By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question: “What is the key to achieving happiness in your life after divorce?”
Turns out it’s not what everybody thinks. All the strong, negative, paralyzing emotions caused by divorce are not why over two-thirds of second and third marriages end in divorce. It so happens it is caused by something we all have experienced and developed skills to handle, but don’t realize how we can apply those skills to turn our divorce into a rousing success.
My first divorce could be described by the phrase: “flounder and flop.” I floundered through the process of getting divorced. Then I flopped at making a successful recovery after the divorce was final.
MY FIRST DIVORCE: FIGHTING THE PAIN OF GETTING UNCOUPLED
My first divorce was all about pain and my ineffective ways to get rid of it. I thought, “Will the pain ever stop? If only the pain would go away, I will be OK.”
The divorce should not have been a surprise. After eight years of marriage, my wife and I agreed that it was over. We talked about it regularly for two more years – without taking any action. Then one beautiful Florida morning she called me at work to say she was meeting with an attorney that afternoon. I was completely shocked and devastated. It came as a complete surprise, no matter that we have been discussing it for months. I freaked out. Uncontrollable crying. Pleading for her to reconsider.
HAUNTED BY EVERYDAY LIFE
I was tormented by the fear that I couldn’t face life as a newly minted single person who believed that I would never have true love again. I was stalked by my fear of having to date again. I was battered by my crippling emotional reactions when I heard our favorite songs on the radio. Driving by the “Sizzlin’ Sirloin,” which was one of our favorite restaurants, resulted in fighting back tears. Even shopping at the grocery we had patronized for years was so upsetting I had to drive across town to a new store.
The overriding goal became: Whatever it takes, Stop the Pain! I tried the common solutions: drink till you drop, date till you drop, work till you drop, and pretend that time would solve all my problems. Nothing worked. My misery only multiplied.
Then the judge signed the divorce papers. Finally, I thought, now I could get on with my life happy and free.
Not so fast, my friend!
THE BEGINNING OF MY LIFE AFTER DIVORCE: HELPLESS AND HOPELESS
Right out of the box I got a body blow that told me things were not over and I was in trouble. The day after the judge signed the papers and wished me farewell, I am standing the middle of the street waving to my two daughters who are waving back at me through the rear window of a car as their mother drives them 1700 miles away and out of my daily life. No loss I have ever experienced before or since comes close to the pain I suffered standing there in the middle of the street that afternoon in Gainesville, Florida.
Soon my friends were avoiding me, tired of my complaining about how bad I felt and whining about the cause of it – i.e., my ex. They gently encouraged me get over her and get on with my life which, conveniently for them, would mean no more midnight phone calls from me drunk, upset and depressed.
I had no clue. I doubled down on my prescription I had used before the judge signed the papers: date, drink, work, and let time heal me. Same result. Matters only got worse.
I became painfully aware that I did not know what to do.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY FIRST DIVORCE: IT’S NOT THE CHANGE BUT THE TRANSITION
After the divorce was final and my daughters were gone, I realized that getting divorced was easy compared to having no clue about what to do after I got divorced.
I was faced with a whole new life situation: single, new living arrangements, no immediate family, distress over loss, fear of an unknown future, plus a whole new set of painful emotional reactions – and no roadmap to guide me through such a major life transition.
Turns out that making a simple change in marital status, painful as it was, had nothing to do with my being happy in my life after divorce. What threatened my well-being was my not knowing how to handle the transition from being married to being single again.
SO HOW CAN THIS HELP YOU?
In retrospect, I learned that divorce comes in two parts: (1) the actual event of getting uncoupled from your spouse and formalized by a judge, and (2) ) the post-divorce transition process that lays the foundation for the rest of your life.
While the divorce event is emotionally painful, it is irrelevant to happiness in your life after divorce. However, managing the post-divorce transition process is the key to enjoying a successful recovery. Managing the transition requires you to dissolve your resistance to accepting the changes in your new life situation. This will make it possible for you to experience contentment and happiness in your life after divorce.
The good news? You already know how to do it. You have managed and learned from previous major life transitions. For example, when you had a serious accident or major illness, experienced the death of loved one, made a major geographical relocation, were passed over for promotion, got a new boss at work, broke up with your first girlfriend/boyfriend, etc. The same skills you used to get through all your previous life transitions can be used to get you through your current transition into life after divorce.
While neutralizing emotions is important, it is only the first piece of the puzzle. To use a baseball example, neutralizing your emotions only gets you to first base. To get around the bases and score true happiness in life after divorce depends on your ability to manage the entire transition process, not just the first step of dealing with your emotions. Fortunately you have that ability.
Your challenge? Use it.