By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “What makes recovering from divorce so difficult?” A higher percentage of second and third marriages end in divorce than first marriages. If we actually learned from our divorce experience, the percentage of second and third divorces should decrease, not increase. Hence, if subsequent divorce rates are any indication, the track record of how well we recover from divorce is truly abysmal. Why is that?
(This is the 4th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
A successful recovery from divorce requires us to make the transition from being coupled with our spouse to being uncoupled and single again. Sounds straightforward. Dare I even say “easy?” Oh, were it only that simple!
How Desperately Will We Cling to the Status Quo?
A few months after my first divorce was final, my ex invited me to come visit our daughters for a week. I leapt at the offer. When I got there, my ex and I fell into the old, familiar daily routines we had lived for ten years, including rekindling intimacy as if we were still married.
In retrospect, I was still holding on to parts of “how life used to be,” the old status quo. This prevented me from taking advantage of all the good my new life situation offered and kept me locked up in my fantasy of the past.
We Fight to Maintain the Status Quo
Having a successful recovery from divorce demands: “You have to let go of your attachments to how life used to be. You must give up your attachment to the old status quo. You have to change.” However, we almost always reply, “No way! Not even if it would be in my best interests to do so. I am not going to do it!”
The status quo is the on-going, consistent existing state of affairs. In divorce terms, the status quo refers to the existing state of affairs before the divorce, that we had come to take for granted. The status quo promises predictability and reassures us of (the illusion of) control in our lives. It gives us a stable “foundation” for our life. Who wouldn’t be attracted to that? Who wouldn’t want to embrace and hold it dear?
And in fact, we cling fiercely to the stability promised by the status quo, even in the most dire situations, in order to prevent, or at least delay, the terrifying changes a divorce brings.
Once again, resistance to change wins.
Resistance to Change – The Root of All Divorce Recovery Evil
The Achille’s heel of a successful divorce recovery and the guardian of the status quo is simple, garden-variety resistance to change. And, even though dissolving our resistance to change is the one thing that will set us free to enjoy our life after divorce, we almost always refuse to do it.
What is resistance to change? It is the very human, emotion-based reluctance to accept a change in our lives, even if the change is for our own good. Change means casting the status quo aside and we just do not want to do that.
This emotion-based reluctance to accept a change is driven by two primary emotions, fear and loss: (1) our fear of an unknown future, and (2) our distress over what we have lost from how our life used to be. These emotions, fear and loss, spawn a whole host of related emotions that overwhelm us and paralyze most efforts to release our attachments to the memories of the past, the old status quo.
Resistance to change is present in every major life transition, including divorce. Its elimination is necessary to move on and thrive in your new life after divorce.
So, What Can You Do?
- Become hyper-vigilant and ruthlessly critical about your attachments to the status quo of your past.
- Be willing to release your grip on the status quo and venture open mindedly into the next chapter of your life, your future.
- Be courageous enough to figure out what specifically it is about your new set of life circumstances you are having trouble accepting.
- Determine what parts of your past life with your ex you are trying to drag along into your present life.
In other words, you must make the effort to dissolve your resistance to change!
The stakes are high. If you don’t successfully recover from your divorce, the odds are over 60% that you will end up back in divorce court. And, the single most important thing you can do to successfully recover from your divorce is to release your death grip on the status quo and dissolve your resistance to change. Only then will it be possible for you to access and enjoy all the good that your new life offers.
Making a transition from divorce is hard. The good news is YOU CAN DO IT. In fact, with some focused effort and a little help from your friends, you can make your divorce transition faster than you ever thought possible.
When I first got divorced, I was at a loss for how to handle it. I thought no one else had felt the shock and shame I felt. Nor did I realize I possessed the necessary personal resources to get through the transition process. I thought I had to make my “comeback” alone if I were to feel good about myself.
I knew I was afraid of venturing into an unknown future but I had no idea how to deal with it – especially the emotion-based reactions I was having. Nor did I realize the importance of dealing with all the hopes and dreams I had lost. In a nutshell, I was a basket case roaming free on an unsuspecting society.
Had I only known that what I was going through was similar to what millions of others had gone through – and the key to a successful transition from divorce had certain steps and phases that had to be walked through.
The following seven tips highlight what I did not know then, and describe what needs to be done in order to thrive in sculpting your next chapter of “life after divorce.”
Tip #1: You’re not unusual – You are not alone
Statistically, there are a lot of us. 40% of first marriages and 60% of all remarriages eventually end in divorce. Emotionally, everyone is pretty much in the same boat. Ambivalence rules the day. Roller coasters are the preferred method of emotional transport. Realistically, anyone you know whose has gone through, or is going through a divorce, can identify with the reactions you are having. You are not alone.
