthy way. When you’re sad cry. Eventually the feeling of wanting to forgive and move on will arise and when you follow that feeling lasting healing can begin.
As for the advice about children, you’re spot on Tracy. Really well said. Your kids need a Mom AND a Dad. Give them both emotionally and physically as much as possible. For those with joint physical custody here’s a few tips:
1. Expect it to be hard on transition days and let yourself grieve the process of letting your kids go to the other parent.
2. In a divorce with no kids you can set boundaries that essentially remove your ex-spouse from your life. Can’t do that if you’re jointly raising children. Nevertheless, set boundaries on the type and topics of conversations you will have with your ex-spouse. Maintain “official” language in those conversations.
3. Be very skeptical about what your kids say about the other parent. Talk to the other parent to find out the details (if the court trusted them enough to give them partial custody of your kids, you need to trust them too). You and the other parent need to unite in raising the children, don’t let the kids manipulate the situation and pit you against the other parent.
4. Rise above pettiness over the kids’ things. Don’t burden the kids with making sure clothing or toys or other belongings are returned to your house. Bottom line…if you buy something for the kids let them take it where they want.
I have two in-laws who have divorced. one 10 years ago and one over 30 years ago .These two ex-husbands are pointed to as the cause of every negative thing that happens in the lives of their ex-wife and children. They are discussed and trashed regularly at family gatherings. This in front of their children, now adults. If a new family member is not familiar with the divorce They are informed with the most negative details. This is not a healthy situation but I can think of no way to invite change. Any suggestions.
I’m so sorry, Jennifer- that makes me terribly sad.
It’s a terrible waste of spiritual and emotional energy to spend so much time allowing someone else’s perceived shortcomings to define who you are. Holding onto such bitterness really harms the vessel and those on whom they pour their rancor out upon- as you’ve seen in your family with the children.
I suppose I’m a bit of an idealist. I have hope that adults will learn, grow and be willing to own up to their own responsibility. It’s tragic that the children (even adult children) are allowing events so long in the past to define them.
If your family is a family of my faith (or many other faiths) perpetuating this kind of bitterness tangibly denies the Atonement. The only advice I could give to people so bent on destruction would be to point out the above- people who do this are missing the opportunity for real growth, and are literally allowing the past to define who they are- and it’s not healthy, or pretty.
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