Tip #2: You can make a successful transition from divorce – because you have done it before
You say you haven’t been divorced before? Doesn’t matter. All transitions force us to go through the same process of change – whether it is losing a job, getting married, starting a family, death of a loved one. Whatever. What we’ve learned from these life experiences we can apply to making it through our current transition through divorce.
Tip #3: You already possess all the personal resources necessary to make a successful transition from divorce
Confidence, a sense of direction, and hope seem to be the first to go when making a divorce transition. But, not to worry. You have the ability to deal with it. More specifically, we gain confidence from successfully navigating past major life transitions where we:
- Find stability of direction from our unique set of personal principles,
- Obtain courage to press on from our personal sources of hope, and
- Obtain reassurance that we are on the right track through a sense of gratitude for the good present in the current situation.
Tip #4: You need to recruit at least one “change buddy” for social support and feedback
We need to find people (or at least one person) we can lean on for emotional support and count on for objective feedback while we make our transition from divorce. These folks must have two important characteristics. They must have no personal agenda and they must be able to be honest with you. Only then can you count on their feedback as being objective.
Tip #5: You can and must dissolve the massive resistance to change that comes with divorce
Fear, loss, and uncertainty about what to do next sabotage our efforts to make a victorious transition from divorce. However:
- We can handle our fear of the unknown future if we have a plan,
- We can let go of how things used to be — even the good stuff — when we realize there is even more good stuff in the next chapter of our life after divorce, and
- We can resolve our rational reservations for making a transition with old-fashioned problem solving.
Tip #6: You can and must use what you have learned from going through the divorce process to make your transition successful
Only by using your experience to clarify your future requirements, needs, and wants for our life after divorce, can you capitalize on the great opportunity divorce offers. These learnings apply to your entire life including finances, health, relationships, and self expression.
Tip #7: You must lay the groundwork for the many changes that will occur in order to make a successful divorce transition
Divorce brings change in our relationships, our health, our financial situation, and our opportunities for creativity and self expression. A successful divorce transition demands that we attend to and plan for this wide range of changes in order to fully and joyously embrace the next chapter in our life after divorce.
Transition from divorce requires us to confront the emotional reality of lost hopes and dashed dreams. We also have to confront our fears of an unknown future. When we are immersed in this emotional process, often we can’t see our options or understand the reality of the situation as clearly as when the pressure is off. We need someone whom we trust to help us handle this life transition effectively.
My Personal Experience
When I first got divorced, I thought I should be able to handle the transition process by myself. To ask for help seemed an imposition and, quite frankly, embarrassing. However, I soon became aware that I was in over my head. Not knowing what to do, I reached out to a friend who was going through a relationship breakup himself. I asked him if he could be there if and when I needed him. He told me, “I will be there if I can.” I had chosen a change buddy who was only conditionally available. Intuitively I felt he could not be counted on. I sensed he was not an appropriate person to help me though the process. However, I did not have anyone else to turn to. Therefore, I “did it by myself.” Big mistake.
The Value of a Good Transition Partner
When effective, this person can significantly reduce the stress of change facing us. They can help us sort out the reality of the situation from our perceptions that are notoriously “squirrelly” during this time in our life. This person can clarify the “right-headedness” of our decisions and “right-size” the effects of our emotional reactions. I call such a person a “transition partner.”
However, not just anybody will do.
The Four Critical Qualifications Your Transition Partner Must Have:
(1) First, they should have NO PERSONAL AGENDA. Their only concern is your happiness and success – regardless of what the ultimate form or final arrangement may be.
(2) They should be able to tell you the TRUTH, even when it is not what you want to hear. That means you have to trust this person enough to give them permission to be honest with you, without endangering your relationship and friendship.
(3) They should have been DIVORCED before, preferably several years earlier. Only someone who has been through the process can fully understand what you are dealing with.
(4) They should be AVAILABLE. That is, they should have sufficient time available to talk with you, or in the vernacular, “be there for you” when you need them.
The Counter-Intuitive Conclusion: Run Like Hell from Family Members
Ironically, the search for a helpful transition partner usually rules out ex-spouses, parents, other family members, and bosses. In addition to very good intentions, these people almost always have a preferred solution they would like you to accept, and as such are incapable of having 100% of the divorced person’s interests at heart.
Another Example of the Difficulty in Choosing a Transition Partner
A 30-something acquaintance of mine had been married for four years. She realized the marriage was not going to work. They had no children and she knew divorce was the right thing to do. She needed someone to assist her through her transition. She chose her mother.
Her mother, having been through the pain of two divorces, had her own personal agenda for her daughter, which was to “protect her daughter from that pain and financial loss at all costs.” She pressured her daughter to reconcile with her financially stable ex, even though that was the last thing her daughter needed or wanted. After a few heart-rending weeks, the daughter “fired” her mother from the change buddy role, recruited an old college friend, and made a very successful transition from divorce.
Having someone we trust to have only our own happiness at heart will make things much easier and saner while we march down the path of our personal transition from divorce.
What’s the Point?
We all need someone to help us make a smooth transition from divorce. Picking the best person is requires some thought. Be sure that your change buddy has no personal agenda, can tell you the truth, and is available to help you through the crisis.
If you’re divorced or going through a divorce, you may be wondering how you’ll ever survive:
“I never thought I’d have to do this. I’ve never been in this predicament before.”
“Everything is new and threatening. I feel lost and afraid that things will never get better.”
These reactions are normal. Recovery from divorce is difficult at best. After all, it’s not something you personally do every day and feel competent at. However, it’s important to realize that you already possess all the personal resources you need to successfully recover from divorce.
What are they? I’m talking about the confidence that you can do it, a sense of the right direction in the midst of emotional chaos, the courage to press on when things seem unclear or even hopeless, and reassurance that you’re on the right track during the process.
And yes, I’m saying that you already possess them. In this first of two posts, we’ll take a look at two of your hidden strengths — and I’ll show you exactly how to find them.
1. CONFIDENCE: finding it in past blessings in disguise.
When it comes to successfully surviving unwanted change, we’ve all “been there, done that”. Think about it: getting over that awkward first love affair in junior high school, making a comeback after getting fired, or dealing with the illness or death of a friend or loved one: everyone has gone through unwanted change at some point in life. Eventually, when we come out the other side, we can still look back and see some good that came from the experience. In other words, we see the “Blessing in Disguise.”
Acknowledging a blessing born by change gives us confidence to face future change, including recovery from divorce. You may have no experience with divorce, but all life changes follow the same transition process. Therefore, what we learn from previous change we apply to divorce recovery. Blessings in disguise are tangible proof that we can do it again — because we’ve done it before.
The key to finding your confidence is simply to identify your blessings in disguise. These blessings are tangible proof that you can survive change again… because you’ve been handling change successfully all your life.
2. DIRECTION: finding it from your set of personal principles.
Going through a major life change, like divorce recovery, is like driving down the interstate in a fog. We try our best to keep the car in the road. However, when we drift too far to the left or right, we hear and feel the thump, thump, thump of the shoulder telling us we’re drifting off course. Our personal principles are the washboards that give us the thump-thump-thump warning we need when we start to drift off our desired path through divorce recovery.
Some principles will be especially important to maintain, while some of those important principles will be threatened by the divorce recovery process. To successfully navigate your recovery, you need to identify your core personal principles so you can protect and use them when faced with tough decisions in the recovery process.
Next week: Courage and Reassurance. Yes, you already have these, too.
In the meantime… to get a sense of the stressful reactions you may be having right now and how you compare to others in the same situation, take the Divorce Recovery Stress Indicator. And don’t forget that you can call me at 917-865-2710 for a free consultation in your smooth divorce recovery.
Last week, we talked about Confidence and Direction: two of the four hidden strengths you already possess, and how they can help you navigate a successful divorce recovery.
This week, we’ll look at the other two:
3. COURAGE: find it within your personal source of hope.
It takes courage to go through divorce recovery, and that comes from hope. The more we believe in the potential for good, the more we free ourselves from paralyzing fear and loss. Staying focused on the hope for good allows us to thrive instead of merely survive. Nurturing an internal belief that some good exists in all situations allows us to use our recovery from divorce for positive growth.
But where does that hope come from? Your particular source of hope can be a solid belief in yourself, comfort from philosophical writings, faith in spiritual/religious beliefs, awe at the natural universe, or an unwavering trust in others who have already been through a divorce. The source itself doesn’t matter as long as it is meaningful and powerful to you. What does matter to your divorce recovery is that you’re actively seeking hope’s courageous promise.
4. REASSURANCE – find it in your gratitude.
You’ve already seen this in other situations, for example, the gratitude expressed by people who are mourning the loss of a loved one: they find comfort and reassurance by saying, “Thank goodness, he’s in a better place now” or, “I’m so glad his suffering is over.” Being reassured we are on the right track is essential, especially during the difficult times of divorce recovery.
Gratitude lies at the heart of accepting change and can give you that reassurance. Finding gratitude for the good in your divorce recovery affirms the fact that you are making progress. Gratitude opens us to be more receptive to accepting change and using it for good.
So… what now?
Know that you can relax in the knowledge that confidence, direction, courage, and reassurance are constant companions in your efforts to make a successful recovery from divorce. And if you need help digging a little deeper to discover them within yourself, be sure to call me a for a free one-hour consultation.